Q: When we visited Hveragerði, a local rock collector told us about a stone found in Iceland that was traditionally carried by midwives and given to pregnant women in the olden days. The stone apparently comes in any colors but was globule-like.
We were trying to find out more about this tradition. Do you know either the Icelandic or English name for this stone, and have you heard of this tradition?
A: The stone is called lausnarsteinn (‘relief stone’) and was used by midwives in Iceland for centuries to relieve the pain of women in labor. It was also thought to help with the delivery and guarantee good health for the mother and child.
The stone was first referenced in a written source from 1525 and is known to have been used until the 20th century, as described in Auður Guðríður Hafliðadóttir’s BA thesis in ethnology at the University of Iceland on ethnology in midwifery.
The lausnarsteinn is not actually a stone but is described as a nut or a bean. It had a smooth surface, was dark brown in color and oblique in shape. The stone rattled when shaken. It was hollow inside and had a light yellow core, which tasted bitter.
On one side, the stone had something which resembled a navel, which supported the theory that it had once grown from a tree or a shrub.
The lausnarsteinn was found on seashores and was believed to have drifted to Iceland from South-America or the Caribbean with the Gulf Stream.
Natural scientist Eggert Ólafsson (1726-1768) concluded that the lausnarsteinn was a seed of the Mimosa scandens (a.k.a. Entada gigas or monkey-ladder), a species of flowering liana in the pea family, commonly known as sea bean, or sea heart.
The plant is native to Central America, the Caribbean, northern South America, and Africa. There are 15 seeds inside each seedpod, which can drift long distances on ocean currents after being washed by rain into rivers and the ocean.
The Catholic Church (the national church of Iceland until 1550) considered the lausnarsteinn to be a natural medicine.
Sometimes it was placed in water or boiled with water and then removed, and the woman in labor would drink the concoction. Some midwives would place the stone in the bed of the woman, under her tongue, in her palm, on her chest, on her belly or tie it to her thigh.
Others believed that the lausnarsteinn would lose its powers if it came in contact with bare skin, and that it should be kept in flour wrapped in white linen or an amnion, or in the hair of a virgin.
Some thought there were both male and female lausnarsteinn and that they could be found in pairs on the beach. The husband and wife stones should be kept together and could even spawn offspring. Some believed that it wouldn’t be effective to use a single stone during deliveries and that midwives should always have a couple.
According to a folk story written down by Jón Árnason (1819-1888), it wasn’t good enough to find a lausnarsteinn on the beach, but people had to go to great lengths to acquire a magic stone, as described on the University of Iceland Science Web.
On the holy night of Vítismessa, June 15, people would have to climb up to an eagle’s nest and tie the beaks of the chicks shut. When their mother arrived to find them in such a state, she would head out to find a lausnarsteinn to untie their beaks. At that exact moment, the stone would have to be grabbed. Otherwise, the eagle mother would fly away with it and sink it into the ocean.
Even though the lausnarsteinn continued being used for some time, it was stopped being classified as a natural medicine in the late 18th century and was no longer part of the accepted practice of midwives.
Photo: A seed of the Entada gigas on myjunglegarden.com.