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).


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.

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