The Miscarriage of Meaning

Endless: Yygdrasil: Precious Metal by Hubert Cance

It could have been a day like any other, maybe like this one today.

This morning had pain though, the kind that raises curiosity, the kind you’re not expecting, especially when you’re pregnant.

The Midwife said, “It’s probably okay, just lie down, the placenta might have pulled away from your uterus a bit. Just rest for a few days.”

As I lay in bed praying, not for help, because how would I know I was about to need it, but praying in the way people do when they supplicate to bigger things, I was relieved.  Relieved to finally take some rest and contemplate the blessing of my future child.

Only minutes into my chants, a unfamiliar sensation came over me.  A fluid sprayed out between my legs. Reaching down, both to stop it and to discover it, my hand encountered a clear and truly luminescent liquid. Only a microsecond passed before also seeing blood and knowing that what and who had been growing all this time was suddenly over, but I also caught a glimpse of something big, something divine.

Whatever my hand had touched, it now buzzed with the clarity of the fluid. Glowed even.  However small the lacuna inside me was, the one that this child-to-be and me had until now spoken through, it was bursting.  No person was meant to touch this—see inside The Ark, touch the face of God—but I was.  The simultaneous exaltation of anointing ruptured with the shock of being cast down: I was miscarrying.

The next thirteen hours had me up, in the bathroom, in the tub, on the toilet, in what despite obvious outcomes, was still a birth. I laboured to bring death forward and with it came incomparable grief, new understanding, profound exhaustion, and strangely, sometimes ecstasy.

No woman endeavours to miscarry. In my case, no one I knew had ever been through it either. I was ashamed and unable to tell my own women friends (all of whom already had one to two children of their own) that I was no longer becoming one of them.

My Midwife and a GP friend visited. They agreed that my body, “was doing what it needed to”. There was no need to go the hospital. The birthing went on and sometime later that night, after thanking God for showing me yet another one of the deep experiences of being human, and begging for the bleeding to stop, it slowed enough for me to go lie down.

I lay down for the next week, recovering, grieving, and was tended to by many loved ones.

All that week, intuitions arose that despite miscarrying, I had done everything right; that this soul felt loved.  And that I was good and right.  These insights didn’t resolve my grief, but they allowed me sanity.

One day I noticed that even though I had cried, I’d remained within a “sensible” limit.  Unconsciously I knew that If I appeared “too” emotional, or cried for “too” long, chances were I’d scare somebody, or worse, myself.

So I turned on the shower, the place where no one would bother me (and hear me) and lay down and let myself cry.  Crying turned into sobbing, and sobbing to wailing.  And then I heard it—some old ancestral sound, the kind of wail you hear the women make when there’s a death, in a country far away from mine.  It was a voice beyond my recognition, yet mine.  It was animal, visceral, coming from below me, deep in the earth.  I was going down.  Down into the Underworld?  Not knowing the “where” for sure, I saw them.  My dead.  The Old Ones, ones I recognized.  Older ones I’d never seen before, but also knew.  We were in the ground, all together and in this familial place, I was finally known, more so than the previous week amongst the living.

I returned from that deep well changed.  At the time I would have said feeling older.  It took another year of reflection, but the term grew to mean, initiated. Through profound suffering and challenge I was introduced to a world. And on the trail to an understanding that world better, I discovered that miscarriage was about something bigger than its present meaning, “to carry wrongly”. I was finding a way to hold a bigger story—not just about birth, but about being human.

Since those trying days, which now number in years, I’ve come to appreciate that so many women face the bleak weeks and sometimes decades of sadness the experience brings, so I asked a friend of mine, a student at U of T and a fellow Orphan Wisdom Scholar, with a gift for language and words to investigate the history of the word with for us. He wrote back with a several thousand-word stirring investigation, unearthing the ancestors of our present use of the word miscarriage.  

Since then, I’ve come to understand how important etymology is. Language acts as a sort of cultural carbon-dating.  Words describe beliefs, and depending on cultural norms, beliefs change.  If you know the dates when wars were fought, lost or won, or when migrations of certain tribes took place, or when culture came under the influence of leaders or religions, or ceased to be agrarian or nomadic (and how all those people lived) you can make educated inferences about why meanings periodically need re-purposing; what to one culture is an honoured medicine person, to another might be a heretic. What to one culture might be a wealthy, influential king, to another might be a self-agrandized sociopath. The question is, “how did miscarriage come to mean something negative and mostly to do with the failure of mother or the unborn?” With James’ permission, I’m going to share sections of his investigation with you, with the wish to take you on the roads this word may have journeyed before it arrived in our vernacular and cultural bias.

To begin the inquiry, my friend introduced me to the word carriage.

