Credit: philohme on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)-- The cycle of life and death is inevitable. Birth is when the placenta dies and the baby's life begins. With the baby's first independent breath, the placenta is no longer needed. It has nursed the baby through a potentially perilous intrauterine odyssey. Now the job is done.
The clamping of the cord heralds the final parting of the ways. No wonder many cultures today treat the placenta with great respect and even look upon it with genuine affection. It is not just superstition or religious belief. There is a deep sense of loss that, when one life comes into being, another has ended.
At one time, the placenta must have appeared to be a rather mysterious structure, attached to and yet not an integral part of the baby. "What exactly is it?" one can almost hear the ancient sages debating the question. Since its physical nature could not be clearly defined, the placenta was accorded a spiritual, even religious, status. In different parts of the world, the relationship of the placenta to the baby varies from being considered a friend (Nepal), an elder sibling (Malaysia), a twin (Nigeria), or part of the baby itself (Hawaii).
According to Anne Fadiman, who studied the Hmong tribe in Laos, the word placenta is translated there to mean a "jacket," which is considered to be the person's first and finest garment. When a Hmong dies, his or her soul must go back to where the placental "jacket" is buried and put it on. Only after the soul is properly dressed in the clothing in which it was born can it continue its journey to the "place beyond the sky" to be reunited with its ancestors. Someday it will be reborn to become the soul of a new baby. If the soul cannot find its "jacket," it is condemned to an eternity of wandering in the wilderness, naked and alone. A wonderful story of misfortune and redemption.
In some cultures, any harm done to the placenta is thought to induce similar injury or bad luck to the owner's life. This reverence for the placenta is reflected in the respectful ways by which the placenta is disposed of in many traditional societies, unlike the Western world where the organ is generally considered to be just a lump of inanimate flesh which is perfunctorily thrown into the dustbin, incinerated or used to fertilize rose bushes. The reason why there is so little reverence for the placenta in Western culture may be because the process of birth has become so cold and clinical that it is no longer associated with the beginning of life.
The thesis by Sabine Wilms on "Childbirth Customs in Early China" provides an invaluable insight into how the ancient world dealt with the placenta. The proper way to bury the placenta was described in great detail in Chinese medical literature dating back to before the 2nd century B.C., and is to some extent still practiced today. Usually, the placenta is buried securely underground. This is to prevent it from being stolen by "evil spirits" or eaten by wildlife, thereby ensuring that the baby will have a long and healthy life. For example, it is believed that if the placenta is eaten by dogs or pigs, the baby will suffer from manic depression, if eaten by ants the baby will suffer from skin sores, and if eaten by birds the baby may die suddenly. The placenta is always buried face down with the smooth side up. If buried upside down, the baby might vomit during feeding. The ground is chosen as the final resting place because Earth is revered as the creator of all life so it is natural that the placenta should be returned to Her. What better fate is there for the placenta than to emerge from the womb of its natural mother and be immediately engulfed by the enfolding arms of Mother Earth?
Selective Burial Site
In China, the site of burial of the placenta also has great significance. Based on the yin and yang dualism of Tao, burying the placenta either in a shady (yin) or sunny (yang) side of the wall is believed to enable the parents to choose the gender of the next child. The yang position facing the sun is usually favored because this will guarantee the next child will be a boy. Furthermore, a yin location could weaken the child's chi (their "life energy") and therefore result in poor health. The custom of planting a tree, such as a banana, palm or sago, on top of where the placenta is buried is also a common practice in many parts of the world. The plant emerging from the buried area is then named after the child and must not be cut down; otherwise bad luck will befall the child.
In some cultures, instead of being buried in the ground, the placenta is thrown into a river in the belief that "as the river flows, the child's life will flow with it."
The use of the placenta as medicine has an extensive history. This can be seen in the "Compendium of Materia Medica" compiled by the Chinese scholar Li Shizhen in 1593, which covers the period between remote antiquity and the Ming Dynasty. Beside recipes for converting placentas into medicinal compounds, this Compendium also contains quaint observations, such as that placentas from first born babies are best in quality and placentas from male and female babies should be used to treat diseases of men and women respectively, which seems logical enough.
Reprinted from "Life's Vital Link" by Y.W. Loke with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright 2013 Y.W. Loke and published by Oxford University Press USA. (www.oup.com/us). All rights reserved.
Y. W. Loke is emeritus professor of reproductive immunology at the University of Cambridge in England and Fellow of King's College, Cambridge.
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