Judy Grahn's Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World previous next

Charlene Spretnak

MODERN culture positions itself in opposition to nature. Western culture-at least since the Pythagorean table of opposites was formalized in the sixth century B.C.E. -- associates the male with admirable normative principles and the female with the vague and indeterminate, the unbounded and formless, the irregular and disorderly. Patriarchal culture demeans and denies the elemental power of the female body. Not surprisingly, then, modern Western patriarchal culture renders the moon tides of women's bodies, the very blood that feeds the continuation of the human species, invisible and irrelevant if properly hidden, or shameful and unclean if not. This response is generally considered natural and inevitable.

Judy Grahn's Blood, Bread, and Roses turns that vast cultural construction inside out. Her boldly original interpretation of cultural history challenges the assumption that because menstruation is largely hidden and inconsequential in modern society it must, therefore, have always been so. Across the great divide from such embarrassingly messy and uncontrollable seepage as menstrual blood, it is understood, the triumphal march of progress -- conceptual thought, language, mathematics, and technology -- gradually led humans from primate consciousness to the fully evolved status of Homo faber, Homo oeconomicus, Homo aestheticus. Grahn demonstrates, however, that if one refuses to ignore the ele- [p. ix]

mental presence and processes of the female body, the cultural history of our species looks quite different.

In Blood, Bread, and Roses Grahn focuses on the meanings of separation in cross-cultural responses to menstruation. She first considers the origin myths of many cultures and notes that a high proportion of them begin with an undifferentiated space/time, an era of chaos and indeterminate form, from which creation occurs via separation: the separation of land from water, of earth from sky, of rivers from oceans, of mountains from plains. Grahn speculates that the foundation of so many origin stories -- a time of undifferentiation -- may be an extremely resilient reference to early humans' "crossing of the great abyss" from primate consciousness to the eventual development of conceptualizing, abstracting human consciousness. For this to occur, consciousness had to become externalized, that is, linked with events outside the human in ways that led to apprehension of patterns and concepts. Grahn believes that this pivotal development must have occurred in relation to females' dawning awareness that their 29.5-day menstrual cycle of bleeding was in rhythm with -- and hence related to -- an external object, the white moon in the sky. The resultant consciousness, which she calls "the menstrual mind," became externalized and displayed, particularly because of the necessity for females to teach their discovery to members of the group who did not menstruate. Males learned the metaforms, Grahn's term for various expressions of menstrual logic, such as principles of separation, synchronic relationship, and cyclical time. Eventually the males extended the meta forms, rearranged them, and mirrored them back to the females, creating what Grahn sees as "an ongoing dance of mind between the genders."

Grahn then considers ways in which the central concept of separation has been expressed in a wide variety of menstrual seclusion rituals. The three most common aspects of taboo (a Polynesian word for menstruation) for a secluded menstruant were that she must be strictly separated from water, light, and the earth; she was also prohibited from being touched and from touching her own [p. x]

body. If she were to go to the river, for instance, and drink a handful of water, her own moon-blood waters might well mix with the other waters, causing all separation to unravel, plunging the world back into the undifferentiated, chaotic state. Cross-culturally, ethnographers of native cultures have often been told that women's rites hold the world in balance.

Other cultural historians have noted that the Upper Paleolithic bone calendars (bones with notches in groups of numbers that usually add up to 29.5 or 30) establish the link between lunar/ menstrual observations and counting. Hence from the menstrual mind came the beginnings of measurement, arithmetic, geometry, and all mathematics. Grahn, however, goes much further, tracing the results of menstrual logic as its practices and paraphernalia migrated from the site of menstrual seclusion (usually a menstrual hut) into society.

Since the menstruant was to mark the end of her dark-of-the-moon days by emerging at dawn into the light, the door of the menstrual hut faced east, an orientation that was replicated in ceremonial buildings and dwellings and has been maintained for millennia in diverse native cultures. Since the menstruant's successful observation of the separation rites carried cosmological significance, her emergence was met with celebration and feasting, for which ceremonial food, elaborate dress, and bodily decoration were devised. (Until recent times, women probably had comparatively few menstrual cycles in their lifetime because of frequent pregnancies and extended periods of lactation.) The most elaborate celebration followed the longest and most exacting menstrual seclusion, that of menarche, a woman's first menstrual period.

In a fascinating discussion of "parallel menstruations," Grahn cites a variety of rituals that replicate the disciplines of menstrual seclusion. (She notes that a central meaning of the Sanskrit word for ritual, r'tu, is menstruation, the original ritual.) In many cultures hunting, which appeared in human history much later than menses, borrowed menstrual-like rites of seclusion and privation for hunters prior to an excursion. Much later, when rituals to bene-     [p. x]

fit the entire society were performed by special groups who became the priestly caste, the aristocracy, and royalty, many concepts issuing from menstrual logic were again adopted.

Grahn also demonstrates the effect of menstrnallogic in symbolization, narrative, and the evolution of godheads, as well as in the development of art, handicraft, and technology. In time, production and technological endeavors took on a life of their own, ushering in the age of materialism and a corresponding diminution of rituals of cosmological reciprocity. With that transformation our species crossed another abyss, Grahn feels, this time to the "logic of male blood power," including ritualized warfare. She ends by suggesting ways in which we might unravel the contemporary "necroforms" of exploitation and destruction to achieve political and cultural renewal.

