Judy Grahn's Blood, Bread, and Roses previous next

Chapter 6

Cosmetikos and Women's Paraphernalia

My heart is beating hard, and even though I am alone in the room I move with stealth, head turned guiltily over one shoulder. I am for the first time opening my mother's purse, and I'm doing it in order to steal from her.

My fingers scrabble past the items that don't interest me, the shiny tube of lipstick, the comb, the compact with its perfectly round mirror and pat of face powder. The tiny container of red goop with the French name: rouge. I'm aiming my finger for the pouch within a pouch, the change purse with its silver treasure that will buy me the candy bars and soda, potato chips and subsequent acne that change my status from good child to secretive American adolescent. I am completely aware of what this one act means as I finger the quarters and dimes, my feelings gathering somewhere between defiance and grief in the growing cloak of solitude.

Only one other item of my mother's interests me: her cedar chest. The red wood gleams enticingly where it rests, tucked in the closet of my parent's tiny apartment, every inch of which I have explored and exploited, except that one place, my mother's cedar chest.

What is in my mother's cedar chest? Not much that she can talk about. She calls it her "hope" chest, half-filled with folded and boxed items she saved for and from her marriage in 1924. "What things?" I ask once when I am twelve, and her face is suddenly vague, as though she has reached into the magic hat to pull out a[p. 84]

rabbit and realized it has escaped. Lethargically she displays some doilies crocheted by my grandmother and a linen tablecloth, never used. Her wedding pictures, simple and austerely Protestant, no brilliant gown with train and veil, just a plain whitish dress. She is fiercely protective of her cedar chest, yet oddly diffident about its contents. I lose interest, and I never open it. I keep my dolls and teddy bear on top of the chest along with the dominoes. I play in my brother's engineer boots, convert my dolls from girls to boys. I practice walking with long strides, staring straight ahead, my face clear of hair, my gaze direct and fearless. I hate my mother's small-footed scuttle, how she walks always looking down at the ground, how her hands cling to each other, how ashamed she seems.

Now that I am fifty and my mother eighty-eight, her red cedar chest is the only furniture of hers that I value. I assume there must have been a long line of such chests with wedding gowns, crocheted and knitted items, embroidery, recipes perhaps --- women's things passed along a distaff line that, increasingly, forgot the origins and greater significance of their paraphernalia.

I think of other boxes and containers connected to women: Pandora's box, releasing disease and evil upon mankind; the cornucopia of Ceres spilling forth its fruits and grains; the storehouse of Inanna, in the Euphrates valley of Sumer. What were these boxes that belong to goddesses of old? What do they signify? I remember that in slang, box means "vulva." My mother has no word for vulva.

"I hated my life," she says once, furiously, suddenly. "It's been so ... dull, meaningless. Same thing day after day --- Why? Why have I had to go through it? Am I supposed to be learning some-thing?" Her outburst frightens me, her eyes are furious points of light.

"Just once," she says intensely, "I felt understood by someone. A woman passed me on the street, and she looked right at me. I felt then that she knew me, knew something about me and was telling me about myself." Her eyes tear into me, churn my innards. She grips my arm. I feel like the oracle at Delphi being consulted[p. 85]

two thousand years too late. "Do you know what she was trying to tell me?" I shrug, helpless. My mother's bread crumbs don't lead me anywhere in her forest, her Chaos.

"It's a mystery," she says then, relaxing her grip, again shining, almost translucent with light and love pouring through her. She is a bright young sparrow. She is the oracle now, her voice delivering a gift: "The whole thing is a mystery."

My mother is a mystery to me, her paranoia, her childlikeness, her whimsy, her indomitable will, her well-hidden violence, and her metaphysical revelations have all taught me that what women are is so different from what anything in our society has taught us to express.

I'm going to imagine that this --- a story of origins, woven from my need to understand her and to mend the fabric of my own life --- is what is in my cedar chest.

 Cosmetikos and Women's Paraphernalia

I try to imagine not scratching my head for a year, not touching my hair or skin, not if a mosquito bite swells, not if sweat runs down, not if ants walk on me, not if lice move in. I begin to understand one reason why so many women hate, truly hate, bugs of any kind, shuddering when they think of them.

