Birth

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Fon peoples, Bénin, Fon pottery. Photo by Allen F. Roberts.

Initiations occur at the Key Moments of Life, the first of which is birth. Initiation is an educational process, and at an infant's birth, parents may learn about their newborn from the way the birth occurred. Was it an ordinary, head-first/face-backwards delivery, without complication for mother or child? Or was it a breech-birth, with the buttocks or feet appearing first? Was the child born with a caul—that is, a piece of embryonic sac covering the head; or was the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby? Any of these unusual deliveries is potentially fatal. Further complications such as uterine prolapse can also threaten the mother’s life. Should the delivery include such a feature, this may be felt to be diagnostic of the infant's entire course of life. Here a Fon market woman has arranged a vast display of ritual pottery that includes tiny pots placed on family shrines after an unusual birth. The double-headed pots are for twins.