BLOOD OF THE MOON.
In ancient cultures women were believed to be at the heights of their power when they menstruated. University menstruation marked the start of womanhood and was accompanied by rituals and celebration. Words in several languages that relate to notions of sacredness, magic and mystery were used to describe it.
Menstruation was a young woman's parallel to a young man's initiation into manhood and it was treated with at least as much reverence and respect. Womanhood represented birth, fertility, even life itself. In many cultures, the menstrual cycle was linked directly to the cycles of the moon.
Hysteria means womb consciousness but its original meaning has been distorted and the power available to women when they menstruate is far from being revered or honoured today. As late s the 19th century, it was believed that hysteria was a state of emotional or mental disturbance caused by a moveable womb. Medical journals published in the 18th century pictured wombs jumping up into various regions of women's bodies. When a woman complained of tightness in her throat, which was most likely triggered by depression or anxiety, it was assumed she was choking on her uterus. And when she was hysterical, it was because her womb had taken possession of her heart.
What all of this points to is the notion of mixed fear and respect of menstrual blood. Originally it was believed that babies were formed by the coagulated blood of their mothers. Later it was believed that menstrual blood was inferior male semen. If the menstrual blood overpowered the male semen, the result was a baby girl. From the time of Aristotle onwards, the general opinion was that women were psysiologically poor imitations of men. Their reproductive organs were male organs, `out-side in'. The only snag in this theory was the clitoris. Medical experts argued about its purpose. For one thing, men didn't have one. It was apparently inconceivable that an organ existed for the sole purpose of providing pleasure to a woman. Modern Menstrual Mythology
Looking at it historically, PMS is just one step removed from the moveable-womb-syndrome. This does not render it pure fantasy, but it too has been twisted and distorted, much like the taboos that exist in other regions of the world. According to the Wall Street Journal, PMS, costs the U.S. economy an estimated eight percent of its total wage bill. And it earns the manufacturers of hormones, anti-depressants, vitamins, pills and other concoctions said to take the edge off PMS, millions of dollars each year.
What the hullabaloo about PMS really does, however, is to take the edge off women's self-respect. Dr. Jerilyn Prior, a specialist on ovulation and menstruation at the University of British Columbia, states that women have been convinced that their bodies are inherently diseased and that "cures" for PMS are necessary.
Let it be known: it is healthy to experience sore breasts, water retention, craving, and moderate mood swings. "Attempting to deny our bodily changes," says prior, "buys into the notion that it's somehow not."
It is worth noting that women in industrial societies suffer more from a variety of menstrual conditions than do women living in so called `primitive' conditions. These include amenhorrea (the cessation of periods), dysemenhorrea (painful periods), as well as endometriosis and cervical dysplasia ( a pre-cancerous condition). Environmental and stress factors most definitely play a role but these conditions are, without doubt, exacerbated when women work against their own bodily rhythms.
Prior encourages women to treat themselves with kindness. She suggests ways women can adjust to their cycles and be kinder to their bodies when they demand more rest, more food, sex or whatever the case may be.
"There is no recipe for living in a female body," advises Prior, "but the first step is to like living in it."
It is possible that women with severe PMS can help to reduce their symptoms by sleeping more - dreaming more - just prior to menstruation. This is very much an ancient approach, harking back to the time when `hysteria' was venerated and women were said to experience a state of heightened awareness at specific points in their cycles.
Throughout the world, women retreated to moon lodges to spend that time in seclusion, or in the company of other menstruating women. In some cultures, such as that of the Mohave Indians, young girls at puberty were said to have prophetic dream which foretold their future and that of their community. Taboo huts are still used in tribal cultures in many parts of the world. North American Native women retreated to moon lodges during menstruation. They have been, variously, places were women meditate and rest in private. The History of the Curse
There was a time when the stages of a woman's lifelong cycle (menarche, menstruation, menopause) were represented symbolically in a vast array of colourful images that can be described collectively as the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. We find references to this feminine holy trinity in art and literature the world over. To cite an example from Greek mythology, Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate are symbolic of the three states of womanhood and Ishtar (Egypt), Chang-O (China), Kali-Maya (India), and Tibetan Dakinis holding cups filled with `the blood of life' - are preserved forever in the form of statues, paintings, and mandalas.
According to author Rosemary Dudley, "In India, the lunar calendar, possibly one of the first of its type, is still in use today... the total for 28 days is both a menstrual and lunar cycle, with the full moon as a cosmic representation of pregnancy, and the new moon standing for the promise of rebirth. These beliefs are apparently universal, for the lunar markings found on prehistoric bone fragments are thought by many to represent women's cycle."
