A Journal of Menstruation and Culture
by Sharon Moloney
Menstruation -- the shedding of the lining of the uterus -- is a uniquely female experience. In pre-patriarchal and some Indigenous societies, menses was recognised as a spiritual phenomenon, a potentially liminal state of heightened transparency to the sacred. My doctoral research has explored Australian women's experiences of both menses and birth as dimensions of female spirituality. It reveals that menstruation is experienced by some Western women as a contemporary form of Goddess spirituality, inspiring self-love, self-nurture, empowerment and a ritual honouring of their embodied spirituality. With its physiological foundations in the female body, menstruation seemed to me incapable of male colonisation. Its female status was beyond contestation -- or so I thought. This article tells the story of how my assumptions about menstruation as an exclusively female experience were challenged, precipitating a spiritual crisis that culminated in my vocational acceptance of metaformic consciousness.
Menstruation is for me a sacred phenomenon. At menarche, I experienced a spiritual opening that I knew had changed me ontologically. However, with no social or cultural validation of my experience and widespread derogatory attitudes to menstruation around me, I was unable to sustain my nascent awakening. I never forgot the impact of my first blood and I made a vow to always honour menstruation. This adolescent experience was a germinal factor in the shaping of my research topic. Through my work as a women's health counsellor/educator, I know that many (perhaps most) women don't share my experience or views. Yet my research, which is an exploration of women's bio-spiritual experiences of menstruation and birth, has revealed a small but very significant group of Australian women who also experience menstruation as a "sacred covenant with the Divine" (Grenn, 2006). What might that covenantal relationship with the Divine look like in an individual woman's life? In this paper, I offer my own experience to illustrate.
The timing of this story is significant because it began on Easter Thursday. Prior to Christianity, Easter was celebrated as a spring regeneration ritual (Gimbutas, 1989). It is believed that the word Easter comes from Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon name of the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe . In pre-Christian times, Her festival was held on the vernal equinox, marking the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, with the imminent new life symbolised by the rabbit and the giving of eggs. Christianity appropriated and changed the meaning of these rites by making Easter the pinnacle of its sacramental cycle. Good Friday became associated with the redemptive sacrifice, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, which led to the transcendent new life of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Easter thus became aligned with that patriarchal bastion of power, the church, which (except for Mary) excluded women and femaleness from its divine symbology and all significant positions of power. Later, through the Inquisition and the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages, the church persecuted and killed off women, midwives and healers as handmaids of the demonic (van Vuuren, 1973; Ehrenreich & English, 1973). In Christianity with the Adam and Eve myth, the snake which had once represented the regenerative powers of life, became symbolic of evil.
Prior to Christianity, the cyclic transformation of death and rebirth was enacted in the Eleusinian mysteries celebrated for over 2000 years in ancient Mediterranea. As Demetra George recounts: "The Mother Goddess Demeter lost her child to the realms of the underworld. Persephone was abducted and raped by Pluto, the Lord of Death. Demeter's inconsolable grief and suffering in her loss and the eventual joyous reunion of the mother and daughter lay at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries" (George, 1992, p. 236). From the fourteenth century BCE until the fourth century CE, the myth of Demeter and Persephone was performed and people travelled from far and wide to be initiated in these ceremonies.
Demeter is also the name of the tree snake that lives in our neighbourhood. There are long periods of time when we don't see Demeter at all. On Easter Thursday, just before I was due to present a research seminar to my academic community, I drove home and there in the driveway blocking my entrance was Demeter. Her behaviour was most unusual. She slithered on the spot like a belly-dancer, refusing to move out of my way until I got out of the car and walked towards her. As I did so, I felt a sense of something portentous beginning. Her presence at precisely that moment was highly significant and precipitated a liminal episode that continued for the whole weekend.