The institution of the scratching stick must have made menstrual seclusion much more comfortable, though comfort does not seem to have been an ancestral motive. It makes me more comfortable to think of the women with scratching sticks, than without them. The sticks of women in some California Indian tribes were smooth, shaped like an elongated flat diamond, with grooved straight lines dyed black or red.[1] Others were long and narrow, a forearm with curved fingers resembling a hand, a shape we easily recognize as "fork" or "rake."

The original twig the menstruant used to touch her skin in wilderness settings became symmetrical and smooth, carved and multiple-purposed. It became the varied objects of cosmetikos --- [p. 86]

slender pins for ears or lip, long polished wooden slides and tall arched bows to hold hair in place, and to shape it into meaningful sculptures. Combs were sometimes made of fish skeletons, as well as of wood, ivory, and bone. In British Columbia, a Shuswap Indian of last century might wear her deer-bone scratcher and a comb with three points, suspended from her belt.[2] In Latin and Greek both, the word for "comb" also meant "vulva." The comb became so important to women that we are seldom without one. In former times, we were buried with them, along with containers of ochre and other cosmetics.

The Evil Eye and the Lowered Gaze

The menstruant's gaze possessed a special ability to inflict harm --- the Evil Eye. The Evil Eye can cause crops to fail, food to rot, babies to fall sick. Amulets, arm bands, and all manner of charms are still worn in many regions of rural Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, to guard against it. According to ancient texts, there was also an "Eye of Life," the bestowing of which was a blessing, recalled in such phrases as "look kindly upon" or "beneficent gaze." [3] The Evil Eye has gotten much more attention, however, especially since it was believed to be as much involuntary as voluntary, making its power that much more in need of control.

Because her gaze carried great danger to men, the menstruant often emerged from seclusion with her head bowed. She also kept her head, or at least her eyes, sometimes her entire body, covered anytime she had to walk abroad during her period. In some areas, a woman's gaze continued to carry evil potential throughout her life, and she learned to veil it, to lower her eyes --- in modesty, that essential menstrual word --- to glance sideways, and to surround her eyes with substances that hid or diverted her gaze, made it appear less direct.

All eye makeup veils the eye: eye shadows' colors divert attention from the pupil, and eyeliner puts the eye in shadow. Long lashes veil the eye best, and mascara is a method of thickening and [p. 87]

lengthening the hairs to make the veil more distinct. False eyelashes lengthen the hairs still more, the aim at times being to sweep the veil completely down over the eye onto the cheek. Middle Eastern and North African women wear silver headbands whose slender metal dangles or rows of coins cover their eyes. Peoples without metallurgy wore wooden or beaded dangles to curtain their eyes. I have seen a veil of silver over one eye, on a gorgeously red-dressed Chinese doll. In the Far East, the fan was used to hide a woman's face and eyes, and holding the fan so the eyes barely showed became part of a woman's allure.

Eye makeup has also been used to protect the eye itself. Ground malachite produces green eye shadow that discourages insects; it was highly favored in ancient Egypt. Other substances have cooling or warming effects on the eyes, such as kohl, made from various medicinal substances, including camphor, which even modern studies claim can increase clairvoyance.[4] Makeup had physiological effects that enhanced female disciplines learned in long seclusions, such as heightened psychism and intensely examined dreaming. In India and parts of Asia, cosmetics turned women's allure and conscious use of sexual knowledge into the artful science of Tantrism, which also made use of substances that caused physiological changes: "cinnabar, sandalwood powder and paste, sulphur paste, rice paste, saffron, nutmeg, turmeric, arsenic, camphor, conch shell and ashes … Particularly potent body makeup [was] made of crushed drugs such as datura [jimsonweed], marijuana, opium and other intoxicating substances mixed with fragrant oils and colored pigments. European witches used similar body makeup in some of their rites."[5] Belladonna ("beautiful lady") was used in eye makeup by Italian women in 1500. A drop or two greatly increased the size of the pupil, which encouraged the appearance of trance and perhaps also decreased the danger of a woman's intense gaze. Belladonna also can alter consciousness, though it is a deadly poison if used carelessly.[6] The female eye, then, was reshaped both to deflect and to draw attention, and to disguise the direct, focused gaze of [p. 88]

the "Evil Eye." These devices of menstrual protection formed the terms for what we now consider "her beautiful eyes."

