The Red Death: Menstruation as a Symbol of Renewal- Pt 6.

“The medicalization of our [women’s] bodies is particularly ironic because historically, women served as society’s healers, a role that combined wisdom, nurturance, intuition, and skill.”

This quote from Women’s Health Advocate Sibyl Shainwald points to the medicalisation of women’s bodies as usurping traditional feminine wisdom in favor of androcentric medical practices which pathologise the ontological nature of women. Speaking at the conference for Hysterectomy Education Resources and Sources (HERS), she says:

“According to the Western medical model, pre-menstrual syndrome is a disease, menstruation is a disease, pregnancy is a disease, childbirth is a disease, and menopause is a disease. From this model, I have reached the conclusion that being a woman is a disease.”

You can read the full speech here- Sibyl Shainwald Talk

From my own perspective, in considering who ultimately benefits from the wide spread consumption of menstrual suppressants, there is the question of economics: Barr pharmaceuticals earned a $50 million profit in its first year (2013) of launching Seasonale; the company also has a sizable part of the menopausal pharmaceutical market and breast cancer medication.

Does economics play a part in how menstruation is viewed? Anthropologist Alma Gottileb believes that it does:

“This score comprises the statistical base for testing various hypothesis, including one to the effect that menstrual taboos are not strong in societies in which women make significant economic contributions” (Gottileb 1988, p11)

Based on Dr Gottileb’s thesis it is reasonable to conclude that menstrual taboo is not strong in the Western world, however I would argue that the taboo simply takes on a culturally suitable guise and in the case of the contemporary West menstruation is in fact so taboo that it is in danger of being permanently deleted from our cultural, emotional and spiritual landscapes. Women’s bodies and the control of them is big business and in controlling women’s bodies through medical intervention, women are better placed to be ‘productive’ members of society contributing significantly to the GDP.

Women Body profit

Within the Seasonale message is the construction of female purity repeatedly emphasised by the wearing of white clothes; Fosket and Mamo read the subtext as an indication that female purity is no longer connected to sexual discernment but is linked instead to cleanliness: “The dominance of white is also a symbolic move to signal purity…. purity as a feminine characteristic of Seasonale is produced by limited menstrual flows and not by limited sexual behaviours” (Fosket and Mamo, p.928). Within the advertising message are layers of meaning one of which is that the female body, without the messiness of menstruation, is in a clean and receptive state, prepared for penetration at any time.  A non-menstruating woman is also more reliable in the work place, ready and able to function as well as a man. In Scripting the Body, the authors say:

“Furthermore, another implicit assumption is that, with Seasonale, women are free to engage (or compete) in the professional world with bodies more similar to those of men. Menstruation is produced as a constraining process that, with Seasonale,  becomes something to be overcome: a part of every woman’s and girl’s wellness” (ibid).

Seasonale Advertising Campiagn

Seasonale Advertising Campaign 2013

For Lara Owen these shifts point to a deeper issue: In her book Her Blood is Gold, Owen says, “When you find the place where culture splits form a natural truth you have found a key- a way inside the disease of a culture” (Owen, 1991, p.146). While Western medicine is commendable in its capacity to save and enhance the quality of lives, the deeper issues of disease are still not being addressed. Furthermore, ‘biomanipulation’ for the sake of attaining cultural ideals that run contrary to nature are in the main not being challenged. In raising this challenge we need to know what it is we are defending. For myself, I am defending the wisdom of nature and the feminine principle as a fundamental and necessary condition of life that if transgressed could result in catastrophic consequences. Jungian analyst Helen Luke puts it like this:

“There can be no doubt that if civilized humankind is to survive the dangers of this century of transition, when all familiar landmarks are disappearing and the collective structures that used to protect us are crumbling, we must turn to the goddess, to the long-despised values of the feminine, to the feeling heart and the contemplative mind…. perhaps then our culture may see the rising of a new day” (Luke, 1989, p.28).

Vladimir Kush Fiery Dance

Fiery Dance by Vladimir Kush

In the introduction to Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Teresa Brennan says that the book draws on the feminist critique of reason to argue that “The master form of rationality of Western culture has been systematically unable to acknowledge dependency on nature” (Plumwood, 1993. Preface). And writing at the turn of the 20th century, the mystic and philosopher Rudolf Steiner preempts the point at which human consciousness reaches a level in which it is able to co-opt nature:

“Until now, the human being has only mastered the inanimate forces of nature. Transformation of the living forces, of what sprouts and grows in plants, and of what manifest in animal [and human] reproduction, is beyond his power. But just as human beings have gained mastery of inanimate nature and gravitational forces, so in the future they will come to control what in the present they receive only as a gift from nature or divine powers- that is living forces” (Steiner, 2010, p.102).

How humanity uses this power remains to be seen; scientific and technological advancements are in the main socially and culturally permitted – the benefits are extolled high above the consequences and deeper implications of interfering in the matrix of life.  With regards to menstrual suppression I would argue that a huge step is being taken in redefining the feminine – this redefinition, far from acknowledging the wisdom of the feminine and her life-enhancing ways is being eroded. The rejection of the feminine body is not alone in the human redefinition of science, as eco feminist and scientist Vandana Shiva says, “The rejection of the female body is part of the whole rejection of embodiment in Enlightenment thought” (Shiva and Mies, 1993, p.226).

History shows that these ideals of mastery exist not only in the minds of men of the enlightenment but is also expressed in the dialectic of many feminist thinkers. Shulamith Firestone’s radical feminism of the early 60’s, desired a “human mastery of matter”, so that an “artificial ecological balance could be created where the natural one failed” (Firestone, quoted in Mellor, p.81). For Firestone and other radical ‘anti-essentialist’ feminists, female biology is a burden and binding oppression in which, “the only way to escape fundamental biological conditions and the tyranny of the biological family” is to use productive technology to eliminate sex/gender differences” (Quoted in Mellor, 1997, p.80). Firestone would no doubt be gratified to see the developments in uterine control today. Indeed, biomedicalisation and the manipulation of the human body does appear to herald the age of the eradication of sex/gender difference.