Lara Owen (1998) describes the four archetypes of menstruation as: the earth, for her red ochre and her abundant fertility, the moon, for her 28 day cycle, the snake, for the cyclic shedding of its skin, and blood, as the primary symbol of the life force. Since pre-patriarchal times, the snake has symbolised both menstruation and the Goddess (Gimbutas, 1991; Gadon, 1989). Judy Grahn (1993) notes that although the snake is commonly regarded in the West as a phallic symbol, it can also be seen as representing a disembodied vagina. Marija Gimbutas describes the central theme of Goddess symbolism as the mystery of birth, death and rebirth, which is manifested in dynamic images like "whirling and twisting spirals, winding and coiling snakes, circles, crescents, horns, sprouting seeds and shoots" (1991, p. xix). In ancient pre-Christian mythology, the snake was seen as a "most benevolent" creature representing life energy and regeneration.
The snake is associated with many manifestations of the Goddess, like the Minoan Snake Goddess of Crete (Gadon, 1989), the snake Goddesses of prehistoric Eastern Europe unearthed by Marija Gimbutas (1991), or the serpent-haired Medusa (George, 1992). The snake is also highly significant in the Australian Aboriginal cosmology, which derives from its geo-spiritual source in the ancient Australian land mass. The Rainbow Serpent is a central feature of the Dreaming, which represents "the longest continuing religious belief documented in the world" (Flood in Buckley & Gottlieb, 1988, p. 243) stretching back many thousands of years. Snake symbolism in the Dreaming "is associated with the innermost mysteries of secret rites and cults" (Knight in Buckley & Gottlieb, p. 242) which are inadequately conveyed by Western psychological concepts. As Knight points out, the Rainbow Serpent unites opposites like male and female, inside and outside, above and below, life and death, and as such, represents an utter paradox to the logical dualism of the West.
Anthropologists Buckley and Gottlieb maintain that Aboriginal paintings from Arnhem Land depict the snake as "a rhythmic line, a flow inseparably associated with the body of womankind ... a symbol of periodicity" (1988, p. 88). Hannah Bell also describes the significance of the snake to the Indigenous people of the Kimberley region: "Wunggud waters are female because they were created by Snake who coiled herself up to sleep on her long journey through the land. Snake moved under the ground, coming to the surface every now and then. As she came up, the flat land rose up over her back creating what we call hills. She writhed deeply through other landscapes creating rivers. She is still there because the hills are still there, as are the great river systems" (1998, p. 22).
Judy Grahn (1993) observes that the snake represents "a metamorphosis long connected to spiritual rebirth and the transformation of the soul -- a lunar connection" (p. 58). With its deep archetypal, menstrual and spiritual symbolism, the snake can be seen as a quintessential expression of the female dimension of being. For me, it has become an icon of metaformic consciousness.
In metaformic theory, Grahn (1993) posits that at the dawn of human evolution, women's menstrual seclusion rituals signified the beginnings of human consciousness and created much of what we know as culture. In a radical revisioning of the significance of female bleeding, metaformic theory postulates "the particularities of menstruation" (p. xx) as the source of our human uniqueness. Grahn elaborates: "The necessity of women to teach their special knowledge, not only to their daughters, but to their sons -- for whom it would always be a mystery outside themselves -- and the methods the males devised to display their comprehension, are what has created human culture over the millennia" (p. 43). This female creation story inverts the biblical version of Eve as the derivative (and defective) version of homo sapiens, and invests menstruation with profound spiritual meaning.
Awakening to the snake as a harbinger of metaformic consciousness was a process that occurred for me over a ten month interval between May of 2006 and Easter 2007. Although I knew about the snake as a symbol of menses and the Goddess, its numinous power was brought alive for me personally through the experience of three powerful snake incidents. The first was the following dream:
Journal May 10, 2006 - I am out walking my dog in the bush. Suddenly I come across
an enormous snake, as thick as my thigh, partly coiled up to my right. Its body traces an
infinity sign on the ground. It is a huge, brown python. I stop, fearful, wondering whether
to freeze or run. Before I can decide, the snake slithers rapidly in front of me and wheels
round behind my left side. I stiffen anticipating its strike but its head gently nudges me firmly
in the soft flesh right below my left armpit. I wake up and can still feel the imprint left by the
snake's head in the flesh under my armpit.
