B E F O R E cars became a central location for courtship behavior, the tree was a popular spot. The young man took the young woman walking, and they spread a cloth under a large tree and ate bread, cheese, and wine. Or he came to her house, bearing flowers, and pushed her back and forth in her swing, which hung from the limb of a huge backyard tree. Or she, more boldly and after displaying the flesh of her leg or bosom, led him on a flirtatious chase into the wood until he caught her at the base of a large tree, and after having sex, he carved their initials in its bark. One of my old family photos is of such a courtship picnic, with three uncles and aunts and my mother and father, all in their early twenties, in 1920 Illinois.
The prehuman ancestress of millions of years ago, with her mother and sisters nearby, sits in the tallest tree she can climb, keeping still so her blood will not draw the family of jackals. Shooed away by nonmenstruating females, the males of her troop who are quickest to learn "no sex at this time" control their powerful impulse to follow her into the tree. These males have entered the beginning human mind. They know not to arouse the dangerous blood smell or walk around the savannah in the vulnerable state of having blood on their penises. They don't even walk under the tree lest a drop of blood fall on them. For both the men and the woman, the more her rites center on re-creating the world, sepa- [p. 138]
rating the waters, concentrating on not touching her skin, the more dangerously distracting male sexual influence becomes.
When she comes down from the tree, copulation is again welcomed. This pattern continues indefinitely: when she is in seclusion, she cannot look at males, they cannot come near her; and when she emerges from seclusion, she accepts a sexual union, which, as her cosmetikos accrues, becomes more elaborate. It takes place in a specially prepared bed, or hut, or grove of trees. He brings a gift. He connects her garb, her makeup and veiling, to sexuality. She is not just emerging; she is alluring; she is transfixing.
The sexual union directly following menarche or any menstruation is r'tu --- the word means both menstruation and the ritual heterosexual act that follows the woman's emergence from menstrual seclusion. This sex act has become a central mythic union between the genders, the point at which they unite the comprehensions of their parallel bloodbased rites. That this special sexual intercourse initially took place under a tree is perhaps remembered in ancient Greek and other Mediterranean traditions calling upon women of all stations to engage in a single act of sacred prostitution, usually taking place in a grove of trees, and understood as a gift to the Mother Goddess. Traditions of prostitution recall other metaforms of creation as well.
In Rome the office of prostitute was from Lupa, "she-wolf," the wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus. Her temple harlots were lupae, who initiated young men; and her festival of Lupercalia featured orgiastic rites "to insure the year's fertility." Brothels called lupernaria spread throughout Europe with the Roman empire, and all over the world it is the prostitute who welcomes strange men into an area. The prostitute's garb represents a tradition older than that of the bride or weef. Her costume of beads, high heels, earrings, and heavy makeup --- to employ a popular stereotype --- mark her as an emergent menstruant from the age before cloth, before weaving, when cosmetikos was made of paint, strings, and loops, not swathes of cloth or matting. [p. 139]
In some current customs the prostitute, or "dancer," has a role prior to the bride's that is perhaps reminiscent of the Lupercalian instruction of Roman times. A night or a few nights before the wedding, the men hold a bachelor party and hire her to appear. Like the bride, she may be accompanied by a cake, though her relations to it are comic. Her job is to sexualize the party, if not to have actual sex with the groom, and she is paid money for her service.
Menstruation is associated with sex, as well as with healing, death, and the wolf in a European folktale called "Little Red Cap," more popularly known as "Little Red Riding Hood." Although this story was collected by the Grimms in the nineteenth century, long after the earlier European menstrual customs were layered over or altered to conform with feudalism and early industrialism, its menstrual elements are very evident.