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir says, “We can imagine a parthenogenetic or hermaphroditic society” (Beauvoir, 1949, p.390). It seems as though one way our culture is dealing with the complex issues of sex, gender and biology is to eradicate difference both medically and socially, however much like the issue of menstrual suppression we must consider what it is we are losing in going against the matrix of life in our pursuit of dominion over nature.

The Red Death: Menstruation as a Symbol of Renewal- Part 5.

Mother of God

Protection of the Mother God-Orthodox Image found on google images

What may loosely be termed as a ‘menstrual revival movement’, beginning in the 1970s and taking hold in the 1980s continues today as many women seek to honour menstruation and even utilise it as a method of empowerment for women. Fedele says: “By the end of the 1980’s, a movement to affirm the power and importance of menstruation had developed” (Fedele 2013.p. 151). Chris Knight credits a significant contribution to Shuttle and Redgrove and claims that

“It was above all The Wise Wound that presented a new generation of emancipated women in the 1980’s with what seemed to be at first a daring and paradoxical message: Menstruation can be an empowering and indeed magical experience” (Knight, 1991, p.378).

While much negativity, past and present, has undoubtedly played a part in our current menstrual rejection, it is clear that the empowering message from The Wise Wound and other seminal texts such as Vicki Noble’s Shakti Woman, and Sjoo and Mor’s The Great Cosmic Mother finds strong resonance today. In the feminine spirituality movement, goddess and pagan groups and in ‘pro-women’ circles all over the Western world, women are reclaiming their “wise blood”. Alexander Pope, a leader in the menstrual movement promotes her Red School by declaring “We’ve got a radical new approach to women’s leadership, creativity and spiritual life based on a uniquely feminine way – the menstrual cycle(redschool.com, 2017). 

looking-out-of-the-red-tent-renee-kahn

Looking Out Of The Red Tent by Renee Kahn

Similarly Red Tent is a grass roots movement where circles of woman gather regularly to share and endorse the experiences of womanhood through different stages. The first circles appeared in the late 1990s but it was after the release of Anita Diamant’s book of the same name in 1997 that the movement really gained in popularity. Red Tent the book is a feminist retelling of the biblical story The Rape of Dinah (Genesis); in a review of the book, Emily Dwass says that the book’s success lies in, “giving a voice to Dinah, one of the silent female characters in Genesis” (Dwass, 2000). The novel”, says Dwass has “struck a chord with women who may have felt left out of biblical history…. it celebrates mothers and daughters and the mysteries of the life cycle” (Dwass, 2000).

Writing for the Huffington Post last year, Vanessa Olorenshaw, says:

“Red Tent and women’s circles are about something that can happen when women showing an open mind gather…. it’s not magic…. saying that, I occasionally get the feeling that, once, we women of the Red Tent would have been burned at the stake” (Olorenshaw, 2017)

Drawing a parallel between ‘menstrual revival movements’ and ‘witch burning’ could have deeper and more profound implications that the author of the article may have realised: for Shuttle and Redgrove “the persecution continues, and is current” (Shuttle and Redgrove, 1978, p.204). Among the many people who believe that the number of women tortured and sentenced to death during the ‘witch trials’ is a staggering nine million, Shuttle and Redgrove chillingly link this figure with the modern figures of 90% of women who suffer from ‘dysmenorrhoea’.

witchcraft

unknown image- google images

Linking past stories to our present experience as Shuttle and Redgrove have done can be illuminating in exploring the mythical and archetypal essence at the core of things. In a documentary released in September 2017 entitled Sacrificial Virgins, film maker Joan Shenton traces a thread from the HPV vaccinations currently administered to young girls, back to the 1960s “Thalidomide tragedy” when a drug prescribed to pregnant women resulting in thousands of babies being born with deformities. Shenton travels back further on the cultural timeline to draw parallels with sacrificed virgins from ancient cultures where pre-sexual girls were “chosen” to give their life and autonomy to the king or other important men. Shenton says she chose the title Sacrificial Virgins “because the vaccine is often given to girls before they are sexually active”. (SanVax,Inc.,2017).

While this point may appear to go off at tangents to the issues raised in this essay, I feel it is important on two accounts: firstly, while we are caught up in the minutiae of our lives we rarely drop beneath the surface of things to connect with the archetypal, symbolic and mythic aspects of our cultural shared past. Secondly, one of Shenton’s main concern is that the efficacy of the HPV vaccination in preventing cancer is still unproven and yet:

“Adverse reactions are blighting and even ending the lives of girls and young women across the world. Pharmaceutical manufacturers and many health authorities are refusing to acknowledge there is a problem and the medical community is continuing to offer the vaccine (SanVax, Inc., 2017).

This is concerning in the same way menstrual suppression is – it is clear that modern medicine does not fully understand women’s bodies and reproduction, or feminine consciousness, as Hillman says:

“We must bear in mind that the evidence in anatomy, as in all fields of science, is gathered mainly by men and is part of their philosophy. We know next to nothing about how feminine consciousness or a consciousness that has an integrated feminine regards the same data” (Hillman, 1972, p.249).

Ultimately however it is the work of women to reclaim their menstruation, bodies and biological processes – menstruation may be “woman’s curse”, or “an unexplored resource”, “magic” or “madness” (Shuttle and Redgrove, 1978, p. 213). Perhaps it is for each woman herself to decide how she makes sense and integrates menstruation in her life… or not. While so little is known about menstruation on a physical, emotional and spiritual level, there needs to be more awareness and conversation about the implications of erasing it from our feminine experience.

