The caul (pronounced call) is another organ of birth rich in legend, lore, and meaning. Napoleon, Lord Byron, New Orleans “Voodoo Queen” Marie Laveau, and Liberace were all born with a caul. To be “born in a caul” is to be born with the head covered by the amnion or within an intact, unruptured amniotic sac. According to healthlink.mcw.edu, Dwight Cruikshank MD, professor and chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, states that being born with, or in, a caul is rare, probably occurring in fewer than 1 in 1,000 births. He has seen fewer than ten babies born with a caul throughout his career.
We have seen this phenomenon only a few times, and although it is a natural process (it doesn’t endanger the mother or baby in any way), it is a strange sight—the baby’s face moving beneath the opalescent, wet tissue. We can understand why this unusual occurrence made people of times past believe that something supernatural was at work.
In medieval times, being born with a caul was considered good luck, and babies born with it were said to be marked for greatness (Liberace’s mother would probably agree!). They were also said to have second sight and, according to some cultures, to be vampires (something said by various detractors about Lord Byron, who wrote one of the world’s first vampire novels). In olden times a midwife would rub a sheet of paper across the encauled baby’s head and face, pressing the tissue into the paper. The paper was then kept as an heirloom and sometimes sold to sailors who believed that the dried caul was a sure protection against drowning. Lord Byron’s mother sold his caul to a sailor who took the treasured object with him on his next voyage. The ship was wrecked and the sailor promptly drowned. It is easy to understand the superstition of the caul bringing good luck to sailors if you look at the fact that if the caul was over the baby’s face, it might seem like it had been protecting the baby from drowning by covering its mouth.
In Iceland, where fairies and spirits are still very popular, a caul is said to be a spirit double of the person to whom it is attached. This double will serve the person, and the person will serve the caul spirit during sleep when he carries out errands in dreams. The caul will tell the person of his imminent demise, appearing to him in a state illustrative of the manner of the person’s death.
In New Orleans, home of the famous encauled Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau, it is believed that the encauled child will become a seer into the unknown; the caul is considered a powerful aid that parts the veils between the real and spirit worlds—something that Laveau would have agreed she could do. Even today, pregnant mothers will visit her grave near the French Quarter, leave a gift, and rap on the grave three times to ask her blessing on their child.
There is no way to create an encauled condition, and since babies born with a caul are a rarity, it is doubtful that many mothers will have the opportunity to sell or enshrine theirs. In a normal hospital birth, being born with a caul is rare but is not a health hazard in any way—the child can breathe through it and the doctor will simply remove it. If your child happens to be born with one, you can choose to believe in the positive aspects of caul lore or ignore it as an old wives’ tale—but remember: those old wives often knew a lot more than we give them credit for!