IMAGES of blood are all around us, everywhere in our modern, urbanized society blood is depicted, spoken of, displayed: the blood of wound, of death and to a lesser extent birth is part of daily viewing in television and films; we are completely familiar with the bloodlines of kinship, and with the blood of violence, of murder and vengeance, of sacrifice, suffering, and of IV drug users; the blood of warning, of wounding, of threat; the danger attached to the blood of AIDS; the blood of life, of transfusions, and of redemption; the blood of Christ; the blood of martyrdom, of St. Sebastian, of the prize fighter depicted in the movies. Blood is genealogy in bloodlines, family blood, the blood that is thicker than water. Blood is in name and in common expression, in the blood of the lamb, in the blood of blood, sweat, and tears, in the blood of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, in the blood of blood brothers, the blood of the stigmata, the blood on the moon, the blood that cannot be squeezed from turnips, the blood dripping from the mouth of the vampire, the bloodstain on Lady Macbeth's hands, the blood gurgling down the shower drain in horror films. Real blood is everywhere in our society, Saturday-night blood, drive-by-shooting blood, the blood he was covered in after he was shot, or stabbed, or blown up; the pencil thin line like a necklace across her throat, the great spread of it when she was chopped up, the bloody nose, the bleeding ulcer, the sting of hemmorrhoids, the blood on the surgeon's gown and the butcher's apron, the many rivers of [p. xviii]
battle and massacre that have run with blood, the battlefield soaked, the sand reddened, the blood on the child's ear and the wife's mouth and the young man's cheek. In the cities the gutters are streaming and sidewalks pooled and car seats puddled and emergency rooms smeared and police clubs stained. When gangster John Dillinger's body fell on the street, shot by the FBI and spouting from numerous holes, passersby instantly leaped as though to a holy stream, to dip a handkerchief, newspaper, even a sleeve, into the blood of his wounds, to take a bit home with them. Blood is magic, blood is holy, and wholly riveting of our attention.
Menstrual blood is the only source of blood that is not traumatically induced. Yet in modern society, this is the most hidden blood, the one so rarely spoken of and almost never seen, except privately by women, who shut themselves in a little room to quickly and in many cases disgustedly change their pads and tampons, wrapping the bloodied cotton so it won't be seen by others, wrinkling their faces at the odor, flushing or hiding the evidence away. Blood is everywhere, and yet the one, the only, the single name it has not publicly had for many centuries, is menstrual blood. Menstrual blood, like water, just flows. Its fountain existed long before knives or flint; menstruation is the original source of blood.
Menstrual is blood's secret name. All blood is menstrual blood.
In a few months I will turn thirteen; the event I have prayed for more than a year never to happen to me will happen to me. God will not intervene to turn me into a boy at the last minute. I will be near tears as my mother fumbles her explanation and display of how to wear a sanitary pad. I cannot tell whether her troubled expression is from embarrassment, sorrow, or fear that my life will now resemble hers.
"Why, why," I wail suddenly. "Boys don't bleed, why do I have to, it isn't fair!" [p. xviii]
"So you can have babies; it happens to all women," she replies. But I know this is inaccurate, for I know that our spinster neighbors have no babies. I have discussed this at length with God, angling for a bargain. "I don't want babies, so menstruation is wasted on me," is my most excellent argument. Anyhow, why does it have to happen so many times, why not once for each baby? My outrage and disillusion burst out in whining, furious tones. "Why doesn't this happen to boys, and why" -- I look at the betraying red stuff on my fingertips -- "why is God so mean to girls?"
My mother answers with resigned logic, "Boys have to shave, boys have to go to war. It all evens out." From the age of eleven, I prayed to be turned into a boy not only to avoid menstruation but out of dread for all the apparent female biological dictates: breasts, babies, marriage. I also avoided all manner of "girl things," including jump rope, jacks and hopscotch. I associated them with restriction, declining mind, lack of expression and power in the world, and general silliness. Not for me the secrets girls began telling each other, the all-night slumber parties where, I now discover, they did amazing things, like "levitating" each other to the ceiling.
While other girls played girl games, I identified with my father's presents, a rubber snake and a hairy spider on a string, and cap guns with holsters. When I turn twelve he gives me a 22-caliber rifle and takes me shooting. "So you can protect yourself," he explains, Hand if you ever get too poor to buy food you can always take this out to the woods and shoot something to eat." A practicql Swedish-born man, raised in the rural area of Illinois of the early twentieth century, when squirrel-and-rabbit stew was regular fare.
I love all his presents, though my mother does not; the more gunlike they are, the more she hates them. But I have already decided that I don't want to be like her, so I don't care. The girls at school go through their adolescent changes together. They stop displaying either their intelligence or physical prowess; they apply cosmetics and new ways of walking; they talk of nothing but boys, to whom they are alternatingly obsequious and manipulative; they diet continually, examining each other ounce by ounce, and they [p. xix]
become a complete mystery to me. I continue as though a boy, hoping this will please the universe enough for it to give me an ungirl niche in which to live.
A few weeks after my first blood, my father brings what from the joy on his face I know he considers the most wonderful present of all. My parents sit silent in one unit as, surprised and eager, I unwrap it. What special mysterious objects could this handsome, weighty case contain? Will I open to a row of silvery exacto knives with special blades and drills for woodworking, or a longed for chemistry set, or -- dared I hope a box of engineer's tools, some calipers, a plumb bob, even a slide rule? My eager fingers slacken and nearly let the case fall as the mirror on the inside flap comes into view, and then the shining row of tubes, the soft dark brushes, the little rounds of colors, the heavier round jar marked "rouge." I am deeply humiliated.