Hannah Adamaszek

Image by Hannah Adamaszek

The Red Death: Menstruation as a Symbol of Renewal-Part 4

Mary Magadalene

 Mary Magdalene with Alabaster Jar by EsotericaZosimoto

Within the feminist spirituality movement, professor of religious studies, Anna Fedele describes the practices of a group of Spanish pilgrims for whom “a world-denying and body mortifying Christian attitude is at the root of most present-day evils and the principal cause of the exploitation of the planet” (Fedele 2013. p.145). The pilgrims consider themselves “heirs of an ancient pre-Christian and pre-patriarchal pagan cult of the Goddess” (ibid) and are among many groups involved in what I would describe as a ‘menstrual revival’ movement. The pilgrims believe that “women’s blood is sacred and see the menstrual cycle as a key element in the process of reversing Christianity’s systematic devaluation of the body, particularly the female body” (ibid).

In modern culture the power of menstruation and acknowledgement of the divine feminine has surfaced at various times within literature, art and philosophy- the divine feminine rises time and again despite forces that attempt to repress her. In the concluding chapter of The Golden Bough James Frazer sees menstruants as semi-divine “powers” (Knight 1991, p.381), and the anthropologist Robert Briffault says,

“The menstruating woman is fraught with a strange power, which is thought of in some cultures a kind of communicable disease, and in others a kind of shamanic or magical holiness leading to prophetic fits and trances” (Shuttle and Redgrove 1978, p.62).

Anthropologist George Deveraux offers this controversial statement referring to menstruating women: “One does not bother to tie up a puppy with a steel cable” (Quoted in Shuttle and Redgrove, p. 61).

Blake

 ‘The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy’- William Blake. In the public domain

Demetra George considers that the rejected aspects of the feminine is the ‘Dark Goddess’ whose teachings attune women to the “trinity of feminine wholeness” (George, 1992, p.43).

The Dark Goddess is not only concerned with women and reviving the exiled aspects of the feminine, she is also concerned with “divination, magic, healing, sacred sexuality, the nonphysical dimensions of being, and the mysteries of birth, death, and regeneration” (George, 1992, p.43).

Rituals and knowledge involving birth, death, renewal, and regeneration are the domain of the Dark Goddess “who has come to contain the rejected aspects of feminine wholeness and, as such, she now symbolizes the feminine shadow” (George, 1992, p.44). George says that in rejecting the Dark Goddess and her teachings, not only women but the earth has suffered:

The Masque of the Four Seasons- Walter Crane

The Masque of the Four Seasons by Walter Crane

“In the attempt to deny the death bringing Dark Goddess who also holds the sexual secrets, patriarchal culture has concealed from us the knowledge of the healing and rejuvenating gifts of her sexuality. Not only has this gross misunderstanding poisoned the relationships between men and women, but the rejection of the feminine regenerative sexual power has also resulted in the stagnation and putrefaction of our bodies and the earth.”

Sylvia Brinton Perera who wrote Descent to the Goddess in 1932 says that women need to reconnect with that lost part of themselves and that the task for “unmothered daughters of patriarchy” (Perera, 1932, p.56) is to find healing:

“We need to undergo a “controlled regression” into the borderland-underworld levels of the dark goddess- back to ourselves before we had the form we know, back to the magic and archaic levels of consciousness and to the transpersonal passions and rages which both blast and nurture us there…. back to the body mind.”

Thus menstruation, both archaic and contemporary is a red thread that weaves through the ages and the mother-line… telling the story of the feminine mysteries… keeping them alive. Menstruation can provide an initiatory context for modern women to find the healing that Perera speaks of; it is an entirely feminine experience that can be rescued from patriarchal attitudes and control and may be reclaimed as an important aspect of the feminine principle.

Attempts to suppress the Dark Goddess, the feminine mysteries, and menstruation is ultimately futile, as “the more narrow and restrictive the society in which we live, the larger will be the collective shadow (George, 1992, p.48). Even although there is a possibility that menstruation may be physically eradicated, its archetypal image, its symbol and correspondences are not so easily diminished. Menstruation does not entirely become unreal by its absence… the shadow created by its rejection, I suspect, would be, and is, felt at a collective level. But at this threshold in our story, where on one hand lies the road to menstrual suppression and the other opens the gateway to a menstrual revival, it is important to create modern day rituals and ceremonies around menstruation.

Eliade says “It is what happens in the sacred space, the space out of time (the transhuman) that gives structure and consistency to the profane world.”

pompeii-mystery-frieze4

Villa of Mysteries– Women engaged in Dionysian Initiation- Fresco Pompeii

 

Considering what may be learned about the feminine mysteries from traditional and ancient cultures, restoring and reclaiming the creative life-enhancing ways of the feminine towards renewal and regeneration is much needed at this time: “Without the vital feminine balance to the collective patriarchal principle there is a certain barrenness to life” (Qualls-Corbett, 1988, p.16).

As the feminine, female bodies and female biological functions have been particularly reviled in our modern world, the resacralization of menstruation seems like a good place to begin the journey of reconnection.

The Red Death: Menstruation as a Symbol of Renewal- Part 3

Larrissa Morais

Painting by Larissa Morais

How is it that menstruation, once considered a sacred process, has become devoid of meaning in our modern times? What has caused a shift from the sacred to the profane? In The Woman in a Shaman’s Body, anthropologist Barbara Tedlock says: “The unease so many Western women feel about their menstrual cycle springs from a combination of masculine sentiments and religious sanctions” (Tedlock, 2005, p.196). While Psychotherapist and Astrologer, Demetra George says, “Women no longer understand that the instinctive movement during menstruation is withdrawal in order to connect with powerful psychic energies to effect healing in their lives” (George, 1992, p.19-20). Feminist scholar Mary Parlee says: “What little we do know of menstruation has been defined in terms of pathology; menstrual studies are incomplete while we only chart the sickness of the cycle, and not its peaks and inspirations” (Parlee, quoted in Shuttle and Redgrove 1978, p.72).