Women and Shoes

When I was a child, not only my sister's spike heels, but all women's shoes baffled me. They seemed devilishly impractical, designed with no regard for walking or running. On Sundays, if I could escape my mother's attention, I hid my black patent leather shoes in the bushes and went barefoot. I spurned slippers, high heels, wedgies, shoes with high wooden or cork soles, or with spangles, bows, bright colors. I could tolerate dull, practical shoes, but I preferred no shoes at all, despite thorns and stickers. I couldn't imagine why the human race created shoes --- especially women's shoes.

The answer to my puzzle lies in the world-formation rites of menstruation. As was related in the Golden Bough, a Western man enticed some girls in New Ireland to leave their menstrual seclusion by offering them beads. The girls sat in cages made of broad pandanus leaves sewed together and fitted out with bamboo floors to keep them suspended above the earth. The cages were inside a room. The girls longed for the beads, but they were not allowed to put their feet on the ground. Their old woman attendant went outside to collect pieces of wood and bamboo, "which she placed on the ground, and then going to one of the girls, she helped her down and held her hand as she stepped from one piece of wood to another until she came near enough" to get the beads held out to her.[7]

 The menstruant had to put her dangerous feet on some kind of platform, to keep them off the earth. Sometimes she stood or squatted on slabs of leather, or on fiber mats. From these menstrual seclusion platforms, it was only a short step to tying the slabs to the feet with vines making portable menstrual platforms: shoes. Among the Yabim and Bukaua, when a girl at puberty is secluded for some five or six weeks in an inner part of the house "she may [p. 89]

not touch the ground with her feet; hence if she is obliged to quit the house for a short time, she is muffled up in mats and walks on two halves of a coco-nut [sic] shell, which are fastened like sandals to her feet by creeping plants."[8]

The ankh symbol of ancient Egypt, associated with the goddess Isis, may represent a sandal strap.[9] This form, a loop with a crosspiece --- similar to the symbol for female --- is an emblem of life, and it thus makes sense that it should also be connected to the sandal. The act of tying wood or leather to the foot to enable the menstruant to walk about on the earth may have had great religious significance. The wooden slabs she had stood upon in seclusion are now tied to her feet by a magical strap --- the "umbilical cord" of the plant family. The protection of the tree accompanies her as she walks, and her walk in the shoes displays the great care she is taking with her taboos, her protection of the earth, and her triumph over the forces of mental chaos. With her cosmetikos in place, she can take her clearly contained power out into the light of day.

There are many examples of the use of high-heeled or high-soled shoes in formal ceremonial wear. The costume of an aristocratic Chinese woman of several centuries ago included high wooden shoes that raised her entire body by about a foot. I have seen a large doll from Zaire, clearly menstrual in character, painted bright shiny red, with black hair fixed in five neat rows, black eyebrows and nipples, and black high-soled shoes that, if she were a real person, would lift her six or seven inches off the earth. High heels, then, are a display of formal female beauty, and for some peoples the higher the shoes, the more beautiful. The array of female shoes in markets and stores retains the great variety of forms and materials that have descended to us from ancestral inspirations.

According to the Dogon creation myths, the first shoes were iron, because iron is the color of shade and cooling to the earth. These were too clumsy, however, so thereafter shoes were made of leather from a sacred bellows, which is also cooling.[10] Interestingly, the evil queen in the European fairytale "Snow White" also wears iron shoes; at the very end of the story, she dances in a hot fire. Red [p. 90]

dancing shoes and silver slippers are also part of European folklore. In the West, the female shoe thus has sexual and mythic significance. The slipper and high heel have both been compared to the vulva, and both have been the objects of male sexual "worship" in the sense of extreme attention. The shoe entered the mythic realm, and an aura of magic follows cobblers in many old tales.

