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Chapter 1

How Menstruation Created the World

THE menstrual rites reported in the nineteenth century often seem cruel to us: girls had to sit in one position for days, even weeks; they ate in a strange manner, and sometimes were tied up and "smoked" in hammocks or underwent other ordeals. Some of the chroniclers of these practices, including James Frazer, who collected voluminous material for The Golden Bough, were horrified at what they saw as gross mistreatment of young women; they saw the rites as a form of punishment. Yet these elaborate, strict, and bizarre seeming rites are full of information about how menstruation has formed human character, shaped who we are, how we behave toward each other, how we hold our bodies as we walk about on the earth, and how we came to use the idea and word "earth."

I, too, was initially horrified at the extremity of some of the accounts, and at first I imagined that men had imposed a brutal system on helpless young women. But writing in 1927, in The Mothers, Robert Briffault had a different interpretation: "The terms in which many of our accounts are couched are calculated to suggest that those observances are imposed upon the women by the brutal tyranny and ignorant superstition of the men but . . . the women, in carrying out their arduous duties, never do so under compulsion, even where the men are most tyrannical . . . women, it appears from most accounts, segregate themselves of their own accord; they [p.3]

isolate themselves without consulting the men; they warn the latter not to approach them." [1]

Later, as anthropologists learned tribal languages and asked more penetrating questions, and as the twentieth-century feminist movement encouraged women to speak and write themselves, other stories emerged, suggesting that some women saw menstrual seclusion as a welcome rest from chores and a pleasant way to spend time with female companions, to drink tea together and talk. Anthropologists like Jane C. Goodale and Margaret Mead reported detailed menarchal ceremonies that were connected to weddings and to training young women in sacred lore, weaving, cooking, and caring for their families and communities. [2]

During the 1970s I struggled to find what contributions women had made to the development of science and culture. I realized that the wealth of material on taboo gathered by James Frazer and Robert Briffault made a completely new kind of sense if I looked at the female origins of the power of blood. I had begun my theorizing in the early 1970s with the argument that menstruation -- because of its relation to the moon -- was the most likely earliest source of the sciences of geometry, mathematics, and formal measurement. [3] Later, as I considered menstrual seclusion rites and other menstrual practices in terms of origin stories, I began to see that menstruation was a possible source, not only for science, but for everything that makes us human. I began to wonder what the contradictory information about seclusion rites and other menstrual practices might look like if we considered that women, not men, established them? I took the perspective that people institute rites for rational, not irrational, purposes, and that in all probability each gender created its own rites. It followed that women's logic must lie at the base of menstrual rituals.

As a poet, I understand myth as a form of factual story --- provided we comprehend something of its context, its probable intent, and perhaps what its tellers consider "true." Social myths can deeply affect the viewpoint of both history and anthropology. In this examination of cultural roots, I treat myths, anthropological [p.4]

reports, personal memories and observations, historic accounts, and creation stories as equally valid sources of information from which to construct a pan human mythology, a menstrual origin story. Conscientious tracing of sources is one of the cornerstones both of good science and of good mythology, and I have been careful to retain sources so accounts can be checked in their original contexts.

One word recurs again and again in stories of menstrual ritual: taboo. The word comes from Polynesian tapua, meaning both "sacred" and "menstruation," in the sense, as some traditions say, of "the woman's friend. " [4] Besides sacred, taboo also means forbidden, valuable, wonderful, magic, terrible, frightening, and immutable law. Taboo is the emphatic use of imperatives, yes or no, you must or you must not. Taboo draws attention, strong attention, and is in and of itself a language for ideas and customs.

The taboos surrounding menstruation were restrictive laws carried out sometimes to the point of death. The exacting demands reveal the deep power with which believers endowed menstruation, with its close connections to life and death. Western reports say that tribal men were sometimes so frightened of female blood as to believe that a single drop could kill them, that even the gaze of a menstruating woman could mean death, that if her hands touched their weapons they would come to great harm on the hunt. But it is not only in the nineteenth century accounts of tribal peoples that we find menstruation hedged with rules. The word "regulation" is linked to menstruation in European languages in the same way "taboo" is in Polynesian (though without also meaning "sacred"). In German, menstruation is Regel, in French regle, and in Spanish las reglas. All these words mean "measure" or "rule" as well as "menstruation" and are cognate with the terms regulate, regal, regalia, and rex (king). In Latin, regula means "rule." These terms thus connect menstruation to orderliness, ceremony, law, leadership, royalty, and measurement.

