THE ancestral menstruant who crouched in a tree or on the ground in a bower of boughs, hiding from predatory teeth, was connected to darkness because her period was so often entrained with the dark of the moon. Darkness, death, fear, silence --- all remain connected in many cultures. The menstruant's many taboos not to see light also connected her to light, into which she emerged in triumph at the end of her period. Her blood was analogous as well to water, so that all water was comprehended in terms of menstrual flow, as we know from the myth of Rainbow Snake, which equates the collective sisterly vaginal snake to various waters in the sky and on the ground. The menstruant's blood flow must not mingle with the earth's "blood" flow lest Chaos, loss of consciousness in the form of a flood, annihilate human life. Her world-forming "waters" had to be separated from nature's "waters."
This separation of various liquids created them as distinct natural forms with the characteristics of the body --- bodies of water. Streams were understood as having a single source, like menstrual blood flowing from the vulva spring. Springs, pools, and mountain lakes were endowed with sacred character, dread, and taboo. To tribal people in what is now Oregon, Crater Lake was considered the most sacred spot, the center of the earth, and none but a select few were ever allowed to look upon it. (Even in modern times, Crater Lake retains a treacherous reputation.) In England, wells [p.24]
and springs still bear pagan female names such as "Maiden's Well" or "Bride's Spring."
Menstrual seclusion rite enacted the creation of the world and its elements, forming them as conscious ideas before there was language or sense of narrative enough to make them into a story; the rites themselves constituted the creation story. The menstruant was tabooed from seeing light, and then her emergence from dark seclusion was directly into the light, at dawn, thus bringing light into focus. She was separated from water, and her blood flow was believed to influence the flow of bodies of water. Her blood flow was the original comprehension of water, of water as a substance, of water as a moving force capable of causing chaos or death. Our simian ancestress began to perceive water as a mental, rather than an instinctual or strictly physical, reference. The animal perceives water primarily by smell, and though smell remained a part of the mythology of menstruation and water---in the Australian myth, the Rainbow Snake smells blood and causes a flood---gradually the sense of smell as a means of identification of water was replaced with sight, the visual perception of different kinds of water, and of bodies of water as entities, related to other kinds of water, yet distinctly themselves. These distinctions were enacted repeatedly through menstrual rite and the tabooed approaches of the menstruant toward forms of water.
The apparently simple act of separating the movement of the moon in the sky from the movement of the reflection of the moon on bodies of water must have taken millennia, perhaps hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Many myths mention light moving on the water or the separating of the waters. I once tracked the reflection of the moon across tidal inland waters far below my seat in airplane on the coast of the eastern United States. For about ten minutes, the moon was clearly and intermittently reflected, twenty or thirty thousand feet below me. The effect was startling [p. 25]
and eerie, even frightening, because I did not recognize it as the moon. I saw the light, large, sprawling, and beautiful, and kept trying to identify it as a beam from the plane or some other industrial source. "What is that light," I said to myself, finally looking up and noticing the moon in the sky. In the absence of being told by my culture that the larger, rippling light below was a reflection of the smaller more contained light above, I would never have guessed the improbable, that the smaller, stiller light was causing the larger, more fluid one --- let alone could I possibly have guessed that both are reflections of the sun.
According to many origin stories, people could not distinguish between the moon and the sun for a very long time after separating light from dark. According to the OED, the roots of the word "light" lead back to the moon, not to the sun: from the root Aryan leuk, meaning both "white" and "to shine"; also loukua, "moon"; Latin lucere, "to shine," and luna, "moon"; Old Irish luan, "moon"; Welsh llug, "light"; and Old slavic, luca, "beam of light." Both Lugh and Lucifer were old names for the god of light as connected to the moon. In the beginning, people thought all light had the same source, they saw moon and sun as the same body, an allmoon, or protomoon. They did not separate the sun into its own source with its own cycle until relatively recently --- perhaps less than ten thousand years ago.
