Chapter 8

Parallel Menstruations

M E N S T R U A L rites, once established, gave us methods for comprehending other events --- birth, illness, death, even murder --- as art of the order of human life. These events were marked by their own sets of rituals, rituals that identified their essential nature as parallel menstruations. (I use the term here in a broad sense --- one that does, however, encompass many of the individual male initiation and blood rites described in chapter 3). Menstrual cycles, then, gave human life an origin story, a shape, a philosophic meaning, and commonly understood methods of dealing with loss and illness.

Enactment of r'tu expanded memory and cognitive ability as it expanded the human diet and range. R'tu enabled the sisterly cooperation and dietary control women needed to successfully bear larger-brained babies. R'tu braided the mental, physical, and spiritual together in ever-expanding spirals of cultural expression. We thus led ourselves along the course of our evolution by enacting consciousness.

Birthing was certainly one part of that story, as the myth of the Wawilak Sisters shows us: the elder sister had just given birth when her younger sister began her first bleeding and Rainbow Snake emerged to wrap them together. It was their mutual blood that tied the mental knot. The prerequisite for human mind was an external reference so compelling it would catapult the mind outside of itself. The prerequisite for cosmetikos was ritual built around a substance [p. 123]

considered so volatile it forced us to learn to handle it with fantastic care, and so fundamental that it defined everything of importance to us.

If birth and nursing were the center of the human mind, the same would surely be true for other primates as well, and they too would have somehow externalized their respect for nurturing and the power to bring new life into the world. Taboos all over the world indicate that in childbirth rites the point of awe and fear was women's blood, not the birth or baby, so that a woman who miscarried was just as feared as a woman who delivered a live child, and for that reason birth rites developed restrictions parallel to menstrual rites.[1] Menarche was sometimes elaborately attended with public celebrations when birth was barely ritualized. In places where birth was tabooed, the taboos were identical to those of menstruation: no eating meat, salt, or grease, no looking at light or touching water or food, no combing of hair, and so on. Women attended each other at this time, developing the office of midwife --- literally, "middle weaver."

As the synchrony myth of the Wawilak Sisters shows, blood really began to sing to women when they recognized the metaphoric connection between menstrual blood and birth blood, as they did when the younger sister began to menstruate while looking at her elder sister giving birth, as they both waited for the afterbirth to be expelled. Blood rites in every sense created birth rites.

Death Rites and Menstruation

It has been said that women's blood was held in awe and terror because men saw that "she bled and did not die." But women bleed and do die, and men, animals --- everything with blood --- can bleed and not die. Death was "created" as an event in metaformic consciousness. The menstruant's entrainment with the moon's cycle or growth, fullness, descent, and renewal eventually gave us our idea, of life "cycle." The moon "dies" and so do we. The moon's "death" is three days, three days was frequently the duration of [p. 124]

formal menstrual seclusion, and three is everywhere and frequently connected to death --- from funeral rites that include the number three to the folk belief that three is an unlucky number to Jesus' "death" in the tomb for three days.

Menstrual rite, with its recognition of beginnings and endings, gave us many of the specifics of our mourning habits. The wild dogs such prime actors in stories of menstruation and origins, are also connected very directly to how we deal with death. The long-ago ancestress was silent and still, hiding in her tree from predators. The silence of the menstrual hut embodied an escape from death as well as contemplation of its mysteries. Silence and stillness often accompany death rites. If menstruation gave us the external consciousness of death, we might expect funeral rites --- recognition of the state of being "dead" --- to be accompanied by a show of blood. And in fact, one of the most common practices of mourning has been the ritual cutting of the face and body, especially by women.