Ritual, from Sanskrit r'tu, is any act of magic toward a purpose. Rita, means a proper course. Ri, meaning birth, is the root of red, [p.5]

pronounced "reed" in Old English and still in some modern English accents (New Zealand). R'tu means menstrual, suggesting that ritual began as menstrual acts. The root of r'tu is in "arithmetic" and "rhythm"; I hear it also in "art,” “'theater," and perhaps in "root" as well. The Sanskrit term is still alive in India, where goddess worship continues to keep r'tu alive in its menstrual senses; r'tu also refers to special acts of heterosexual intercourse immediately following menstruation, and also to specific times of year. [5]

While in Latin menses, meaning "month," means the menstrual flow, in Scottish mense meant "propriety, grace." The family of words that revolves around the English word "menstruation" includes mental, memory, meditation, mensurate, commensurate, meter, mother, mana, magnetic, mead, maniac, man, and menstruation's twin, moon.

Of old, before people thought of human generation in terms of seed and egg, many cultures believed the fetus was formed in the womb by the clotting of menstrual blood. For a multitude of peoples, menstrual blood was the primary life force, the generative principle. In birth rites, which are often similar to menstrual rites, it is the blood that is central to the restrictions; birth rites too are blood rites. Clearly menstruation is related to beginnings, and in trying to see how it is related to our cultural as well as our biological beginnings, I began to think of what differentiates us from animals. Differences that seem fundamental are two: the way we menstruate and that we externalize our ideas in language and significant material decoration and objects -- in our external culture.

Our simian relatives menstruate; other animals show a bit of blood as part of their ovulatory cycle, too. Like our distant cousin apes, we are in and out of "heat," or estrus, throughout the year, rather than undergoing one period of rut in the fall as the bear and deer do, or two or three periods of estrus as mice, dogs, and cats do. Sexual connection is thus constant and keeps our species in face to face tension all year round. [p.6]

According to anthropologist Chris Knight, the menstrual cycle of primates varies greatly, some species having a seven day cycle, while others go all the way to thirty nine days. Only the rhesus macaque, at a twenty nine day cycle, is close to the human pattern. Only the human cycle, at twenty nine and a half days, coincides with the cycle of the moon. [6]

Unlike the estrus of any other primates, then, human menstruation is linked to a single, large, visible, external body. The onset of human menstruation can be measured by a cycle outside itself, and once that connection was realized, it was used to articulate other connections. Humans have a fundamental and unique tool of external internal measurement in the synchronization of the menstrual cycle and the lunar cycle.

In considering menstruation as female power, in contemplating creation stories and the uniqueness of the human capacity for elaborating culture, I fashioned a new myth of origin, based at once in the body, the mind, and the spirit.

Creation Stories

Origin stories remember a time before anything was, a time that consisted entirely of darkness, of water, of endless space, or of flatness without landscape; a time before name, before consciousness; a time described as asleep, or dreaming, or by the Greek word chaos, meaning "yawning."

For the Tsimshian Indians of North America, as for many pe oples, in the beginning "the whole world was covered with darkness. [7] For the Hopi people of the American Southwest, in the beginning of the First World was Tokpela, "Endless Space." "But first, they say, there was only the Creator, Taiowa. All else was endless space. There was no beginning and no end, no time, no shape, no life. Just an immeasurable void that had its beginning and end, time, shape, and life in the mind of Taiowa the Creator." [8]

For the ancient Greeks, creation began with the separation of [p.7]

Earth and Sky. This version of the Greek creation myth, from Euripides, is specified as having been handed down from the female lineage:

  this is not my story
but one my mother tells

once Sky and Earth were one
then they split in        two

father and mother of all

brought into light
fish in the sea
race of living men [9]