With a cursory glance into the physical and emotional problems associated with menstruation, it is reasonable to assume that menstruation has become pathologised in the modern West. According to Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, 90% of modern women suffer dysmenorrhea and in the Guardian newspaper in September 2017, it was reported that 176 million suffer from endometriosis- that’s 10% of women worldwide. The article states that the prevalence of endometriosis in women experiencing fertility issues can be as high as 30-50%, and concludes that the cause of endometriosis is unknown and there is no definite cure.

In Jungian psychotherapy much has been revealed about woman’s over identification with the animus (male principle) and the consequences of turning against her own feminine biological nature. In a patriarchal culture where the masculine principle has been inflated for a few thousand years it is hardly surprising that women of the modern West have become over identified with the animus, or even possessed by it. This can be seen in women who have rejected part of themselves in order to be successful in a system that denies their feminine nature or qualities. Many women have, as George says, lost their inherent instinctual wisdom in relation to their bodies and natural cycles.

Barr Pharmaceutical, the company who produce Seasonale, the market leader in menstrual suppression draws heavily on feminine over-identification with masculine values in their advertising campaigns, often depicting young, successful urban women who have no time for menstruating. In their critique of Seasonale, scientists Laura Mamo and Jennifer Foskett observe:

“Furthermore, another implicit assumption is that, with Seasonale, women are free to engage (or compete) in the professional world with bodies more similar to those of men…. menstruation is produced as a constraining process that, with Seasonale, becomes something to be overcome: a part of every woman’s and girl’s wellness.”

In Jungian terms, this over identification with the animus necessitates a rejection of the  ‘great mother archetype’ which calls forth the ‘negative great mother’. Jungian Jasbinder Garnermann says this denial “can manifest in physical symptoms such as irregular menstruation, amenorrhoea and fertility problems.”

seasonale ad 3

Seasonale Advertisement

Rarely does allopathic Western medicine consider the under-lying issues of menstrual disorders and instead favours prescription of pharmaceutical drugs or invasive surgery. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2006-2010, 11.7 percent of women between the ages of 40-44 had a hysterectomy. When we acknowledge the connection between hysteria and hysterectomy, it is difficult to ignore the connection between physical disease and emotional experience; it is also difficult to ignore the connection between physical remedy and behavioral control.

Mary Daly has a particular focus on gynaecology and medical practices carried out on women’s bodies which she presents in her 1987 Gyn/Ecology. According to Lucy Sargisson what Daly seeks in this work is “a true, wild, Woman’s self, which she perceives to be dormant in women, temporarily pacified by patriarchal systems of domination” (Sargisson, 1996, p.184).  Daly herself says: “The rise of Western gynecology was built on the massacre of women healers, replaced by male medical practitioners. The purpose and intent of gynecology was/is not healing in a deep sense but violent enforcement of the sexual caste system” (Daly, quoted in Noble, 1991, p.35).

Seasonale, is also being applauded as a cure for increasing menstrual problems, hailed as  a “radical rescuing of the ovaries and endometrium from modernity” (Gladwell, 2000). Yet few people seem willing to ask why modernity is so detrimental to the reproductive and menstrual health of women.  Instead of asking why so many women suffer negative symptoms of menstruation, or why teenage girls view their menstrual blood negatively – “The experience of the first period is associated with hurts and wounds and bodily waste” (Douvain, quoted in Shuttle and Redgrove 1978, p.87), the current trend is towards erasing periods all together. For Paula Weideger, “The menstrual taboo… has been one of the most successful methods devised to undermine the self-acceptance and confidence of women” (Weideger, quoted in Shuttle and Redgrove, 1978, p.88).  Demetra George, echoing this view puts it like this: “Women are made to feel ashamed of their raw, instinctive sexual desires and to feel that their menstrual blood is dirty and disgusting” (George, 1992 p.50).

In trying to make sense of menstrual suppression and the archetype behind it and in looking to history for a clearer understand of the present, is it worth considering that control of women and their bodies through darkly coercive means  with “sinister misogynistic implications” (Hillman)  are not resigned to the past? Is it the case that women themselves are unwittingly permitting the control and manipulation of their bodies through a female-denying science and technology?

In considering the reasons why many women reject menstruation, I am led to a thorny debate at the heart of feminist discourse- the ‘essentialism’ and ‘biological determinism’ debate. This dialectic asks difficult questions about the relationship between women and nature – is it the case that women, on account of their biology have a particular and unique relationship with the natural world? This issue has a caused a split in feminist discourse for six decades with cultural feminists rejecting biological essentialism as a tool of patriarchal coercion and control, and other feminist groups, including ecofeminists, insisting on the connection between women and the natural world while reviewing the status of both in our current system. I will explore this in a later section.

For now, an important question I feel in addressing historical misogyny is this: What happened to all that fear, superstition and hysteria? Where did it go … did it simply dissolve as humanity evolved?  Did the Church and other institutions quietly become more women- loving? The “witch hunts’” says Carol Christ, “were as much about the control of information and knowledge as it was about controlling women’s sexuality and bodies”(Christ, 1988, p.46). Many women, disempowered within the medical systems are turning to pro- women movements of natural birthing, sacred sexuality, menstrual awareness and the feminine mysteries to reclaim their innate wisdom precisely because they are not ‘being met’ by our institutions- which, it may argued, are still premised on institutionalized misogyny. While there are no modern day witch hunts, many women will testify to feeling degraded, demeaned or in some way harmed or insulted in their interactions with medical and other cultural institutions.

