What is the Connection Between Storks and Babies?
It seems like every other baby announcement has a stylized drawing of a stork carrying a baby in a bundle of fabric, especially in Europe and North America. Few people question this commonly-accepted image, but it is rather curious that storks are linked with human babies, and that this connection has endured so long. The connection between storks and infants dates back to the days of the Ancient Greeks, and it is a fascinating illustration of the way in which myths and legends evolve.
The Greeks noted that storks tended to return to the same nests year after year, and that the birds also devoted a great deal of time to raising their young. Over time, the belief that storks were exemplary parents began to arise, making the first link between storks and babies. After all, if storks were so good at raising their own young, surely they would be skilled at handling human infants!
Although Greek culture may have faded, the associations between storks and parenting continued to be strong in many parts of Europe. In Northern Europe, where storks appear in the spring after wintering in warmer climates, storks were thought of as messengers of spring and fertility. The birds also happened to show up right around the same that major fertility festivals were held, and people came to associate the coming of storks with parties and the conception of babies.
The European White Stork also happens to be famous for nesting on rooftops, which contributed the next piece of the puzzle. People came to believe that having a stork nest on the roof was good luck, and legends about storks dropping babies down the chimney came to abound. Northern Europeans believed that the more storks in town, the more babies there would be, and this legend continues to endure in some regions.
The image of a kindly stork carrying an infant to expecting parents became very popular in the Victorian era, when many people developed a prudish attitude to childbirth and the facts of life. Rather than giving children the gory details, parents would simply inform them that a stork had brought their new brother or sister, and in fact some Victorian wits used this as a comic device, with baby-laden storks pursuing young single women down the street in fanciful postcards.
Today, most people accept that storks are not actually responsible for the appearance of babies, or for fertility rates. However, the association between storks and babies continues to endure, as does the evasive response “the stork brought you” to curious children.
Etymology offers us another possible explanation for the connection between storks and babies. In Middle High German, the word Storch meant stick, and was commonly used slang for the male appendage. It also became the nickname for the bird. This was the genesis for a double entendre that generated the now familiar piece of folklore.
Is this why those little red marks on new babies are called stork bites? Someone must have thought the stork got careless during the delivery of the baby.
I must have grown up in a closet because I didn't hear the legend that storks deliver babies until I married my husband.
The story I'd heard growing up was that babies came from the cabbage patch. We were told that if a couple wanted a baby, they would plant cabbage and, when the time was right, a baby would appear in place of a head of cabbage. I think this is how the Cabbage Patch dolls got started.
The legend of storks bringing babies stems from Attila's sack of Aquileia during his 452 A.D.
invasion of Italy.
When the Huns broke through the city's gates, parents rushed their infants to storks nesting on roof tops. As this was occurring, others dropped themselves over the
walls and paddled small boats down the river into the Adriatic marshes to escape the Huns.
Digna, the most beautiful young Roman woman in the city, tossed herself from the highest tower of the battlements to avoid being ravished by the horde, thus preserving her "dignity".
The people who escaped to the marshes were visited by the storks, bringing them the spared infants of the city. They built pole houses in the marshes which evolved into the city of Venice.
So storks bring babies, the birth of Venice, and the word "dignity", all came from Attila's sack of Aquileia.
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