According to Hesiod, "First of all there came Chaos, /and after him came/Gaia of the broad breast . . ." [10]

Creation was a matter of awakening for peoples of Australia: "The aborigines believe that, even before there was any life, the earth had always existed as a flat, featureless plain, extending on all sides to the edge of the universe. At some ill defined period, poetically known as the 'Dream time,' giant semi human beings, resembling animals in their appearance but acting like men and women, rose miraculously out of the level plains under which they had been slumbering for countless ages. As these mythical beings wandered over the countryside, they created the topography: the sea coasts, the swamp lands, the rivers and the mountain ranges." [11]

In the ancient Babylonian account of creation, nothing could be until it had a name; once named, it existed:

Long since, when above the heaven had not been named,
when the earth beneath (still) bore no name,
when the ocean (apsu), the primeval, the generator of them, and
the originator (?) Tiamat, who brought forth them both ---
their waters were mingled together. [12] [p.8]

In this version, dated by scholarly agreement to the early part of the second millennium B.C.E.; though the story itself must reach back much further, to a beginning of human consciousness, heaven and earth are imagined as "waters" mingling in an undifferentiated state. The images of heaven and earth, of the originator goddess, Tiamat, and of Apsu (apsu), her male mate, constantly overlap. Tiamat mingles her waters with the primal ocean. She herself has been identified as the ocean, as "bitter waters," that is, salty waters, menstrual fluids. Apsu, the Abyss, is the "sweet waters," that is, semen. Tiamat has also been called "the Great Watery Abyss." [13]

As "bitter waters," Tiamat describes the salty nature of menstrual blood carried to its greatest earthly denominator, the sea. She is the Red Sea; the Arab name for the eastern shore of the Red Sea is Tihamat. She has been called "Ocean of Blood." Tiamat is menstruation externalized, a complex metaphor about the nature of the earth and other elements. In Egypt, she was Temu or Te Mut, oldest of deities. In Greek, her name is "Goddess Mother," in Latin dia mater. She is measurement/mother/originator by means of dia, two; that is to say, she is creation through separation. Her name is Diameter, horizon, the line that separates heaven and earth, sky and ocean. [14]

The idea of Tiamat as original water occurs in the creation story in Genesis, chapter 1, as tehom, "the deep." This creation story is believed to have its roots in the older, Babylonian version.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. [15]

Chaos and Consciousness

When I first began reading these origin stories, I thought of Chaos as a real geological time. The stories seemed to describe the beginnings [p.9]

of the earth and its features, of the sun, moon, and the galaxies, in short, those bodies of energy and mass that at some point in geological time did not exist. However, it began to dawn on me (there's the metaphor) that the idea of Chaos is also a description of human, or more accurately, prehuman, consciousness.

At one time, our ancestral apes could not see the landscape of the earth, could not recognize the sun and moon, had no name for water. The ancient stories recall a time when our prehuman ancestors could not perceive shape, color, light, depth, distance, as we do, and had no names for them and no fixed sense of their qualities. This state of being, which we call "nature," rules from inside the animal body; emotions, physiological states, estrus, and mating simply happen, they are not up for question, examination, or rearrangement. Seasons change and fur turns white or brown; the animal is moved from within to interaction with life around it, without externalizing much imagery beyond what (considerable amount) the body conveys through gesture, smell, or sound. Although the inner animal life has its own order, its own integration with the whole, its own rationalism, we rely so much on our culture that the preconscious state before our ancestors learned to think outside themselves was a state we now call Chaos, and greatly fear.

When we fall out of external mind as adults, mental and emotional confusion catch us in a whirlpool of broken boundaries and inexpressable emotion, chiefly terror. Autistic children, who fall to hook onto human culture, live in a frightening place before naming. Children never taught to speak may growl, grunt, and scream, but they say no words. Language must be taught; differentiation -- of shape, of color, of day from night, sun from moon, land from water, up from down -- must be taught.

The process of learning is a process of separation, and most of the major creation stories describe a change of consciousness through separation. The god, or originating principle, is not heaven, earth, or light itself. The originating principle "creates" heaven, earth, light, and dark by separating them, or as some [p.10]

myths describe, the first beings "emerge" from darkness or from a lower world. The act of separating is the act of creation, and also of consciousness, of understanding the imagery, of mental connection.