Hats, Hoods, and Gloves

Because of the widespread menstrual taboo against seeing light, early woman had to devise ways to protect the sun and moon from her gaze. Perhaps the hat was fashioned as a ritual piece of clothing that would enable the menstruant to leave her seclusion but to ease her aching bladder and bowels. Hats also allowed her to go outside for other purposes, such as gathering herbs. She would have been an eerie figure, wandering the woods at night, silent, her body shrouded from view: "At the dusk of the evening she left the hut and wandered about all night, but she returned before the sun rose. Before she quitted the hut at nightfall to roam abroad, she painted her face and put on a mask of fir-branches, and in her hand, as she walked, she carried a basket-rattle to frighten ghosts, and guard herself from evil.”[11]

Some girls wore pliant tree limbs wrapped around their heads, but many other materials and shapes came to be used. The hat, a word so similar to "hut," was often shaped like a hut and called a "hood." A young Haida woman of the Queen Charlotte Islands, at menarche and for as long as six months afterward, "was bound to wear a peculiar cloak or hood made of cedar-bark, nearly conical in shape and reaching down below the breast, but open before the face."[12] Hoods were also worn by women following childbirth on the northwest coast of New Guinea: the new mother cannot leave the house for months, and when she does "she must cover her head with a hood or mat; for if the sun were to shine upon her, it is thought that one of her male relations would die."[13] A cap with a fringe veil was worn among the Tinneh women in British Columbia [p. 91]

during their seclusion: "They wear a skull-cap made of skin to fit very tight; this is never taken off" until menarche ceases. They also "wear a strip of black paint about one inch wide across their eyes, and wear a fringe of shells, bones, etc., hanging down from their foreheads to below their eyes; and this is never taken off till the second monthly period arrives and ceases, when the nearest male relative makes a feast."[14] Besides skull caps, hats, and hoods, a menstruant might wear a mask: "Among the Lower Lillooets, the girl's mask was often made of goat-skin, covering her head, neck, shoulders and breast, and leaving only a narrow opening from the brow to the chin."[15]

The menstruant might shroud her entire body in a blanket or in a long robe and hood; or she might cover her head with a basket or a hat with long flaps.[16] In Asia hats were conical and often woven of plant fibers, and sometimes long enough to reach a woman's waist. Many Native American women daily wore caps woven of plant fibers, beautifully dyed or beaded in geometric designs. In Africa, women swathed their heads in cloth; and in the Middle East, women wore the fez, a cap made of sheep's wool, dyed red. Cloth to veil the face and upper body could be attached to the fez, along with protective jewelry.

It is evident that many motives, as well as materials, formed the hat --- and all were related to menstrual rite. Women created hat designs specific to purposes: to keep from scratching, a woven cap; to keep the sun off, a wide brim; to prevent moonlight or firelight striking, a full body hood; to keep one's glance from men, material that could be drawn across the face; to protect the wearer herself, a fringed veil that distracted "evil spirits." A woman might also cover her hat with significant metaforms --- all kinds and colors of veil, quills, feathers, shells, beads, and so on --- to number her children, name her place of birth, her station, to identify her position as a widow or bride.

The menstruant's hands, like her head, also had to be covered. Particularly dangerous because she was so likely to touch her own [p. 92]

blood, her hands were used to signal her state. Her palms might be painted with henna, and her nails with shiny red stain. In some seclusions, the menstruant's hands were covered with protective material. In the Roro and Mekeo districts of New Guinea, taboo demanded that a "woman who is menstruating must wrap her hands in a cloth when handling gourds"[17]. In the Tsetsaut tribe of British Columbia, a girl at puberty shielded her hands from fire and sunlight with mittens, and in the Tinneh tribe, during seclusion “she [slept] with all her clothes on, even her mittens."[18] Protective coverings of the hands must have been an intricate part of many early menstrual rites, and the association can still be seen in this recent account by a woman in Los Angeles:

