After a child is born among the Kalinago of the West Indies, the mother is quick to get back to regular household work.
For the father, however, the situation is quite different. He takes to his hammock inside his house, and is visited and consoled as if he were ill. He avoids any strenuous labor for some days, and undertakes an extended fast—“over the space of six full months he does not eat any birds or fish, firmly believing that this would harm the stomach of the child and that it would inherit the natural weaknesses of the animals which the father had eaten.”
That description from a 17th century French missionary, and other accounts like it, interested anthropologist Edward Tylor, who would make understanding the practice of ‘couvade’ a central concern in his work. According to anthropologist Janet Chernela, “The most convincing etymology of the term traces its derivation from the Basque couvade, from the Old French verb couver, meaning “to hatch””. This term was apparently already long in use before Tylor started writing about the practice, although he would certainly popularize it.
Tylor would identify couvade as a global phenomenon, noting its presence across various historical European societies as well,
In Europe, the couvade may be traced up from ancient into modern times in the neighbourhood of the Pyrenees. Above eighteen hundred years ago, Strabo mentions the story that among the Iberians of the North of Spain the women, “after the birth of a child, tend their husbands, putting them to bed instead of going themselves;” and this account is confirmed by the existence of the practice among the modern Basques. “In Biscay,” says Michel, “in vallies whose population recalls in its usages the infancy of society, the women rise immediately after child-birth, and attend to the duties of the household, while the husband goes to bed, taking the baby with him, and thus receives the neighbours' compliments.” It has been found also in Navarre, and on the French side of the Pyrenees. Legrand d'Aussy mentions that in an old French fabliau the King of Torelore is “au lit et en couche” when Aucassin arrives and takes a stick to him, and makes him promise to abolish the custom in his realm. And the same author goes on to say that the practice is said still to exist in some cantons of Beam, where it is called faire la couvade. Lastly, Diodorus Siculus notices the same habit of the wife being neglected, and the husband put to bed and treated as the patient, among the natives of Corsica about the beginning of the Christian era. [emphasis added]
Tylor, working within the framework of 19th century unilineal evolution, considered couvade a survival of a more primitive stage of human culture, where mankind began to transition from the ‘maternal’ to the ‘paternal’ stage—“the turning-point of society when the tie of parentage, till then recognised in maternity, was extended to take in paternity, this being done by the fiction of representing the father as a second mother.”
The cultural stages argument just has nothing to offer in this context, but the functional idea of viewing couvade practices as a kind of symbolic recognition of the father’s contribution to the child has logic to it. James Frazer rejected the cultural stages argument in the early 20th century, and emphasized a different sort of function to the practice, writing that, “The customs called couvade are an application of sympathetic magic, based on a supposed physical bond of sympathy between father and child.”
I’ve been puzzled and curious about this topic for awhile, so I searched ‘couvade’ on eHRAF, as well as a few search combinations such as ‘birth’ AND ‘taboo’, to look for evidence of couvade in the World Cultures database. The World Cultures database currently contains 361 societies, and I found evidence of couvade practices for 63 of them (~17% of societies, Africa=3/71, Asia=10/81, Europe=1/17, Middle East=0/12, Oceania=8/33, North America=13/80, Central America=5/20, South America=23/47) (Table 1).
This number should be considered a very conservative estimate, as this search procedure is not comprehensive. However, tentatively it does appear that couvade practices were quite common in South America, and extant but seemingly not common elsewhere around the world. This is consistent with some of Tylor’s suppositions, who identified South America (and the West Indies) as the region where couvade “developed to the highest degree”.
It is important to note that I am solely looking at practices in which the father participates: birth rituals conducted specifically by the mother are almost certainly more common, but I did not search for them here. It is said among the Mapuche that of Chile and Argentina for example that, “The father of an unborn child is not hampered by either food or conduct taboos or prescriptions; his pregnant wife is.” In some cases covered in my sample, both parents are noted to participate in the same or similar taboos. I’ll look into the ritual practices of mothers in particular in a future post.
I did not include simple restrictions such as the father not being present at the birth itself—only if the father’s activity is described as being restricted in more extensive ways, such as not leaving his hut at all for an extended period, taboos on hunting or other labors, restrictions on eating certain animals, et cetera, were they counted in my search. I also did not differentiate between social and biological fatherhood, so it is possible that in some cases the ritual father was not the biological father.
Here is a description by anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis of practices among the Xavante of Brazil, which I think nicely encompasses the general custom,
For some days immediately after the birth (in two actual instances the number was five) the husband should live quietly in and around his hut. He may work on the making of weapons or of anything else he is currently manufacturing, but he should not go out hunting or fishing and he should not eat meat. The Shavante emphasize that he should moderate his activities during this period. He must eat and drink little. He must not attend the men's councils or be involved in discussion or argument. He must not have sexual intercourse with any woman. He must, in short, live a quiet life.
This description includes each of the categories I coded for: ‘physical restrictions’ in terms of where the father is expected to go, ‘work taboos’ restricting the type of labor he is expected to undertake, and ‘food taboos’ restricting what he is supposed to eat. Sexual taboos also appear to be common, although I did not track these. Similarly, on the Nicobar Islands,
restrictions regarding diet and rest, or avoidance of work, are observed by the father quite as much as by the mother. It is considered selfish of a man to carry on his usual occupations when a birth is imminent and for some time after it has taken place. He is endangering the life of the child if he works hard and gets into a state of perspiration although it is not yet born.
