In matrifocal cultures, women are honored and seen as the Goddess. The power of their fertility, both to give birth and to green the Earth, as evidenced in their ability to menstruate, is respected and held sacred. Menstrual blood has been used through the ages as an Earth fertilizer par excellence. During planting season, women would plant the seeds and then fertilize the ground with their menstrual blood. The menstrual cycle is seen as creatively powerful, giving birth not only to children but all nourishment.
During the time of bleeding women’s ability to dream, have visions and attain altered states of consciousness is strong. When moontime visions are sought, answers come, whether of pottery patterns, or the location of herds of food animals, or solutions to social problems.
For thousands of years the blood mysteries of women were an important part of the life of most human societies. The rituals that women create for their own well-being, to protect and nurture their extreme psychic sensitivity and power during menstruation and menopause, childbirth and puberty, serve all of society, not only the individual woman. About 5000 years ago, this changed in many places, most notably Europe. There, matrifocal wisdom has been repressed, and the special menstrual/menopausal/fertility rituals that once nourished all have been calcified into rules and taboos and used to create shame that separates women from their own power and the power of the blood mysteries.
Today, many doctors and researchers see the menstrual cycle as unnecessary. Though some scientists theorize that there may be a relationship between the higher life expectancy of women and our reproductive cycles (because we constantly renew our organism through menstruation), some view women’s monthly bleeding as decadent.
A naturopath, for instance, states that if women were to eat raw foods exclusively, they wouldn’t need this “purification process,” and G. Breuer, a medical doctor, asks in a German journal of natural science (Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau, October, 1981), Is Menstruation Contrary to Nature? The gynecologist Fritz Beller writes in the German magazine Die Zeit (issue 6, 1985), “I consider attempts to prevent menstruation completely as meaningful, because I believe that the monthly cycle is one of the few errors of nature.”
And women, too, come to think of their powerful bleeding time as an error, if for no other reason than that they are “irregular”-that is, they don’t menstruate every 28 days. But studies done in the United States, Australia, Great Britain and France show only 18 to 27 percent of all women of childbearing age having a “regular period” every 28 days. About three-quarters of all women have their own individual cycles with varying lengths between periods and fluctuating durations of the periods. When a standard is applied to something as individual and personally unique as the menstrual cycle, then women’s health suffers, as in the notion that 75 percent of women menstruate irregularly.
Repression of women’s menstrual power literally hurts women. Experts in women’s health care, such as Christiane Northrup, M.D. and Susun Weed, say that the overwhelming majority of reproductive/menstrual/menopausal problems are a direct result of patriarchal disempowerment of women’s mysteries.
A study done on the influence of religion on women’s menstrual well-being showed that women who were most likely to suffer from menstrual pain and problems were the ones whose religion told them they were unclean or that they had to be submissive to men. (In one religion women are denied communion when having their period.) Women with the smallest percentage of menstrual problems belonged to churches where women can become priests or even bishops.
Then there are the conscious or unconscious messages from our mothers or other females in our environment. How did we experience our menarche, the first blood? What examples of the menstrual cycle did we experience as we were growing up? Were we taught that the fluctuations of our bodies make us more adaptable and resistant? Or were we told we had the “curse.” No wonder we feel conflict about our cycles and try to deny our very beingness as women.
Women’s menstrual and reproductive problems often begin during periods of stress. One cause of the stress is the conflict of being female in a male-oriented, male-dominated society where there are few positive views of the feminine and little support of the female cycle. In many cultures women are highly revered, but also avoided because of their relationship to blood, which is seen as a symbol for life and death. In the past, blood mysteries were seen as the divine power of women; they formed the basis of religious rites which we enact even today in some cultures. The power of woman-say the Native Americans-lies in her ability to give life and to use this creativity in different ways. Patriarchal societies, however view women’s blood mysteries as a threat to their power, and have suppressed woman and their knowledge of their menstrual power.
n modern civilization the discrimination against women and their cycles manifest in many different ways. In the United States, for example, there are very few companies that offer fully paid maternity leave (sometimes classified as “disability leave”), and no workplaces that give time off for the menstrual cycle. The message we are given via the media and in the workplace is that we are to keep our cycles hidden (as in the tampon commercials) so we can be like men (who don’t bleed). Of course our bodies express such conflict and this disturbed relationship manifests in disharmonies of our uterus, ovaries, menses, fertility.
Modern advertising, with its arsenal of youth, beauty, and money, dictates that menstruation should not be seen or heard, felt or smelled. Women should perceive or display nothing of their physical changes. The days of the period should be like any other day. Tampons have applicators so women don’t have to touch or contaminate themselves “down there.” Nobody should notice that women have cycles. Everything should run smoothly. When it doesn’t, take painkillers, use suppositories. Science, too, is used to promoting the latest in menstrual aversion, whether it’s in helping women hide those “unpleasant facts of life”-like hot flashes and premenstrual tension-or in telling us that careers cause infertility.
Can we change? During the 1970s many of the newly founded women’s collectives in Europe included in their bylaws a provision for each woman to take off one day a month for menstruation. Only a few women claimed this benefit. Some considered the free menstrual day as uneconomical. Others viewed it as a reduction of their femininity. Twenty years later, women’s collectives in Europe consider this day-once celebrated as revolutionary-as a mere historical curiosity.
The power of menstruation is still honored in many cultures, in ways wondrous, amazing, and inspiring. There are many Native American nations where the women’s cycles are considered a source of power for the woman; where women are revered for their ability to bleed and to give birth; where they are honored for their ability to give life, but also allowed to refuse this role. Women past menopause are the guardians of tradition, and wisdom is attributed to them. (According to many ethnologists, rites of circumcision for men in different cultures are an imitation of the female cycle.)
In Sri Lankra, the entire family celebrates with a huge feast when a girl has her first blood. She wears red clothing, which symbolizes joy.
Many rules and taboos about menstruation, that today appear discriminating, were originally rituals created by women for their own well-being.
In ancient Japan, menstrual huts for women were situated in the most beautiful places: along the seashore, often on top of a hill. There the women could withdraw to spend time in solitude, or retreat with others.
In most rural communities a woman’s menstrual blood is known to be a powerful fertilizer. At special times women give their blood to the earth to insure the fertility of the fields and an abundant harvest.
In Southeastern India, among still-existent matriarchal tribes, women move to the ocean to meditate during their menses. Their retreat, their time of self communion, is honored as a service to the community. Their clothes are washed and all their chores are done by the male members of the tribe while they menstruate. When, after a few days, the women return to the village, they are full of inner strength. They are welcomed back by their men and pampered with their favorite foods.
Among the Shasta Indians of northern California, a girl at her menarche goes into a special menstrual hut that has been prepared for her and remains there for about ten days. She is accompanied by her mother or an older woman who takes care of her, bathing her, caring for her, feeding her. Everything she dreams while she is here will come true.
Can we change? Can we redream the blood mysteries? Yes! I’ve done it. So have other women. We do LUNA YOGA to begin sensing into our bellies. As our memories surface, we acknowledge our menstrual experiences. If there is anger at what we experienced menstrually, we give that rage its voice, then agree to let it go. Once we do that, we begin to create our menstrual experience as nurturing, joyful, supportive, whatever we need it to be for ourselves. We can let it connect us with the Grandmothers, with Earth Mother, with the Moon, with the Goddess and with our Feminine Self. We become one with the great spiral of all women and we become whole/healthy.
Vital Fertility and Sexuality
by Adelheid OhligWise woman secrets from many cultures help you take control of your fertility, increase your sexual pleasure, and relieve reproductive problems. Translated by Meret Leibenstein. 192 pages, illustrations.
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