My great-grandmother's generation in Jamaica believed that sitting on the ground during menstruation would cause hemorrhoids. A woman couldn't walk barefoot during that time or she would be infertile; she must not bathe or touch water. Menstruation was a woman's thing, so the men had to keep away. When my greatgrandmother bled, other women in the family rubbed special oil made from herbs on her stomach and wrapped her abdomen in a white towel. She had to lie down for the entire time, and wear white gloves.[19]

How Jackal Created the Fiber Skirt

The primary motive for dress appears to have been shame. Shame, consciousness of the consequence of one's acts, and of the volatile nature of one's body, is so closely related to menstruation that the Hebrew word for "menstrual cloth" (bos; in related Akkadian, baas-tam) also carries the meaning "shame" or "shameful." The Sumerian word tes, "fitting modesty," is the root. The more culture and cosmogony accrued to the menstrual office, the more shame also accumulated, and the more responsible the menstruant felt for terrible events great and small. In the Garden of Eden it was the Snake of menstrual synchrony and instruction that gave Adam and [p. 93]

Eve the knowledge of their nakedness and caused them to take up the covering of fitting modesty and the veil of self-control and protection. After the Snake gave them the knowledge of consequences, the man and woman dressed their genitalia with fig leaves.

By using a navel string or vine metaform as a belt, the menstruant could hold a veil over her vulva and prevent a world-deforming accident, like a drop of blood accidentally spilling on the ground. The apron, loincloth, or skirt shielded the vulva, became a door saying, "Stop. Think." The significance of the skirt in the language of cosmetikos comes through in a Dogon myth, related by their philosopher Ogotemmeli, in which a fiber skirt becomes the first Word. The ancestor Water Spirits, the Nummo, whose lower bodies are shaped like serpents, looked down and saw that Earth was naked and speechless. Earth was in this shameful state because she let her son, the jackal, mate with her (through her red ant mound vulva). The Nummo wished the Earth to cover her shame and gave her a skirt of plaited fiber, dyed blood red. The skirt prevented jackal from mating with her again.[20] In other words, her skirt triggered menstrual consciousness of the harm brought by incest. The menstrual synchrony of women, in cooperation with men, might thus have established exogamy. The health and diversity of the genetic pool could be increased by turning heterosexual relations outward, away from the immediate family. The red fiber skirt in Ogotemmeli's account was at one time a religious object for public ceremonial use; as he told it, long ago the red skirt fibers were laid across the red ant mound to dry, a public display of the religio-sexual principles. From this central place of deified wilderness metaform, the skirt migrated to the men's tradition. Men began to wear the red fiber skirts ceremonially, and to say that they were "being women" when they did so, joking about the connection to menstrual blood.[21]

The second Word of the Dogon was also a woman's garment; it began as a sound and went on to be the first woven cloth skirt: The women were talking to each other and then the men joined in, and the sound became a helix that wound through the female body and [p. 94]

wrapped protectively around the womb. After the fibers were taken from the women, they made the first woven garment, a woman's loincloth that covered the body from navel to knees. For the Dogon, the woman's mouth is a weaving implement, and understood to be the source of thread. That spinning and weaving originated in the women's tradition is reflected in the Dogon cosmetikos: a woman wears a gold loop through her lower lip to recall the first thread, a copper stud in the center of her lower lip as the bobbin of the thread, four studs on the sides of her nose as the stakes of the loom, with its pivotal axis represented in the pendants of bead, suspended from her septum. Women file their teeth because they were the first warp used to separate thread for weaving, and the ceremonial warp is associated with the ant mound.[22] The cosmetikos of ornament is speech, and as we have seen, the Dogon consider a woman who is unadorned to be speechless. A man will be more attracted to an adorned, than to an unadorned, woman, no matter what other features she has. Speech, then, in its ceremonial definition is any display that communicates shared understandings for the protection of the whole. Word is the manifestation of shared consciousness, cosmetikos, enabling women to display and men to comprehend and reflect, with their own ornamentation, what menstruation has taught them.

