From the Archives: Forty Days After Childbirth, Mary Returns to the World by Laura Shannon

This was originally posted on Feb 6, 2021

image of Mosaic of the Nativity

Mosaic of the Nativity

All week we have been warming our spirits at the sacred fire of Candlemas / Imbolc, the Celtic holiday in honour of Brighde, Irish saint and Goddess of poetry, smithcraft and healing. Imbolc falls approximately 6 weeks between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, one of the 8 festivals of the Celtic year.

In the Greek Orthodox Church, February 2 is celebrated as Ypopantis, the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, 40 days after his birth, in accordance with Mosaic law. This day also marks Mary’s ritual return to the world after forty days of postpartum seclusion. This practice was known in the Western Church as ‘churching’ or blessing a new mother after 40 days; Hindu tradition also recommends women spend up to 40 days in rest and isolation after childbirth.

In the west, the customs of confinement and churching have dwindled since the 1960s, but in Greek Orthodox tradition until very recently, these forty days of isolation for mother and child were routine. A special word, lechóna (λεχώνα), from the ancient Greek for ‘bed’ or ‘couch’, denotes a woman in this special time.

During this period, the lechóna was not permitted to leave the house or do household work. In the days of extended families and tightly-knit communities, there were plenty of female friends and relatives to take care of the new mother, her family, and her home. One village woman I know, a grandmother now, looked back with appreciation on the forty days following childbirth as ‘the only rest I ever had’. Another joked that she had lots of children in her youth just so she could keep having that time ‘off’ as a lechóna.

The lechóna and her newborn child were considered especially vulnerable to malevolent spirits or the ‘evil eye’, and the postpartum confinement was hedged with many rituals for their protection. At the same time, the extraordinary power of female fertility, activated through giving birth, was seen as a possible danger to other vulnerable persons (such as men) who had to avoid contact with the lechóna.

This is much more complex than the simple idea of ‘pollution’ which patriarchal religions project onto new mothers. The village grandmothers, when I raised the question of ‘pollution’ with them, lifted their eyebrows high in the eloquent Greek signal of absolute disagreement. ‘Let them think that,’ said one. ‘We know we need the rest.’ ‘Yes,’ said another, we don’t have to go to church, we don’t have to go anywhere, just sleep and sleep and feed the baby. It’s lovely.’

During the forty days of confinement, then, Mary’s powers are concentrated on her new baby and on her own recovery. When this period is over, according to the theology of the Greek grandmothers, she returns to her task of taking care of the world.

I heard a similar idea expressed by another grandmother, in Bulgaria this time. I was in an exhibition of icons with a beautiful depiction of the ‘Bogoroditsa Troeruchitsa’, the Three-Handed Madonna. I knew about the original icon in the monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos, and the 8th-century story of John of Damascus, whose hand was cut off by the Caliph, then restored by the Madonna, but when I asked the old grandmother mopping the floor why the Madonna has three hands, she had her own explanation: ‘Well, you know, She has so much work to do! She takes care of the entire world, and She has the baby too! Of course She needs three hands! Anybody would!’

image of art, Hilandar Troeruchitsa

Hilandar Troeruchitsa

The Hilandar icon has the third hand at the bottom left, so it does indeed look like it is helping to hold the baby. In the miracle-working icon in Troyan Monastery, Bulgaria, the third hand is centered on the region of Mary’s womb. This may symbolize Her power of divine creation, making it visible and accessible to the pilgrims who flock there for healing.