Coyote created menstruation and death for the Miwok people of California; in a dance for the dead the women wailed, wept, and danced crazily, with their hair hanging in their faces and blood coming from their mouths.[2] The Crow woman Pretty Shield described the nineteenth-century mourning practices of her people, which included slashing the arms, legs, and head until they were covered with blood:

Ahh, how the women used to mourn! Their blood-covered faces come to me yet. They sadden me, sometimes. How often, when I was a little girl, I covered my head with a robe and cried when I heard them wailing alone on the hills. I knew, even then, that some day I should mourn, and that like them I should feel myself to be alone on the world.[3]

Ancient Sumerian texts describe a woman mourning by slashing her mouth, her eyes, and her vulva.[4]

A woman bleeding in mourning rites suggests that death was seen as a form of menstruation, an unraveling into Chaos that will [p. 125]

end with a renewal of emergence on the other side. The connection is spelled out quite clearly in the Dogon myth, which we have examined in several contexts, that identifies the red ant mound both as Earth's menstruating vulva and as the place the dead enter the underworld. Many peoples painted their dead with red ochre mixed with grease; and while some curled them into a fetal position as though anticipating their "rebirth," others placed them in resting or sitting positions that more closely resemble the posture of the secluded menstruants. A cone-shaped grave excavated in northern Yugoslavia (c. 6000 B.C.E.) contained the remains of a person who had been placed in an upright position, with lowered head, seated cross-legged on a triangle of red limestone.[5]

Mourning rites often included other elements besides bleeding that were common in menarchal rites, such as fasting, not combing the hair, veiling the face, going into seclusion for three days, wearing an arm band, sitting very still. Some peoples invoked silence taboos; some never spoke the name of the deceased again. Many of the survivors wore ragged clothing, didn't wash, and were forbidden to eat meat for as much as a year, at the end of which they were ritually bathed, dressed in new clothing, and specially fed in a public ceremony.[6] Old women were often the corpse handlers and grave diggers. Sometimes specially designated people handled the dead and were declared ritually unclean, "untouchable," exactly as if they were menstruating.

There are suggestions in rites and myths alike that humans learned the specifics of death by performing sacrifice, that we learned about death by performing collective murder (understood as sacred), often in a menstrual context. In a Tiwi menarchal ceremony an older female friend would weep and then "kill" the menstruant by striking her with a vine, which she then bound as a mourning band on the menstruant's arm. In Tiwi weddings, the new husband and male relatives of the young woman would pretend to kill her by striking her shoulders with round white feather balls.[7]

In mythology, Coyote and his relatives appear again and again [p. 126]

in connection with mourning. The sounds many mourners traditionally and sometimes very loudly make --- wailing and sobbing --- are imitative of the howls of wild dogs. Even in modern societies, where death rites have become more reticent, we continue to associate the howling of dogs with death and sorrow. Some peoples beat a dog to make it howl when a member of the family died; others killed dogs as part of mourning rites; Athapascan groups, the Wintu, Southern Valley Yokuts, and the Gabrielino all sacrificed a dog, sometimes the deceased's own, after a death. Among the Gabrielino the protective nature of the sacrifice is evident, for "often dogs would be buried over the body."[8] Dogs appear in much underworld mythology, no doubt as a direct consequence of such ritual sacrifice. Predators first drew our attention to menstruation and then we killed them to enact our developing ideas, as we turned them into metaforms of death.

Illness and Menstruation

If the human comprehension of death is metaformic, our approach to illness and healing is equally part of the menstrual mind. Shamans and other tribal healers were often women; some think originally all healers were women. Their power was great, for theirs was a religious and a medical role. (I am reminded that the symbol for doctoring in Western society is a staff with serpents entwined on it --- Snake again.) Healers in American tribal settings were often "sucking doctors," curing an illness by slashing the patient with a knife or thorn and then sucking the blood to remove the "cause" of the illness in the form of a bone fragment or other small object. Their medicinal bundles, besides such instruments as red and black painted wands to direct body energies, and mortar and pestle to grind herbs and crystals, contained obsidian blades for bloodletting.

