A friend's recent Facebook post reminded me of an old wives' tale I first came across in a Stephen King book. She had just learned that her mother had been born with a caul, a thin membrane of amniotic fluid like a veil covering her head. Folklore throughout history held such rare births in high regard, usually deeming such a child to be special, destined for greatness, and sometimes having psychic powers.
The correct term for people born with a caul is "Caulbearers." As few as 1 in 800,000 people are born this way, not to be confused as an 'en-caul' birth, in which the mother's water doesn't break and the baby is born with the amniotic sac completely intact around its entire body, which is much more common. Both are easily removed by the doctor or midwife.
Because the caul resembles a thin veil, such an occurence was often called being born 'behind the veil,' referring to the spiritual veil that separates the physical world from the unseen supernatural world. Superstitions considered the cauls to be general good luck charms. Tradition states that Caulbearers had psychic powers, able to foresee future events and communicate with the souls of those who had passed on. Medieval European folklore held that the caul would protect the owner from dying by drowning, and they were sought after by sailors. During the middle ages villagers felt blessed to have a Caulbearer among them, and looked to them for insight on harvests and economics. In ancient times they were looked at as early priests and teachers. In Charles Dickens' David Copperfield the title character recalls an auction being held to sell the caul he was born with. Danny, the little boy in Stephen King's The Shining, was also a Caulbearer.
Perhaps the belief that Caulbearers were special stemmed from attempts to soothe worried mothers seeing their child born in such a way. For centuries it has been commonly believed that Caulbearers had the gift of clairvoyance and possessed other psychic abilities. They have been both revered and feared as natural leaders. Caulbearers were employed to find underground water, known as 'water witching' and to predict weather patterns.
|A preserved caul|
There were times when negative legends were associated with Caulbearers. Centuries ago in several European countries being born with a caul was a sign that the child may become a vampire. If twins were born with cauls it meant that they were marked by a demon and their souls were already damned. At other points during the middle ages Caulbearers were burned at the stake, being identified as witches. Most dictionaries do not contain the word Caulbearer as a result of the early church officially doing away with anything seen to be sacrilegious.
Throughout history several notable people have been Caulbearers, such as Alexander the Great, Lord Byron, Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes Booth) who was at one time called the greatest American actor, Napoleon, and Charlamagne. Some Christian historians believe Jesus and Moses were born in the caul. Buddhist groups seek out Caulbearers and raise them to be Dali Lamas. More recently actress Jessica Alba's daughter Haven was born with a caul. Jessica's husband described the experience as being like something out of The Matrix.
A comprehensive list of notable Caulbearers can be found here.