This was a big dream; it remained with me vividly, especially the sensation under my left armpit. I kept touching the spot, trying to dislodge the impression, but it remained for several hours. I knew this dream was of huge symbolic significance but what was it asking of me? The snake was trying to tell me something and I didn't know what.
The second incident occurred about four months later. At midnight one dark, moonless night, I heard a thud and my dog began to bark furiously. I went out to investigate. I stood on the back porch, calling the dog up the stairs; he refused and continued barking. I squatted down on the top step to encourage him. A dark shape like a long branch was barely visible at my feet. I looked more intently and saw the dark shape extended along the porch over its edge. Instinctively I jumped back and went inside to turn on the light. A magnificent green/brown carpet snake, about six feet long and as thick as my wrist, arched out over the back stairs, its intelligent eye looking back at me brightly. Instantly I remembered my dream and felt a pulsing excitement inside me. My husband came out to investigate and fetched a broom. We watched in admiration for a few more minutes before my husband encouraged her over the edge of the porch and she disappeared into the shrubbery.
After we went back to bed, I was full of excitement, indifferent to the late hour, certain her visit was a message from the Goddess. But what was she trying to communicate to me? I reflected on my dream. The huge python's body had been in the shape of an infinity sign -- the symbol of eternity, the eternal Now, Spirit. Its energy had felt powerful and empowering. It was my friend and ally, a representation of my connection with my menstrual power and with the Goddess. The carpet snake on my porch was a provocative reinforcement: "Take me seriously; I am here, knocking on your door!" I began to believe that the snake was initiating some kind of totemic relationship with me.
In Australian Indigenous cosmology, the totem signifies mutual responsibility and obligation (Bell, 1998). At birth, a baby is checked for a sign of his Gi, "the totemic spirit of an animal or plant whose spirit entered him, giving him a special relationship with the natural world" (Bell, p. 39). It is believed that the totem claims the child with its energy and the child must serve the totem, protecting it from abuse and harm. The animal or plant embodies sacred power and the totemic relationship is one of personal intimacy, which is ceremonially reinforced. Whilst I am not Indigenous and have never experienced this kind of communal totemic initiation, I nevertheless recognise resonances of this phenomenon in my snake experiences. Having been born and lived all my life in Australia, I have experienced the powerful spirituality deriving from the ancient Australian landmass -- the same geo-spiritual source from which the Rainbow Serpent and the Dreaming originated.
On Easter Thursday six months after the carpet snake knocked on my back door, the third snake incident occurred when I found Demeter blocking my driveway just before I was to present my research seminar to my colleagues. Her presence at that moment was a thrill but also a warning. I felt an anticipatory intuition to beware! Expect the unexpected.
My paper was entitled "Dancing With the Wind: a methodology for researching women's experiences of spirituality around menstruation and birth" (Moloney, 2007). At the end of my presentation there was time for questions, most of which gave me a chance to elaborate on my topic. Then came that question! A mature-age male academic at the rear of the room asked me: "Have you considered including men's religious experiences of menstruation in your study?" He announced that his anthropologist mentor had done an ethnographic study of a Polynesian community where the men menstruated. The professor had written a book about it: The Island of Menstruating Men.
A female colleague who, as it turned out, came from the same country as the population under discussion promptly responded that what he was referring to was the practice of sub-incision, the ritual male mimicry of menstruation. But the anthropologist was adamant -- no, it was not sub-incision to which he was referring. It was menstruation, male menstruation! He went on at some length. I was non-plussed. If it was not sub-incision, I had no idea to what he was referring. I replied that I would like to see the book and he retorted that that was not an answer to his question.
By now, a commotion had set in amongst my female colleagues in the front row. One of them had turned a deep shade of purple, her body convulsing with suppressed laughter, as she slid down her chair apparently heading for the floor. The woman beside her, catching the convulsive ripple out the corner of her eye, also began to shake with laughter and hurriedly bent down to fossick in her handbag. Their mirth spread like a contagion along the row. This reaction was a reality check for me. It was absurd. Towards the end of the male academic's soliloquy, I took the opportunity to make a general comment about my research and thanked him for his question. The seminar adjourned.
