The Phantoms of Pregnancy

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post is contributed by Owen Davies who writes on the associations between pregnancy and ghosts.

From the ancient world to the present, societies across the globe have been concerned that problems in childbirth were a potential source of malevolent ghosts. People who died prematurely or tragically were thought to leave restless spirits that could harass, torment or spread illnesses amongst the living. It is no surprise, then, that women who died during pregnancy or childbirth formed one such vengeful group. Known in ancient Mesopotamia as the lilitu, they preyed on pregnant women.[1] The cause of such childbirth complications was itself considered an act of divine supernatural vengeance. It was recorded of the hag-goddess Lamashtu that:

She touches the bellies of women in labour,

She yanks out the pregnant woman’s baby.[2]

The Mesopotamian sources also show a preoccupation with stillborn foetuses that could become a demonic ghost called a kūbu. It was an angry and vengeful spirit because it was ‘never able to suck his mother’s milk’. An endless cycle of supernatural childbirth threat was possible. So rituals, libations, and incantations were employed by the families of deceased women and stillborn foetuses to keep their spirits content in the netherworld, and so prevent them from returning to wreak suffering on the pregnant women and babies of other family members.


L0005336 A Lamia

A lamia; a monster capable of assuming a woman’s form, who was said to devour human beings or suck their blood. Wellcome Library London

The angry unborn and deceased pregnant women were also feared in ancient Greece, where they were considered part of the ghostly community of the aôroi who died before their time.[3] Although not an aspect of early orthodox Christian theology, which reconfigured the spirits of the dead as largely helpless, passive or sleeping, references to the notion of vengeful aborted or abandoned infants can be found in early Christian apocryphal texts. The Apocalypse of Peter, for example, states:

opposite [the mothers] is another place where the children sit … and they cry to God. And lightnings go forth from these children which pierce the eyes of those who, by fornicating, have brought about their destruction.[4]

In early China the notion that foetus ghosts caused illnesses is recorded in seventh-century medical literature, and was part of a complex of ideas about spirit interference with female reproduction. One venerable Chinese medical notion was that false pregnancies arose from having intercourse with a ghost or having lustful dreams about male ghosts.[5]

Turning to post-medieval Europe and the much greater range of sources available, we find a complex religious and cultural geography of infant ghost traditions. There is, for one thing, far less emphasis on the ghosts of women who died during childbirth. Late medieval Christianity brought the concept of limbus puerorum to the fore, generating long-lasting traditions in Catholic countries. This was the intermediate state between earth and heaven where the souls of unbaptised babies lingered for eternity. The unbaptised faced eternal exclusion from heaven, thus explaining why the ghosts of infants appeared to remind the living of their pain. So in Irish folk belief there is much about the souls of the leanai gan baisteadh, or unbaptised children, including their ghostly manifestation as a tarán.[6] There is no space to talk about fairy changelings here, but they are part of the same complex of ideas about infant death in Irish folklore.

In contrast, stories of foetus and infant ghosts are rare in Protestant England. So what to make of the rich child ghost lore in Lutheran Scandinavia? [7] Here, as well as general traditions about the mylings or souls of unbaptised children, there were a range of child ghosts with different characteristics. There was the utburd, the vengeful ghost of an aborted foetus or a baby deliberately left out to die of exposure by poor families. There are numerous stories of them wreaking terror on their mothers, sometimes in vampire-like, violent blood-sucking or breast-sucking attacks. They also molested wayfarers at night, clinging to people’s backs, demanding to be carried from the secret locations of their burial to the sanctified earth of the graveyard.

Despite the apparent similarities across the millennia, these traditions should not be seen as timeless or dictated solely by religion. As recent developments in Asia show, political, social and commercial influences can drive new trends. This is most evident with regard to the legalisation and increasing social acceptance of abortion. The beginning of widespread legal abortion in India in the late 1970s, due, in part, to the acceptance of the amniocentesis test that detects problematic genes in foetuses, as well as revealing their sex, influenced personal decision making regarding the resort to abortion and the threat of foetus ghosts. Depending on different religious traditions, many Indians believed the foetus was not invested with a soul until the third or six month of pregnancy. So women felt able to abort within these times. To abort after the soul was vested with a spirit, however, would create a ghost that would torment the mother.[8]

In Japan since the 1970s, when abortion became more socially acceptable, ritual services known as mizuko kuyō have become widespread to assuage the spirits of dead foetuses generated by abortion, stillbirth, and miscarriage. Although the Buddhist beliefs behind the concept are not new, numerous temples attended by priests sprang up to provide what some have criticised as pseudo- Buddhist rituals to profit from female grieving, guilt, and fear of spirit persecution.[9] The practice of mizuko kuyō, minus the concern with malevolent foetus ghosts, has also recently been adopted by some Americans as a therapeutic ritual for coping with miscarriage and abortion experiences. It is no coincidence that the widespread practice of propitiating foetus ghosts and demons in Taiwan also emerged after the full legalisation of abortion there in 1985. Its adoption seems to have as much to do with the pervasive influence of Japanese popular culture in Taiwan as long-held Chinese ghost traditions.[10]

There are many ways one could approach the exploration of these similar beliefs across time and cultures. But any interpretation needs to consider the pressures placed upon women not only to reproduce ‘correctly’ but to deal with both the supernatural as well as social consequences of problematic pregnancies.



Owen Davies is Professor of Social History, University of Hertfordshire. He has published widely on ghosts, witchcraft, magic, and popular medicine in local, national and global contexts.



[1] See J.A. Scurlock ‘Baby Snatching Demons, Restless Souls and the Dangers of Childbirth: Magico-Medical Means of Dealing with Some of the Perils of Motherhood in Ancient Mesopotamia’, Incognita 2 (1991), 137–85.

[2] Benjamin Read Foster, Akkadian Literature of the Late Period (Münster, 2007), p. 94.

[3] Sarah Iles Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (Berkeley, 1999), pp. 164-5.

[4] David Frankfurter, ‘Fetus Magic and Sorcery Fears in Roman Egypt’, GRBS 46 (2006) 50.

[5] Yi-Li Wu, ‘Ghost fetuses, false pregnancies, and the parameters of medical uncertainty in classical Chinese gynaecology’ Nan nü 4 (2002) 170-206.

[6] Anne O’Connor, The Blessed and the Damned: Sinful Women and Unbaptised Children in Irish Folklore (Bern, 2005), esp. pp. 35-40.

[7] Owen Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (Basingstoke, 2007), pp. 14-15.

[8] Ruth S. Freed and Stanley A. Freed, Ghosts: Life and Death in North India (Seattle, 1993), pp. 42, 126.

[9] Most recently see Bardwell L. Smith, Narratives of Sorrow and Dignity: Japanese Women, Pregnancy Loss, and Modern Rituals of Grieving (Oxford, 2013).

[10] M.L. Moskowitz, The Haunting Fetus: Abortion, Sexuality, and the Spirit World in Taiwan (Honolulu, 2001).




One thought on “The Phantoms of Pregnancy

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #28 | Whewell's Ghost

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