A lovely maid is so appreciative of a red velvet cap her grandmother has lovingly made for her that she never takes it off. She is known as "Little Red Cap." One day the maid is sent by her mother to visit her grandmother, who lives secluded in the forest "half an hour from the village." According to her mother's instruction, Little Red Cap takes with her a bottle of wine and some cake in a basket, for her grandmother is ill. She must not leave the path, her mother warns; but as soon as Little Red Cap enters the forest, she meets a wolf, who persuades her to tell him where the grandmother lives. "Her house is under three oaks. You'll know it by the hazel bushes," says the girl, who is then persuaded by the wolf to leave the path to gather flowers for her beloved grandmother. As everyone surely knows, the wolf then runs ahead, tricks the grandmother into letting him in, eats her, and lies in wait for Little Red Cap in the grandmother's stead. When Little Red Cap finally finds her way to the house, she, too, is devoured. A huntsman arrives, and guessing the worst, he cuts open the wolf's belly, [p. 140]
helps the women out, and replaces them with stones, which kill the wolf. Little Red Cap restores her grandmother's health with the cake and wine and vows never to stray off the path again.
In menstrual terms, Little Red Cap reaches menarche and is sent to stay with an old relative in a hut in a secluded place away from the village. She is not just any menarchal initiate, however, but a special one who never takes off her red cap. She is the archetypal menstruant, and her story conveys some developments of human ritual understanding.
Her grandmother being ill, Little Red Cap meets death on the path to her house. By getting "off the path," breaking taboo, she lets the Death Wolf in. The story thus connects menstrual rites to both healing and death. Other details reinforce these associations: the number three counts the "death" of the moon. Since the grandmother's house is near three trees, she must be the moon. The wolf eats her, just as Coyote eats the moon in Native American mythology. The trees that shade the grandmother's house are oak trees. The oak was a sacred tree in many places, and in Europe and the Mediterranean, it was associated with, among other things, child sacrifice. Abraham was said to have pitched his tent under an oak, and it was believed that if you cut an oak, your firstborn son would die. Little Red Cap clearly is in danger. A further clue is added with the mention of hazel bushes. "Hazels" was a synonym for hawthorn, called a hagthorn for its long spikes, associated with the Christian crown of thorns. (And hag, besides being a name for the hedge characteristically made of hazel, is also a name for crone, or in this case, "grandmother.") Prechristian sacrifice is implied by the hagthorn's other name, "Lady's meat" --- the brilliant red flowers emit a rotten meat odor so distinct as to attract carrion-loving insects to lay their eggs in the petals. Menstruation and death are identified with the grandmother's house in the forest through the very ancient metaform of the tree and the number three.
Enter the huntsman, a traditional mythic rescuer, one who can be thought of as "orderly man," as distinct from "disorderly man," the wolf. The huntsman frees the sacrificial victims by cutting open [p. 141]
the wolf and substituting stones. Besides the menstrual lessons about the causes of disease and death, and the healing power of ritual gifts, the story is clearly a cautionary tale of the dangers of forbidden sex. Uncontrolled male sexuality is called "wolf" in this story (and in contemporary speech), and in a French version of the tale Little Red Cap strips to distract the wolf and escapes by telling him she must go outside to relieve herself. We recall again the Dogon story of the red ant mound, where uncontrolled male sexuality is called the act of the "jackal."
At some point, perhaps less than a million years ago, people came to understand that incestuous mating produced birth defects and extinction. The jackal committed his vile act of incest because he was ignorant of consequences. He did not yet have menstrual knowledge, embodied by the red fiber skirt. He was also alone; in the words of the Dogon, he was not "twinned."
Marriage is a way of twinning, of teaching by pairing. With marriage, exogamy rules. To maintain exogamic unions, elaborate signal systems were needed, not only to indicate who was not appropriate for mating, but also to test whether the prospective mate, a stranger, could participate within the social metaform of the bride's family. After the consciousness of incest, the union at the foot of the tree was not just a single sexual exercise. It was a matrimonial contract that, like menstrual seclusion itself, protected the entire band.
A bridegroom brought gifts, proof of his effective position in a social order, and proof of his toolmaking and hunting skills: venison, furs, and fish, bags of salt, strings of carved shells, lunar-horned cattle, strands of red woodpecker scalps, his family stories and songs --- whatever the woman's family valued as "price," he brought.
