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The stork that delivers babies, an Alsatian legend
The stork, the iconic emblem of Alsace
A white stork carrying a baby in a basket at the tip of his long beak is one of the first images that come to mind when we mention Alsace.
This beautiful migratory bird leaves in the autumn and spends winter under the African sun. He returns 9 months later in spring, when nature wakes up after long months of hibernation.
Ancient civilisations therefore saw the bird as a symbol of rebirth, birth and fertility.
Alsatians have taken care of storks forever as they believe that they bring happiness and good luck to their houses.
The birds nest on roofs and chimneys where they know that their chicks will be safe, so many people build small platforms on their roof to attract them.
The stork, a protected species
Alsatians are obviously very fond of their storks, however, the species almost disappeared in the mid-20th century.
Pesticides used to destroy locusts, the birds' main source of food in Africa, but also recurrent droughts and electrocution due to aerial electrical networks, dramatically reduced their population.
The alarm was sounded in 1974 when only 9 couples were left in Alsace! Storks have been put on the list of endangered species and been protected since 1976.
Their population has since steadily increased and the good news is that there are today about 17,000 couples in France.
Storks, symbol of fertility and fidelity in ancient mythologies
Storks nest around March/April and their chicks hatch in the following weeks.
Human babies born around that time were (still are!) conceived in June the previous year, leading ancient societies to associate storks with newborns.
June is the month of the Summer Solstice, Midsummer when the sun reaches its zenith in the sky. This was an important date in the pagan calendar, as people celebrated the God Sun that looked over the harvest to come, and by extrapolation marriage and fertility.
The Romans indeed named that month after Juno, Jupiter’s wife, the Goddess of Women, Childbirth and Marriage.
Storks were already associated to babies in Greek mythology. Hera (the Roman Juno) had to put up with the recurrent infidelity of her husband Zeus (Jupiter). On one occasion, one of her rivals, which she had turned into a stork, tried to take revenge by stealing Hera's son.
Ancient Egyptians represented the human soul by a stork in their hieroglyphs. The soul was reincarnated when the stork returned after winter.
Finally, Norse folks considered the stork as a symbol of fidelity and monogamous union, as the bird is known for mating for life.
Holda, Germanic Goddess of Birth and Death
Germanic mythology and therefore Eastern France has its own variation on the legend of the stork that delivers babies.
Holda The goddess of Birth and Death welcomed the souls of the deceased in her kingdom and sent them back into the Kingdom of the Living where she reincarnated them as babies.
Their souls return down to earth with the rain drops. They gathered in the lakes and springs where they happily played while awaiting their reincarnation.
Holda’s messengers, the elves, embarked on their silver boats to catch the souls with a gold thread and delivered them to future mothers.
Germanic folks celebrated Holda on December 24th, at the winter solstice, when days stop shortening and began to lengthen. She thus presided over a transitional period, the end of darkness and the advent of light, a crossroads between life and death.
Dressed in red and white and wearing a goose feather cape, Holda crossed the starry sky on her magic chariot on the evening of December 24, distributing joy and gifts. People also called her the White Lady, as this was the middle of winter, the snow season!
The legend of the stork that delivers babies
However, it was not until the 19th century, when Hans Christian Andersen adapted the legend, that the storks replaced the elves to deliver the babies.
In his story, the storks collect babies from the lakes where they are playing and deliver them to awaiting families.
Alsatians have a variation according to which babies were found in caves known as Adeborsteines in German (stork stones).
However, the Kinderbrunnen legend (the children well) is the most popular. According to it, the babies waiting to come into the world played in an underground lake that once was under the cathedral of Strasbourg.
Women who wanted to become mothers leaned over the well to make a wish. An elf listened to them and went on his silver boat to catch a baby with a golden thread.
He brought the baby up to the surface and placed him on the edge of the well where a stork came to fetch him. The stork flew away, carrying the baby in a basket at the tip of his long beak, and delicately placed it in his cradle.
Isn’t it a lovely way to announce the birth of a baby?
By the way, störig is Alsatian for stork.