The people of Ntomba in Zaire say that before the hero Mokele went upstream by boat and found the sun hidden in a cave, "there was no sunshine yet, there was only moonshine, and the people of Ntomba called the moon the sun!” In much of Africa, moon worship prevailed until recent centuries. People in Uganda have a myth explaining why the moon is ruler: because the moon "arrived first" before the sun did. In Genesis, light and dark were distinguished before the moon and sun were. In many myths, the moon is created long before the sun, sometimes a generation or two before. The Sumerian genealogy of creation gods lists Mammu ("great waters") and An/Ki, (sky/earth), as the first generation, followed by deities of air and reeds in the marsh. The third generation of gods includes the moon as a male and female pair, Nanna and Ningal; and not [p. 26]
until the fourth generation, is the sun, Umash, named as son of the moon couple. The moon, in this myth, gave birth to the sun. In Greek myth, too, Apollo the sun is child of Leto, the moon.
According to many creation stories, after light and dark were differentiated, the next act of perception was the separation of the waters from each other, the distinguishing of the different kinds of water, and the naming of water as an element necessary for life. Differentiation of the different kinds of water as variations of the same substance was an enormous task, but according to Genesis it had to be (was) accomplished before dry earth was established. For many, many peoples, including those of Mesopotamia who first formed biblical mythology, the sky was made of water, or was a firmament --- a bank --- that held back the water, keeping the stuff from falling all at one time. From a menstrual point of view, the “spirit of God" that moved on the waters in the Genesis myth was the all-moon, reflected in the waters on the earth and moving across the waters of the sky as a single entity, the same being making the journey over and over.
It was the menstruant who had the power to cause and, through regulating her behavior, prevent flooding:
Once upon a time [as the Toba tell]; a woman was menstruating. Her mother and sister forgot to leave drinking water for her. So she went down to the lagoon to drink. It rained until all the people were drowned. All the corpses turned into birds and flew up …… This is because Rainbow is angry when a menstruating woman goes near a lagoon.
How the woman's power was woven into ideas of spirits of water is evident in the following example from the Tiwi people of Melville Island, from information gathered by Jane C. Goodale, of rites occurring around 1950. With a girl's first blood, she achieved special status, called murinaleta, that lasted four menstrual periods.
During her first menstrual period the murinaleta is removed from general camp and makes a new camp in the bush with a number of other woman. Her companions usually include her mother, her [p. 27]
co-wives, and any other senior women in her residential group. No men are allowed in this camp … She cannot touch any water, even in a container, but must wait for someone to lift the container to her lips, for otherwise she would fall ill … She cannot look at bodies of salt or fresh water, for the maritji might be angered and come and kill her. The maritji are spirit beings who have a body like a goanna or "quiet" crocodile. There are many of these spirits, men, women, and children, and they come in many colors. Their imunka (souls) are like rainbows. A big rainbow is likely to be the imunka of a woman and child maritji. The maritji are to be treated carefully, for they can kill a person or they can cause a great "sea" to rise up and destroy the land. They live in swamps at various localities throughout the two islands, and generally, if treated with respect and caution, will not harm the local inhabitants. Menstruating and pregnant women and new-born infants, however, are considered to be very vulnerable to the dangers of the maritji and, therefore, must take extra precautions and completely avoid the homes of the maritji.
These taboos and several others such as keeping silent, not being seen by her husband, not scratching her skin apply only to the first period of menses, but . . . "a woman must observe several lesser precautions during her monthly periods." These include not going near small bodies of water, lest they dry up. She must not take long trips over salt water or the maritji will blow up a storm.