Like the watery red fibers of the first skirt, the many objects used to decorate ritual coverings would also have been chosen metaformically. Wide use was made of shells resembling the vulva, and of shiny wet-looking red-brown nuts, bark, and seeds resembling menstrual blood. A skirt densely sewn with red-brown pinon nuts gives the appearance of blood droplets cascading down the front of the wearer. Red woodpecker feathers were also a favored metaform on maiden's hats and dresses on the North American continent. Dress developed before cloth as the women began gathering lunar objects to themselves, and as men brought them objects with sacred meaning from a tabooed or otherwise sacred place, such the sea, or from a nest at the top of a tall pine. Many such objects appear to have been chosen because they had lunar color, shape, [p. 95]

and luminescence: sea shells, eggs, abalone shell, pearls, and horn. For some, perhaps many, peoples, white sea shells also indicated sacred semen.

A woman used her magical umbilical string to wear these elements around her waist, and to attach them to her daughter's body at the end of menarche, to mark her as "the moon" itself, renewed after her three-day period. The obsidian blades that had slashed blood from human flesh could now be used to shape natural forms into lunar forms, to drill round holes, to curve the edges. Before growing a single strand of cotton or having yet attained the loom, women dressed themselves in stunning and gorgeous array with fundamental metaforms gathered from the wilderness around them, helping them to categorize and name its elements.

As cloth and leather came into use, they were endowed with the attributes of female skin and acquired sacred status. Whatever became the prominent dress, the long tapering pegs of smooth wood and bone or geometric plugs that had been for uncounted generations inserted into the menstruant's flesh became the pins, buttons, hooks, and ties that held the "skin" of her clothing together. These fastenings, too, for a long time, retained the older sacred meanings in their newer practical use .[23]

Woman had been sewing her own flesh together so long, embedding long tapered pins in the tops of her ears and loops in her lips and nose; making holes in her own flesh for quills and feathers and little grooved plugs with wide ends that wouldn't slide out. She had the shapes and most of the function; she simply had to transfer the body arts outward to the new surfaces. Cosmetikos gradually grated off the body's skin and onto the parallel skins to create hat we now consider "clothing." Woman stepped out of seclusion style; she was style. She was the human mind, fashioned and on display.

Utensils: In the kitchen of the Ancestress

Wrapped in her sense of poverty, I grew up imagining my mother didn't own much. She had a few dresses, sometimes very few in- [p. 96]

deed, and a threadbare rug under the two stuffed livingroom chairs in which she and her husband sat, each in their own, king and queen of the world's tiniest kingdom. She had maybe forty dishes in her small kitchen, if you count lemonade pitcher, the finer glasses and stack of rose-rimmed plates left of her wedding gifts, used exclusively for holiday meals. She had remnants of heavy good silverware mixed with cheap, a kettle, a couple of aluminum pots, and a more-favored stainless steel one. Her cast iron skillet fried everything from savory potatoes and onions to meats, eggs, and pancakes.

In the corner of the silverware drawer was tucked a package of paper straws, which were for me. Sipping soda through a straw was a courtship rite for my mother's generation and a must-do for adolescents of my generation. But straws were becoming a children's, not a woman's, artifact. When I left home and trained as a medical laboratory technician, I worked in the hematology lab, using straws again in the form of glass pipettes (now obsolete, I hear). These straws were calibrated for close measurements of small amounts of fluid, releasing a single drop at a time-chemical and body fluids, especially blood. But these calibrated straws were never associated with those in my mother's kitchen, rather they were credited to the imaginations of men, scientific men. And when I once suggested to my physician boss that laboratory procedures were versions of recipes, I was nearly fired on the spot.

If the generations could be traced back far enough along my mother's line, we would find ancestresses who owned far fewer dishes than she. But the number doesn't matter, only the form and function that were created in the menstrual rites --- of bowls and plates, forks, spoons, straws, and the whole formality of dining and cooking, of sitting in chairs with a rug underfoot.

If the person of the emergent menstruant was draped and coiffed in growing numbers of cultural objects, inside her but significant metaforms were also accumulating. The woman's hands during menstruation and childbirth were so dangerous because she might have blood on them. She not only could not feed others, she could [p. 97]

not even feed herself with them. This led to ingenious and distinctly human solutions.