Bloodletting has been a common treatment for illness throughout history and in many cultures, including our own. The Dyak sorceresses of southeastern Borneo would "sometimes slash the body of a sick man with sharp knives in order ... to allow the [p. 127]

demon of disease to escape through the cuts."[9] The drawing of blood was part of a great many tribal healing practices even when the person was not ill. As mentioned earlier, men on the Amazon River cut the backs of their thighs as a method of hygenic refreshment, to prevent illness. In the practices of African animism, Caribbean Yoruba, or Mexican Santeria, small animals, doves, or roosters are made to bleed in order to effect a cure. Whatever its source, blood is something everywhere associated with illness and with healing.

The shamanic arts were particularly important for the spread of human culture to men, for the shamanic office could be taught across the genders. Boys were sometimes singled out as young children, and often they were boys who could identify with femaleness, who were ceremonially homosexual, or who cross-dressed or developed a separate, ungendered dress for their office.[10]

Like the menstruant, the shaman had the power of death as well as of life. Though healing and officiating at difficult births and at ceremonies, including menarche, was a major part of their work, some tribal shamans served the special office of "poisoner" and could be hired to kill someone. They were understandably held in terror and likely to be assassinated themselves.[11] In China, though ordinary women were not believed to have the "special ability to unleash the destructive power of their menstrual discharge," menstrual blood was recognized as "a powerful component of sorcerer's potions." Knowledge of its use was the province of "ritual experts, available for hire by men and women alike."[12] Though of course substances we would identify as poisonous and fatal --- certain mushrooms, say, or arsenic­are part of herbal knowledge that has come down to us through the world's shamans, the poisoner's arts stem from the same source and logic as the menstrual r'tu itself. That is, since menstrual blood created life, consciousness, and prosperity, it also could take them away. Menstrual seclusion rite provided a concept of murder, for all the menstruant ever had to do was break her taboos in order to endanger or end the life of another. No mechanical weapon can compare with the power [p. 128]

to kill by breaking a rule; the power to destroy a whole family or tribe simply by running down to the stream at the wrong time, by touching your head when you should not. For some peoples, the menstruant had what might be considered divine powers: she could cause flood or famine; she could make the sun vanish or the sky fall.

Illness was often blamed on the breaking of taboos. The menstrual mind wove a fragile net around human society, held in place by the specified behavior of each member, and any breach of the fabric of law caused illness. [13] "Medicine" is in fact in the word group related to "menstruation." In tribal societies, medicine is any object, substance, or action that influences spirit. That is to say, medicine adjusts the patient through its ritual use of metaform. Breaking taboo causes imbalance and, subsequently, the dark moon, illness, death, disintegration. Tribal cures --- bleeding, for example --- can be said to have reestablished the patient's relationship to the essential rhythms of life defined by menstruation. One does not need to argue that this was always understood in a conscious way for the associations to have been effective.

As a way to restore balance in one who was ill, many healing rituals reenacted the cycles that make us human: having the patient enter the shade, bringing him or her back into a formed world, reuniting him or her with the community. Healings imitate seclusion rites: there is bloodletting, fasting, food taboos, special washing and dressing, silent meditation, tending by family, cloistering away from others and from light, perhaps a sweat bath or sing with drumming and chanting. In a Navajo healing, the medicine man might make a pollen path from the back of the hogan to the eastern door, a path the patient follows at dawn after an all-night chant --- emerging into the light exactly as a maiden does at the end of her seclusion in Kinaaldá, the menstrual rite of Blessingway.[14]

Healing amulets, like the shaman's medicine bundle, have magic in part because they have metaformic meaning. They come from creatures or other beings related to the origin story of the people, who enact its cosmetikos in their use. The mixture of objects is [p. 129]

sacred and full of spirit because it derives from the logic of world-ordering metaforms. The patient is reconnected to his or her original place in the world.