The separation of the menstruant from water while in her hut or other seclusion area was carried to meticulous extreme. In all her menstrual rites, she was not permitted to leave seclusion and go to water but drank from a special container, brought to her in her "shade" by female attendants. Some families kept menstrual drinking cups that passed from generation to generation, never used for any other purpose; others destroyed the container after each separation. In more than one tribe, the menstruant could only drink through a straw made of the wing bone of a swan. In an Eskimo tradition, the bone was that of a white-headed eagle. For other peoples, the menstruant's drinking straw had to be made from the leg bone of a crane, goose, or swan. If we think of the woman's flesh as a metaphor for earth, and the white bird as a metaphor for moon or clouds, and the water for sky, then in the very act of her [p. 28]
drinking, the straw leg bone by its own origins served to separate the two elements.
For the most part, the menstruant could not wash during seclusion, even if her rites lasted weeks, but upon her emergence she was required to wash. In some rites, her mother or other attendants came to wash her. Although I have been told there is no prohibition against swimming during menstruation, Jewish tradition retains the sense of separation between ritually clean and unclean: "Among the Jews, the medium of purification was known as 'the water of separation,' the latter term being that used in reference to the menstrual seclusion of women." Orthodox Jewish women still take the ritual end-of-menstruation bath, the mikveh.
After fire and steam were added to rites, the menstruant often could not drink cold water, it had to be warm. There are many examples of the necessity to drink only warm water in seclusions among California Indian tribes of the nineteenth century, and remnants of the older extremes remain in practice even where the seclusion rites have died out. In villages in Portugal today, menstruating women avoid cold beverages. And my own women friends have always advised me to drink warm tea during my period as a cure for cramping, and so of course I advise it also: Stay in bed, drink warm soothing tea, let your mind drift where it will. The waters, in menstrual seclusion, are effectively separated.
"Don't go swimming or get wet when you have your period," girls in my junior high in 1953 warned each other. Meanwhile, in health and hygiene classes, the instructors read pamphlets and showed films stressing the modern idea of menstruation, describing it repeatedly as "normal," and giving advice meant to undo older prohibitions held in the folk culture without directly acknowledging that they existed: "You will not be harmed by swimming during your period." The films and pamphlets showed girls swimming, playing sports, smiling, having a wonderful time, as though menstruation equaled summer vacation. Menstruation was, according to the hygiene class, a minor inconvenience easily solved with napkins. Later, tampons would compete as the product of choice for [p. 29]
the modern woman, though when they first appeared, the girls I knew all believed they weren't for virgins. They would harm us, we thought. The nature of the harm was vague; we did not know the word hymen.
My first lover, Yvonne, was three years into college and still telling me wide-eyed that a friend had died of a wasting disease years after breaking the menstrual taboo restricting activity. "She used to go swimming and even horseback riding during her period, and everyone said she would die if she kept it up, and then she did! She died because she didn't listen to the older women!" No quoting from hygiene handbooks persuaded her that the truism she had heard as a girl in the back country of New Mexico was anything but accurate advice. I don't know if the source of this taboo belief was the Spanish tradition brought to the region in the sixteenth century, local Indian belief, or a teaching of Yvonne's Polish-born mother. It could have been from any of them, given that Yvonne was repeating one of the oldest and most widely held seclusion beliefs.
As we saw from the Tiwi example, the prohibition against touching water was for the protection of the people as a whole. It marked the ability of human minds to remember, predict, and fear storms, floods, the destructive force of water, as well as its life-giving properties, which must --- by human endeavor --- be protected. It was also a reminder that rain washes out trails --- how, if instinct and smell failed, could the earliest humans find each other again, find home base, if water wiped out the trail? The terrors of flood have always been associated with Chaos.
For some peoples, the formation of earth as a solid place was the result of an ancestral "fall" from above: In the beginning there was only the spirit world. Women lived in the watery sky, and the earth did not exist. In some accounts, all the people lived in the sky and then fell to earth. In others, the women threw a loop around the [p. 30]
moon to climb on, and one who was heavily pregnant fell down to earth, and so we all must now live on earth. The world was all of a piece with few boundaries. Then the ancestress fell out of the watery sky, and her landing created solid earth and greater differentiation of the world's dimensions.