Schools  are also being called into question; right now there is a campaign running to challenge rules in school that prohibit teenage girls from going to the bathroom to attend to their menstrual needs.

margaret-mitchell

Ceramic by Margaret Mitchell from Alpaca Ceramics

The Red Death: Menstruation as a Symbol of Renewal -Pt.2

Apache Sunrise Ceremony- A Woman Coming of Age-

Apache Sunrise Ceremony- A Rites of Passage from girlhood to womanhood. Photographer unknown.

Traditional and indigenous cultures have a different relationship to menstruation: anthropologists Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb say, “this apparently ordinary biological event [menstruation] has been subject to extraordinary symbolic elaboration in a wide variety of cultures” (Buckley and Gottlieb, 1988, p. 3). The meaning of menstruation while apparently more symbolic in traditional cultures is no less ambiguous; cross-culturally studies shows that while menstruation is universally ‘taboo’, rules, social mores, and customs “bespeak quite different, even opposite, purposes and meanings…. ambiguous and often multivalent” (ibid).

In our own culture ‘selective’ myths on menstruation may be found within the Judaeo- Christian tradition where, generally speaking, menstruation is viewed as “impure”, “unclean” or “contaminating” – Leviticus 15:19-23, is a typical example: “When a woman has discharge, if the discharge in her body is blood, she shall continue in her menstrual impurity for seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening”. In The Myth of Analysis, James Hillman tells us: “In the writings of the church fathers misogyny is particularly virulent in regard to the body of women…. darkness and female are interchangeable concepts” (Hillman, 1972, p.219).

The contents of this section may be uncomfortable; in researching the history of menstruation in our western culture, I looked in some dark closets. Here I have highlighted two institutions that have visibly and viscerally projected the collective shadow onto the feminine: the Judaeo Christian Church and the medical establishment-particularly gynecology. It is not my intention to demonise these systems, instead I am hopefully bringing into clearer focus a distorted picture that was formed over many centuries in relation to the feminine, and in particular women’s bodies and sexuality. It is futile to play ping-pong with the collective shadow, finger pointing, blaming… but it is necessary to acknowledge the effects of cultural misogyny in order to understand the wounds and to heal them.

There are eleven versus in the bible that mention menstruation. In each case, menstruation is regarded as “impure”, “unclean”, “contaminating” or in some way “taboo”. In Leviticus 15:19-23 we are told of the menstruating woman that: “Everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean, and everything on which she sits shall be unclean. Anyone who touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water and be unclean until evening”(Leviticus 15:19-23). Views on menstruation, so denigrated in the Christian scriptures, continued well into the 20th century; Anthropologist Barbara Tedlock says that “to this day feminine blood is considered impure in the Roman Catholic Church” (Tedlock, 2005, p.197).

Christ and the Woman with the Issue of Blood - Paolo Veronese

 Christ and the Woman with the Issue of Blood – Paolo Veronese

In the gospels- Matthew 9:20–22, Mark 5:25–34, Luke 8:43–48, there are accounts of Jesus Healing the Bleeding Woman, or The Woman with an Issue of Blood. The incident occurs when Jesus is traveling among a large crowd of people when from behind his robe he is touched by a woman who is bleeding form her vagina. There are various accounts of the story however the gist is that when the bleeding woman touched his robe, Jesus felt “power” leave him (Luke 8:43-48 KJV) and he turned to ask his disciples, “who touched my cloak?”. His disciples were surprised that Jesus should ask this question amid so many people… when so many were touching him… however Jesus was determined to know who had touched him: “But”, Jesus said “someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me” (Luke 8; 43-48 NIV). The woman confessed and was healed by Jesus, but the question of why Jesus should have felt the loss of something when he was touched by the woman is mysterious: “Jesus knew that “virtue” or “power” had gone out of him…. “her touch of faith made a demand on His healing power” (Mark 5:28, NIV).  There are differing interpretations as to why the woman was bleeding however according to Dr. John McArthur, it seems likely she was menstruating:

“Because of the continual bleeding, the woman would have been regarded in Jewish law as a niddah or menstruating woman, and so ceremonially unclean. To be regarded as clean, the flow of blood would need to stop for at least seven days. Because of the constant bleeding, this woman lived in a continual state of uncleanness which would have brought upon her social and religious isolation” (McArthur, 1987, pp. 79-80).

Continuing with the menstrual myth as told within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) is a treatise which was authorized in 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII – Malleus outlines and sanctions inquisitorial practices to exterminate people suspected of practicing witchcraft. It ascertained that all witchcraft stemmed from “carnal lust” (quoted in Shuttle and Redgrove, 1978, p.54). In a chapter entitled Nine Million Menstrual Murders Shuttle and Redgrove propose that being a woman was enough to be targeted in the campaign:

“In the middle-ages, it scarcely mattered whether you were an organized dissident or not. You were a dissident by being a woman. One aspect of women’s dissidence, so far as men are concerned, is that they magically menstruate, and produce magical blood” (ibid, 1978, p.204).

The authors are clear that a major reason for the attack on women, other than the alleged “carnal; lust”, and dalliance with demons, was menstruation: “A major sexual function of women that made them a target was menstruation…. menstruation was a sign of a woman’s maturity, just as menopause was an indication of the wisdom associated with old age” (ibid, 1978, pp.228-233).