Much tribal medicine has used potions or powders composed of wilderness metaforms: horn, sticky red berries, leaves from sacred trees, water from sacred ponds, bear claws, snake blood. The amulet of a Dogon woman, worn around her neck in a little leather box, contains significant wilderness metaforms --- the beak of a maribou stork and hairs from a hyena or elephant tail --- having magical qualities.[15] Amulets of amber (tree sap/menstruation) were also highly valued among tribal peoples.

Just as people could die from breaking menstrual taboo, they could die from finding in their houses packets containing ingredients that included menstrual blood or parallel versions of it. A poisonous packet, a tseuheur, used by Moroccon witches, caused great terror in the 1930s: one packet contained menstrual blood, pubic hair, newt's eyes, antimony, rusty ink, seven pebbles, seven large pod seeds, and seven fragments of mirror. The packet had been hidden in a house in order to bring about the deaths of the inhabitants.[16]

Medicine of Native Americans has included such metaformic ingredients as pebbles taken from a red ant mound, portions of snakes, powdered crescent-shaped objects, and red berries. European wisewomen and folk healers of one or two centuries ago used similar ingredients, all based in menstrual origins. It is as though all medicine began as metaforms and then expanded out to include other kinds of substances and reasonings. To the extent that the remedies suit our current metaforms, tribal uses of hundreds of local herbs for very specific ailments have passed into modern pharmacology. My point is not to say that ancient remedies based in menstrual imagery didn't "work" ­obviously, they did --- and this was because they were congruent with the metaformic "philosophy" of the era. (In our own era, medicine is based in materialist principles, and being metaformically congruent with our world view, the cure "works.") [p. 130]

Just as the keeping or breaking of taboos caused well-being or bad fortune among those who believed in them, so could the cosmetikos of medicine, good and bad. The potions, actions, and words of witches were feared in all tribal societies, and for the same reasons menstrual blood itself was feared, for its power over the human mind and hence over health and life. The meaning of healing is "wholeness," an idea comprehended by healers of the distant past, who guided the patient through the forces of chaos to the most sacred aspects of their shared culture. This is a complex idea, to see illness as part of a cycle leading to possible death, and to intervene with a parallel menstrual journey to the wholeness of renewal.

Much of current culture still connects menstruation to illness. The period is still called a "sickness," a "curse," though modern science struggles to free us of this obsolete idea. But at base, all our ideas and treatment of illnesses are menstrual. All blood is menstrual blood, including the blood we shed to heal.

Hunting and Taboo

Recent archaeological evidence from southwestern France suggests that men and women may once have lived separately and eaten totally differently, the women and children eating primarily roots and plants, the men eating primarily flesh. Although the two groups in the French site seem to have camped right next to each other, the males apparently did not share their hunting kills with the females and children. [17] " The question of why Neanderthal males did not share their hunt with the women is not the only issue. Given that plants, roots, insects, and small creatures gathered by women provided a good living, why did males undertake the risk and effort of hunting, especially if the end product was not an economic contribution to the women and children of the tribe?

I would argue that men began to follow the hunt because it drew blood. In the hunt they could create complex parallel rites that enabled them to handle the dangerous substance of blood and to [p. 131]

keep pace with its world-forming capacities. The hunt gave men chances to learn the same skills of cooperation and discipline that women were developing with menstrual and birth rites. In hunting seclusions men, too, could entrain with light, sky and earth, bodies of water, and other elements of the natural world. As the nature of the hunt forced them further away from camp, human range would have expanded and the men became the ones who traveled most widely and gained knowledge of strange places. They would extend human mind far out into the world.

But while the men attached themselves to bloodier and bloodier hunts, women tabooed themselves from red meat. Like their own blood, it held the danger of drawing predators. It seems unlikely that, in the absence of fire, much red meat would be welcome to females with children. Wild dogs could be brought to a frenzy by the smell of blood and would find any weakness in the band. Once they had control of fire, hunting men and gathering women could camp near each other, and women could share meat that was "purified" by fire and roasted free of blood. Woman kept her taboos about red meat, however. Some women in North America avoided meat during pregnancy out of their very practical desire to keep the developing fetus small, to avoid complications or death in childbirth. Others in India believe that meat triggers the "dragon power" that "burns" women, a metaphor for hormonal response.