In the Iroquois version of earth creation, Falling Woman falls or is pushed through a hole in the Sky World; below her stretches an endless sea. Water birds rise to break her fall. They help her onto Turtle's back. Diving for mud, the birds heap it onto Turtle's back, and the earth is thus formed. Turtle, with its square shell and four table legs, is a metaform for earth, floating in water as does the earth in old cosmogonies.
Most peoples of the ancient world imagined earth as an island or strip of solid ground floating on the sea. Given that water and the sky are the same color, that the sky, mountains, and the moon are reflected in lakes, that waterdrops on leaves reflect and resemble the light in the sky, how did humans acquire a definition of solid earth? How, in the absence of instinct about direction, did they acquire the orientation that directed summer and winter migrations, that allowed gathering and hunting troops to find their way back to "home camp," that enabled people living near rivers that yearly overflow to seek higher ground before disaster drowned every single one? How did they express that orientation externally, so it could be remembered and passed along the generations? The Flood can be described as loss of consciousness, overwhelming mental as well as physical chaos, the quality of being "lost." The Flood myth, in all its permutations, is surely the most universal of the ancient stories.
As recently as the mid 1900s, storytellers in the Scottish Highlands had witches raising storms by means of thread and water bowls. One method of capsizing a particular ship was to put a small vessel to float in a bowl of milk or water. Through incantations the liquid was caused to whirl in a lunar direction until the little vessel capsized, and simultaneously, the big ship on the real would be capsized in a sudden storm. This alleged power of the [p. 31]
sorcerer woman is of course straight out of the menstrual hut with its containment of her flood capacity by separation of her person from water through use of special bowls and straws. According to Frazer, menstruating women were not allowed to travel in boats lest they inadvertently cause a storm. The stormy power of the individual witch, shaman, or sorceror transferred to the collective creator/destroyer goddess in narratives.
A few myths make an explicit connection between the Flood and menstruation: The Wemale people tell of the sun god Tuwale causing a great flood. His daughter Bouwa stops it by covering her vulva with a silver girdle for three days. This act (of cosmetikos) stops the flood, and since then women menstruate for three days.
Some Flood myths use the metaform of the Snake, the great external vagina who swallows bleeding women: The Wawilak Sisters of Arnhem Land, the elder one bleeding from the afterbirth and the younger one menstruating for the first time, approach a water hole owned by the female rock python, Julunggul. She smells blood and makes lightning and rain, washing some afterbirth blood into the pool. The aroused python follows the sisters to their "shade," pushes the door open, and swallows them. When she returns to her pool, she talks to the other pythons, and then the whole countryside is flooded. In another version, of the Murngin, the python Yurlunggur is male, his title being "Big Father." He smells the blood when it trickles into his pool, and as he advances toward the sisters, who sing, to keep him back, a flood precedes him.
The drama of keeping humanity safe, conscious, and in some measure of control over the elemental forces around them is made very clear in the male role of Medatia, in a myth told among tribal people in the south of Venezuela. The shaman Medatia works to restore his people's memories. The men have been killed, and the women have been stolen by the mawadi, who live in the river, taking the form of anacondas.
Then Medatia went into the waters and rapids and came to Huiio, the great snake's house where she lives with her mawadi people. We see Huiio and the mawadi as anaconda. Sometimes we see Huiio as the rainbow. She brings us rain and harvests. She also brings our [p. 32]
children sickness. Medatia found many women there and because he had wiriki, little crystals that let him "see inside, " he prompted them to remember who they really were and that they did not belong to the mawadi. The women listened, fell asleep and dreamed, and returned to their own houses on Earth. "We remember it all now," they said, "We woke up." They remembered how the mawadi came out of the rapids, made them pregnant, killed the men, and brought hurricanes destroying everything. Then another woman said, "We were gathering water in gourds by the edge of the river. I was very young. Suddenly blood started coming out. It was my first blood. The mawadi smelled it down there in their house in the water. When the blood fell in the river, they were crazy with desire. They came up from below in droves. They flooded the banks and our house. They took us down in the water."