ARt image of Trojan Troeruchitsa

Trojan Troeruchitsa

It reminds me of the five-fingered amulet known as the Hamsa (also called the Hand of Miriam in Judaism, the Hand of Fatima in Islam, and the Hand of Mary among Levantine Christians). This powerful protective amulet, often shown with an eye, is found throughout the Maghreb, the Middle East, and India. It was known as the Hand of Tanit in ancient Phoenicia and the Hand of the Goddess in Mesopotamia. Some say it represented Tanit’s vulva as well as her hand, and many Berber images I have seen include a mandorla- or vulva-shaped motif in the design. I believe the shape of the eye and the shape of the vulva may also be linked.

image of Berber Hamsa

Berber Hamsa

One reason the woman’s hand is holy is because of the work that women do. From Neolithic times onwards, women’s creative power was expressed not only in bearing and nurturing children, but in many other ways of bringing things into being, such as spinning, weaving, pottery, and agriculture. Carol Christ argues that women invented all of these technologies, as well as Neolithic religion. The woman’s power to bless and protect, as well as to create, is also shown in the symbol of her hand.

As Carol ChristHeide Göttner-Abendroth, and others have shown, Neolithic civilizations were most likely egalitarian matriachies which honored mothers and the mothering principle. These societies taught men and women alike to care for the sick and vulnerable. The idea of Mary as divine caregiver illustrates this principle, but the task of caregiving need not fall to women alone.

In our time, we can draw inspiration from these early societies and understand that everyone – not only mothers – can embody qualities of peace, protection, and nurturing in the world. This is a central value of feminism. To quote my friend Carol Christ, ‘we have the power and it is up to us to create societies of peace.’

As Matthew Fox explains, Julian of Norwich defined evil as ‘everything that is counter to peace and love‘, and perceived the divine mother’s presence in ‘actions of service and love and compassion‘ which everyone can do.  And St Seraphim of Sarov said, ‘Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.’

Through our own actions of peace and compassion, we can bring the nurturing and healing qualities of the Divine Mother into the world. We can be her third hand.

BIO Laura Shannon is one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement. She trained in Intercultural Studies (1986) and Dance Movement Therapy (1990), holds an M.A. in Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred from Canterbury Christ Church University (2020), and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Gloucester (U.K.). Her research in Balkan dance highlights out songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which descend from the Goddess cultures of Neolithic Old Europe, and which embody an ancient worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura is a longtime faculty member of the Sacred Dance department of the Findhorn eco-spiritual community in Scotland, an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild, Founding Director of the non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture, and Carol P. Christ’s choice to succeed her as Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. Her articles and essays on women’s ritual dances have appeared in numerous publications. Laura lives in Greece and the UK.

Author: Laura Shannon

Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987. She is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement and gives workshops in over twenty countries worldwide. Laura holds an honours degree in Intercultural Studies (1986) and a diploma in Dance Movement Therapy (1990). She has also dedicated much time to primary research in Balkan and Greek villages, learning songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which have been passed down for many generations, and which embody an age-old worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura’s essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’, was published in Dancing on the Earth. Also a musician, Laura performs throughout Europe and in the USA with her partner Kostantis Kourmadias.

6 thoughts on “From the Archives: Forty Days After Childbirth, Mary Returns to the World by Laura Shannon”

  1. Thank you, Sara. Sometimes I think it is a simple choice to honour the mothers, yet when I see how our western society so stubbornly refuses to do that, I realise it is actually a quite profound and revolutionary act. I think it’s one of the greatest gifts from the Old European egalitarian matriarchies.


  2. During the first week in February in Costa Rica, there is “La reza del niño” (The prayer for the baby Jesus), a Catholic ceremony and tradition that is done in the homes with invited family members and close friends. Someone plays the guitar and sings special songs, the rosary is recited collectively and a meal is served afterwards. This is when the nativity scene can be safely packed away until next year.


    1. Yes, when written down as ‘lechona’, the transliterated Greek λεχώνα (from the ancient word for ‘bed’ or ‘couch’) does resemble the Spanish ‘leche’. Certainly the first 40 days would be a time where mother’s milk is central! Both languages are Indo-European, so I wonder if there is indeed any connection? Perhaps a linguist can tell us.


  3. Thank you, Jan, for telling us about this ceremony. I wonder what the special songs are? And also, when the meal is served, are there special foods?


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