In Blood Relations, Chris Knight argues that menstrual taboos were instituted by women as a "sex strike" at the dark of the moon, which became menstrual seclusion. Protohuman females, he thinks, directed male attention to meat­gathering for them and their children, in exchange for guaranteed sex. Females wanted and needed meat, and harnessing powerful males to the task of sharing their kills with their mates diverted them from the more wasteful system of fighting over female sexual attention. His theory is very interesting and his work has many valuable insights, but the sole focus on the exchange of meat for sex seems far too singular and materialist. Around the world, women's cooking has shown not [p. 132]

nearly the emphasis on meat that was true for men's --- from the mammoth-hunters of Europe to the buffalo-hunting tribes on the plains of North America. Meat-eating, originally important to men because it connected them to menstrual mental life, is something women were likely to have controlled because of its effects on their own bodies, not solely as part of a collective sex-strike to gain more protein.

I am five years old, and my teenage brother works in the butcher shop of a huge department store in Chicago, where we live. One Saturday night, he brings home a Porterhouse steak, and the ensuing meal is a ceremonial occasion for the whole family, and especially for my hunting-oriented father.

What I remember about the meal is the way the meat was cooked. My mother and sister demanded their portions be small and very well done, without a trace of pink moisture showing. They covered their thin leathery pieces with black pepper. In contrast, and with much proud noise, my father and brother had their thick pieces rare, barely seared, with red blood running over the plate. I was offered no piece of my own, as both sides competed for my favor. And though I ate bites from all contributors, I loudly announced my preference for the rare meat, understanding this to be a moment of public gender identification: I was going to be a boy when I grew up.

What strikes me now about the incident are the subtle expressions of horror the women expressed about eating red meat, blood, and the proud relish of the men toward the same bloody substance. My father felt similarly on the subject of hunting; he schemed and waited decades for the opportunity to go deer hunting. He talked about it, read magazines every month about it, polished his rifles, sanded their stocks, oiled their barrels, collected ammunitions and boots, leather jackets and jackknives. Finally, when he was fifty-six, he had the opportunity to go hunting for two weeks, in the mountains of the Southwest. When he returned empty-handed I [p. 133]

thought he would be horribly depressed, but he wasn't. The company of men, the long preparations, the trek itself constituted "the hunt" and had given him something he valued.

Hunters worldwide have kept taboos that are precise imitations of those that developed in the world-forming rites of menstruation. In the eagle hunt of the Hidatsa Indians, the hunters would separate from the rest of the tribe and build a small lodge for special ceremonies, which no woman could enter. They would fast each day until midnight, rise at dawn, speak to no one, and look at no one except for the other secluded hunters. Those who caught nothing wouldn't sleep at all, but spent the night in lamentation and prayer. These rites were performed for four days and four nights, lest "the captive eagle get one of his claws loose and tear his captor's hands."[18]

The similarity between this description of eagle hunting and the experience of menstrual seclusion is striking, and it was typical of other hunting taboos and rites. Fishing as well as hunting was restricted by taboo. Whalers of Nootka Sound fasted for a week, separated from women, and --- like the menstruant --- were regarded as unclean while being accorded the highest respect. Sexual abstinence for a prescribed length of time was also a common restriction. Often the hunter, like the menstruant, had his own utensils and his own fire, and no one else could touch them. Grooming and bathing prohibitions were similar as well. The Thompson Indian hunters did not comb their hair until their expedition had returned. Across North America, hunters could not scratch their heads or bodies except with a special scratching stick. Hunters often could not eat salt, fat or flesh, or food cooked by a woman of menstrual age. Sometimes they could only drink cold water, or only from a special cup.