In the privacy of our offices, I joined my front row colleagues in their incredulous laughter. "We've heard of men contesting other domains but we have never heard of men contesting menstruation!" we marvelled together. "Well, it is menstruation," one of my colleagues admonished me, laughing. Yet even as I laughed I also felt deeply disturbed.
Shortly afterwards, the academic who had unwittingly thrown down the gauntlet presented me with the book: The Island of Menstruating Men -- Religion in Wogeo, New Guinea (Hogbin, 1970). As he did, a wave of nausea washed over me. He seemed oblivious to the political significance of what he had just done. Over the next two days my nausea developed into a painful cramp in my bowel. The physical symptom alerted me to the fact that the incident had provoked my unconscious, reminding me how embodied and organic the unconscious is.
Later that night I began reading the book. On page 88, I found the following description of the "menstruating male":
"The technique of male menstruation is as follows. First the man catches a crayfish
or crab and removes one of the claws, which he keeps wrapped up with ginger until
it is required. He also collects various soothing leaves, including some from a plant
whose fruit has a smooth skin of deep purple color. From dawn onwards on the day
that he has fixed he eats nothing. Then late in the afternoon he goes to a lonely beach,
covers his head with a palm swathe, removes his clothing, and wades out till the water
is up to his knees. He stands there with legs apart and induces an erection either by
thinking about desirable women or by masturbation. When ready he pushes back the
foreskin and hacks at the glans, first on the left side, then on the right. Above all, he
must not allow the blood to fall on his fingers or his legs. He waits till the cut has begun
to dry and the sea is no longer pink and then walks ashore. After wrapping the penis in
leaves, he dresses and goes back to the village, where he enters the club. Here he
remains for two or three days. Sexual intercourse is forbidden till the next new moon --
the soreness, in any event, may take that long to wear off."
As my female colleague had correctly suggested, the "menstruating" man did refer to the practice of sub-incision. Mystery solved! The author clearly states that the "operation" to induce "artificial menstruation" is incision of the penis. The practice is intended to mimic the female physiological process as a form of ritual purification. It has deep religious and symbolic significance in Wogeo mythology. Hogbin, records that both the menstruating woman and the man after penile incision are "rekareka", that is, a state associated with "those who have been in contact with the sacred" (1970, p.83), and therefore requiring numerous restrictions and taboos. The power of rekareka is so great as to bring death to those who transgress these taboos.
The ritual practice of penile incision to induce blood loss is known by the Wogeo as sara, a different word altogether to that denoting menses. How then, does the author of the book arrive at the conclusion that these are "menstruating" men? The key lies in the word used to describe the time of convalescence after the incision. These few days of retirement are called haras, the same word used for a woman experiencing menstruation, denoting a time of ritual seclusion and purification. Hogbin's use of the word "menstruation" as a literal translation of haras where there is no English equivalent distorts the meanings and subtleties associated with the term for the Wogeo people.
The book itself is about the complex life and culture of a remote community off the north coast of New Guinea. Despite its title, the information about sub-incision comprises just a few paragraphs and is included as a minor aspect of the book. The object of the anthropological gaze, the Wogeo male, is characterised as an exotic native, a bizarre anomaly -- a man who menstruates. In reality, the "menstruating" male is nothing more than a linguistic device used by Hogbin to sensationalise his work. As the book is dated 1970, Hogbin could perhaps be forgiven as a product of his time. But that in 2007, a senior academic could insist on male equivalence in menstruation in the context of a research seminar is of deep concern. It means that even the uniquely female spirituality of menstruation can be contested terrain.
