The Holy Hood

A belief once prevailing universally, concerned the navel cord and the placenta. It was commonly believed that these two body parts would remain in sympathetic union with the body after physical connection had been severed. Therefore, the condition and treatment of the navel cord and placenta were thought to influence the fortunes of the child, for good or bad, throughout his life. In Africa, Melanesia, Polynesia, and on the Australian continent, it was customary amongst most indigenous people to bury the afterbirth carefully to prevent evil spirits from reaching it. The same protective care was taken with the umbilical cord. In most regions of Australia, for example, among the Aborigines, a length of umbilical cord was left attached to the baby’s navel until it withered and fell off. The withered cord was then the object of a specific ceremony. It was on no account to be burned or destroyed, as harm would later befall the child. This correlates with beliefs prevailing around the world regarding the navel cord. Until the early nineteen hundreds, it was still believed in some European countries that a person’s destiny was bound up with the umbilical cord and the afterbirth. 

Similarly, many strange customs and superstitions were associated with the caul, a thin membrane sometimes found covering the head of a newly delivered baby. Commonly known as a ‘caul’ is the amniotic sac surrounding the foetus in the mother’s womb. Containing the fluid surrounding the foetus, it acts as protection to the unborn child. Shortly before birth, the amniotic sac bursts and is later expelled with the afterbirth. Occasionally, however, the caul or parts of it cling to the child’s head during the birth process. Known in Scotland as the hallihoo, or ‘holy hood’, elsewhere in the United Kingdom as the ‘happy hood’ and in some American States as ‘the veil’, the caul was regarded as presaging exceptionally good fortune for the person born with it. 

The caul was treasured and highly prized by anyone able to obtain one, as it was believed that it would continue to protect in life as it had done for the foetus in the womb. Usually, it was carefully put away in safekeeping for the lucky person who had been fortunate enough to be born with it. A child born with a caul was not only believed to be assured of protection and good fortune throughout life, but also to acquire the gift of second sight. People born with cauls were said to have special psychic powers. However, the preservation of the caul was considered closely connected with the health of the person to whom it belonged. Therefore, it had to be well looked after, as damage or destruction to the caul meant illness or death to its owner. It was further believed that when the owner of a caul died, the object was to be buried with the corpse, or else the deceased was destined to walk about in spirit form in search of the missing body part. 

Curiously, a caul not only ensured good luck and success to those born with it. In other words, the magic properties linked with the object were not restricted to whoever was born with it, but could in effect be transferred to others. For instance, ancient Roman midwives lacked scruples about selling a caul on the sly, without the consent or knowledge of the child’s mother. Interestingly, their best market was the Roman Forum, where practitioners of the law paid high prices for a caul, as they believed that anyone wearing a dried caul on their chest would be sure to win their case. Curious indeed!

The caul was also held to be effective in preventing drowning at sea, probably because it originally had contained the amniotic fluid in which the foetus was safely surrounded – without having drowned. Therefore, the caul’s power to protect against drowning made it especially prized by sailors. Its presence on board ship was believed to prevent the danger of shipwreck, and sailors were prepared to pay large sums of money to obtain this body part. Such was the intensity of superstition surrounding cauls, that they were regularly advertised in the press during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the London Times of February 20, 1813, the following typical and very popular advertisement was placed: ‘A child’s caul to be sold in the highest perfection. Enquire at No.2 Church Street, Minories. To prevent trouble, price 12 pounds’. During the German submarine campaign against merchant shipping in the First World War, sailors eagerly sought cauls near the London docks for prices varying between 13 and 15 pounds sterling.

Such superstitious beliefs surrounding the ‘holy hood’ are universal and can be found on every continent in places as far apart as Timor and Holland. 


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