But how were those connections first made? While myths capture verbally principles of human existence, human actions are the source of those principles, human actions that lead to human comprehension. A myth merely holds the information in a verbal memory; tens of thousands of years of repeated actions may go into the making of a single line of its story. Fortunately human actions from times prior to ours have been recorded in ethnography, especially in those accounts gathered before Christianization and other religious and moral views (including feminism) required and enabled an end to some of the more dramatic ritual practices of humankind. Disciplined separation is clearly a major factor of human culture, and the most complex and fundamental separation practice is that of first menstruation, or as it is more formally termed, menarche.

Separating Dark from Light

Menstrual seclusion rites as recorded over the last few centuries typically include three basic taboos: the menstruating woman must not see light, she must not touch water, and she must not touch the earth. Since these same elements are differentiated in Genesis and other creation stories, I began to see how menstrual rites might have "created the world" for ancient peoples, and to wonder whether the sleepers who awoke and saw landscape, who named the elements, who separated the above from the below, and darkness from light, were informed by rites of seclusion that specified these very elements, singled them out for attention through tapua, sacred law of "the woman's friend."

Human perception began, many creation stories say, when we could distinguish between light and dark. That distant ancestral eyes didn't have the perception of this distinction is easier to [p.11]

comprehend (how could they not see light?) if we remember that until very recently a person could walk for weeks in dense forest without seeing the sky as more than fragments of glitter through a maze of moving leaves. Not only the equatorial girdle, but much of the Northern Hemisphere was covered with dense forest in the age immediately preceding our own; even the stark sand of the Sahara is believed to have once been forested.

In many parts of a dense forest, light never reaches the ground; it "lives" scattered in the trees, and in constant motion. A band of primates, held to a small forested area by predators and the need for leafy food, lived in a small world, one that didn't need to know the original sources of water or light, merely the keen inner senses to locate water and see with light. For it isn't that the remote ancestors didn't see light, but they saw with light, as naturally as breathing. They did not see light as outside of themselves, as having a distinct source, a single place from whence it emanated. They had no origin story of light. Once externalized light was recognized by someone, was perceived as a separate entity, how could she retain and remember it, given that prehumans by definition had no language, no marking system, nothing that we call physical culture. How could they establish noninstinctual knowledge outside of their own bodies? How did we acquire orderly minds of external measurement?

Anthropologists currently believe that the oldest continuous religion on earth is among Australian aborigines, who have a deity named Rainbow Snake. According to legend, two sisters, the Wawilak Sisters, were the first to be swallowed by the Snake. This happened on the occasion when the older sister was giving birth; the younger sister began to dance while they waited for the afterbirth, and suddenly she began her first blood flow. At this instant, the Snake came out of the waterhole, and wrapped itself around both of them and their newborn child. Chris Knight has hypothesized that the Rainbow Snake, coming from the womb of the waterhole, and said to "swallow" a woman when she menstruates, is based in [p.12]

menstrual synchrony, evidently so central to these people that "men trual blood of three women" is a topic of women's cats-cradle games, and most rituals include "menstrual" flows. [16]

Acquiring an externally based mind required early humans to connect to something outside of themselves as a frame of reference, to connect physically; and this was accomplished when the females evolved a menstrual cycle capable of synchronous rhythm, or entrainment. Entrainment is the quality of two similarly timed beats to link up and become synchronized in each other's presence. Non-digital clocks behave this way, and so do drums. [17] This quality of interactive rhythm, being not mechanical, applies as well to the periodicity of menstruation. As has been demonstrated by women volunteers and observers, menstrual periods are highly affected by the environment. Periods are easily disrupted by changes of light, travel through time zones, and severe exercise or dietary deprivation. Menstruation is a malleable cycle, but menstrual periodicity is also able to entrain; women living together and in similar circumstances will often spontaneously synchronize their periods with each other and evidently with any light source that imitates the moon's dark and light cycles. Menstruation has been disrupted by the urban environment, with its irregular lighting. [18] The flexibility of menstrual cycles, their ability to entrain to another regular rhythm, gave ancestral females the inner tool to entrain with other females enough to notice the commonality of blood flow, and to entrain with the moon closely enough to notice it as a source of light and to differentiate its effect from darkness.