She brought her cosmetikos, her paraphernalia --- all the household goods, utensils, wares accumulated in millennia of seclusions. [p. 142]
The word "paraphernalia" literally means the "goods brought by a bride" to her marriage, and in earlier tribal life she went directly from the menstrual but to the marriage hut. Later she would bring her cedar chest, her elaborate clothing, her linens or cottons, her straw mattings. She would bring her cake, her cooking, her ability to wash, to make everything clean. She would bring as well her healing and death rites, her ability to wail and to mourn. For a multitude of peoples, menarche and matrimony were two parts of one long ritual.
As described by Jane Goodale, Tiwi marriages were arranged by the mothers-in-law. A woman made a contract with the man who would be her son-in-law even before a daughter had been born. The girl went to her husband when she was ten or eleven; he was usually about fifteen years older than she. He gradually accustomed her to sexual intercourse, which was then believed to induce her menstruation a year or two later. Her husband was thus completely incorporated into the menstrual mind, given the role of prime cause of the bleeding. Her menarchal rites had two parts, one of seclusion in a woman-only encampment, the second a marriage ceremony. At the second ceremony, she herself became a mother-in-law, her father choosing the man who would husband her own daughters. Although we have mentioned elements of both ceremonies in earlier contexts, it is worth examining the rituals as a whole, for together they comprise some of the deepest and oldest metaforms of humanity.
The menstruant was given the special name murinaleta; in one account, the girl's companion asked her five times if she had reached that state before receiving the answer "yes." The companion then began to cry. She tied pandanus-vine armbands of mourning to the menstruant after hitting her with the vines to "kill" her. The menstruant was then taken to a new camp in the bush with female relatives and companions. If her husband saw her there, it [p. 143]
was formerly believed, he would die. For five to ten days she stayed, and she was allowed to do no gathering of food, no digging of yams, no cooking, no touching of food or water. The containers were lifted to her lips by others; she could do no scratching, light no fires, look upon no water. At the end of her seclusion, she was painted with a red snake and led by the women to the second camp. There, waiting for her, were her father, her husband, and her husband's brothers. The man her father had chosen for her son-in-law might also wait with them:
When she first arrives she ‘sleeps' for a little while under a blanket. As she lies on the ground her father takes an arawunigiri, an elaborately carved ceremonial spear with barbs on two sides, and places it between his daughter's legs. He then presents it to the man whom he has selected to be his daughter's son-in-law. The son-in-law calls the spear "wife" and "hugs it just like a wife," … If the son-in-law is not present at this time, the girl's father takes the spear to him sometime after the ensuing rituals. The young girl has by this particular ritual become a mother-in-law.
After the girl's father has presented the spear, he takes … a 'palm' tree and sets it upright in the ground. The girl's husband and his brothers line up, with the youngest first in line and her husband last. One by one these men take their tokwiina (feather balls) and strike the girls' shoulders. She stands there until it is her husband's turn, when she runs away… The husband pursues his wife, and everyone calls out to her, "Look behind you, him your husband." The girl looks back, and her husband catches her by one shoulder and takes her to the ‘palm' tree that her father had set upright, where he makes her sit down. Then he and his brothers take up spears and throw them at the tree, and while doing so they "pretend it is a boy or girl …"
The husband and his brothers now dance around the sitting girl, and her father comes and lies down on the opposite side of the tree from his daughter. Her husband then marks the tree with a few strokes of an ax. The marked tree is thereafter known as aplimeti (translation unknown). The women place feathered pandanus arm ornaments on her. When her redecoration is complete, her father takes her back to the main camp, followed by all the ritual participants, and he once again hands her over to her husband at his camp [p. 144]
fire. The girl and her husband may not talk to each other upon their return, and that night she must sleep on the opposite side of the fire from him. The next morning the husband paints his young wife, and they may again talk to each other."
The menstruant emerged from seclusion directly into a rite that incorporates men. As the Tiwi ceremony indicates, marriage in the earlier metaforms did not --- as it does not in much of modern society today --- mark the first sex between the couple. Rather, the marriage ceremony marked the woman's emergence into public life wearing the gifts of menstruation as her garments. The two families and other witnesses then reenacted the ideological relationships that had brought their people to the current moment.