352px-John_William_Godward_-_Athenais_-_1908

Athenais by John William Godward- 1908

The hysteria that took hold in the minds of the persecutors became extremely condemning leading to the extermination of many women, and also men, whom they considered a threat. In his book, The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft, Hans Peter Broedel, quotes a passage from Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, the two Dominican Friars who wrote Maleus  “Ultimately, however, the bewitched cannot hope for an infallible remedy, for the power of witches is too strong. There is only one completely reliable way to combat witchcraft, and this is to eliminate the witches (quoted in Broedel, 2003, p.33). Feminist theologian scholar Carol Christ notes: “It is not difficult to see why she [the suspected witch] was persecuted by an insecure and misogynist church that could not tolerate rival power, especially the power of women” (Christ, 1988, p.46).

Ironically, hysteria “so long considered an exclusively woman’s disease”, (Hillman 1972, p.251), seems to have taken a much stronger hold in the minds of the church fathers of the early modern period than the accused. Hillman reminds us that depth psychology rises out of hysteria: “the original substance for our field consists of the problem of the feminine” (Hillman, 1972, p289). Psychology then, must also be recognised as developing out of an essentially ‘androcentric’ position in which women are viewed negatively – “Feminine inferiority now becomes the fundamental affliction of consciousness, the etiological specific that brings about both our psychic disorders and the method of analysis aimed at these disorders” (Hillman, 1972, p.292).

Bearing in mind that so little was, and arguably still is, known about the female body – “not until 1827 was the human egg discovered, and not until the turn of the present century was the cyclical relation between menstruation and ovulation clearly established” (ibid, 1972, p.223) – it is little wonder that traces of the “male fantasy” prevail today. A gynocentric perspective of women and women’s bodies is strangely absent from most of the medical, psychological, and philosophical literature that found its way into creating a compendium of ‘knowledge’ which is still drawn upon today.

The ‘father of modern gynecology’, James Marion Sims, 1813-1883, purchased, or was given, black slave women on whom he allegedly experimented without anaesthetic – there was a common belief at the time that black woman felt no pain (Lerner, 2017) – and although his methods have been criticised, Physician L. L. Wall commends his work: “Sims conformed to accepted medical practices of the time, that he performed surgery for a therapeutic result, and that the women he operated on suffered what could be a catastrophic condition for their health and quality of life” (Wall, 2006). Today a statue of Simms stands outside the New York Academy of Medicine – this is reminiscent of the witches ‘ducking’ seat that hangs over Canterbury’s River Stour, historically a device of torture now a tourist attraction (this has now been removed).

Reminders of our dark past that weave their way unchallenged into our contemporary landscapes could provide a gateway into understanding the collective psyche in relation to the feminine. These symbols of darkness go for the most part unnoticed, but I suggest they exist as markers of our collective unhealed wounds, particularly in relation to the feminine and her treatment at the hands of patriarchy. The events that took place during the witch trials of the early modern period in Europe and Salem is one of the unhealed traumas of our time. For anyone who works with trauma they will know that to heal, the past must be let go of so that it does not fester in the body and continually reactivate the wound, but when the wound is unacknowledged on a collective level, what is needed is a confrontation with and acknowledgment of the cultural shadow.

Death and the Maiden, Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz

Death and the Maiden, Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz

What was at the the root of such “sinister” misogyny that spread during the early modern period? Scholar of Gnosticism and Jungian psychology, Stephan A Hoeller, says, “Men project their dark, erotic side onto woman, whom they the fear and desire at the same time, precisely because they fear and desire their own unconscious Eros” (Hoeller, 1982, p.143). As he sees it:

“Here is the true reason for the long-held distorted view of women as dangerous seductresses leading men astray, creatures filled with a dark, menacing sexuality, at once terrifying and alluring to the masculine psyche…. the woman as witch, temptress, Eve, the willing dupe of an evil serpent of the story of Genesis” (ibid).

In turning our gaze back to the present day and the current state of menstruation, it is no wonder that we call it the “curse”. But for all the significance attributed to menstrual symbolism by anthropologists and others, and for all the fascination with which its origins and functions have been pursued, little has been firmly established” (Buckley and Gottileb, 1988, p.3). And it is this lack of wisdom that needs to be addressed before we make the terrible error of suppressing -or even eradicating -menstruation without first having discovered its gifts.

As I continue with this series my hope is to show that menstruation and feminine wisdom as a path-way of power and healing could be a panacea for helping to harmonise some of the issues we are currently facing in our inner lives and our relationship with the earth.

The Red Death: Menstruation as a Symbol of Renewal-Part 1.

John Collier Priestess of Delphi

Priestess of Delphi By John Collier 1891

How are we to understand menstruation in our modern world? Is it “like a vestigial organ, left over from an outworn evolutionary stage, or could it be the accompaniment of some hitherto unused ability in women?” (Shuttle and Redgrove, 1978, p.13). If it is the first option, it is little wonder that with the aid of pharmaceuticals, many women are choosing to reduce or eliminate their monthly menstrual cycle. If the latter is true, humanity is in danger of disregarding a gift, given through women, but potentially beneficial to all.  In their seminal book on menstruation, The Wise Wound, Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove introduce a daring and controversial proposition: “Suppose that society is a lie, and that the period is a moment of truth which will not sustain lies” (ibid). Suppose indeed that menstruation, maligned and rejected in our culture, is in fact threatening because it is powerful. The anthropologist George Devereux says that “the menstruating woman can be defined as both sacred and dangerous, and in a good many ways, as “sacred because dangerous”, and “dangerous because sacred”’ (Devereux, 1950, p. 252).