Because she could not touch her food with her fingers she used a long stick to maneuver food to her lips.[24] Since two sticks do a better job, after a while she began using an early version of chopsticks. In other areas of the world, the wooden stick developed teeth and became a fork. If she used a mussel shell to drink water instead of cupping it in her hands, the shell needed only a handle attached to become a spoon. Chinese ceramic soup spoons of today very much resemble the elongated boat shape of a mussel shell.

Because she could not touch food with her dangerous hands she had to develop plates, cups, and bowls, and at first these were simple wilderness items: "Among the Bribri Indians of Costa Rica a menstruous woman is regarded as unclean. The only plates she may use for her food are banana leaves, which, when she has done with them, she throws away in some sequestered spot; for were a cow to find and eat them, it would waste away. And she drinks out of a special vessel for a like reason: if any one drank out of the same cup after her, he would surely die."[25] In other areas, her food was handed to her on a piece of wood or a square of leather. She began to acquire "stuff": among the Maidu Indians of California, where menarchal seclusion lasted five days, "she had a basket, plate, and cup for her own use, and a stick with which to scratch her head." [26]

In some places, as we have seen, her plate and bowl and eating sticks were kept exclusively for her use, but in others her utensils had to be destroyed after each seclusion.[27] This meant that women would constantly be on the lookout for any object in nature that might serve as a cup or bowl to bring water to a menstrual or birthing relative. Anything that would carry water would have become highly valued. Gourds, strong leaves, hollow wood or stone, a wad of grass lined with pitch. Out of the demands of their own world-forming taboos, women would have learned to plait grasses tightly enough to make a basket waterproof. [p. 98]

Chair and Rug

Among the plaited objects in the menstruant's hut, one of the first may have been her rug. Since she was forbidden to touch the ground with any part of her body, leaves were spread for her, banana leaves, broad pandanus leaves, pine boughs, or bark.[28] Later the floor covering would be woven or fitted together --- mats, sticks of bamboo, slats of wood. From this practice, it seems reasonable to suppose, people may have developed the habit of putting wooden floors in their houses.

During her seclusions she would have also acquired the wooden chair and stool as a matter of course, because her vulva could not touch the earth: "Among the Yabim and Bukaua, two neighbouring and kindred tribes on the coast of Northern New Guinea, a girl at puberty is secluded for some five or six weeks in an inner part of the house; but she may not sit on the floor, lest her uncleanliness should cleave to it, so a log of wood is placed for her to squat on."[29] The menstruant squatted on special materials that kept her safely raised: slabs of wood, slabs of leather, woven mats, and in clothmaking cultures, pillows. Rachel, in Genesis, sat upon a special “camel chair" seat to menstruate.[30]

The menstruant was propped up with logs or branches on three sides and underneath, to keep her contained and to keep her from lying down or from falling asleep. This form of her sitting body, outlined in wood, needed only to have its parts lashed together to become what we know as a chair. Men of course acquired the right to sit in chairs, just as they acquired clothing. My father and mother each had a designated chair, and they rarely sat anywhere else; chairs now belong to both genders. But as with all cosmetikos, the ideology for and the source of the form chair belong to the menstrual seclusion rites.

From the nakedness of the primal ancestress in her elemental hut, to the menstruant's emergence in full public ceremony at the end of her seclusion, women enacted and communicated fundamental mysteries by dressing in metaforms. The menstruant's para- [p. 99]

phernalia piled up around her --- her bowls, her straws, her mats, and her plates. They were hers alone; no one else could use them without being harmed. If she didn't break them, they had to be stored in special places, kept away from others in what would eventually become trunks, boxes, baskets, closets, cupboards --- and my mother's red cedar chest. Her utensils would be carefully wrapped and cleaned, kept, like her, in the dark. She would become the one with the overflowing purse, the trunks of clothing, the hatboxes, the rolls of rugs and blankets, and the shelves of household "goods" that formed the basis, not only for family and village life, but for all technological measurement. The woman would carry her paraphernalia with her. She would become the gender who --- around the world --- carries the largest burdens. [p.100]