This unique cycle in correspondence with the cycles of an outside body, the waxing and waning of the moon far beyond the surface of the earth, taught humans to see from outside of their animal bodies, and to display that knowledge externally, in physical culture The menstrual mind became externalized because females were forced to teach its perspective to members of the family who did not menstruate. Males, in learning the pattern, greatly extended it, rearranged it, demonstrated their comprehension one [p.13]

further step, and mirrored back to the females: an ongoing dance of mind between the genders. The consequences of the menstrual/lunar correspondence is what has divided us, for good and ill, from the other animals. Unlike our simian relatives, unlike any other creature, humans use external measurement, the gift of menstruation. We have a lunar/menstrual lever that enables us to move our senses back and forth between the subjective and the objective, and to embody our ideas in external form.

When during the hundreds of thousands of times the ancestral prehumans secluded themselves during what was at least some of the time a collective menstruation at the dark of the moon, they noticed that the light was also hiding. They may also have come to notice that the light at times (dawn) was the same color as their blood. While they were menstruating, they noticed darkness was different from light. Darkness thus had a source: menstruation. At the end of each menstruation, they "created" light when they emerged from darkness, from hiding. And to continue its remembrance and to reinforce the principle, they began emerging from seclusion exactly at dawn, emerging "Into the light." They synchronized with darkness and light. And because of the back and forth road that is cause and effect, since menstruation "created" light as it "created" dark, so it could also destroy them. The menstruant, especially at menarche, was not allowed to look at light -- lest in her condition she destroy it, allowing her society to fall back into Chaos. Menstrual separation was the first step to differentiating light from darkness, and of displaying and remembering the knowledge.

Perhaps this is part of the memory kept alive by seclusion rites recorded in the nineteenth century, which almost universally included a prohibition against seeing light:

Among the Indians of California a girl at her first menstruation was thought to be possessed of a particular degree of supernatural power, and this was not always regarded as entirely defiling or malevolent. Often, however, there was a strong feeling of the power of evil inherent in her condition. Not only was she secluded from her family and [p.14]

the community, but an attempt was made to seclude the world from her. One of the injunctions most strongly laid upon her was not to look about her. She kept her head bowed and was forbidden to see the world and the sun. Some tribes covered her with a blanket. [19]

Among many tribes, the menstruant could not see the moon or the sun and had to be covered even when she left the hut at night. In particular, her head and eyes had to be shielded from the great lights in the sky.

How terrifying the first ventures into separation must have been, for at the very beginning of the changes from primate to human, archaeologically dated at around four and a half million years ago, there were no words to describe the vision. Wordlessly, a more conscious female pulled her sisters into seclusion with her. Wordlessly, they pushed their daughters into seclusion at the first sign of their blood. Wordlessly, they sat in the moonless night and "saw" darkness as a different state than light. They named it with the act of separation. They "saw" that when anyone menstruating was absent from the group, so was the night light. In this seeing, they perceived light and dark as different states. They saw that light, like the menstruant, separates, and then emerges.

With the act of sitting together in the dark, the early women entered a new world of consciousness. Their minds became "human" through an externalized vision that had as yet and perhaps for millennia to come no other expression than menstrual separation, the creation of consciousness by distinguishing menstruation from other activities. This separation endowed both menstruation and light with power, the power of memory and first cause, the power of rite to create human mind and culture.