A woman wears the badges of the menarchal office when she marries in contemporary society as well: her special attire, her paint, her hair. Her veil is lace now, her train a gleaming lunar trail of fabric rather than a hide or blanket; her scratching sticks are silver hairpins holding her veil in place. The church of her matrimony may contain the marriage tree as columns of plaster and wood; an arch over the altar imitates the canopy of sky; high on the wall light is captured in a "rose window." The woman walks in a stately manner down a red carpet path on her father's arm and with her people in procession to reach the wooden altar platform. She has special female attendants, as the groom has special male ones. Boys from the groom's side wear ceremonial garb, and one of them holds a red pillow on which is the string of binding memory made of gold. An officiant in white robes may give them red wine and round bread. There are readings from a book of origin stories. The congregation is dressed in finery, none of which is allowed to exceed the bride's. The congregation participate by maintaining appropriate silence, attentive stillness, by following the rituals of standing and sitting. We read and sing aloud in concert. The gifts we have [p. 145]
brought are piled in their colorful wrappings in a reception room nearby.
The ceremony is followed by feasting, perhaps dancing. There is music and laughter. There is a cake made of metaforms from older times: finely ground meal, eggs, oil, sweetener. It is white and round, in layers that give it a mountain shape. On top stands a miniature scene of bride and groom under an arch. The cutting of the cake is performed jointly by the wedded couple, who feed it to each other. They twine arms to drink from a single cup. After a time of celebration, the couple goes to a special car, humorously decorated (hung with shoes). As they depart, rice is showered on them to bring fertility and prosperity. They drive to a special wedding bed, which may be a rose and red painted room; the cover of the bed is often very decorative. (In older times, it would have been a quilt made by the bride and her female relatives that included cosmological imagery. In older times still, this imagery would have pertained to her place in the cosmos and village and carried astronomical and other data particular to her life.) The groom may carry the bride through the doorway to the bed, or this "not touching the ground" ceremony may be saved for their first entry into the home they will share. The wedding bed itself is raised off the ground and has four posts, perhaps a canopy. In this "grove" the couple consummate their marriage under trees and enter the state known as "honeymoon," the sweetest moon, the new moon of sexual love.
At the one wedding I have attended, when the flower girls appeared at the back of the church, and when the bride, gleaming white on her parent's arm, began her walk down the red carpet path, I did what I'm told women always do, I wept. (So did my girlfriend's father.) We see her, the moon walking on earth, and she is our eternity and our mortality, and we both adore and mourn. We see the groom's unease, and his human courage to combine with the terrible mystery of life and death, his desire to conform to the restrictions of fidelity and paternity. We see his fragility, and hers, [p. 146]
and their nobility; they stretch us backward and forward in time. We call the reason for our weeping "her beauty."
Remnants of ancient menarchal rites run through our formal wedding practices, for they are originally the same rite. The groom may not see the bride or her gown before the moment of her emergence at the wedding; she is kept hidden from him. She then arrives out of her seclusion, splendidly washed, combed, and dressed. When her new husband toasts her, he may break the wine glass after drinking --- as utensils were broken in earlier blood rites. He has been invited into the menarchal pattern. He lifts the veil to kiss her, or he paints her face; he brings significant gifts. If he carries her across the threshold, it is because in ancient times she was forbidden to touch the ground. Hereafter, when they dress up to go out dancing, she will wear high heels that lift her off the ground, and he will feel both tender toward this vulnerability, and uneasy at the sharpness of the spikes.
Marriage displays the whole cosmogony of menstruation in one rite. The participants --- who are not related to each other --- demonstrate their comprehension of the essential metaform, which will hold together regardless of the fate of this particular marriage. This is because a marriage represents more than a promise between two individuals. Rather, it ties together the two genders, as well as the two families, in shared understanding of one cosmogony whose roots are menstrual, whose consummation is sexual, and whose purpose is cultural.
The bride's dress in Europe was formerly red. In places with a rich village life, such as Turkey, the bridal dress is still fundamentally red, with other colors and rich embroidery layered on top. Before the Ottoman Empire outlawed the fez, this high felt red cap was a prominent part of women's garb, used to lift the veil high and hold it in place. The veils were not filmy but solid and deeply colored [p. 147]
cloth, often red, and fell below the waist, a wall behind which neither the bride's face nor the shape of her body could be seen.