The practice of male genital incision or other forms of sub-incision to ritually mimic the natural phenomenon of menstruation is well documented (Grahn, 1993; Buckley & Gottlieb, 1988). Judy Grahn (1993) explores the phenomenon of parallel menstruation rites, citing a number of cross-cultural stories of blood-letting practices like circumcision, knocking out a tooth, lacerating the thighs, piercing ears, burning with hot coals and so on. Grahn comments: "For the male, blood was something he could acquire primarily through inflicting or enduring a wound" (p. 49). The symbolic significance of these rites points to much more than just mimicry for the sake of it. In metaformic theory, it is deeply implicated in the development of human consciousness. Grahn continues: "For if the Abyss from animal mind to human mind was a great yawning cavern for females, for males it was infinitely broader and more mysterious" (p. 43). The way in which men made this transition into human consciousness was thus through menstrual imitations: "cutting or piercing to draw blood was the primary method by which males entered the metaformic mind, and therefore something they came to imagine as 'theirs'" (p. 49).
The male anthropologist who asked that question was alluding to the religious and symbolic significance of male parallels to women's bleeding. However, he was not content to leave it there. He made reference to my assertion that "sex differences deriving from the physiology of menstruation, birth and lactation imply a uniquely female spirituality that is not the prerogative of maleness". His insistence on 'male menstruation' disputed my claim, reasserting a male equivalence, which in this context meant dominance.
The day after my seminar was Good Friday and Demeter appeared again, this time draped over the shrub below my daughter's bedroom window. My husband called me to come and see, and as I walked down the stairs to investigate, he told me she had turned her head and was watching me. Again, the sense of awe welled up inside me; I felt graced by her presence. Shortly afterwards, I began to menstruate. My bowel continued its painful spasm and I avoided food. As the day went on, my anger about that question and its implications began to boil inside me. I became enraged at the insult. It felt like a profanity to me. My bleeding, heavy and red, poured out of me like a libation.
By the following day (Easter Saturday) as my bowel cramp continued into its third day, and my bleeding grew heavier, I felt as though a terrible patriarchal oppression was gnawing at my soul. The previous week-end, one of my closest friends had confided that she had been suicidal because of her battle with a patriarchal demon. Another close friend had had to take extended time away from work from being burnt out by the double-shift. The same week the United Nations Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change predicted dire consequences for Australia that included more frequent and severe cyclones, more and bigger bushfires, worse periods of drought, and temperature increases with drastic consequences for a variety of ecosystems including the Great Barrier Reef. It seemed that everywhere -- all around me and inside me -- the insidious poison of patriarchy gnawed away at our most vulnerable places and got away with it. The weight of its oppression was suffocating.
Although my rage was white hot, I did not want it to contribute to further violence. One of the values I hold dear is ahimsa, the Jain concept of non-violence. Jainism is an ancient tradition of doing no harm to self or others (Singhvi, 1995). Ahimsa encompasses both behaviour and intention and strives to minimise all forms of violence in thought, word or deed. Singhvi comments: "You must observe restraint. You must not waste the resources of the universe" (p. 176). Ahimsa was the ethic espoused by Gandhi in his pursuit of self-government for India (Gandhi, 1982), a stringent adherence to non-violent solutions in the belief that violence can be transformed with love. In this context what did ahimsa entail for me?
I tried to allow my anger to move through me and find appropriate expression, but none of the usual avenues brought me peace. At one pitch of intensity, I caught a glimpse of what lay beneath my rage -- a deep hurt that cut to the quick, painfully embodied in my bowel. Once I saw this, I knew it needed a different mode of expression, one consistent with my values and spirituality. My husband was a rock of support during this episode, empathising, validating my feelings, and saying that as a man, he found the attempted male colonisation of menstruation offensive.
On Easter Sunday morning, I knew I needed to lie on the ground and let the earth heal the inflammation in my soul. I drove to the Palmetum, the beautiful lush rainforest about ten minutes drive away, tears of hurt and injustice streaming down my face. I found my special place under the lacy umbrella of the rain trees and threw my towel on the ground, lying on my back and breathing in the lush smells of the vegetation. The greenery around me soaked up my distress like a sponge. The wind whispered in the leaves caressing my ears and splashes of colour here and there soothed my burning eyes. A stunning blue Ulysses butterfly drifted past. My menstrual blood flowed out of me, soaking through everything. As I bled into the quiet earth, my hurt and anger dissolved, the cramp in my bowel finally releasing its grip. After several hours of lying on the ground, there came a gentle reassurance that all would be well and all would be well and all manner of things would be well!