Vestiges of ancient menarche rituals are still practised by the Mokonde women of East Africa, by tribes in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, by the Inuit, and Australian Aborigines, and the Tuareg women of Algeria. Among several North American native tribes, the menarche ritual was once considered the most important tribal ceremony and is today being resurrected by Native peoples in the U.S. and Canada. Some ceremonies include games that are playfully sexual, with older women entertaining young initiates by imitating a few of the intricacies of a sexually-active life. Stripes or dots decorate women's faces and bodies. Red chords (representing the umbilical chord) are wrapped around dancers in Tibet, and Australian Aborigines paint their lips red.
The oldest known words for menstruation meant such things as `sacred,' `forbidden,' `magic' and `woman's friend.' Sabbath, for example, comes from `sabbatu' a Babylonian word referring to the day the Goddess took off to rest; to menstruate.
The concept of menstruation being `the curse' in a negative sense may derive from the Hebrew origin of `to damn', which is `dama' meaning `mother's blood.'
The simple fact that menstruation has evolved from `woman's friend' to `the curse' is a powerful symbol of the declining status of women. As a metaphor it is both universal and personal. It could be that these opposing views of women's `blood power' are actually the same. That which is revered is also feared. God is revered and also feared. Nature is revered and feared. So, too, is Woman. And of the secrets she harbours, her reappearing blood may be the darkest and most potent secret of all.
The mixed fear and reverence which marked social attitudes toward menstruation evolved to the menstrual taboo. `Taboo' is a Polynesian word that means both sacred and dangerous. Menstrual taboos relating to food and sex were ubiquitous and persistent; many cultures still maintain them, particularly when it comes to sexual intercourse. Biblical and other holy texts warn of terrible calamities that ensue when people engage in sex while a woman is bleeding. Similarly, women throughout the world have not been permitted to touch or prepare food during menstruation. Their presence alone could rot fruit, taint meat and sour wine. Young girls at menarche in some parts of the world are forbidden from looking at the stars, lest they fall down from the sky.
Sadly, the respect originally reserved for menstruation appears to have died out for the most part and the element of fear transformed in some cases to sheer abhorrence. Taboos became solely negative in implication, pushing women further into a physical, social and spiritual ghetto.
As archeologist Maria Gimbutas points out in her book, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe: Myths and Cult Images, cauldrons, vessels, and chalices that resemble depictions of the Holy Grail once held menstrual blood that was offered to goddesses during special ceremonies. Sacrificial blood-letting was rare, but after female deities were demoted, the male gods distained being offered menstrual blood one supposes, and opted for sacrifice instead. Fortunately sacrifice lost its appeal as well, with red wine becoming the substitute preferred by most `civilized' gods. Menstruation Envy
Imagine what it would be like if men menstruated instead of women: "Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event," quipped Gloria Steinem in her classic article, If Men Could Menstruate.
"Men would brag about how long and how much. Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, stage parties would mark the day. To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysemenhorrea."
Although men don't menstruate in Australia or Papua New Guinea, men in those regions enact elaborate ceremonies to simulate menstruation. This simulation takes the form of `subincision', a small incision on the underside of the penis during male rituals, and may also be linked to the origin of circumcision.
According to anthropologist Chris Knight, men create `male menstruation' ceremonies because of the critical role played by `blood relations' between women in early societies. Knight, author of Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, argues that menstruation was an instrumental force in the development of culture worldwide. Menstrual synchrony, a phenomenon linked to the secretion of pheromones (a chemical substance secreted by the body) and abetted by nocturnal light, created a bond between women that did not exist between men, or between men and women. In modern society artificial light, the birth control pill and a myriad of other factors have served to dampen the effect of this biological `miracle.' But according to Knight, menstrual synchrony was a fact of life. Even today, women attest to the experience of their cycles moving in synchrony after they spend a considerable length of time in each other's presence, such as in the case of lovers, workmates or roommates. Picture an entire tribe of women bleeding at the same time, and normally at a particular phase of the moon's cycle (normally at the new or `dark' moon).
In Australia, where the oldest-known religious belief documented in the world relates directly to the power of menstrual blood, Yolngu men are clear about what they are doing when they simulate menstruation. In subincision rites, the blood that flows is said to be the blood from "the old woman's vagina."