A common headdress shape was the cone. Many menstrual seclusion huts also took the form of a cone. The Middle Eastern bride and the bride of feudal Europe, hung with fabrics from head to foot, her headpiece towering above her, can be said to carry with her the menstrual hut. We can find startlingly similar patterns in the ritual garb of a variety of cultures. In the Yukon valley, a menstruant wore a long robe with a large hood, and among the Thompson Indians, her face was painted red, a heavy blanket swathed her entire body, and a conical hat of fir branches reached her breast. African mediums impersonate the goddess Oyá, draping themselves from head to foot in layer after layer of richly decorated cloth until they resemble walking houses. Bao Lord describes yet another elaboration in Spring Moon: A Novel of China. Dressed entirely in red, with a jeweled headdress, the bride was placed in a red sedan chair that was completely sealed. She was carried to her wedding and set down outside the ceremonial hall, where the men gathered and sang three songs to her, songs that were tests of her character. Then they tapped three times on the chamber and she emerged, while everyone cried, "The bride, the bride," over and over. She walked on a red carpet to the wedding ceremony, where the groom lifted her red silk veil. The veil, the hut, and the sedan chair are all variations of the same form. They are containers of her power.
We have seen that marriage rites, whether ancient or modern, are an extension of menarchal rites. The ancestress bled, was secluded, went through the transformations of cosmetikos, and emerged for a feast and procession that ended in or included sexual union. In the enactment of the incest taboo, the groom needed to be formally incorporated into her family, and into the menarchal metaform. The red fiber skirt of the first Word became in some areas a full length red dress. The bride might wear not only her menarchal cap, but also a veil over her face, head, or entire body; through the veil only one male, the bridegroom, might go. With [p. 148]
such rites, powerful sexual instincts were brought under human control, so that we have come to use sexuality in uniquely human ways, and for far more than reproduction. Tantrism, the sexual arts of health, pleasure, psychism, and spiritual intimacy, are taught in India, many parts of Asia, and in the United States, and include lesbianism as a healthy human activity. I remember lesbian lovers with whom I have shared moments of spontaneous and exultant love and trust as we painted stripes on our bare torsoes with our own fresh menstrual blood. We were "blood sisters," initiating each other into women's power, without words or any outside eye gauging the meaning of our rite.
The body arts that taught us how to think and act as human beings underlie our everyday lives. We are so dependent on them we hardly give them a thought. Cosmetikos gave us the body paint, ornamentation, and clothing that so strikingly differentiate us from other creatures. It also provided the paraphernalia that became kitchenware and household goods. More surprisingly, cosmetikos created our manners and formalities at table; our various methods of cooking, brewing, and preserving; and even the nature of the foodstuffs we gather and grow. Most important, cosmetikos gave us the ideas with which we regulate our bodies, chiefly in terms of paired opposites that are also polarities of the menstrual cycle (bleeding/not bleeding) and the lunar cycle (dark moon/light moon). Some of the pairings of cosmetikos include unclean/clean, sick/well, inauspicious/auspicious, hot/cold, raw/cooked, unlucky/ lucky, and cursed/blessed. The word "cursed" is still directly related to menstruation, in common jargon; and the word "blessed" is as well, deriving as it does from German "blood-song," blessing. Both sides of the equation derive from menstruation, not just the "negative" or dark moon, but the full moon as well. Menstruation has created so much of what we are, including our capacity to judge abstract qualities of good and bad. [p. 149]
The institutions of cosmetikos are worldwide. Even if human culture shrank to three people who spoke three different languages, they would probably recall how to handle fire, make a knife, a pot of gathered foods, clothing, body decoration, huts, a chair. They would understand these forms whether or not they discussed their meanings. But to remember mathematics, to tell stories, to solve geometry problems --- for these things, cosmetikos might not help them. They would need to bring the set of arts and sciences I call narrative, which began in cosmetikos but developed into a unique set of metaforms. Are the narrative metaforms connected to my rejected cosmetic case? Only if you add my mother's sewing kit, and a knife or sharp flint. [p. 150]