Before my mother died at 87 from ovarian cancer in 1997, she informed me I was a “caulbearer.” I had been born with a caul on my head. She said the filmy remnant of the amniotic sac enveloped my head as I emerged from the womb, the second of a set of twins.
My mom said the phenomenon had prompted the nurses in that hospital delivery room in Des Moines, Iowa, to exclaim, “He has a caul on his head! The baby has a caul on his head!” Delirious and exhausted as she was from delivering twins, my mother, a registered nurse herself, knew what they were talking about — an occurrence steeped in old wives’ tales and ancient lore especially common in the British Isles.
She explained that it had long been believed that when the caul clung to a baby, it was a sign of very good luck — an omen that the child was “destined for greatness,” but more importantly, that the child was safe from drowning.
So here I was, age 50, and my dying mother was finally telling me something she had withheld from me all those years.
Mother had chosen not to tell me simply because she feared I would be a risk-taker. Perhaps I would go swimming in dangerous waters and think I was immune to drowning. She told me how sailors over the centuries went to sea with a pouch of dried caul membrane in their pockets as protection from perishing in the great deep.
Since that time, I have occasionally researched the “caul,” described as a “shimmery coating” or “veil,” and I have wondered if, in fact, I have had a charmed life.
Well, of course , on many levels, that is true. But then it’s all relative.
Compared to what?
Certainly, I have been blessed with a lifetime of good fortune.
Could that caul have been a reason why I had perfect school attendance for 10 of my 13 grades in school, counting kindergarten, including not a day missed in high school? And only an upset stomach in seventh grade blemished what would have been a perfect attendance string from grades four to 12.
Or that the two days of work I missed with the flu in late January 1978 are all that mar a perfect no-sick-day record going back to June 1972, when I began full-time work? That’s just two days in almost 34 years. And no broken bones or surgeries in 60 years of life.
Can that good fortune be plausibly attributed to the caul? Or a long litany of other amazing events that have touched my life?
One Web site asks, “Were you born with a caul? Then you are one of the lucky who have spiritual gifts. When the caul, the membrane enveloping the fetus, does not break and the baby is born with the entire caul intact, the individual is gifted with strong psychic talents. Most often he is clairvoyant.”
According to that theory, a normal birth is difficult for the baby, and the child endures loss of oxygen that causes “cells responsible for paranormal perception to die. These brain cells don’t restore themselves.” So it follows that the caul not only protects the baby but also prevents those cells from dying.
I was not totally wrapped in a caul, just my head. So, for me, it means the “birth with a partial caul reaching up to the shoulders, or only covering the head, will result in lesser psychic talents.”
Cauls are more common in premature births, the literature says. My twin and I were born two weeks early.
Charles Dickens began his novel “David Copperfield” with the character telling how he was born with a caul that was advertised in the newspaper for “the low price of 15 guineas.”
“Whether seagoing people were short of money about this time, or were short of faith and preferred cork jackets, I don’t know; all I know is that there was but one solitary bidding . . . from an attorney . . . who offered two pounds in cash and the balance in sherry.”
The offer was withdrawn and 10 years later, the caul was put up for raffle.” Copperfield remembered feeling “uncomfortable and confused at a part of myself being disposed of in that way.” An elderly woman got it in that raffle and “was never drowned, but died triumphantly in bed at 92,” the Dickens story says.
It’s said that Lord Byron, Jesus, Alexander the Great, pianist Liberace, poet Kahlil Gibran, actress Lillian Gish and Shakespeare’s Hamlet were among those born with cauls, a phenomenon, by one account, said to occur about once in every 80,000 births.
One popular legend is that a caulbearer can see the future, and another says that a child born with a caul would grow up to become a vampire.
In medieval times, a midwife would rub a sheet of paper across the baby’s head and face, pressing the fetal membrane onto the paper and giving it to the mother as an heirloom. “Medieval women often sold their cauls to sailors for large sums of money — a caul was regarded as a valuable talisman.”
In one book, with a chapter on old beliefs about birth phenomena, I found: “The idea that children ‘born with a caul’ would have everything they wanted in life was very widespread, as many ethnographic reports testify.” It told of an ancient Chaldean text that good fortune would come to the entire household when a baby was born with a caul. It was said the Roman midwives stole cauls from newborns and sold them to lawyers for handsome sums because “they were convinced that ‘if they had it on them when they were pleading in court, it was a great help in winning the case.’ ”
The Catholic Church fought the caul superstition, notes the book “Welcoming the New Baby”: “. . . women anxious to reinforce the magic virtues of the caul would persuade priests to say blessings and masses of consecration.” In one case, a mother had the caul itself baptized when the baby was baptized and had nine Masses said over it. Even when bishops forbade priests from celebrating Masses over dried cauls, women hid them under altars, the book notes.
It also notes that a tradition of Iceland is that “fetal membrane appearing over the face at birth, is associated with a guardian spirit called a fylgja,” offering warning against potential danger.
So if a caul means a new child is especially blessed by God, who’s to say that everyone else is not? Likely no one has compiled a list of a people born with the “veil” and compared their rate of drowning versus the no-caul group.
I would be interested if any readers have their own caul stories. Let me know.