Birth is the beginning of life, and so it makes sense that a culture would have important traditions related to it. But where do you get started when worldbuilding birth traditions? Let’s look at five things you can do to make them more interesting!
1. Consider religion and cosmology
Where do babies come from? Don’t think about the biology of it (yet). Instead, look at your pantheon and at your culture’s view of the world. Do you a deity that is related to childbirth or children in general? That might be an excellent opportunity for the people of your world to make offerings or other kinds of celebrations for that deity. It’s also important to think if this deity is the cause of the child being born, of it they just helped on the process. This will have a big impact on everyone! If a god is directly responsible for children being born, how will people react when someone who’s clearly atheist gives birth to a healthy baby?
Rituals that are necessary, such as cleaning the baby, are often given a reason related to religion or other sets of beliefs —but it doesn’t have to be a sensible one! For example, ancient Greeks used to avoid iron when cutting the umbilical cord, because it was supposed to bring bad luck. Instead, they used other things like pottery shards. If you have historical figures with medical knowledge who were then later turned into gods or prophets, maybe they’re responsible for these traditions!
Think about the cosmology of your world too! If you have a culture that gives great importance to the moon, maybe it’s considered a good omen when someone’s born under a full moon. And what if they’re born at noon? That’s a sure sign of a terrible fate! A real-life example of this is the horoscope. According to this practice, the position of certain celestial bodies determines or influences your personality.
2. Think about the biology of your species
Where do babies really come from? If you’re designing regular Earth-like humans, this won’t be a problem (it’s clearly the storks!). However, if you’re thinking about a non-human species, that’s something you have to consider. Even classic fantasy elves, which look physically very human, have a very important distinction: they’re immortal or, at least, have very long lifespans. This can have a variety of interesting cultural implications! Who cares about new people popping up when you live for centuries, right? Or maybe it’s the opposite: they’re very important because they aren’t a usual event!
But things get even more interesting when your fictional babies aren’t born like human ones! Do your species lay eggs? Maybe babies are born from trees? Or maybe it’s actually a magical stork! Regardless of the method, a biological difference will surely have cultural deep implications. Egg-laying insect people? I can very easily spot a special job dedicated to guarding eggs. Tree-born babies? Stay away, you lumberjack! And I’m not kidding, if these tree lovers live close to another species with human-like levels of destructiveness, there will be conflict.
3. Family structures are important when worldbuilding birth traditions
Different cultures have different ways of organizing their families. And this is very important when you’re worldbuilding birth traditions! For starters, who does the child belong to after being born? The easy answer is “their biological parents”, but it doesn’t have to be this way. You could have a culture where children are owned by the whole community. Or maybe the biological parents give the child up to someone else. And this will greatly impact how birth traditions take place.
For example, if the parents give the child up, there’ll probably be a ceremony around this action. Maybe the parents must be blindfolded during the birth to prevent them from seeing the baby. Or it could the baby, who’ll wear a blindfold so that the first faces they see are those of their new adoptive parents (or owners).
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4. Worldbuilding birth traditions: integrate them with your world!
This tip work for anything you worldbuild. A world with internal connections will feel solid, cohesive, and immersive. And that means more engaging too! So, what aspects of your fictional culture could influence birth traditions? Well, make a short list of words that define the culture, and work from there!
For example, Sparta, an ancient Greek city-state, was known for its military strength. Because physical power had such a high value, they bathed newborn babies in wine to make sure they were strong enough. For a fictional example, look at Tolkien’s elves! They don’t celebrate birthdays. Instead, they remember the day on which the child was conceived
This is also a good moment to consider aspects like social status! Most traditions will have major differences depending on the social status of the ones celebrating. And make sure that this birth tradition is consistent with any other family, species, or regional tradition! If you don’t have any traditions linked to other life stages, this could be a good time to create them too.
5. Don’t forget about names
Most people get a name when they’re born or shortly after —and if they don’t, there’s probably a reason! After all, names are quite useful tools, aren’t they? So, think about what’s important in your culture and how it could influence naming traditions. In cultures where family units are important, there might be a lot of repetition in names throughout the generations. Or if you’re creating deeply religious cultures, people might name their children after some god or prophet (or maybe it’s considered heresy? You choose!).
Let’s look at some examples! In Greece, the first boy is usually named after the paternal grandfather, so you’ll always find the same names in a given family. The Yoruba people, in western Africa, avoid naming a child with the name of a criminal make sure that the child doesn’t become one when they grow up! For fictional examples, look at Game of Thrones, where illegitimate children get specific surnames depending on where they’re born (Snow, Sand, etc.). In Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, Vorin culture favors names that are almost symmetrical (but not quite) because perfect symmetry is considered holy.
Think about how the names are given too. Maybe they only need the parents to say the name out loud, but maybe they need to wait for someone with a specific role to witness it. Or even more: maybe the parents don’t decide the name —instead, a wizard expert in naming needs to listen to the winds to hear the name! Or how about the Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Leguin, where true names have power and are always kept secret.
Using World Anvil for worldbuilding birth traditions
If you’re worldbuilding birth traditions for your novels, short stories, or campaigns, World Anvil has you covered! The Tradition template is perfect for all kinds of tradition, and it has a detailed (but optional) questionnaire to help you put everything together! Write in detail about your birth tradition and link it up easily with your species and cultures. Check out our features for game masters and writers!
What’s the favorite birth tradition you’ve seen or read about? Have you written any? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to share the links of your birth tradition articles too!
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Idea for a birth tradition: The mother chooses a male of fighting age usually the father or closest male relative who dons armor* and wields a wooden sword. All night members of the local community dressed in demon masks enter the house and try to “steal” the baby. Father pretends to fight them off and the “demons” steal his beer instead. They then go outside loudly proclaiming that the child is too well-protected. This represents the dedication of protecting male to defending the child above protecting material wealth. It also represents the communities desire to get drunk
The next day people dress up in “Angel” masks and come and apologize for not protecting the child, bringing food as recompense. Community members who contribute less in food than they took in beer are looked down upon.
For the poorer classes this is just leather or planks of wood tied to his body.