The blessingway ceremony has its roots in the traditions of the Navajo hoshooji ceremony in North America. It celebrates a feminine rite of passage, inducting women into new and venerated phases of their lives. Customarily, the blessingway ceremony went on for nine days, involving chanting, the use of herbs, grooming rituals, visualization practices, and telling of the story of the deity Changing Woman—her birth, her puberty, and the birth of her twin sons. Navajo women sung over the new mother, ripe with child, preparing her to surrender to the enigmatic power of birth, and honoring her potency and the magnificence of her creative powers. She cradled Life within her womb, and her people celebrated this.
Many other indigenous cultures held ceremonies to prepare women for birth and to commemorate their transition into motherhood. In Western culture, with our medicalized view of pregnancy and birth, we have lost the rituals from our past. We no longer experience the community gathered around women on the cusp of birthing, offering them practical and emotional support through ceremony. Baby showers are common in Western cultures, but they are sadly diluted of any spiritual substance— they typically concentrate on the baby, rather than the woman, and are focused on the giving of material presents, rather than nourishing the mother-to-be. Fortunately, the Navajo blessingway ceremony has inspired women in contemporary Western culture to reclaim birthing rituals. This shift encourages women to trust the birth process and themselves. A circle of women gather around the expectant mother to tell her birth stories of inspiration, to give her gifts to remind her of women’s power through birthing, and to bless her in her journey to motherhood. The purpose of the blessings is to replace any fear with affirmation of the woman’s “sacredness as the gateway for new life,” as Jeannine Parvati Baker writes. In the circle, womanhood is celebrated.
The Navajo have a saying: “Whatever happens here on Earth must first be dreamed.” This is the principle of a blessingway ceremony, Baker writes—to actualize the “dream,” or vision of the women gathering, so that the mother-to-be will have an empowering birth experience. Baker further asserts that the ceremony is a “template for childbirth,” demonstrated by the gathering’s support of the woman. The expectant mother has to be receptive to the intensity and focus of the group, and be open to receiving gifts and blessings. Many of us find this difficult. We are not used to asking for help or receiving gifts or such loving attention—it is we, the women, who are the givers. The ritual involved in the blessingway prepares a woman to graciously accept help when the baby is born, and the gift of the birth force while in labor. She learns that to give birth, she needs to open, receive, and surrender with thankfulness.
One aspect of the blessingway ceremony is to prepare the group to welcome and accept a new person, the baby, into its midst. The threads of the community are bound together through the woman being celebrated, and through this new being soon to be born. When we hold a blessingway ceremony, we are connecting with each other as women, and connecting with all women who have gone before us. Sheila Kitzinger describes this as an integrative function that also “links the human with the divine, and earth with heaven.” The ceremony reminds us that pregnancy and birth are not simply physiological events, but are bardos—windows of opportunities for liberation or enlightenment, and highly charged with potential for transformation. There is an acknowledgement that the new mother is being impelled into a new realm of life.
There are no set rules to contemporary blessingways. The personality of the mother-to-be will determine the design of the celebration, and it will be molded by those who are present. Invitations should be sent to the women’s friends and family who have positive perspectives of birth. However the blessingway ceremony is performed, the new mother should feel loved and blessed by her community, and confident and ready to embrace birth with a spirit of affirmation.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #53 and #64.
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