Our Blood, Our Selves
By Cathleen and Colleen McGuire
If one were to examine misogyny at its core, the hatred and fear of menstruation would figure prominently. For centuries women's monthly blood has been perceived as ugly, evil, shameful, and taboo. Yet society has forgotten that for thousands and thousands of centuries the menstrual act was sacred and revered.
As with other mammals, at one time humans also experienced estrus, copulating only during specific sexual seasons. Revolutionary changes in women's bodies--most significantly the development of menstruation--irrevocably changed the nature of our species. Sexual intercourse could now take place at any time, not just during estrus.
By even the most conservative estimate, women have been menstruating for at least 300,000 years, (i.e., the approximate time frame our species evolved into Homo sapiens). From studies of prehistory, numerous anthropologists maintain that menstruation was once highly esteemed. It was considered awesome and miraculous that women could produce new life from our wombs and food from our breasts, as well as bleed without dying. These qualities help explain the matrilineal and matrifocal character of ancient peoples.
Just as modern women tend to cycle in unison if they are together over stretches of time, ancient women probably also bled at the same time. Bleeding women separated themselves in menstrual huts and menstrual time was one of intense creativity. With pieces of wood, women notated their blood cycles in concert with the rhythms of the moon. These "calendar sticks" were one of the first means by which humans began to conceptualize chronological time. Scholars speculate that counting, mathematics, and astronomy are descendants of women's lunar observations. It seems quite plausible that menstruation was pivotal to the formation of early civilization.
It is believed that for millennia humans lived in relative harmony with the earth and each other. Patriarchy--the rule by men--did not arise until a mere 5,000 or so years ago (at least in Western culture). With patriarchy came the mindset of hierarchy and domination resulting in sexism, classes, and eventually racism and other forms of oppression. Concomitant with the rise of patriarchy was the debasement and vilification of menstruation, both in myth and in social relations.
It was only about 20,000 years ago with the introduction of animal breeding that humans discovered males also had a role in the procreative process. Some feminists assert that men suffer from womb envy. Unable to give birth or bleed in cycles, perhaps men became experts at death, with bloody wars epitomizing menstruation envy.
In early patriarchal societies bleeding women continued to be separated from the group, but no longer from a position of power. Rather they were isolated through defilement and shame. There are still areas in the world today where bleeding women congregate in menstrual huts, although rarely out of honor and empowerment.
Under patriarchy menstruation is marked by pain and disgrace. Bleeding in psychic solitude, contemporary women fall prey to "illnesses" such as PMS, cramps, toxic shock, and endometriosis. Locked in nine-to-five schedules, we are divorced from the instincts of our bodies' natural cycles. Holistic gynecology has been replaced by poisonous, body-altering pharmaceuticals, and even surgery. It is tragic that a function so natural to the female body has been labeled and treated as a curse.
In an effort to be equal to men, feminists often distance themselves from "essential" female capabilities such as birthing, lactation, and menstruation. Many ecofeminists are proud of women's unique biology, and believe that equality with men should not come at the expense of sacrificing our special differences. In this regard, women of EVE organized a monthly gathering called Selene Circle to explore and celebrate the ancient primordial wisdom of women's ability to bleed.
Selene Circle was named for one of the Greek goddesses of the moon, and women met on the new moon of each month. EVE women felt that we can directly contribute to deep planetary and personal healing by re-honoring the menstrual act. As many ecofeminists believe, all things in life--the moon, our blood, the oceans, pollution, starvation--are interconnected. Healing one part of our ecology helps heal other parts.
People were intrigued when we mentioned our menstrual circle. "So what do you do at this Selene thing?" they invariably asked. We often responded with the words of Merlin Stone, the author of When God Was A Woman. A befuddled woman once asked her at a conference, "How do I go about doing a ritual?" Stone replied, "The same way women and men did for thousands of years: you make it up as you go along." Thus encouraged, we confidently plunged into a spiritual realm new to most of us.
