The Strangest Beliefs About Family In History

Everybody's got their own family superstitions and traditions around the festive seasons of their culture. Nobody's allowed to peek at the Christmas presents before Christmas morning; everybody eats grandma's challah first or she throws a tantrum; you give your red envelopes for Chinese New Year in the proper order for prosperity and luck. But as this is a season for family, it's also a good time to look at some of the strangest beliefs about family in history that have held sway throughout the centuries, from the idea that ancestor corpses should be kept under your house and fed daily to the belief that unpleasant children who caused families trouble were actually products of the devil. (I have 13 first cousins. This is a sentiment I fully understand.)

The family has been one of the major units of importance in many of the world's historical civilizations, which is a boon for historians, because it means that's where people accumulated traditions, beliefs, folklore, and general strange sh*t. From the importance of maintaining familial bloodlines to methods of placating dead family members and how to get rid of confusing curses on an entire house, families have carried meaning and accompanying strangeness throughout the millennia. 

It may be helpful, when contemplating your family having some sort of collective meltdown over Trumpisms at Christmas, to fantasize that you're an ancient Celt who'd been fostered from birth. Pleasant, right? 

That Dead Family Members Should Be Buried Under Your House And Fed Daily

The ancient Mesopotamian view of death wasn't exactly "that's it, you're out, goodbye." They conceived of death as a kind of less-interesting life; but, crucially, they also thought that the realm of the dead had inedible food. To solve that problem, people would bury dead members of their family with a lot of ritual and food, and keep them nearby so that they could cater for them (literally). If you didn't give them enough food, they were basically reduced to begging, and would eventually turn into demons and torment your family, which isn't exactly a nice fate for your grandmother. Some went so far as to bury their dead under their own houses, so that it was easier to slip down with leftovers. 

That Men Had To Marry Their Brother's Widow

This one comes from the Bible: Deuteronomy, to be exact,from the Torah and Old Testament, reflecting ancient Hebraic traditions. The continuation of a family was pretty crucial, to the point that if a man died without a son, his brother would be expected to marry his widow. "Expected" actually isn't the right word; if the brother refused to do it, the widow was allowed to complain to the village elders, and to punish him for his refusal: "his brother's wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, "This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother's house." Throughout Israel his family shall be known as "the house of him whose sandal was pulled off." 

That Families Could Bond By Trading Children 

The concept of fostering somebody else's kids is, these days, mostly done because the family itself can't care for them; but the ancient Celts made it a part of their everyday lives, exchanging children of noble families to be raised by one another to reduce conflict and strengthen bonds. The intricacies of fostering weren't left to individuals to sort out, though; they were laid out in detail in the Brehon Laws, which date to around the 7th century. In a handbook on the laws from 1894, a legal scholar comments that "minute rules are laid down for all, especially with reference to the mode of treating the children in fosterage according to the position they were intended to fill in after life, the amount payable by the different classes for the different kinds of fosterage, the relations between the child and its foster parents both during the fosterage and after, and various other matters." 

Foster parents had to educate and care for their foster kids, were paid according to the child's rank, and children were only released from it when they were old enough to marry as teens or if they committed a crime. He also noted that "the relations arising from fosterage were in popular estimation the most sacred of the whole social system." 

That Ancestors Could Speak To The Living Through Dragon Bones

Ancient Chinese royal families looking to understand what to do in the future had a handy resource: their ancestors, who were available for consultation. Unfortunately, there weren't direct telephone lines to the afterlife, so they used what were called "dragon bones," or flat surfaces like ox shoulder-blades or turtle shell stomachs on which they could write their questions. They'd then hand them off to a priest, who'd ceremonially heat the bones until they cracked and then "read" the cracks as some kind of answer from the beyond. (Weirdly enough, we've only known about this practice since 1899, when a scholar of ancient Chinese found some leftover oracle bones being sold as medicine and deciphered the writing.)

That Ugly, Upsetting Children Were The Product Of Demon-Kidnapping

Got a kid disrupting your entire family balance who doesn't quite look like either of his parents? Could be a changeling. Medieval European folklore included a lot of beliefs about changelings, which were fairy children put in place of human ones that had been kidnapped as babies. Unfortunately, this seems to have been the label put on children who were born with disabilities, oddness, or just unpleasant personalities; Thomas a Becket is alleged to have cured a child suffering from "ugly desiccation" and possibly thought of as a changeling, and the word was also used to mean something like "idiot" or "imbecile." The rise of Christianity didn't entirely help; people just thought they were the offspring of devils instead, and spread rumors that they would be insatiable or kill their nurses as infants.  

So there you go. People have been calling kids little devils for centuries. 

Images: Wolfgang Sauber, Bergen IJzendoornAlma E. Guiness, Bodleian Libraries, TW Rolleston, British Library, Martino di Bartolomeo, American Art Association/Wikimedia Commons     

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