The fundamental connection between separation and creation comes through in languages that developed much later, in the word “sacred," which means "set apart" (it also means "curse"), and in the word "sabbath," or sabbat, which can be translated as “the divider." The ancient European religion of the goddess Diana celebrated four separations, or Sabbats, as divisions of the year. Wherever the ancient cult of Diana was extant, its votaries met    [p.15]

four times a year to celebrate the mysteries of their faith, and these gatherings, which were known as Sabbats or Sabbaths, were the very heart of their existence as a corporate society. " [20]

The original meaning of the Sabbath can be understood as "menstrual separation," particularly as related to the new moon. As the seventh day, it is also "the day of rest" of the Genesis creation story, which took place in seven days --- so each week is a re creation of the Beginning. The number of days of menstrual seclusion is specified for Hebrew women in Leviticus 15:19, and it is seven. Menstrual seclusion is implied as well in the Babylonian creation myth, the oldest one known, which lists in its sixth line, after descriptions of Tiamat and Apsu, a special kind of sacred reed hut, the giparu, which I take to be a menstrual seclusion hut . [21]

When the ancestress of four and a half million years ago separated in the earliest Sabbats, she stepped out of Chaos, and across a terrifying abyss of mind. What makes the Abyss so ominous is that to enter human mind we step out of the security of instinct, the net of animal mind, and enter the frail social construct of a rite, which is only held in place externally and accessed through cultural memory and repetition. The farther we get from inner knowledge, the more dependent on the external mind we become. The Abyss yawned before those who did not keep the separation, for in their newfound understanding they established a principle correspondence: without menstrual separation, there was no light. Menstrual seclusion rites continually created light and separated it from dark. Without menstrual separation and the emphasis taboo placed on the seeing of light, the idea of light having a source would have flickered and gone out. And probably, many times, it did.

By using tapua, women were able to hold the thought still, to capture the perception of the source of light, emphasize its importance, and teach it. Every time a girl began her period for the first time, she separated and was not allowed to see light. Then at the end of her bleeding, she emerged into the light. "After a girl emerges from seclusion, the ... women take her around and show her the earth, bodies of water, flowers, trees -- as though she is see-   [p.16]

ing them for the first time. " [22] In this way, seclusion reenacts the original awakening of human consciousness.

In a typical seclusion, on the occasion of her first menstruation, which is called "entrance into the shade," or Chol Mlop, a Khmer girl in Cambodia was secluded in a darkened, curtained-off section of the house; she was forbidden to look upon men and allowed to go outdoors only in the dark night. The "shade" lasted several months, sometimes as long as a year, and during this time she learned skills of weaving and basketmaking. The end of her cloistering, called "coming out of the shade," featured a feast with relatives and friends, who made offerings to ancestors and spirits, as well as a number of rites similar to those for weddings [23]

Separate huts were often built so that the initiates could not see light: "Among the Yaracares, an Indian tribe of Bolivia, at the eastern foot of the Andes, when a girl perceives the signs of puberty, her father constructs a little hut of palm leaves near the house." [24] "When a Hindu maiden reaches maturity she is kept in a dark room for four days, and is forbidden to see the sun .... Similarly among the Parivarams of Madura, when a girl attains to puberty she is kept for sixteen days in a hut, which is guarded at night by her relations. " [25]

Menstrual seclusion rites reenacted their own discoveries, returning women back along a path of unraveling time, to the chaotic mind before light was seen. Menstrual seclusion accomplished this by a simple taboo: the menstruant was not allowed to see light. On the North American continent, she had to cover her head with a deerskin before going outdoors and was shut away in a dark place for days, even weeks, at a time; in Southeast Asia, she might have been wrapped in a hammock or shut up in a little hut or a square of mats or she had to lie down in the dark part of a house for days and nights on end. Silence often accompanied the cloistering; she could not speak, or she could not speak above a whisper, or her name could not be spoken during the sacred time -- as though she was returning deliberately to a preconscious state.

The reasons given for this and the other menstrual taboos were   [p.17]