Later that night I wrote the following poem:
Thru cloth pad
Into sacred gridlines of
On Easter Monday, the last day of the long weekend, I brought this liminal episode to closure by paying a visit to the huge Rainbow Serpent which stands as a public monument in the park down the road from where I live. I have walked past this monument on countless occasions, but this time I looked at it like I had never seen it before. Wandering beside it, I turned over the events of the weekend in my heart. I felt like I had been initiated into a profound personal relationship with the uniquely Australian dimensions of Goddess spirituality, symbolised so powerfully by this amazing Rainbow Serpent.
I finally understood that the snake was a totemic manifestation of the Goddess and that through these archetypal encounters, She was asking me to take responsibility for protecting and safe-guarding Her menstrual power. I accepted her invitation. There is mutual obligation in this totemic relationship. She guides, oversees, reveals, clears obstacles, and causes the miraculous to occur. I respond, trust, initiate, request, and act on every invitation that comes my way. Expounding and safeguarding the beauty and power of menstruation, birth and female spirituality is my life work. It is my way of bringing Goddess into the world; it is my way of being Goddess.
I knew this Easter had been a spiritual watershed for me, a deepening of my Sacred Contract, the obligations I signed up for in this lifetime (Myss, 2001). My male colleague's question had been the catalyst which brought me greater clarity about the forms of patriarchal oppression at work in my life, my choices in responding to them and the abundant power for healing and transformation residing in my bleeding, the earth and the Goddess. Paradoxically, it brought me to a deeper reverence about being a menstruating woman.
Symbolically and actually, menstruation is the blood of life, the sacred blood that grows all human beings. No other blood holds such miraculous power. It is the cradle of life and human civilisation. This Easter confirmed for me that menstruation does indeed signify a sacred covenant with the Divine, a personal connection with the power of the Goddess. Blessed be!
 This information was compiled from the following links:
Bell, H. (1998). Men's business, women's business: The spiritual role of gender in the world's oldest culture. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions.
Buckley, T., & Gottlieb, A. (1988). Blood magic: The anthropology of menstruation. Berkely: University of California Press.
Ehrenreich, B., & English, D. (1973). Witches, midwives, and nurses: A history of women healers. New York: The Feminist Press.
Gadon, E. (1989). The once and future goddess: A symbol for our time. New York: Harper and Row.
Gandhi, M. (1982). An autobiography: or the story of my experiments with truth. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books.
George, D. (1992). Mysteries of the dark moon: The healing power of the dark goddess. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
Gimbutas, M. (1991). The civilization of the goddess: The world of old europe. New York: Harper Collins.
Grahn, J. (1993). Blood, bread and roses: How menstruation created the world. Boston: Beacon Press.
Grenn, D. (2006). Connecting with deity through a feminist metaformic thealogy. Metaformia: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture. Retrieved from http://metaformia.com/index.php/articles/connecting-with-deity-through-a-feminist-metaformic-thealogy/
Hogbin, I. (1970). The island of menstruating men: Religion in wogeo, new guinea. Scranton, U.S.: Chandler Publishing Company.
Moloney, S. (2007). Dancing with the wind: A methodology for researching women's experiences of spirituality around menstruation and birth. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 6 (1), 114-125.
Myss, C. (2001) Sacred contracts. New York: Bantam Books.
Owen, L. (1998). Honoring menstruation: A time of self-renewal. Freedom, California: The Crossing Press.
Singhvi, L.M. (1995). Nonviolence. In B. Gray, J. Morrison, & M. Tobias (Eds.), A parliament of souls: In search of global spirituality: Interviews with 28 spiritual leaders from around the world (pp. 174-181). San Francisco, KQED Books.
Van Vuuren, N. (1973). The subversion of women: As practiced by churches, witch-hunters, and other sexists. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Copyright © 2010 Sharon Maloney. All Rights Reserved.