That's why now, the men shut their women up away from the rivers and the houses when they menstruate. That's so the mawadi don't find them; so they don't take them away or flood the houses.
Rainbow Snake is aroused when menstrual water gets into lagoon water. This mixing of vital waters makes the god(dess) of synchronous consciousness, Rainbow Snake, angry. Chaos, the complete destruction of landscape and all humanity, is the result. People cannot remember where they live. Separation of the waters is essential to maintain the orientation of people to location, to dry land. Conscious memory is maintained through the separation of menstrual blood, the fundamental life water. The institution of menstrual seclusion and menstrual consciousness enabled people to recognize the distinct nature of water in its various forms, as something "other" than the element "earth."
The original covenant the people make with Snake is that menstrual blood will not get into the water; the menstruant will seclude herself and will be extremely careful about separating her body fluids, not only her blood but even the spit of her mouth, from touching water. The men, through the crossover office of shamanism, will understand the necessity for the seclusion rites by assisting in maintaining them. The Snake keeps its side of the covenant by staying in the sky clearly and safely visible as the rainbow marking the end of a storm. "You see me," Snake says by this display, "so [p. 33]
you know I am not chasing you, and you know there is no threat of flood." Human mind, with its memory, orientation, and orderly recognition of the elements, is thus held in place by proper menstrual rite, and the chaos of Flood is held at bay.
Of the great variation of flood myths from around the world, most have no direct reference to menstruation. But many include snakes and blood; many others have as main characters wilderness metaforms, such as birds, dogs, or coyotes, that are connected to menstruation in other myths. For example, in Navajo and other Native American stories, Coyote --- the originator of menstruation --- causes a flood. In South America, a dog, often a black dog, locates dry land after the flood. It comes back muddy, so the people know land is appearing again. A number of flood stories use body fluids other than blood --- urine, tears, or spit --- in a continual fine-splitting of our waters. The color red is frequently present. In one South American myth, the flood is the result of mutilating a red parrot.
In many stories, the primary characters climb trees to escape the waters or climb to the tops of mountains. While this must be in part a reference to actual behavior, the persistent myth is clearly not just about the instinct to flee water by dashing to higher ground. If it were, people would simply do the running or climbing, they would not develop rituals and stories about it. The tree stops the mental, culturally chaotic Flood because the light in the sky visible from the top of the tree can be used for orientation; or the tree is the tallest and can itself be used for orientation; or the mountain is the site of lunar or stellar rituals and observations that establish orientation. In one North American tale, a woman causes a flood and is later turned into the moon. In one of the Arnhem Land myths, the humans are rescued by the morning star --- a light body used to mark time of the night and time of the year.
According to the creation sequence in Genesis, first light and dark were differentiated and then the various kinds of water were sepa- [p. 34]
rated, so that the sky was designated as one source of water, and bodies of water below were designated as another. Thus water was “gathered into one place" and perceived, or named, as a lake, river, or lagoon. Only then did dry land appear and become designated as "earth." As backward as this sequence appears to our logical minds, it is repeated in creation myths from many cultures. Just as “dark" was comprehended first and then, through the menstrual cycle, came recognition of emerging light, "dry," or earth, could only be defined in contrast to "wet." Earth was not "grounded" as a concept until there was consciousness of water as a discrete substance, and it is to this ancient understanding that the Flood myth refers.
Although the menstruant often was placed in a pit in the earth, in other seclusion rites, she was forbidden to touch the earth. In addition to regulations concerning her relationship to light and to water, the menstruant typically had to follow taboos concerning the earth. She could not get her blood on the earth, or touch the earth: "Thus among the Negroes of Loango girls at puberty are confined in separate huts, and they may not touch the ground with any part of their bare body." Sometimes this prohibition was effected by huts or other devices that kept her raised up off the earth: “In New Ireland girls are confined for four or five years in small cages, being kept in the dark and not allowed to set foot on the ground." A hammock slung from a house top or tree was often used in South America: "When symptoms of puberty appeared on a girl for the first time, the Guaranis of Southern Brazil, on the borders of Paraguay, used to sew her up in her hammock, leaving a small opening in it to allow her to breathe. In this condition, wrapt up and shrouded like a corpse, she was kept for two or three days or so long as the symptoms lasted, and during this time she had to observe a most rigorous fast."