"But really we have been stealing what belongs to (the women) - for it is mostly an all women's business; and since it concerns them it belongs to them. Men have nothing to do really, except copulate. Women aren't allowed to see what men are doing in these rituals, even though it really is about their own business. But we can see their side. This is because all the Dreaming business came out of women - in the beginning we had nothing, because men had been doing nothing; we took these things from women."
In some cultures, men as well as women have menstrual huts. There is an island called Wogeo in New Guinea, which is known as The Island of Menstruating Men, in which men make a symbolic incision in their penises, wrap themselves in leaves, and retreat to a `menstrual hut' for men only (at the other side of the island from the women's menstrual hut') until their penis heals. Like the women, they are not permitted to engage in regular activity, eat regular food, or speak louder than a whisper. Men on Wogeo `fake menstruate' when they are sick, when a relative is ill or has died, and when anything else happens out of the norm. Evidently the men don't like this custom, but they say they have no choice; when there's trouble in the air, the only thing that will resolve it is a little menstruation. In some ways menstrual huts fulfilled a similar function to temples because they served the purpose of sanctification. But they were also like prisions, in that they prevented those who were in the menstrual state from engaging in normal activity. Paint it Red
The colour red is celebrated as symbolic of life itself. In menarche and other rituals, participants paint part or all of the body red. Sometimes blood is used, but most often ochre is applied as a substitute. Deposits of red ochre in regions of Australia are said to have been left by women in ancient times. In some regions of the world, young women paint their mouths red for puberty rituals, a custom that may have evolved to the modern fashion of adult women wearing red lipstick.
In North America, red is a good colour for selling fast cars. But menstrual products are never sold or promoted with the colour red. It's considered to be an `aggressive' colour. Femininity and aggression are supposedly antithetical.
In India, where the rivers swell with red from iron-oxide washed into the river system by the monsoon rains, adherents to the Tantric faith drink the `ritu', or the menstrual blood of the `Devi,' or feminine creator. In other regions in India, adherents warp red cloth around a symbolic statue of the vulva or `yoni.' The word `ritu', meaning menstrual blood, became the root of the word ritual. Menstruation is also known as `puspa' or flower, and the word `flower' means `that which flows,' and was at one time used to describe menstruation - woman's flowering.'
Historians maintain that menstruation rituals were among the first vestiges of cultures in which women held positions of respect and power to be systematically destroyed by religious and state authorities. It's possible that women's alienation from their bodies began when menstruation lost its sacredness. In contemporary society, nothing about menstruation is considered sacred. Magazine ads show women who zealously conceal the fact that they are menstruating. The implied message is: menstruation is a problem that has to be overcome. But the shroud of secrecy around menstruation is being lifted.
One need merely peek behind the social fabric to find a deep red stain that has persisted for thousands of years, despite extraordinary efforts to bleach it out. Its a powerful, collective journey and can only serve future generations of women with the self-confidence and joyful discovery of their bodies that ancient generations experienced. That journey beings with blood of the moon. Why The Curse is Really a Blessing
"The menstruating woman," writes Natalie Angier of the New York Times Services, "has been variously vilified, feared, pitied or banished from the village to spend her bloody days in solitude."
Now, Margie Profet, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Berkley, is proposing the theory that menstruation evolved as a way to protect the uterus and fallopian tubes from bacteria-ridden sperm.
Published recently in The Quarterly Review of Biology, Profet says the uterus is extremely vulnerable to bacteria and viruses brought in to the body during sexual intercourse. Referring to the blood loss and shedding of the uterine losing, she says "Menstruation is a costly event to the female, and it wouldn't be there if it didn't serve a very important purpose."
Sloughing off the outer lining of the uterus eliminates any intruding pathogens and bathing the area in blood carries immune cells to the uterus to destroy microbes, suggests Profet.
Profet's theory has practical, not just historic implications. She says that if bleeding helps prevent infections, then women shouldn't take contraceptive drugs that suppress menstruation. Uterine bleeding should be viewed as a possible early sign of infection, not as an abnormal hormonal flux. For example, Profet says the IUD causes chronic inflammation of the uterus, which explains the increased blood flow for women who use them.
Other highlights of Profet's research: Menstrual blood is notably lacking in clotting factors, which cause blood elsewhere to coagulate upon exposure to air: Menstrual blood is exceptionally rich in macrophages, immune cells that engulf infiltrators, and it is able to sequester iron and keep it from bacteria, which require the metal to survive. All mammals menstruate, she believes. Humans bleed most because they are sexually receptive more often than any other species and are at greatest risk of infections from intercourse.
Illustration (Goddesses Unite (detail) by Judy Springer)…