that harm would come to the menstruant; she would sicken or die, her bones would break, she would become infertile. But some peoples held taboos in which the menstruant's destructive power affected all life and even the features of the landscape. If a woman broke taboo, not only would she herself be harmed, but harm would come to others, to her family, her village. Her eyes had special power; she could not look at others or they would sicken. She could not drop blood on the path, for someone might step on it and later die or be infertile. She had to avoid talking to her husband or touching his weapons lest harm befall him in the hunt; she was forbidden to cross the path of a hunting party. She was sexually dangerous, harm would come to any partner's genitals, and person, so she could not have sex. If she failed to keep her taboos, her community would no longer thrive. Thus, she could not look at the sky or the planets. Nor could she gaze at bodies of water, for fear of causing a flood; if she were to look at trees and plants, they would wither. She had to protect the sources of water, so she could not look at the pond, or it would dry up. Her glance would cause the village cows to sicken and die, or their milk to dry up; it caused crops to wither in the fields. She had, in her blood rites taken as a whole, complete power over all that humans depend on for their lives, all we had deciphered about the universe -- for, as I have argued, it was menstrual consciousness that first created all these elements. And so many of the rites involved silence, as though they were laid down during the long eras before speech, when action alone did the creating.

Hers was the power of raveling and of unraveling since what consciousness (spirit, mystery, and mind) gives us, it can also take back. And the power of creation and destruction, as at one time evidently all humanity believed, was in the woman's blood.

Metaphor and Metaform

As a poet, I work with the power of metaphor and with its mechanics, and I have long been aware that metaphor isn't just a   [p.18]

method of description. Some metaphors are so powerful they become translated into physical form. If a poem emphatically states (with believable graphic details) that a woman is a rattlesnake, some of the power of the "snake" to strike in its own behalf is transferred to the cultural idea "woman." A metaphor is a figure of speech using measurement, comparison, for the purpose of transferring power; in this example the power of a real rattlesnake may be assumed by a real woman. If repeated use of this snake poem leads a woman to take a self defense class, for example, she then converts the poetic metaphor into a form. In the class she may even learn to strike two fingers in her attacker's eyes "like a snake's fangs." In a different context, a chanted poem using the metaphor of a woman as a snake might accompany a dance in which a young woman learns to twine her arms, legs, and trunk in sinewy "snake" movements; perhaps she also wears the tail of a rattler as a bracelet that makes a rhythmic sound as she dances. In both cases, the women are altering their own bodies in ways that originate with real beings, rattlesnakes.

Historically human culture, as we shall see, has used such creatures for all kinds of purposes. In examining the power of verbal metaphor, I began to see that we surround ourselves with living, interacting, physically embodied metaphors. And in tracing the use of such physical forms as comparisons, as measurement, I found that remarkable numbers of everyday objects, artifacts, creatures, and human cultural habits can be traced back, through mythology and anthropology, to a single element of measurement: menstruation. My search for women's contribution to science and culture has thus intersected with my poetic explorations of how metaphor translates into genuine cultural power.

Our menstrual-minded ancestress stepped out of her excellent net of animal intelligence into the potentially chaotic external mind, the mind unique to human beings. The human mind uses metaphoric imagery, what I call "external measurement." Our originators could not have stepped across the Abyss without simultaneously finding a way to hold the first few ideas in place, since   [p.19]

they disappear in the absence of culture. Neither instinct nor the central nervous system store such imagery. It has to be externalized, and it is fragile. It has to be taught; and to be taught, it has to be remembered. This required techniques resembling metaphor but much more extreme; the metaphor somehow had to be actualized, acted out in the physical.

Our ancestresses taught via menstrual instruction, through rituals that embodied ideas based on menstrual information. I call this metaform, specifically, an act or form of instruction that makes a connection between menstruation and a mental principle. At first I thought to call the forms that menstruation creates menstruaforms, but that seemed too narrow a word for what I mean. I chose metaform instead, meaning a physical embodiment of metaphor in which menstruation is one part of the equation. Meta means among, with, after, and also change, and I like its implication of transformative measurement: measured form, metaform. I also like the sense of a super or panvision, as in metaphysics, though I don't mean "beyond the physical." A metaform is an idea that translates into physical form, and conversely, it is also the physical form that embodies or "holds" an idea, with menstruation as its source. My broadest (and ultimately unprovable) premise is that all metaphor, all measurement, and all cultural forms, could they be traced back far enough, would lead us to menstruation and menstrual rite.

If -- as we are told in a multitude of creation stories -- the act that enabled the human mind to emerge from Chaos was an act of separation, then menstrual seclusion rites are repeated separations consisting of metaforms that contain creation stories.

