RED IS FOR LIFE
An Enquiry into the Taboos Surrounding Woman's Cycle
"Spiritual, consecrated, wonderful, incomprehensible; said also of women at the menstrual period". This is an American Indian definition of tabu, itself a word derived from the Polynesian, and the basic form of the more common English spelling, taboo. And its original form? Robert Briffault suggests it is closely allied to tupua, which means menstruation. Further, another Polynesian word, atus, also applied to menstruation, translated to mean God, and certainly refers to all spirits and supernatural phenomena.
Ishtar, the Moon Goddess of Babylon was thought to be menstruating at the full moon. Then, the "sabuttu" was observed, the day of rest; simulating the day the moon takes when it is neither decreasing nor increasing. On the moon's sabattu it was considered unlucky to do any work, eat cooked food or go on a journey. A full day of rest, to coincide with the moon's rest, was obligatory. The sabuttu when the Goddess Ishtar was menstruating became the Sabbath of the Jews and Christians: the day when the Old Testament God rested from his labours, and put an obligation on everyone to do the same. So the Saturday of the Jews, the Sunday of the Christians, and the Friday of the Moslems, when shops are shut, and various extremely patriarchal religious observances take place, as they have done for several thousand years, are directly linked with what women today still call the "curse". This worldwide general attitude to menstruation is possibly the most fundamental example of women's put-down in patriarchal society, one which women themselves too often accept.
If you travel abroad and pick up a language/phrase book for the countries you visit, you will be unlikely to find the words for buying a sanitary towel, or tampons, although you will probably need these more than the trapeze offered by a current German edition, or an elephant from a Spanish variety. You will be lucky to find accommodation and comfort in public lavatories for your condition, and be unlikely to be able to mention your needs publicly.
At home and at work, you are likely to feel pulled down. Doris Lessing describes it: "I hear my voice shrill and I stop myself. I realise my period has caught up with me; there's a moment in every month when it does, and then I get irritated because it makes me feel helpless and out of control ...". She talks about her "resentment against the wound inside my body which I didn't choose to have."
Many women can give examples of the frustration and unhappiness of menstrual days; there even seems to be a "scientific" explanation about premenstrual tension: it is a build up of fluid, perhaps pills will help...
How far away are men today from the suggestions of Manu, the Hindu lawgiver who said: "The wisdom, the energy, the strength, the might, and the vitality of a man who approaches a woman who has menstrual excretions, utterly perish"? Evelyn Reed quotes a rhyme by Crowley (The Mystic Rose) -
"Oh! Menstruating woman thou'rt a fiend
While how many women still refer to themselves as unclean during their period? "When a woman has a discharge of blood her impurity shall last for seven days; anyone who touches her shall be unclean till evening. Everything on which she lies or sits during her impurity shall be unclean. Anyone who touches her bed shall wash his clothes, bathe in water and remain unclean till evening. If he is on the bed where she is sitting, by touching it he shall be unclean till evening. If a man goes so far as to have sexual intercourse with her and any of her discharge goes on to him, then shall he be unclean for seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean." (Leviticus 15;19;24)
Whatever was sacred becomes tabu, whatever becomes tabu becomes set apart, after that becomes an object of revulsion and fear. Menstruation began as the very holiest of all mysteries - the origin of the word means deity, and the idea of the sacred, it is the link of women with the moon in her aspect of goddess throughout her 28 day cycle of waxing and waning, in fact the essence of the female vitality, spirit and major contribution to total understanding of, and unity with the universe. How did the changeover happen; what made this sacred subject into a curse - and still the major reason for the ban on women priests since they may be "unclean" when handling the Host and kindred objects? Above all, why is it that women themselves accept menstruation as a shame and even with revulsion, allow themselves to feel degraded and dejected, feel unclean, and try to behave as if there's nothing really the matter?
Is there in fact some other way to regard it?
The reasons why
This is a far ranging and difficult subject. My object is to try and condense viewpoints provided by researchers into women's cultural history, and to suggest that there is indeed a way in which women may not only come to terms with their biological cycle, gaining comfort and inspiration from it but also, strength for the political struggle.