Sometimes not touching the earth was specified for other parts of menstrual rite besides the period of seclusion. In New Guinea, following a seclusion of five days and two months of various taboos, the emerging menstruant was carried down the household ladder on her grandmother's back. Great attention was paid to [p. 35]
keeping the menstruant's body off the earth, even if it required the labor of a number of other women to carry her from place to place on her menstrual route. In James Frazer's account of menstrual rites on the island of Mabuiag, of the Torres Straits, one or two old maternal aunts care for a girl at her menarche: She squats in a heap of bushes up to her head, in a darkened corner of the house, prohibited from seeing the sun; she comes out at night only, she may not handle food and is fed by her attendants. No man may come near her lest his fishing boat later crash. At the end of three months she is "carried down to a freshwater creek by her attendants, hanging on to their shoulders in such a way that her feet do not touch the ground, while the women of the tribe form a ring round her . . . . At the shore, she is stripped of her ornaments, and the bearers stagger with her into the creek, where they immerse her, and all the other women join in splashing water over both the girl and her bearers. When they come out of the water, one of the attendants makes a heap of grass for her charge to squat upon."
In some cultures, the "path" was specified as the area needing protection from the menstruant's dangerous blood. If a girl began to bleed while out in the countryside or village, she had to avoid the path; "Among the Zulus and kindred tribes of South Africa ... should she be overtaken by the first flow while she is in the fields, she must, after hiding in the bush, scrupulously avoid all pathways in returning home. A reason for this avoidance is assigned by the A-Kamba of British East Africa [Kenya], whose girls under similar circumstances observe the same rule. 'If,' they say, 'a stranger accidently trod on a spot of blood and then cohabited with a member of the opposite sex before the girl was better again, it is believed that she would never bear a child."' Similar beliefs were reported by many Native Americans, people of the South Pacific, and other places.
In many origin myths, the earth at first was not solid and had no landscape features. Earth when it finally appears after light, dark, and the separated waters, often begins as a bit of mud, as in Iroquois and other Native American stories of earth being piled up, a beakful at a time, by water birds or other creators. Even among [p. 36]
people long accustomed to the idea of a large, solid earth, the ground continues to move: anthropologist Marija Gimbutas in a lecture once described people of her native Lithuania believing that rocks move around of their own volition.
We of the materialist world view subscribe to a convention, agreeing to believe that the earth, and matter, are solid. Our physicists tell us otherwise, and so does the cosmology we have inherited from peoples of all regions and ages, for whom place and time are not necessarily fixed. In the absence of clock time, both place and time are relative to interactions with other beings. A mountain seen at a distance at noon when the overhead sun flattens out details seems much farther away than it does at 4 P.M. Even such immediate forms as tree leaves seem much larger when the sun's rays slant. Without fixed ideas about time, mountains "move," trees change shape, the earth "floats." Those of us who have lived around the Pacific region known as the "Rim of Fire" and other earthquake and volcano zones can more easily acknowledge the correctness of the ancestral view: the earth is not solid.
When a volcano boils lava and ash, our understanding of the earth as a solid plane melts as the mountain does, or as the giant plates beneath us do when one slides under another. When an earthquake cracks house walls and foundations, splits the earth into deep gullies, and increases the height of nearby mountains by as much as five feet, the idea of a fixed earth is shattered. I once experienced an earthquake outside, and saw the earth of my yard ripple like a horse's back shaking off a fly, so though along with everyone else I speak of "solid ground," I know the expression is an agreed-upon social illusion. From such experiences one can enter the more chaotic minds of our premythic, less materialist ancestors, who lived all their lives without perceiving the earth as solid or as categorically different from water and sky.