If you try and pronounce carriage with a French accent, you see quickly that it comes from French. As to its meaning, there are a few, but they all derive and pertain to its Latin root, carrus, which means ‘car’, specifically a wheeled car. From this same Latin root we get the nouns chariot, cargo, cart, car and the verb to carry. The idea of motion is often present in these words as well, and their Proto-Indo European (PIE) root kers- ‘to run’ attest to this. kers is also the root of the Latin currere ‘to run’, from which we derive the modern English current. Current, especially that of a river, also contains the dual meanings of support and motion.

He goes on to describe how a related word to the latin carrus  or ‘to carry’ is the Old English word, Beran, meaning ‘birth’.  Beran’s cognates, all pertaining to ‘birth’, were already in use when French would have woven into that native languages spoken in what is now England’s shores during the Norman Invasion in 1066.*  After that time, carriage would have naturally entwined in as a synonym for words relating to pregnancy.  Here is one of beran‘s already existing cognates before that time:

…gebyrdtid1 ‘time of a person’s birth’, the root, gebyrd could also mean ‘natural’ or ‘pertaining to birth’, but it can also mean ’what is allotted by or ordained by birth; fate, destiny’2. ‘Birth/fate always goes just as it must’.  We might imagine an Anglo-Saxon midwife having something similar to say as she meditated on the fate of a coming birth.

What my scholar friend points at is despite the fact that this passage from the epic of Beowulf (early 12th century) was written a time when Christianity was being introduced to England and Northern Europe3 (albeit it only just), it was early enough in the conversions that people would still have spoke, thought, and lived in mythic understandings belonging to their indigenous roots.  For example, Gebyrd, had its roots in Proto-Germanic, the parent language of Old English and other languages of northern Europe (Old English, Dutch, Danish, German, Swedish, and Norse).  So interestingly, the word used for ‘birth’ at the beginning of the conversions was still connected to older, farming peoples, who by their lifestyles would have had a stronger reverence and relationship to Nature’s cycles and mysteries. This might explain why the passage above ties ‘fate’ with ‘birth’.  In other words, for these mostly still indigenous peoples, humans would have been only one of the players acting on how life begins and ends. To complement this theory, the Germanic polytheists, known as Anglo-Saxons, were reported to still be “worshiping at elder trees” even five hundred years after their incomplete conversation to Christianity in the area that is now known as England4. A very powerful force in the Anglo-Saxon cosmology was Wyrd, a deity whose name literally means ‘turning’, both in reference to the three Norns of Fate who sat beneath the world tree spinning on their drop spindles each person’s thread of destiny5.

What he exposes is not only the course of the word carriage and its cognates beran or birth, but a line of cultural intelligence.  Here, language serves as memory-keeper for how the Old World understood birth. Included in its understanding of birth were destiny, fate, and mythic beings.  The conversions sweeping across Europe, first in the North and then later, down into what is now England was yet to really take hold.  But we’ll see that through wars and changes in religion, philosophy, and science (and their consequences on how women were treated) the mythic continued gradually underground6.  And like all things fecund and alive, slowly dried and as we’ll see later, were pressed into books, relics of ‘folklore’, and dismissed for their unscientific bents.

Now to follow my friend’s investigation on the use of the prefix, mis-:

Old English confirms that the mis– prefix has a long history of meaning ‘wrong(ly)’, ‘bad(ly)’, ‘improper(ly)’, ‘perverse(ly)’, ‘mistaken(ly)’. The mis- prefix came into Old English from Proto-Germanic missa-, and that it meant ‘divergent’ or ‘taking another route’ and ‘astray’ or ‘away from home’ or ‘lost’, from Old French estraier ‘astray’, ‘riderless’ (of a horse), ‘lost’.

Interestingly, the same Anglo-Saxon polytheists spoken of earlier were known to publicly sacrifice horses to their gods so their shamans could ride them to The Otherworld.

Going further back in time to look at Ancient Greek, I found additional roots: miso ‘hatred for’, ‘dislike’, and ‘contempt for’ seen in the words ‘misogyny’ and ‘misanthrope’.  But interestingly, even further back, Proto-Indo European (PIE, the parent language of Proto-Germanic and most European and Central and some South Asian languages) we find the associated root motto meaning ‘mutual’ and ‘reciprocal’ and meyt, ‘to replace’ to ‘exchange’ or ‘swap’, which might explain how Proto-Germanic arrived at meanings of ‘taking another route’ or ‘lost’.

When looking for when mis and carriage meet, it seems to take another five hundred years after the introduction of Christianity for to them to connect.  Miscarriage makes its first entry in the 16th century, when the Oxford English Dictionary lists the word, after it was already first written in The Vertuose Boke of the Distyllacyon, a book on how to make herbal distillations and originally published in Germany in the year 1500.  The work was translated into Dutch a few years later, and again translated into English and printed in London by Lauren Andrewes in 15277:

Three ounces drank of water of Pennyroyal (Pulegium in Latin) is good for women who have been miscarried by the midwife in the birth of her child, and the afterbirth, that is the secundia*, will depart from her, as it ought to.