We have first to look at the past and primitive peoples. There is abundant evidence that the moon was worshipped as a feminine deity and the Moon Goddess was chief of all other goddesses and gods. In addition, as Esther Harding puts it, the moon was the visible representative of womanhood. "To the ancients the moon stood as a symbol of the very essence of woman in its contrast to the essence of man". The Moon Goddess was seen in her three aspects, waxing, full and waning, with the later added mystery of the time when she is on the "dark side" and cannot be seen. The Triple Goddess is available to us in all sorts of symbols, records and illustrations. She was the source of growth, fertility, and change; and in her waning and dark side, she represented the mystical power of death and rebirth. Her twenty-eight days cycle was observed as the same cycle as that of women's menses; menstruation was thought to be linked to the moon, and in many languages the words for both are the same. Thus women were thought to be connected with the great and mysterious power of the moon, which in its turn gave them children (as well as being responsible for the growth of crops. Today, lost lore on the planting of herbs and vegetables at the right aspect of the moon's cycle, is being recovered).
There was a further development of the association of the menses and fertility, which lasted right down to the time of Aristotle. Living in the fourth century BC he suggested that the foetus was entirely formed out of the menstrual blood contained in the uterus. The male's contribution was an "impulse to movement"; Pliny, nearly 300 years later, suggested that the menstrual blood in the womb: "is the material substance for generation, and the man's seed serveth instead of rennet to gather it round into a curd, which afterwards in the process of time quickeneth and groweth to the form of a body". Briffault comments that the Aristotelian view remained the teaching of medical schools until less than two hundred years ago. It was displaced by the concept, also expressed in the Greek myths, that the woman's body merely provided a vessel for the child, which was in fact entirely created by semen.
In the 'Eumenides', Apollo gives judgement for Orestes who has killed his mother Clytemnestra. This was to avenge her murder of Agamemnon his father, In turn, Clytemnestra's murder had been to avenge her daughter's sacrifice to the Gods in order that Agamemnon might have a fair passage across the sea to the Trojan wars.
Matricide was a heinous crime and Orestes is hunted by the Furies - the Eumenides, female nemesis - after his deed. But it becomes clear that Orestes is not to be hunted for ever:
Orestes: "And are my mother's blood and my blood one?"
Because of this ruling, Orestes goes free.
This view of women's passive role in child bearing was a major cultural source of patriarchal domination until the early twentieth century. The Greek plays written at the time of the takeover of women-led societies by male power explicitly record the put-down of women and the reasons for it.
It was this degradation that so eagerly seized the tabu power of menstruation and turned it into something fearful, revolting, dangerous. Until then the tabu had worked in a different manner.
During the time of their menses women almost universally lived apart from men, they went into special women's huts, and often stayed alone for several days A woman did not work and took no part in the activities of the community at this time. She was considered to be in the condition of association with the moon, and took on the moon's terrifying and mysterious power. Girls at their first menstruation went through female "rites de passage": they worked through initiatory disciplines in order to get into touch with the Goddess, with their own natures and to become adult women. Esther Harding says that the voice of nature speaks to her in her own person. Mircea Eliade in Myths Dreams and Mysteries speaks of women's mysteries connected with the first menstruation, which revolve upon the theme of "access to the sacred". This is a profound religious experience and sets the tone of her life for later mystery of childbirth and suckling.
It is no mistake that these very processes have been held by the later patriarchal religions to be unclean and impure: no woman who has carried a child for nine months, gone through the ordeal of birth and then held it in her arms triumphant needs to be told of the degradation of having to be "churched" to get rid of her impurity before she can join a Christian (or in equivalent terms a Jewish or Moslem) congregation.
The power of blood
The mysterious power of menstrual blood has been acknowledged in primitive societies throughout the world; first it made the crops grow, and women would ritually walk through fields for this purpose. Later, when it was held to be maleficent, women still walked through the fields for their flow to kill pests. Among the American Indians, Briffault records, a woman would leave her isolation hut during the night, at the time the corn began to ripen, and walk naked through the fields. By this means caterpillars and injurious insects would be destroyed. The Greeks had a similar procedure and Democritus stated that all insects and worms are destroyed in a field if a menstruating woman walks three times round it with flowing hair and bare feet. In Italy at the time Briffault was writing - the first quarter of the twentieth century - he found Italian peasants in the district of Belluno carrying out the same rituals. Caterpillars would be destroyed if a young girl ran naked round the field. Says Briffault: "It is usual for a priest to assist in exorcising them (the caterpillars) but it is not essential". In Holland there is still a custom for a menstruating girl to go round the cabbage patch to get rid of the caterpillars.