One of the most common regulations in menstrual seclusion rites concerns the menstruant's body. She does not touch others or their [p. 37]
property. Often, no one is allowed to touch her; more often still, she is not allowed to touch herself, not allowed to scratch her skin or her head with her fingers.
Menstrual seclusion rites suggest that the method for comprehending and establishing the earth as solid was metaformic, the transfer of understanding the outside of one's own skin as a border to understanding the surface of the earth as skin and therefore border. If the menstruant scratched her skin with her fingers like any other animal, the perception of solidity or surface would disappear. Moreover, she would bleed onto her skin, which would harm it, just as blood touching the earth would harm the earth. In many, many creation myths, the earth is female. The skin of women has long been equated with the surface of the earth, a way of remembering the principle and teaching the metaform.
The ritual perception of solid earth as skin needed a formal practice, one that established distance between finger and skin. The menstruant's nails were, and remain, recognized as instruments capable of drawing blood. In seclusion, she kept her hands away from herself and held them passively. She used a twig to touch herself instead of her finger, and later she carried an elaborately carved special stick, a scratching stick, into her seclusion.
To not touch her own body, to not scratch herself for the duration of menstrual seclusions (which in some tribes and societies could last as long as a month, even years), required great strength of mind, yet this formal practice was rigidly adhered to, and reappears frequently in menstrual rites. The discipline required for this rite alone would create a person in such control of her own body, with such mental concentration, as to give her entirely different capacities than the ape family rootstock, by now far behind her.
Besides not touching, other taboos seem designed to call extreme attention to the surface of the body. In some menarchal rites, the menstruant was lashed with a limb, or flailed with cords "to make her strong" or "to make her fertile." These whippings were not done in anger or as punishment, for otherwise the girl was treated with love and care. The Kitanemuk tribe of the southwestern United States used a particularly painful method: [p. 38]
At her first menses a girl was often lashed with nettles by her mother, then washed with hot water containing pounded estafiata (a plant species); she was also given some to drink … Then the girl ran back and forth between two rocks about 150 feet apart, chased by a woman chosen for her industriousness. Next the girl was taken to a small isolated hut constructed by her father. Here she remained for four months with an elderly kinswoman … After the period of confinement the girl was bathed by her mother, and (a number of) restrictions were ended … When her first regular menstruation occurred the girl used a specially constructed scratching stick of wood or abalone shell; she also lay face down on a bed of nettles for three days. At each subsequent menses the girl … used the scratching stick for a week. After marriage she used the stick only prior to childbirth.
Being lashed on the outside of her skin with nettles, then lying face down on a bed of them for three days, might have taught distant ancestors of these people, unforgettably, the lesson about surfaces. A clue about the reasoning behind the taboo against scratching is contained in the following example of a hunter's taboo from the South Seas: "In the island of Nias the hunters sometimes dig pits, cover them over lightly with twigs, grass, and leaves, and then drive game into them. While they are engaged in digging the pits, they have to observe a number of taboos ... [For example, while they are] in the pit they may not scratch themselves, for if they did the earth would be loosened and would collapse. " Having so carefully preserved the earth over who knows how many thousands of generations by keeping the menstruant off the earth, people approached digging with the utmost caution, lest the earth fall apart and the still tender idea of the surface of the earth unravel, merging borders again and causing the landscape itself to disappear.
The earth became conceptually solid only after many generations of surface-forming rites had been practiced and set in place. The stringent dictates of the metaformic rites involved great discipline of mind and control of instinctive impulses. Not to scratch or even touch one's head or body for three months at a time; to sit in a cramped position, never to lie down, or to be made to lie down, for weeks on end; to be enclosed in solitary confinement without [p. 39]
light or easy access to water and food --- our modern culture uses these rites as punishment, torture. They are protested when used too strictly on prisoners. Yet in another context, the context of forming culture, forming human mind, extreme and religiously understood uses of separation were the method at hand. In retrospect, they were the only possible method --- physical applications of the body in all its relations to the elements.
