Babicas are demons of childbirth illness. They are evil, they cause disease, even kill the newborn child and the mother. There probably was no such a malevolent demon at any other stage of life as there was at childbirth. A newborn infant was the target of these demons, as well as its mother, within forty days after delivery. The mother and the child were impure during this period and were therefore susceptible to the attack of Babicas. After conversion to Christianity, the child was considered impure until it was christened. There was probably, even before Christianization, a rite which made a child an accepted member of the community, after which it couldn’t be attacked by the evil spirits. Babicas, or Nocnicas as they were also called, could attack indirectly as well, through an object that the baby and its mother came into contact with. For that reason clothes or any other objects that were touched by the mother and the child were never left outdoors overnight. Within forty days after delivery there had to be a light burning constantly in the house, since demons were believed to be afraid of it. Generally, fire had a very important role in the mythologies of all Indo-European tribes. Fire was believed to be divine. In many mythologies fire was personified into a deity, or it was thought that a god had passed on the knowledge of fire to men.
Demons of childbirth illness were called Babicas or Nocnicas, but more frequently they were euphemistically just referred to as – “they”. In the past, all female demons were called witches by the Serbs. Euphemistic substitutes for the names of evil spirits could be explained by the fact that uttering the name of a deity or a demon was thought to be the same as calling for its presence. The real names of demons, and even gods, were therefore scarcely ever used. This poses a problem for the researchers because consequently many demons’ names were forgotten.
Babicas always attacked during the night. There could be one or more – the more of them appeared, greater the harm they could do. Sometimes midwives had to sleep with the child to prevent the attack of the demon. Actions performed against childbirth demons were mainly preventive, but there were also actions taken to counteract ill effects. Among preventive actions is the abovementioned light and fire that had to be kept constantly burning for forty days. In some regions the child was smeared with garlic because evil spirits were believed to be afraid of it. Things giving off foul odour – such as tar, brimstone, old shoes, horn and the like - were burned around the baby. Iron was used in some areas to fight Babicas off. Magic power of iron was known throughout Europe. In India iron was considered to be protection against ill spirits. In Christianity, bells were attributed a similar role. Red thread was used as amulet. A woman that had just given birth to a child would put a thread of red wool in her hair and put the lock in her mouth. She would also string several cloves of garlic, a metal coin and a thread of white wool. This string was put around the child’s neck, and it was thought that Babicas couldn’t harm it then. Water was also a form of protection. It was purifying in every sense, and therefore defended the mother and the child. Ritual bathing was also a common practice. One of the actions taken both to prevent and ameliorate ill effects was incantation. Incantation was performed exclusively by women because it was considered to be a women’s business. Incantation includes uttering charms that should secure benevolence of gods and demons and thus cure the disease.
Nocnicas are mentioned in Brother Rudolph’s Catalogue of Magic dating from the 13th century, and in Hussit records from the 15th century, which also give instructions for protection against them. Another euphemistic expression is found in these records. In those areas (Bohemia) they were simply called – “the evil ones”.
by Nikola Milošević
translation and footnotes by Snežana Todorović
*In Serbian, the terms are “babice” and “nocnice”. They are both plural, and are usually used in this form when denoting the beings discussed. Singulars are “babica” and “nocnica” to which -s is added to make English plural. “Babica” could roughly be translated as midwife, only an evil midwife, whereas “nocnica” is a derivative of the word “noc”, meaning night, therefore – a woman coming at night.