That woman has enormous power, is reflected in her menses, is recorded in every so-called civilisation and savagery throughout the world. The Talmud, ancient store of Jewish wisdom, states that if a woman at the beginning of her period passes between two men, she kills one of them. The Lebanese believe that the woman's shadow causes flowers to wither; a menstruating woman, they say, will kill the horse she rides. Pliny's "Natural History" states that the touch of a menstruous woman turns wine to vinegar, blights crops, kills seedlings, blasts gardens, rusts iron (especially at the waning of the moon) kills bees and causes mares to miscarry. Frazer records that in Brunswick, Germany, there is a custom that if a menstruating woman assists at the killing of a pig the pork will putrefy.
There are many other instances, and no doubt each woman will know for herself what fears and taboos are current in her own personal culture.
The sacred character of the tabu which allied the woman's power to the mysterious power of the moon and the goddess gradually became eroded. What was left was the terror of the unknown, and male assumption of brutality and cruelty in order to become "superior" to it. The mark of the menstruating woman is of course the flow of blood; and it is this blood which attained enormous significance. Tabu people were marked in blood. Later, any red material was used, Red ochre, paint, vegetable dyes. Blood and its colour red had the significance of the vital principle of the soul, or of something holy. Everyone knows of blood brother ceremonies among men. Somebody or something coloured red is set apart as something special. At the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, the paintings of the Eleusinian rites are all on a background of blood red. Many primitive people believe that blood is the substance of the human spirit. Menstruating women could indicate their apartness by marking themselves with blood or red paint.
The blood sign is used in Indian marriage ceremonies. It makes the woman tabu to everyone except the husband. She is marked with blood or red paint, to make her "pure to her husband, impure (tabu) to everyone strange". Indian women still wear the "sindur" blood spot on their foreheads showing their tabu state. Red paint and blood have been used in China until the revolution to mark a bride and set her apart. The Caribs who according to Briffault, "be-spoke their bride before she was born" took possession by marking the mother's abdomen with a red cross. There are countless examples of blood tabus. But some are closer to home.
Who has not at some time avoided stepping under a ladder, for fear of bad luck? This superstition links with an older one of not walking under a leaning tree or even the rails of a fence. Why not? Because a menstruating woman may have been there first, may have leant on the tree or the fence, there may be some essence or drop of her blood there - and it is unlucky! Among all the customs relating to fear of women's blood, nearest to our own time are those of Jewish men who are careful to dispose of hair of nail clippings away from the sight of women; if a menstruating woman should step over them, the evil influence would feed back on to their owners. Orthodox Jews will not shake hands with women lest they be contaminated.
But banish menstrual blood as we may, there are certain links with the past that we carry with us. What about red painted fingernails? Women may hide their menses but seem to need the remainder of their female power in this way: there is some sociological evidence to link the two. How many women drive, opt for red cars? The AA state the numbers are significantly more than chance. What about the use throughout the world of henna, for hair reddening, and of the ultra reddening of lips and cheeks?
As women grow older and reach the menopause, there is some evidence that they choose more home furnishings in shades of red - to remind them of their youth? Our menstrual blood and the cycle, which produces it, is part of our adult lives for perhaps forty years. Who knows if the depressions that often overtake menopausal women are not for the loss of that cycle and that sight? We all are aware of the ups and downs of the cycle: the time of the month when we are ready to go out and face the world, do new things, go to different places, overtake our previous limits; and then the time when we would rather stay quietly by ourselves, do not wish to drive, or argue; or win; we would rather think our thoughts peacefully.
What woman has not experienced the tension, not always a bad one, that flows away with a period; sometimes we dream before the onset mixed and difficult dreams; and then with the flow, the answer to our problem arrives.