"Oh," I say in falling tones, " oh, it's a box of cosmetics," and to my father's (and my own) hurt bafflement, I reject it.
Even while treasuring their cosmetic cases, other girls my age and from similar backgrounds went through menarchal experiences of shame and silence. Their mothers, like mine, said little or nothing to them about their menarchal passage, but for a Wintu girl of the California coastal tribes of the nineteenth century, menarche was the occasion for intense attention from her family and also from her village:
At the time of puberty, a girl notified her mother or grandmother, who then built a small brush shelter some 20 or 30 yards from the family dwelling. The girl stayed in seclusion for one to several months. The girl was not permitted to cook for herself; her diet was limited to acorn soup, prepared by the mother or grandmother. She was not supposed to leave her hut except at night. If she had to go out in the day, she covered her head with a basket or a hide. Sleep during the first five days of the first menses was forbidden, since dreams at this time were considered prejudicial to health and sanity. The girl was not to touch herself and so a head scratcher was used; this could be [p. xxi]
any twig at hand. Combing her hair was forbidden. Her cheeks were streaked with vertical lines of charcoal or red and blue pigment. During the seclusion, the elderly people gave the girl advice and instruction on her future behavior. During the period of isolation young people might sing and dance outside the adolescent's lodge at night; many of the songs were [sexual]. [In the fall a special dance to honor several girls brought groups from neighboring villages, who arrived singing and with gifts of food. The festivities lasted at least five days.] Poorer girls wore new maple bark skirts; richer ones were dressed in buckskin aprons and were laden with beads or seeds. They carried deerhoof rattles and spirally striped ceremonial staffs. (Heizer, Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 8, p. 328)
During the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, Western observers gathered hundreds of reports of attitudes toward menstruation from around the world. Many nineteenth century peoples regarded menstrual blood with extreme respect, even fear, constructing taboos to protect themselves from impurity, illness, or death. Reports from our own day range from people who show little concern about the flow (in New Guinea, a woman may sit on the porch with a little moss under her, but otherwise her period isn't noticed), to those who stage an elaborate menarchal rite as an event of crucial social importance to everyone (for example, the beautiful Kinaaldá ceremony of the Navajo), to tampax wearing Western women, for whom menstruation is no more than a biological given.
Perhaps the grandmother of the Wintu girl in early California might have told her an origin story that centered in menstruation, but no one in my family had stories for me. Such stories, if they existed, were lost centuries ago. My mother could barely say words pertaining to menstruation; she spoke them in a whisper, making certain no one else was nearby. In any case, at the time of my menarche, my parents and I were an isolated unit with none of our family near. No grandmother, no aunts, no community of women existed to give me menstrual instruction, seclusion, or to lead me into a public dance. Not that I missed this, at the time. I wanted [p.xxii]
simply to forget my new menstrual status, to get out into the exciting world to make my mark.
From 1971 through 1976 I lived in an all women's household. In the context of five years in this secular women's cloister, I discovered a terrible gap in myself and in the world, the missing Greater Feminine, missing in public life, and missing in the origin stories of history, science, art, religion, and literature.
I immersed myself in the perspectives of writers who had found remnants of the "Female Principle" in the poetry of myth and the graphics of archaeology: Elizabeth Gould Davis, Evelyn Reed, Esther Harding, Jane Ellen Harrison, H.D., Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and men like Robert Graves, Frederick Engels, Robert Briffault, James Mellaart, and Eric Neumann. I was impressed also by the courage of Anton Chiekh Diop, who spent years insisting that classical Egypt had black African origins, not the European roots stated in history texts. I thought that the contributions of women to culture could have been coopted in a similar manner.
In 1973, I embarked on my own investigation and was immediately drawn to menstruation because of its connection to the lunar cycle and to time, and because the iconography of ancient temples revealed a powerful, indisputable feminine presence. Time and orientation, I learned from Gerald S. Hawkins's measurements of Stonehenge and other ancient sites, was kept in temples; and I realized menstruation, with its connection to time, could have given us early sciences. As I researched, I wrote books that, like Hansel and Gretel's bread crumbs, lead to this one. In 1972, 1 wrote a set of female centered poems, She Who; in 1980, an article crediting menstruation with sciences of measurement, "From Sacred Blood to the Curse and Beyond"; in 1982, a myth of Helen of Troy as a "stolen" goddess, The Queen of Wands; in 1986, a lesbian version of the ancient Sumerian Descent myth of Inanna, The Queen of Swords; and in 1988, I completed a novel that ends with a menarchal rite, Mundane's World.
By 1983 1 had also turned what was originally one chapter in- [p.xxiii]
tended for this book into a Gay and Lesbian cultural history, Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. With that work, I came to understand that origin stories are incomplete (and inaccurate) unless both genders are included, and unless many different cultures are taken into account.
Over the years, in addition to reading ethnography and mythology, I talked to many women about menstruation, participated in modern versions of menstrual rite, and saw how women reacted warmly to receiving red flowers during their periods, at weekly "Gatherings" held for two years in Oakland, California, by Paula Gunn Allen, with my assistance.
During the intensive last two and a half years of writing, I stayed in virtual seclusion, wore my hair long for "flow," ate mostly red foods, drank red beer, and wore a vest of French silk with a layered pattern of red, black, purple, and gold flowers, designed by the artist Rose Frances and sewed by her and other women I love. I thought the spirits of all our ancestors gathered around to cheer me on.