Using menstrual rite, r'tu, women formed analogies of their own bodies to comprehend the nature of the earth's surface. The metaphors extended to include other beings --- trees, for example, --- sticks were understood to be like human bones. Thus, in some seclusion rites, the woman could not break a stick or later her bones would break; she had to scratch with a scratching stick or her bones would break. She had the power to break both bones and ceremonial sticks just by exposing them to her body. In some American Indian customs, if a menstruating woman stepped over sticks, spears, arrows, or her husband's legs, they would break. Stones also became equated with bones, and the earth was comprehended as a body. The metaphors worked back and forth, strengthening each other and forming basic tools for using behavior to display thought and thus to gain some measure of external control of the environment.
Once --- and this must have taken many hundreds of thousands of menstrual times during many hundreds of thousands of years --- the people were able to see light, water, and earth as different elements or entities, the sky began to raise up and the world grew larger.
The ancestral menstruants endured terrible disciplines to get us here; I think this every time I remember them crouched in the dark for days or weeks, maintaining the prohibition to stay completely still, to stay silent and awake, to completely control their hands and nerves no matter how cold they were, or how hot and sweaty, no matter how frightened or angry, no matter how alone. How [p. 40]
much different modern menstrual experience is, I sometimes think. We learn in school to treat menstruation as a biological event with no cultural undertones. Yet despite all my attempts to treat them as irrelevant, my own periods ruled my life.
Even though I am determined to ignore menstruation, never keeping track of or planning for my cycles, I always know when I am about to get my period, because a night or two beforehand, I dream of blood. This dream blood, vividly red, runs from the palm of my opening hand, or pools on the floor in some otherwise unrelated scene, or spreads down someone's face onto their shirt. It is never menstrual blood, but the blood of a wound, of which I dream.
The cramps that always accompany my bleeding are violent and unforgettable, lasting three, four, even five days, and the first two days are completely incapacitating, so I must stay in bed, head under covers, pale and dull-eyed, in a stupor.
In the first hours after my period starts, I have a peculiar, distinctive, bee-buzz feeling, a metallic taste, and a heavy in-turning lethargy that is not unpleasant. During my forties, I learn to recognize this as a psychic state. It completely removes me from the busy, conscious, daily course I have been on, turns me inward where "I" do not exist. Only the menstrual state, and the pain --- “it” --- exists. My inner eyes study its dark walls in a dreamlike daze, and something seems to talk to me. Sometimes when I am forced out into the world during this time, I do not like to talk, I do not like to move fast, I can hardly get my foot to accelerate my car over thirty-five miles an hour, and I don't care very much what others think of me. I want to be alone, silent and unkempt.
On the first day, the sullen depression that has gripped me for a week or so eases, and I no longer feel worthless and paranoid. I feel foolishly optimistic. Sometimes I compulsively eat a big meal this first day, including salt, fat, meat, and beer.
The cramps wake me in the night and usually continue for eighteen hours or more if left unmedicated; seven or eight if I take pain [p. 41]
pills several at a time, swallowing a little bread with them in hopes I won't vomit them up. The cramping takes me repeatedly to the bathroom, where I clench and cry, sweat and curse, pray and make wild promises.
When the completely gripping pains pass, I begin to feel joyfully renewed and childlike. I am tired and sleep, and awake with fresh insights and perspectives, often with exact solutions to problems of both work and personal life puzzling me before my period started. Sometimes toward the end I am ecstatic, experiencing mundane reality as "freshly washed," the world renewed with colors brighter, shapes more defined, friends dearer. I come to love this sense of revitalization, zest, and vigor, though it has no social recognition, so I keep it inside, a secret power. [p.42]