Male definitions of menstruation
But so many women too, are ashamed of their period, see it with disgust. I think they are mirroring male attitudes. Doris Lessing talks about distaste, her dislike of bad smells, the necessity for constant washing. She says: "I like the smell of sex, of sweat of skin or hair. But the faintly dubious, essentially stale smell of menstrual blood, I hate. And resent. It is a smell that feels strange, even to me, an imposition from the outside - a bad smell, emanating from me".
Here she describes an essence of women's internalising of male oppression. "A bad smell - emanating from me". This is far from the holy and sacred name of a god, or goddess, and the female powers of intuition and communion with nature.
When I wrote my own life story I recalled an incident about my early menstruation. I had described my unhappiness at losing my own parents, and was living with a stepmother with whom I could not communicate. I wrote:
"Another thing that happened while we lived in that road was that my step-mother was kind to me about my periods. I had to use the washable kind like baby's towelling, and they used to chafe badly. One day I came back from school and she asked me what was the matter and I told her. She got a basin of warm water and told me to wash, and gave me some talcum powder, which I had never used before, and gave me a clean diaper. The relief was wonderful and I remember thinking that perhaps she was as kind as my real mother and not a horrible person at all".
One reason given by a publisher for not taking the book was that it was "sordid" and dealt with "things like menstruation", which he said "people wouldn't want to read about". Another time, writing an article about "camping from a woman's point of view" the editor who had commissioned it refused to publish saying he didn't want all that dirty stuff. I had written about the lack of facilities of sanitary towel disposal and for changing in comfort on camp sites then.
We have acquiesced in a male world that does not want to know about menstruation. Ourselves, we try and push it into the background, "lead normal lives" (i.e. male lives). Esther Harding had different advice to offer.
Recalling the enforced solitude that women endured in primitive times, she believes that they gained closer contact with the primitive forces within them. She says: "The modern woman has lost touch with this value and it is possible that her menstrual disabilities may be related to this loss... the woman has an opportunity at the dark of the moon to get into touch with a deeper and more fundamental layer of her own psychic life". E. Harding believes that emotional or physical disturbance at that time indicates a conflict between her own nature and her conscious attitude. "An inner necessity is calling her to introvert, to withdraw psychologically from the demands of her external life, and live for a little while within the secret places of her own heart."
She adds: "To withdraw in this way produces a strangely healing effect". It will be objected that in modern life, we cannot withdraw. If we are "doing a job" - for pay, we have to behave "as usual"; if we are at home especially with young children demands are made and no quarter given. Women oriented to the political left may object that emphasizing menstrual apartness is a regression from equal values with men, what of the picture of "in the forefront together" if menstrual women are lagging behind communing in the home? The whole picture of women making a fuss about their menses runs counter to most current political thought.
Women defining menstruation
But could we think again? Is not this attitude a true working of Patriarchy? Women do live on a monthly cycle: instead of burying it, why not make something of it?
Jesus remarked that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He was wrong. The Sabbath was made by and for women. There is ample precedent from the past for women's days, where men and children would wait on and bring food to women who were living apart from them - perhaps just in another room, or even a part of the room. To bring home, nowadays, to men that women are in a special condition, are communing with themselves, are at the "dark side of the moon" and may gain inspiration to sort out problems and deal better with every-day life - is not this a break in their patriarchal conditioning? And could not children be taught from the very earliest moment that on "Mother's Days" every month, she has to be treated in an extra special way, and demands not made on her all the time?
And at one's place of work, instead of fractious conflict with one's feelings, could we not wear something red, and work quietly and peacefully, and expect fewer demands. Remembering all the time, that the new moon rises after the old has slipped away; other people could start getting used to our cycles and benefitting from them. We could break the ties of the man's world. Using our menstrual cycle we could start showing what a woman's world is like.
I believe that women regaining confidence through the explicit demonstration of their cycle and its powers in life could move from many conflicts within themselves into a female-defined world. This would create a marvellous crack in the armour of patriarchy, and might help us all to break through to a world where being female will be a delight and a powerful lever of change.
Menstrual Taboos, 1978