Each circle was different and its uniqueness depended on the women present. We rotated meeting in our homes, but in summer months convened in a secluded area of Central Park. Our circle usually consisted of four to ten women with one of us acting as a facilitator. We opened with a call to the seven directions (north, south, east, west, above, below, and center), asking the elements of each cardinal direction--fire, water, air and earth--to share their energy with us.
After calling a circle, we sat around an altar (a cloth on the ground) on which women had placed objects special to them. Each woman described her offering, what it meant to her, and then passed it around. Earth objects such as shells, stones, leaves, or feathers were popular. One woman, a botanist, once brought a book that had her plant drawings published in it. Candles adorn the altar, preferably red ones. We always inquired, "Who's bleeding tonight?" At least one woman was usually having her period. We fantasized for the day all of us would simultaneously bleed on the new moon.
We would then proceed to more magical activities. We often sang and chanted, but we especially looked forward to the guided meditations. Once we took a journey into our wombs. Our facilitator led us through our vaginas, up into our fallopian tubes where we were slipping and sliding off the walls like some amusement park ride, and finally deep inward back to the warmth of our uterus. It was a very vivid and novel adventure. After each journey we shared our feelings.
At this particular session, one woman revealed that after having undergone a full hysterectomy she had not bled in years. The journey for her emphasized the pain of surgical castration, and helped her re-connect with her missing organs. Women don't have to be menstrually active to participate in Selene Circle; biological crones and young girls were welcome, too.
A common destination of our guided meditations was the menstrual hut. The facilitator slowly, methodically, descriptively lead us into the hut. Once there, we took turns voicing our visions. Some menstrual hut images we conjured were of:
On another occasion we journeyed to a menstrual cave. Those images included: a skylight to commune with the stars, a stream running through the cave allowing us to flow directly into its water, stone walls wildly painted with our blood, sanitary pads made of soft moss. Sometimes solemn, sometimes giddy, our fertile imaginations always surprised us. We cherished those supernatural and visceral communions with our ancient bloodsisters. Through these inner visions we also connected with all women who have been wrongfully shamed by their life-affirming blood.
After our minds finished wandering, we would come back to earth and converse on a selected theme. At one session we shared our stories of menarche--a young woman's first period. The "normal" memories ranged from embarrassment to humiliation to dread. One woman was mortified when her mother proudly announced the news to her father at the breakfast table. A few fortunate women encountered a joyous welcome to womanhood.
Another Selene session addressed anger. We talked about our menstrual moods and our yearning to have private space at those times. We half-joked about demanding menstrual leave from employers. Other Selene discussions have dealt with sex during menstruation, crones and menopause, hilarious menstrual escapades, and successful herbal remedies.
After we closed each circle, we would spend the rest of the evening socializing and eating. The menu by choice was always vegetarian, if not vegan. Someone usually brought beets or beet juice to induce mock periods. For several days thereafter all of us would be peeing red!
Selene Circle was truly empowering. We left each gathering feeling utterly connected to one another, to our bloodsisters past and present, to the earth, to the moon, and to the wonders and mysteries of life. Our menstrual circle provided sorority and self-respect at a time when women have few opportunities to honor our blood and ourselves.
EVE Essay: Menstruation
Reclaiming the Menstrual Matrix, Evolving Feminine Wisdom: A Workbook, The Menstrual Health Foundation, 104 Petaluma Avenue, Sebastopol, CA 95472, (707) 829-2744.
WeMoon, Musawa, 37010 SE Snuffin Road, Estacada, OR 97023, (503) 630-7848. An astrological moon calendar, appointment book, and daily guide to women's natural rhythms.
"From Sacred Blood to the Curse and Beyond," Judy Grahn, from The Politics of Women's Spirituality, edited by Charlene Spretnak, Anchor Press, 1982.
Dragontime: Magic and Mystery of Menstruation, Luisa Francia, Ash Tree Publishing, P.O. Box 64, Woodstock, NY 12498, 1991.
The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton & Emily Toth, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
The Politics of Reproductive Ritual, Karen Ericksen Paige & Jeffrey M. Paige, University of California Press, 1981.
The Wise Wound: Myths, Realities, and Meanings of Menstruation, Penelope Shuttle & Peter Redgrove, Bantam Books, 1990.