Menstrual Night BY Emily Balivet

Menstrual Night By Emily Bavilet

The Red Death is an enquiry into the recent trend towards menstrual suppression that is occurring over the Western world. For the first time in history women can choose to opt out of menstruation with the aid of a new type of oral contraceptive (OCP’s), known as ‘menstrual suppressants’. While many women are relieved to be freed from the “curse”, others are concerned about the long-term health implications of this procedure. My own concerns are less tangible: while I am naturally concerned about the health risks of menstrual suppression to women’s bodies, I am also troubled by the potential loss of women’s emotional, psychic and spiritual well being. On a darker note, I am uneasy about what appears to be control and manipulation of women’s bodies and women’s power- history shows us that misogynist attitudes have been instrumental in shaping and containing knowledge within religious, cultural and academic institutions. Throughout this essay I offer some examples of institutionalized misogyny which implicitly or otherwise collude in the control of women’s bodies.

Menstrual suppression also raises deeper questions about our human relationship with the non-human worlds, the animal and plant kingdom, the waters of life and the cycles of the moon. Ecology, then, how we interact and co-exist with the world around us is of importance to this enquiry. At the centre I place the flowing blood of menstruation as a symbol of renewal: “The main theme of the Goddess symbolism” says Maria Gimbutas, “is the mystery of birth and death and the renewal of life, not only human life but all life on earth and indeed in the whole cosmos” (Gimbutas, 1989, xix).

We have moved, in our modern scientific culture, from enhanced control over external nature to the harnessing and transformation of internal nature (Clarke, quoted in Fosket and Mamo, 2009, p. 927). And in our pursuit of knowledge we have developed technologies capable of “transforming life itself” (ibid). On this human odyssey towards perfecting life something is being lost, something is forgotten … On reaching the point of no return, the pinnacle of human mastery over nature, can we can boldly cross into a ‘brave new world’, protected at last from the “devouring Mother”? (Neumann, 1994, p.177). The Sufi Mystic, Ibn Arabi tells us that “universal nature is the feminine, or the maternal side of the creative act and is the merciful breathing-out of God” (quoted in Marshal, 1996, p.157), but science, intent on wrestling the secrets from nature to gain mastery over its operations (Merchant, 1980, p.111), is in danger of violating all that is sacred.

In an anonymous text called the Purissima Revelation, there is caution against usurping nature in our attempt to steal the ‘Golden Fleece’ And woe to him, who, like Jason, lets himself be seduced by his dangerous conquest and submits to nature the sorceress, instead of remaining constant and true to his divine bride, wisdom” (Quoted in Marshall, 1996, p.157). Guidance on correct behavior and the laws that must be adhered in order to attain the ‘Golden Fleece’ are offered in the text: “only the wise Argonauts, who strictly observe the laws of nature and are completely devoted to the will of the Almighty can win the precious golden fleece” (Marshall, 1980, p.157). In a contemporary context, the ‘Golden Fleece’ may be seen as the secrets of renewal and regeneration, the giver of life and the bestower of wisdom found in the “wise blood” and cycles of women – menstruation as a physical representation of “the laws of nature” that will help us to live in harmony with the natural world.

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse. 1907

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse. 1907

In interfering with the human body and natural bodily functions, the modern scientist, homo scientificus, has transgressed the laws of nature, and setting himself apart from nature has developed an attitude of domination: “In order to do violence to Mother Nature and other sister beings on the earth, homo scientificus had to set himself apart, or above Nature. The modern scientist is the man who presumably created nature as well as himself out of his brain power. He is the new god, the culture hero of European civilization.” (Mies and Shiva, 1993, p. 47).

“Biomedicalization” of women’s bodies – that is the “harnessing and transformation of internal nature” (Clarke, quoted in Fosket and Mamo, 2009, p. 927), takes us dangerously close to a rejection of embodiment, and in particular female embodiment. For Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies this is “characteristic in “Enlightenment thought” which is “purified” of all traces of the fact that we are born of women and that we shall die, that we are carnal, mortal beings” (Mies and Shiva, 1993, p.226).

Of concern is that while menstruation is in danger of becoming obsolete, so little is actually known about it. Many of the ideas that informs modern gynaecology are remnants from a darkly misogynist past where according to James Hillman, “upon the physical body of the feminine the fantasies of female inferiority become most florid” (Hillman, 1972, p219). I am curious to discover what collective cultural motivations have led us to a point in history where menstruation, the most basic, primal, and arguably most powerful symbol of the feminine is in danger of vanishing forever.

In enquiring into the nature and archetype of menstrual suppression, I look for a cultural meaning of menstruation by tracing a time-line back into our collective history to identify predominant attitudes. What I discover is that menstruation as a subject is not cohesive – opinions, research and belief about menstruation throughout modern Western history is fractured. A prevailing sense of rejection keeps the subject of menstruation hidden and ‘taboo’; even today we don’t generally talk about menstruation, or we refer to it in negative terms – “the curse” or “the rag”. With a cursory glance into the physical and emotional problems associated with menstruation, it is reasonable to assume that menstruation in the modern West is pathologized.

According to Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, 90% of modern women suffer dysmenorrhea and in the Guardian newspaper on 6 September 2017, it was reported that 176 million women worldwide suffers from ‘endometriosis’ (Lee Kennedy, 2017). Feminist scholar Mary Parlee says: “What little we do know of menstruation has been defined in terms of pathology; menstrual studies are incomplete while we only chart the sickness of the cycle, and not its peaks and inspirations” (Parlee, quoted in Shuttle and Redgrove 1978, p.72).

Neither does there appear to be a cohesive ‘menstrual myth’ in our culture which suggests that menstruation has become dislocated from its symbolic meaning. While fragments of a menstrual mythology may be found in the symbolism of folklore and fairy tales –  according to cultural anthropologist Chris Knight, ‘” Sleeping Beauty’ –along with others of its kind – is in its logic entirely and consistently menstrual” (Knight, 1987, p.4), views on the meaning and interpretations of the symbols hidden in these stories differ and are inconsistent.

