It is one of our most common trope…a long-legged, white stork carrying a newborn baby in a white cloth bundle, delivering the child to its new parents. This is the story that we often tell young children when they ask that awkward question about where babies come from. We see illustrations of storks carrying babies on book covers, infant bedding, baby shower cards, television commercials, and more. But just how did the stork, of all birds, become associated with childbirth? The association between storks and babies goes back much further than you probably thought—all the way to ancient Greece.
The Greek Goddess Hera turned a rival into a stork. Source: (greekgoddesses.fandom.com)
A Baby Stealing Stork
There is a story in Greek mythology that tells of Hera, the Queen of the Gods and wife of Zeus, and a stork. According to the legend, Hera grew jealous of the mortal queen, Gerena, who was described as “flawless in beauty.” There were also rumors that Gerena was having an affair with Hera’s husband, Zeus, a known philanderer. The angry Hera turned Gerena into a long-necked stork and instructed her to fly away. Gerena did not want to leave her newborn baby, who may have been fathered by Zeus. So she picked up the infant, safely wrapped in a blanket, and carried him off in her beak. Some researchers claim that the idea of storks delivering babies came from this myth, but there are other possible sources.
Storks represented rebirth in ancient Egypt. Source: (karlshuker.blogspot.com)
Storks and Babies…A Global Phenomenon
Many cultures around the world have ancient stories linking storks with babies. The ancient Egyptians associated storks with reincarnation. In the Middle East, storks were a symbol of purity. In Native American cultures, storks were often linked to good fortune and fertility. In stories from ancient Europe, storks were seen as representing monogamy and family. Storks appear in Chinese, Indian, Israeli, and Aboriginal stories, too.
Storks are Good Role Models
It could be that the stories connecting storks with fertility, parenting, and monogamy arose after ancient people observed the habits of the birds. First, storks were plentiful in many areas of Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Americas. Second, the birds don’t shy away from humans and often built their nests near human settlements. They were able to watch the birds and learn about them. They no doubt noticed that storks are monogamous—remaining faithful to their mate for much of their lives—and that they are good, attentive parents.
Storks migrated back to Germany nine months after most weddings took place so it was believed that the storks brought babies with them. Source: (hiveminer.com)
The Storks’ Nine-Month Migration
By the medieval era, the idea of storks delivering babies was widespread across northern Europe and many historians claim that the migration habits of the storks contributed to the stories. In Pagan Europe, most couples got married on the day of the Summer Solstice, during the festivals honoring the sun, fertility, and prosperity. Coincidentally, storks would start their annual migration at about this time. The large birds migrated from Norway, Germany, and other parts of Northern Europe all the way to Africa. They would return to Northern Europe nine months later, just as all the newlyweds were giving birth to their honeymoon babies.
Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale, The Storks, helped perpetuate the idea of storks delivering babies. Source: (andersen-award.com)
Hans Christian Andersen Helped Cement the Stork-Baby Connections
The prolific Danish fairytale writer, Hans Christian Andersen took up the topic of storks delivering babies and wrote a popular, yet dark, short story about it. Simply called The Storks, the story tells how storks select sleeping babies from the depths of a pond and deliver them to families in the nearby villages. In one village, there lived a mean-spirited little boy who teased the storks and threw stones at them. To get even with this bratty child, the storks delivered a dead baby to his family. The story was meant to serve as a cautionary tale to show bratty children that there were consequences to their actions and to show young parents that they should discipline their children.
The Stork Stone Cave
In a variation of Andersen’s fairytale, the unborn babies are not housed in a pond but are kept in a cave called Adeborteines, German for Stork Stone. According to this story, babies are hatched from stones in this cave, laid out to dry, then delivered to awaiting families via stork.
Could a pelican be mistaken for a stork? Source: (amirshahrokhi.christopherconnock.com)
A Possible Natural Explanation
At least one researcher has presented a plausible theory to explain why people may have come to believe that storks could carry newborn babies in their beaks. Paul Quinn, who is a professor of English literature at the University of Chichester and the editor of an academic research journal on folklore and fairytales, stated that ancient people could have observed first a stork in flight, with its long beak, then a pelican in flight, with its pouched beak. The latter could appear as though the same bird was now carrying a bundle in its beak.
Fetching the children - Storks picking up babies to be delivered. Undated illustration. BPA2# 541 Source: (gettyimages.com)
Stork Stories Provided an Easy Cover Story
Victorian England was a particularly prudish time, particularly with subjects like sex, baby makings, pregnancy, and delivery. Young children, naturally, had questions about these topics. To sidestep these potentially embarrassing questions, the parents used the stork as a convenient cover story. Telling children that the stork delivered babies was a much tidier answer than telling them the whole, messy truth. When Andersen’s short story, The Storks, was published, it helped to give credence to the tales told by modest parents.