Chaos is forgetting learned metaphoric patterns, forgetting metaformic instruction. And since our original millions of-years ago ancestress presumably was completely of the animal world, she could take only one step out of that fully developed order, only one step at a time away from the network of animal interactions that maintained the pattern of her life, and of her family's life. She had as yet no language, no poetry, no drawing, no masks or music with   [p.20]

which to convey her first external insight. She had only the intelligence of her own body and its actions; she had only her blood, and its peculiar entrainment with the moon. And when she secluded herself in imitation of the moon, she externalized the metaphoric connection.

We now think in metaphors, and we think with metaphors, as molds into which we pour the stuff of everyday experience. But we get these metaphoric molds, these metaforms, not from blind imagination, but from our very specific and historic interactions with the external and internal physical world, remembered through rites and ceremonies handed down to us -- by now, through dozens of channels. The original metaforms were set in place millions of years before humans had speech, and they were based in the synchrony inherent in the menstrual cycle, as well as in the ability of the primate mind to think in terms of mimicry and metaphor.

Metaphor itself is a form of synchronicity, measuring the inner with the outer. Metaphor says that one thing is another; it says they are entrained through repetition of pattern. Metaphor measures through comparison. The recognition of similarity and dissimilarity of category between elements is how we think, and the external expression of this recognition is what makes us human. The transformation of such an idea into a metaform, an external expression of the synchronization of two patterns, is what enables human communication. Metaform transforms one thing into another, endowing two unlike things with equality of power, in our minds.

As biological science tells us, though the animals continue to evolve, the interactions, skills, and intelligence of nonhuman beings appears to have achieved ecological balance -- a sustainable economy. Their nonhuman minds appear to be perfect for what they set out to do. What disrupts this ecological balance are the extreme actions of humankind; consequently, we appear in our ways of being to be unfinished -- still struggling mightily, especially with ourselves. We differ from the animal mind, from what Western biology calls "instinct," in that animal minds are almost entirely   [p.21]

inner. Though we still have instincts, cultural teachings and misteachings can completely disrupt them. We have become dependent on our external minds.

We have constructed our minds externally, not abstractly, but through using physical metaphors -- metaforms -- that embody a comparison to a menstrually based idea. Two good examples of metaforms are the chair and the hut. These forms are so culturally ingrained that virtually any adult stranded at length in the wilderness could construct, from memory, a rude hut and some version of a chair. As we shall see, both "chair" and "hut" are rooted in menstrual rite.

Metaforms are physical, mental, and also spiritual. By spirit I mean that metaforms at times "speak" to us in some fashion, and people understand this communication as a dialogue with a nonhuman intelligent spirit, or deity, as messages from the mind of the cosmos. Nonmaterialist peoples have had terms that combine all three spheres, for example the Maori word aria, meaning a spirit that enters -- say, a snake -- and conveys a message to humans . [26] The Bible and other mythology refer to speaking huts, walls, and thrones; rocks, plants, and animals speak to tribal and psychic folk; and psychiatrists work with the divinatory nature of dreams, whose images speak to us of our deepest comprehensions of life. My contention is that the central unit of measurement, the ultimate metaphor, to which all metaforms refer, is blood.

To help sort through the varieties of metaform, I have divided them into four categories, corresponding to the ways human society has remembered, taught, and acted out menstrual principles. Logically, the first of these seems to have been wilderness metaform: the use of creatures, formations, and elements of nature to describe menstrual ideas. The second is cosmetic metaform, for which the Greek word cosmetikos seems appropriate, with its dual meanings of "a sense of harmony and order" and "one skilled in adorning," from cosmos, meaning both "ornament" and "the universe as a well ordered whole." Expanding on this, I use cosmetic metaform to mean the ordering of the world through descriptive    [p.22]

use of human body action, artful movement, shape, ornament and decoration, and even ingestion of meaningful foods. Third is narrative metaform, based in language, sound, number, and story, which came about as people imagined themselves and their originators to be characters in a life cycle. Fourth is material metaform, characteristic of our current civilization: the separation of spirit from matter, and the use of earth's being to craft products into forms expressive of current external ideas.    [p. 23]

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