Brewtnall, Edward Frederick, 1846-1902; Sleeping Beauty

Brewtnall, Edward Frederick, 1846-1902; Sleeping Beauty

Venus & Lilith in Leo- “The Force”

la_forza Venus in LeoLa forza (the force”) by Boris Indrikov

Venus enters Leo on Wednesday 13th June, which also happens to be a new moon in Gemini where she is joined by asteroid Lilith at zero degrees Leo.

The zero-degree point of an astrological sign is auspicious containing the power and initiatory energy of a new cycle, or the point where the beginning meets the end. History shows us that the accession of many British Kings and Queens occurred on a zero-degree astrological point. Here is a link if you are interested to find out who and on what point- Start and End: The zeroth degrees

The new moon energies along with the zero-degree point for Venus and Lilith in Leo fertilizes the soil for the next Canterbury Moon Lodge which happens the following evening when Venus and Lilith are almost exactly conjunct in the eighth house. Both these goddesses have made an appearance many times in our lodge though there is something about this alignment that directs the energy in a special way revealing the potential to explore the mysteries of the sacred sexual priestess, her glory and power, her demise and her repeated resurfacing throughout the ages- including this one. So, what is the relationship between these two goddesses?

Lilith first appears in Lower Mesopotamia in the Sumerian myth of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. Lilith is handmaid to the Queen and is said to have been the active agent in recruiting men to the inner sanctum of the temple to receive holy blessings and sacred sexual pleasure from the goddess through her priestesses. The sexual rites and mysteries were at that time at the core of feminine power and when the solar gods began to usurp the goddesses the sexual rites were rejected, punished and degraded. Lilith lived in the temple precincts in the holy Huluppa tree where the coiled kundalini serpent lived at the base. Gilgamesh, the Babylonian solar hero intent on destroying the Goddess and her sacred sexual rites chopped down the Huluppa tree exiling Lilith into the wilderness.

This act of violence from the mythic and archetypal realms tells of the core assault of patriarchy against the feminine principle- the repression of sexuality as a sacred, healing act. Lilith’s banishment to the wild places where she allegedly becomes a demoness and succubus who steals the vital energy of men through erotic temptation and kills children- in short, a wicked femme fatale intent on destruction, a seductress eager to emasculate men and cause chaos within the social order of marriage. Where previously Lilith had been a sovereign woman, a virgin, whole unto herself serving in the temple of Inanna (the precursor to Venus), she was now a creature of terror and repulsion.

She surfaces later in the Hebrew story of the Garden of Eden as Adam’s first wife who refuses to be submissive to her husband and chooses instead voluntary exile in barren wilderness on the shores of the Red Sea where she is said to have produced thousands of off springs from cavorting with the wild beasts there. This fear of the feminine and more precisely fear of feminine sexuality weaves a toxic thread through the teachings of the Judaeo-Christian tradition creating at its zenith the hysteria that led to the European and Salem witch trials in the early modern period. Carl Jung says, “What man has found to say about feminine eroticism, and especially the feeling life of women, is derived, for the most part, from his own anima and is accordingly distorted.” Other psychologist such as Demetra George has referred to the feeling of impotence experienced by men in the presence of a sexually powerful, autonomous and passionate woman. In fear of losing himself and his sexual prowess it may be easier to blame, judge and ultimately exile.

The Temptation of Saint Hilarion

The Temptation of Saint Hilarion by Dominique (-Louise-Féréal) Papety

On this new moon these two goddesses will once again be reunited in the regal sign of Leo and in the house of sexual mysteries- the 8th house. Venus in Leo wants to shine and express her full erotic power freely and with mastery. Lilith, handmaid to the Goddess wishes to redeem her essence and express herself with integrity and wholeness.

There are three points of Lilith in an astrological chart, or four if you include the fixed star of Algol at around 25 degrees of Taurus- Algol is the twinkling binary star on the decapitated head of the gorgon Medusa, slain by the solar hero Perseus. The three other points: asteroid Lilith, Dark moon Lilith and Black moon Lilith form a pattern of feminine consciousness and shows a pathway to healing the wounds of patriarchy for both men and women.

Asteroid Lilith is the first part of the process showing us where we seek to be free to speak and express our truth, and where we have been denied and rejected in our lives. Dark moon Lilith is the place we feel exiled, the cave of shadows where we lick our wounds and sometimes plot our revenge on the world even if it is just fantasy. It is the distorted self bent out of shape by betrayal and rejection- in Jungian terms it is our shadow. Black Moon Lilith is our point of redemption where we may be restored -though somewhat changed by our journey – to our essence. Black moon Lilith is like the dark dakini Kali, or the Celtic Goddess Hecate- an ultimately compassionate and loving but fierce mother who will not tolerate anything less that our authentic selves. Here every defense and survival tactic that we have adopted to endure the pressures and expectations of society must fall away. In this way, the teaching of Lilith shows us that we are indeed all unique individuals and that our true voice is needed in the matrix of life.

Both these goddesses, Lilith and Venus are seeking to be expressed from the depth of the feminine principle in both men and women, and the new moon position in Leo opens the door to claiming our sovereignty- at least the first stage through asteroid Lilith- the impulse to be free from conditioning, mind control, manipulation and distortions of self. It also gives us an opportunity to reclaim the exiled parts of ourselves, letting go of shame and guilt and accepting that we are both light and shadow… and that we have been through a lot!

The eighth house is the house of mysteries, it represents one’s intimacy with self and other, including and especially sexual intimacy. It offers the possibility for profound spiritual connection and the transformative powers of Eros- Venus excels here. Pluto rules the eighth house in modern astrology, however before the solar gods usurped the Goddess, the underworld was the domain of the dark goddesses with their secret rites of life, death and rebirth.