The connection between hunting practices and menstruation was often explicit. Many peoples believed that a woman's menstrual or postpartum state could so seriously affect the hunt that [p. 134]

her husband could not join it while she was in seclusion. In some societies, women adhered to taboo rules of eating or cooking while the hunters were in the wilderness, in order to protect them and ensure a good kill. Women's blood, in short, ruled the hunt and gave it its fundamental restrictions and rituals. Moreover, some peoples credited bows and arrows with the capacity to cause a woman to menstruate. That a hunter's implement might cause a woman to begin to bleed, thus endangering him with contamination, was one reason for keeping weapons away from her, for prohibiting her from stepping over them. Very possibly, the same thinking led the Tiwi and others to consider that sexual intercourse brought about menarche. The penis, arrow, spear, and bow were metaformic "pricks" for blood­letting, male causation of menstruation.[19]

Menstrual rite seems as clearly connected to the practice of hunting as it was to rites of birth, death, and healing. The hunter in his abstinence and fasting, his grooming rites, and his approach to blood, endured seclusions that gave him equal status with the women, equivalent rites, equivalent cooperative work, and his own economic contribution. In this way, the man and the woman danced through life together, coordinated with each other's blood rites.

Herding and Blood Sacrifice

If animals were, as is generally believed, domesticated solely for materialist, practical purposes, as sources of food and hides, then by any logic the most edible and easiest to handle would have been drawn into the fold first. But a blood-toothed and dangerous predator, the wild dog, is believed to have been the first creature brought to the hearth. As we know from the stories of Coyote, Jackal, and Wolf, ancient women connected the wild dog both with menstruation and with the creation of the world. It is thus a measure of the irony, the paradox inherent in menstruation and in our [p. 135]

being, that the menstrual mind tamed first the very animal that, as a figure of terror and death, woke us into consciousness.

According to the geographer Carl Sauer, animals like the deer, nonthreatening and near to hand, were never domesticated, while the wilder ones, like the boar whose horns make two lunar crescents, were.[20] The motives for domestication were religious, not economic. In Sauer's example, a hunter from a Southeast Asian fishing village brings a wild piglet, pup, or kid home to his wife or mother. The women nurse these infants from their own breasts, the only way that a creature can actually be adopted into the family of another species. They do not eat them, but consider them relatives, bury them with honor, and treat them as revered ancestors. Joseph Campbell relates how tusks of boars were grown into lunar shapes by men of Malekula in Melanesia, who had learned to substitute boars for human sacrifice. His description of blood dripping between the horns of a ritually slain animal is an explicit depiction of earthly "lunar" menstruation.[21]

This interpretation seems to be confirmed when we look further at early patterns of domestication. The ancestor of domesticated cattle was one of the wildest and most feared, a root stock whose hunting required complex organization and great skill. The earliest kept sheep had to have been desired initially for its horizontal spiral horns, for its wooly coat was a later product of breeding in captivity.[22] The first goat domesticated was also the very wildest of the species, the bezoar, an Asiatic mountain goat living in a remote region of the lower Himalayas, in Afghanistan. The hunters had to travel far, climb sheer cliffs, risk their lives to capture its young. They threw their spears as it stood on the highest peak around, a picture of the moon on earth, displaying its crescents. The hunters took the goat through any peril to themselves --- like their brothers pursuing the wooly mammoth and the Great Plains buffalo --- as a sign of its fundamental connection to their own beginnings as a people. One Great Plains tribe said of the buffalo that they were "women," that women and the buffalo were the same. I think they [p. 136]

meant the same spirit, the same creation-religion, the same metaform. In the pursuit and sacrifice of horned animals, men were learning and participating in the origination rituals of their societies. They were entering the menstrual mind by engaging with blood power, in their own terms, using parallel rites. [p. 137]

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