GUEST BLOG: Forty Days – Turkish Superstitions for Mother’s Day

Welcome to our fifth guest blog post – a look at some of the most chilling superstitions for Mother’s Day in Turkey, as written by Selin Umai from Autotelic Tales. If you would like to submit an article, please tell us about your proposal using the form on the Contact page or by sending us a message on Twitter, and we will be in touch. Thank you for reading!

CONTENT WARNING: complications in childbirth, hospital procedures, paranoia, sleep paralysis, anxiety, depression & postpartum depression.

I gave birth in the 21st century, under the blinding lights of a hospital room. It was a bloody affair that released me from the increasingly uncomfortable limbo of pregnancy. I found a brief respite in my 48-hour hospital stay, where things moved in an orderly fashion, according to procedures and protocols. All too soon, it was over. We – mother, infant, and father – piled into a taxicab and were driven, through the streets of Manhattan and over a bridge, to Brooklyn. There, we walked into the fog of postpartum gloom that had already settled in our home. With the arrival of a baby, the familiar apartment had become a capsule of unknown peril.

I remember little of my first month as a mother, perhaps because I hardly slept. My child – jaundiced, with red blotches – breathed funny, ate little, choked often, and peed tiny, rust-colored puddles that sent me into fits of anxiety. Postpartum depression, I found, wasn’t depression exactly. It was a blur of fear, sorrow, loneliness, anxiety, existential strain, cosmic terror, worry, exhaustion, and a perpetual state of not knowing what to do. Mercifully, a few weeks in, my mother arrived from Turkey bringing with her a plastic hair band with a red ribbon and large cakes of red sugar – relics with mostly forgotten origins, believed to be equipped with the supernatural power to ease my postpartum misery. In many cultures, the turbulent period that mother and child enter after birth is almost as ritualized and scripted as a stay at the natal ward. Ancient traditions and rites, implemented by a flock of women working in harmony, leave little to the mother’s frazzled judgment – for better or worse.

Childbirth in Turkey, 1925. From the author’s personal archive.

Many names denote this transitional stage: puerperium, keeping-the-month, rozdevica, sarantisty, lehusa, rodulja, nasfa, or nifas. In Turkey, it stretches through the first forty days after birth, and is called lohusa – a word that refers both to the forty-day experience and the mother at the center of it. Lohusa is recognized as a time of physical and spiritual vulnerability. “The lohusa’s grave,” folk wisdom prophecies, “stays open for forty days.” Even in the 21st century, when postpartum bleeding and infections no longer threaten a mother’s life as they once did, lohusa is beset with danger. Depression, melancholy, psychosis, crippling anxiety, paranoia, sleep paralysis, and sudden infant death lurk around the mother and child. Alkarısı, the Red Hag, represents all these horrors packed into the form of a woman. She is a folk monster, a djinn, a fairy who has been stalking lohusa mothers through centuries. She is the embodiment of all postpartum ailments that in the 21st century, are known as disorders or syndromes.

Sightings of the Red Hag are as numerous as they are varied. She has lived a long life under many names, haunting lohusa beds, living on the livers of postpartum mothers and their infants. She is swarthy, with large sparse teeth. Her feet point backward, giving away her djinn origins. Her unkempt hair is long, as are her breasts that she slings over her shoulders. Her fingers, jointless, end in sharp points. She only wears black. She fears red. She only wears red. She wears nothing but her matted black hair. She is a beautiful blond woman. She is a faceless shadow, small like a dwarf. “She came to me twice after I had my last child,” one mother describes her. “… when I walked out the door, I saw a girl with braids down to her waist. She wouldn’t turn her face to me, her head was always down. She grabbed onto me, tight, and wouldn’t let go.” Every eye that spots the Red Hag sees something else in her. Every tongue that describes her gives her a different shape; every ear that hears of her hangs onto some different detail. So, the evil spirit lives on, perpetually shapeshifting, impossible for folklorists and anthropologists to pin down.

Abstract picture of black and red threads by Alex Perez on Unsplash.