What is one to make of this grand theory? First, it is important to keep in mind that Grahn states that she is presenting a female-centered origin story. It is intended, I believe, to take a long-overdue place on the table for discussion alongside the towering stack of androcentric theories and assumptions about cultural history. With regard to the possible objection that Grahn's thesis is reductionist, one should bear in mind that she never denies dynamics other than the one that is her focus, that she is a poet who theorizes with a brilliantly associative mind, and that the lost history of menstrual logic must be writ large in order to get onto the discussion table in modern times at all. In response to the possible objection that "all this" is nothing new since reproduction has long been understood as important in the early shaping of cultural history, Grahn emphasizes her finding that it was women's moon-blood, not babies, that was considered numinous. (If so, this realization might explain the absence of infants from the upper paleolithic and neolithic goddess statues.) Other feminist authors have speculated on the early significance for women of women's blood mysteries, but Grahn traces their effect on culture, invention, production, trade, science, religion, and more.

The appearance of Blood, Bread, and Roses is particularly [p. xii]

timely in relation to at least three fields of knowledge: feminist theory, linguistics, and social constructivism (also called "social constructionism" or "deconstructive postmodernism"). Feminist theory is a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary endeavor to analyze critically the patriarchal bias in scholarship and to broaden the range of perception, insight, logic, concern, and activist implications. Grahn's thesis on the centrality of cultural responses to menses is surely relevant to the current multi perspectival efforts in history, anthropology, psychology, and other fields, in which a plurality of interpretations is valued. Moreover, this book joins works of body-oriented feminist cultural theory that include, for example, Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich, Woman and Nature by Susan Griffin, The Politics of Reproduction by Mary O'Brien, and The Politics of Women's Spirituality by myself and others.

Regarding linguistic theory, Grahn seems to have independently arrived -- via her poetic mind -- at a realization about conceptual thinking that has recently rumbled through that field. Prior to the late 1970s, metaphor was considered a poetic device, an artifice quite distinct from objective thought and expression. It is now recognized, however, that nearly all abstract thought in humans is organized metaphorically (see, for example, Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson). In addition, bodily experience has been recognized recently as being enormously influential in the evolution of metaphorical concepts (see The Body in the Mind by Mark Johnson). Grahn's thesis suggests rich possibilities in both of these areas, for she not only proposes the metaphors of menstrual logic but also introduces the concept of "metaforms," cultural practices or objects that embody those metaphors.

With regard to the grip of social constructivism (or deconstructionism) on much academic and other intellectual activity these days, the accumulation of cross-cultural evidence cited in Grahn's work argues against the constructivist belief that concepts about gender and the body (or anything else) are merely "arbitrary social constructions." Deconstructionists assert that one can know nothing about the body or bodily experience since all one really knows [p. xiii]

are the received concepts about such matters in one's particular society. Contrary to the claims of this belief system, culture responds to the elemental power of the female body, not the other way around. By that I mean that the cultural response may be positive or negative but it is extremely unlikely that any early society did not notice the moon rhythms of the female and her procreative capabilities. A number of recently published feminist books have critiqued the disembodied orientation of deconstructive postmodernism, such as Nothing Mat(t)ers by Somer Brodribb, Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo, and my own States of Grace. Grahn's Blood, Bread, and Roses contributes to the efforts to examine the social and historical construction of concepts in ways that acknowledge our embodiment and our embeddedness in subtle processes of earth community and the cosmos. Theorists in this cluster call such an alternative" embodied postmodernism" or "ecological postmodernism."

Finally, I would like to share a general sense of my personal responses to reading this book. In 1979 I commissioned an article from Judy Grahn on menstruation for my anthology, The Politics of Women's Spirituality. I supplied the title, "From Sacred Blood to the Curse and Beyond"; she supplied an extraordinary article -- which, by the way, led the women of the editorial department at Beacon Press to commission this book and to wait patiently through many years of research. I wanted women to be able to get beyond "the curse," the culturally implanted embarrassment, alienation, and, for some, even self-loathing that accompanies menstruation in our society. I was aware of gloriously celebratory menarche rituals in various native cultures, yet the chasm between those orientations and that of my own culture seemed so vast as to devour efforts at imagining a different way of being. Even the subversively joyful menarche rituals some of us have created for our daughters seem dwarfed by the negative cultural messages they receive outside of our circles.

In Blood, Bread, and Roses the comprehensive nature of Grahn's vision gradually creates a world in which the female reader feels at [p. xiv]

home, perhaps for the first time, because Grahn brings women from the margins of cultural history to the center -- as embodied women. Yet the author also incorporates an all-too-familiar story of a contemporary woman's struggle -- her own -- to escape the abhorrence with which she viewed her menses. The contrast in this book between the rich tapestry of women's lost history and the modern, barren version of the female's cultural significance that shaped the lives of the author and her mother creates a poignant declaration of the need to recover the embodied wisdom that once was ours.

It feels to me as if this book is a huge bouquet of red roses offered lovingly to women everywhere, a gift that gives us back our history, our presence, and our existential grounding. It frees women from feeling like trespassers when we venture outside of domestic space into the realms of the arts, science, trade, education, and religion -- for the wellsprings of human culture may well have flowed red. Whatever the extent of the importance of menstrual logic in various societies, Blood, Bread, and Roses stands against its eradication from cultural history any longer.

As I was reading the manuscript, I often exclaimed to my husband, "Amazing! Listen to this!" After several days of this unsolicited crash course in the Grahnian perspective, he remarked wryly, "It seems unfair that men don't get to menstruate. Fortunately, though, some of us get to live with people who do."

Exactly so.

Charlene Spretnak           [p. xv]           >>> Preface >>