(*The Latin tradition includes a similar kind of helper whose name also means afterbirth: the secundia, a word which appears alongside the first attestation of miscarry.)

And in the above, ‘miscarry’ is related to a Midwife inducing birth so that the woman will no longer be pregnant.  Then, a hundred years later, further nomenclature shows up, classifying early birth in more detail.

A woman shall not be sayed to abort but from the third moneth to the seauenth, and that before the motion it shall be called and eflexion or miscarriage.8

My friend notes that in that hundred year span, the area would have been much further into the Scientific Revolution that sought to categorize health and that by then witch hunts would have also have taken voracious hold in these years across England, leaving most of the women with ancient knowledge of birth dead.  This would abstract the word into more of an observation rather than it’s previous meaning of a shared experience between practitioner (Midwives) and mothers.

So what would it have taken for mis to become linked to carriage five-hundred years after The Reformation and one to two hundred years after the beginning of scientific language?  Can we infer that the advent of Protestantism, particularly Puritanism could have reflected its values into language, converting people to perpetuate its de-animating* beliefs about Nature, health, and by consequence, life and death?  Through following the prefix, mis- and the word carriage back through their origins, we see that the older the culture is that’s doing the speaking, the more reverent that culture is about the role Nature and The Unseen play in how life is made, lived, and ended.

We might start to infer, as my friend eloquently put it that:

…miscarriage is the orphaned child of these older words, or perhaps the unborn dead not yet grieved over.

Before completing the exploration, we’ll look at the word placenta  and myths involving carriers of the unborn into life.  Going back to the northern farming Norse culture, which was still alive and well up to several hundred years after the attempted conversation to Christianity, we know it was a farming culture with intact myths. They believed a life began by a boat coming onto shore and the ancient myth that later became known as The Stork arose from the proto-Germanic bird, uda-fara, meaning, ‘water-farer’ or oda-boro, ‘fortune/wealth bearer’.  It is told that these peoples’ shamans would ride a sacrificed horse to the Otherworld and back (echoing forward to Old French, estraier).  My friend deepens his expose with:

The same people who knew this bird say that everyone is born with a kind of guardian-spirit, which the Viking Norse call the fylgiur ‘the one who follows you’ or ‘the one who you follow’ (it looks a bit like the modern English follow because they are related). The fylgiur is born at the same time as the person, often takes the form of an animal, and is more associated with the maternal side then the paternal. This word also has another meaning: ‘afterbirth’. As this word shows us, Germanic people do not consider the placenta, the great Tree of Life to be refuse, cast off once its anatomical function was completed. Instead it is a holy thing that accompanies and helps a person for their rest life.

So he and I wonder aloud how sad (even if natural) it would be if the horse’s rider, a soul, on it’s way to this world, had possibly been ‘swapped’ or ‘gone astray’; much like one who loses its rider, and is missed in the way a mother misses her unborn child, even if together for only a short time.  And that the forgetting of these words and their origins might be one of the ways we forget to honour them.

With my friend’s help, I come closer to understanding that the ones who never make it to this world, may not have been carried wrongly, but may have been called to other places, perhaps the worlds the Old World knew about, and that their mothers, who certainly aren’t ‘wrong’ in their ‘carriage’, are perhaps participants, like all of us, in the spinning of destiny beneath The Old World Tree.

1 Gerbyrtid: The possibility of nautical- and water-imagery exists: our modern word tide ‘rising and falling of the sea under the influence of the moon’ comes from OE tid ‘time’, a meaning which is perhaps better preserved in the modern English tidings.

2 Heaney, S. 2000. Beowulf A New Verse Translation Bilingual.  New York: Norton and Norton Co. Line 1072b-1075.

ibid. 

A letter of the clergyman Boniface around the year 900 about the Anglo Saxons whose first conversion was in 597 A.D.

McCoy, D.  2013.  The Love of Destiny: the Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism. Self Published.

Eisler, R.  1987.  The Chalice And The Blade.  San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

7The Oxford English dictionary locates the earliest instance of miscarry in The Vertuose Boke of the Distyllacyon. Using some principles of alchemy, this book was an herbal of sorts which describe the methods for making “distyllacyons” from medicinal plants and their various applications. Originally published in Germany in the year 1500, the work was translated into Dutch a few years later, and again translated into English and printed in London by Lauren Andrewes in 1527.

8The noun miscarriage is likewise first attested in England, in a book written by a doctor and son of a Puritan preacher, Helikah Crooke. From his 1615 A Description of the Human Man

Etymological  research was from:

OED (Oxford English Dictionary), the DOE (Dictionary of Old English), A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Clark Hall), Sweet’s Student Anglo Saxon Dictionary, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Wiktionary, and Etymonline.