In the Turkish tradition, as the lohusa mother wanders near her proverbial grave, infant in her arms, she is not alone. Women keep her company; they watch over mother and child to ensure that neither loses a liver to the Red Hag. The pair is surrounded with protective charms and artifacts. The Qur’an is hung above their bed. The mother dons a red ribbon. A red, spicy lohusa sherbet is served, concocted by mixing water with spices and sugar or (as in my case) by melting store-bought cakes of red sugar in hot water. A pair of scissors or a knife is tucked under the lohusa pillow, onions and garlic are placed under the bed. Any water receptacles in the lohusa’s room must be kept covered. The lohusa must not be visited by a woman on her period or someone who has engaged in death rites, as both are known to invite the Red Hag. Two lohusas must never meet, under any circumstances. If they do, it’s imperative that they exchange safety pins. But what happens when all caution fails and the Red Hag makes her appearance?

The ultimate aim of the Red Hag is to enter a woman’s body and pluck her liver. If she finds the mother alone with the baby, the Red Hag may arrive with the wind, as the voice of a loved one, or in the shape of a cat. Sometimes, she becomes a strand of hair and enters the mother through her food. Sometimes, she sticks two long fingers down her victim’s throat and rips out her liver. More commonly, the mother will be struck by albasması, a supernatural ailment that causes great fear, an overwhelming sense of pressure, and an inability to move or call for help. “She came; I was lying in bed,” says one woman. “… a weight sunk onto me, but my eyes were open. I was tongue tied. She picked up the clothes and put them back down. She took a small piece and left. My child died after twenty-four days.”

The Red Hag targets infants the same way it targets their mothers. She may enter the lohusa’s chamber as a bird with a bead in her beak. If she finds uncovered water, she will drop her bead into it and, within the ensuing flash of light, she will snatch the baby’s liver, leaving it dead. The only means to stop this attack is for someone to grab the bead the moment it hits the water. Fortunately, the Red Hag is not without her weaknesses. She will be defeated if stabbed in the chest with a safety pin. She will then serve the household that enslaved her for seven years to come, or until she can convince a young child to pull out the safety pin that keeps her captive. She is an industrious worker with one flaw: no human can finish off a task that the Red Hag started. Also, she likes to tie knots into horses’ tails. The Red Hag can also be caught when she is in bird form. “She came as a bird,” says one witness, “and just as she was about to suffocate the babe, the child’s father clutched her. Before he could kill her, she begged him through tears ‘Don’t take my life. I promise you, I will never come near seven generations of any home where you leave as much as a scrap.’”

Indeed, any household that has captured the Red Hag is blessed. Pieces of red cloth from the victorious home can be parceled out to lohusas to keep them safe from the Red Hag, or to cure attacks of albasması. When her seven years of service are done, the Red Hag makes her way to a riverbed, one of her favorite haunts. In one village, after tricking a little boy to take out the safety pin from her chest, she was seen jumping into the water only to become foam – evidence that her folks didn’t want her back after she mingled with humankind.

I speak of her in present tense, because the Red Hag still lingers, not just in academic papers, but also in rural lore. But, as modern medicine cures postpartum infections, as sleep paralysis and sudden infant death enter the folk consciousness, she fades, the way of all folk monsters. She is dismissed as an irrational explanation for medical and psychic ills. Yet, the protective charms that fend against the Red Hag still appear, undeterred by rational thought, all over lohusa bedrooms across modern Turkey. They are handed from one generation to the next, offering comfort to women who might never have heard of the Red Hag. Perhaps, she is less talked about now because science has disproved her existence. Perhaps, the mass-produced red ribbons and lohusa sherbets are simply doing their job.

Devren, Ö. (2018) Türk kültüründe bir korku kültü olarak Sivas’ta Alkarısı ve albasması inanışı, Antropoloji, (36), 1-27.
Şimşek, E. (2017) Türk kültüründe Alkarısı inancı ve bu inanca bağlı olarak anlatılan efsaneler, Akra Uluslararası Kültür, Sanat, Edebiyat ve Eğitim Bilimleri Dergisi 5(12), 99-115.

Selin Umai is a writer and translator with an interest in folk horror, folk science, and psychic ailments. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology and an M.F.A. in writing. You can find her on Twitter @AutotelicTales.