Among the Pomo of California, “The father observed a mild couvade, as among so many Californian tribes. He did not lie in, but for four days remained in the house. After this, he began to go out, but not to any distance, and at first carefully kept from mingling with any crowd. He did not hunt for some two or three months.”
So, again, the common trends as far as I can tell are taboos on certain sorts of food and labor, as well as some restrictions on the father’s physical activity. These taboos seem to operate on the idea that by doing excessive work, eating certain kinds of foods, or going to certain places, the husband is somehow jeopardizing the health of the baby. This seems consistent with Frazer’s emphasis on sympathetic magic. As anthropologist Allan Holmberg puts it among the Siriono of Bolivia,
These rites are designed to protect the life of the infant and to insure its good health. Not only is the infant believed to be extremely delicate during the period immediately following birth, and thus readily subject to disease and death, but it is thought still intimately to be connected with the parents and profoundly to be affected by their activities. [emphasis added]
But note what is not here. Overall I could not find much evidence of birth-mimicry or male symbolism of pregnancy. There are a few rare hints of this, but they tend to be ambiguous. Among the Tupinamba of Brazil, French missionary Yves d'Évreux wrote in the early 17th century that, “When the child is born, [the husband] lays down, to observe the couvade. His wife works as usual and all the village women come to see him and console him about the pain and sufferings he has gone through at making this child. He is treated as if he were sick and tired, and does not leave his bed.”
Anthropologist Rafael Karsten writes among the Mataco of Argentina and Bolivia that, “the father of the child, seemingly instead of the mother, lies in bed, looks weak, fasts, and is attended by the women, in short, behaves just as if he were the person who had given birth to the child and were suffering pains.”
Among the Ainu of Japan and Siberia, an informant told missionary John Batchelor that, “when the birth has taken place, the father is sometimes called upon to stay at home wrapped up by the fire, as you saw, or to leave the house and go to stay with some friends for a time and keep very quiet as though he were ill for six days.”
These descriptions do emphasize the husband lying-in and being treated as if he were sick, but it is generally unclear to me from these descriptions whether the apparent illness is supposed to be a mimic of real or potential child-birth pangs, or whether this is more of a supposition put forward by missionaries and anthropologists, or somewhere in between. James Frazer touched this problem in Volume 4 of Totemism and Exogamy, while still noting there are some well-documented examples of men simulating childbirth,
in some parts of New Ireland, when a woman is in hard labour and a compassionate man desires to aid her delivery, he does not, as we might expect, repair to the bedchamber of the sufferer; he betakes himself to the men’s clubhouse, lies down, feigns to be ill, and writhes in fictitious agony, whenever he hears the shrieks of the woman in childbed. The other men gather round him and make as if they would alleviate his pangs. This kindly meant farce lasts till the child is born.
Frazer also touches on some apparently similar traditional European customs, “Similarly in France, when a woman is in hard labour, it is an old custom to put her husband’s trousers on her “in order that she may bring forth without pain”; and in Germany also they say that it greatly facilitates a woman’s delivery in childbed if she draws on her husband’s trousers.” In Frazer’s telling, such practices are sympathetic magic to alleviate pain in childbirth.
Based on my search, it seems like couvade practices commonly involved an expectant or new father avoiding certain types of labor, locations, and/or foods, likely under the theory that these would bring some sort of harm to his child. These traditions are found all over the world, but seemingly somewhat rarely, except in South America where they were common.
I did not find much clear evidence of men simulating childbirth or its pains, as it is often unclear whether or not the ‘lie-in’ men do is meant to fulfill this function, or tends to be more part of the restrictions on men’s activities to avoid bringing magical harm to the child, or some mixture of the two. This should probably be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and would require a more detailed look at each society than I’ve done here.
One key limitation here is that it is possible, and even probable, that some couvade traditions were kept hidden or declined through missionization and other colonial contact. It is clear that many missionaries and early anthropologists had a negative view of such practices. The 17th century French missionary whose account I began the post with said the couvade practices of the Kalinago were “Among their nonsense which upset me the most,” while Tylor himself wrote of the “farcical proceeding” of couvade, “which for twenty centuries has been the laughing-stock of mankind”. Linguist Margaret Hasluck offers an intriguing case hinting at the decline of couvade in parts of Albania,
I discovered that a case of couvade occurred in Elbasan on January 28th, 1924. A certain Gjon Pal Poplekaj, a Roman Catholic belonging to the tribe of Dushmen in North Albania, had come to work in Elbasan and married an Orthodox girl from that town. On the birth of their first child, Margarita, the Orthodox women went to congratulate the mother and to their horror found the husband in bed beside her on the floor. ‘It made us feel very shy,’ (na erth shum turp) my informants say. His mother-in-law, who had no doubt been scandalized enough herself, explained that he was following the custom of his distant tribe…Unhappily the good folk of Elbasan so laughed at the man that he has not dared to do couvade at subsequent births, and even denies that he did so at Margarita's. His mother-in-law also denies his doing so, though both know how many Orthodox women caught him in the act, and what an outcry it caused. There is thus no hope of extracting an explanation of the custom from him or her. Perhaps some old woman in Dushmen might be more communicative.
I plan to touch more on various other beliefs and practices associated with birth in future posts.