|Excerpted from:The Women’s Wheel of Life
by Elizabeth Davis and Carol Leonard
Mystery is defined as that which is beyond understanding, that which baffles or perplexes, that which is profound and known only by revelation. When we speak of the Blood Mysteries, we are referring to the biological events of Menarche, Childbirth, and Menopause that are accompanied by changed perspective and the influx of knowledge beyond reason. We don’t know why we change and grow and acquire knowledge so dramatically at these times, but we do—this is the Mystery. And as we share this knowledge, the revelations linked to changes in our bodies, we reclaim the power and wisdom inherent in the female body.
Menarche is a prime example of how mystery has accorded females power and respect. Before the advent of science, menstruation was biologically confounding—how could females bleed thus, and not be injured? This must be magic, this ability to bleed and yet be well! Long before conception was understood to require fertilization, females were thought to generate life simply by withholding their menstrual blood in some autonomous process. The sexual act was not linked to conception. Females were apparently stirred by spirit, then retained their blood, gestated and brought forth new life. Thus menopause was viewed not as a loss, but as an increase of power—older females permanently retained their blood and so transcended the cycle of death and rebirth; they became as the source of creation.
But when Christianity recast the female body as evil, the source of original sin, the womb ceased to be a sacred temple and the Blood Mysteries were no longer acknowledged. And as science deconstructed human beings to a set of physiological functions, medical technology developed to further separate body and spirit. Now we have tools to “aid” the birth process, medications to “ease” menstruation or override the effects of menopause, surgery to remove the womb. We seek to tame and dominate the forces of nature: we plant crops that deplete the soil, we raze our forests and pollute our waters. This would be unthinkable in a world that reveres the feminine aspect.
This is not to deny that technology has its benefits—contraception has been a boon, and lives have been saved in complicated childbirth or pathological gynecological situations. But we have lost the Mystery. Reclaiming our blood rites as profound psychological turning points is the foundation of revealing new, empowering archetypes and rediscovering the most ancient ones we already share.
|THE MENARCHE RITE|
For those in a female body, physiologic milestones herald major life transitions. There was a time when these transitions were held holy, and served to connect us with the rhythms and cycles of the seasons and the moon. The first of these milestones is the Menarche Initiation Rite, held at the time of first menses to honor the crossing from childhood to adulthood.
In the past, it was customary to mark this major change in life with a special observance or celebration. Anticipation of this honoring helped a young one greet her first bleeding with joy and triumph; it was the most essential of all initiation rites.
In non-industrial societies, seclusion is a nearly universal response to menarche, not out of fear but in reverence for the sacred power of menstrual blood. In some indigenous cultures, isolation goes on for several years. Young Dyak daughters in southeast Asia spend a year in a white cabin, wearing white clothes and eating white foods only (thought to ensure good health.)1 While alone, they contemplate their physical transformation to adulthood and consider what society expects of them. Elders visit periodically to teach the arts and crafts of reproductive life, including the responsibilities of sexuality and child rearing. This has enormous impact on their personal growth.
One of the most beautiful examples of menarche initiation is the Apache rite of “Changing Woman.” In this solemn ceremony, the daughter becomes the primordial Apache mother, “White Painted Woman.” She reenacts the story of Changing Woman who, impregnated by the sun, gave birth to the Apache people. On the first day, she is sprinkled with yellow cattail pollen to symbolize fertility, and is taught by elders of the “fire-within,” her sacred sexuality. The ceremony lasts for four days, in honor of the Four Directions. On the final night, the initiate must dance from sunset to sunrise for the well-being of her people. At dawn, this song is sung to her:
“Now you are entering the world.
You will become an adult with responsibilities…
Walk with honor and dignity.
For you are the mother of our people…
For you will become the mother of a nation.” 2
Although a four-day ritual may seem excessive in the context of our busy lifestyles, its purpose of facilitating heightened awareness of new status and power is highly relevant. Menarche rites of today can range from formal ceremony to a simple gathering of special friends and relatives for a wonderful meal together. The main idea is to distinguish this milestone event from everyday life. Mothers everywhere are currently recreating or inventing these ceremonies for their daughters. But it is crucial that daughters themselves participate in the design and content of their celebrations, choosing what is comfortable for them. Here are some suggestions for a memorable event.
The place where the celebration will be held can be decorated with candles and flowers of red and white, red symbolizing blood and life force, white representing innocence, strength and reproductive health. The daughter may wish to sit at the place of honor, the head of the table perhaps, with her chair decorated like a throne. The centerpiece might be red roses, one for each year she has lived. She may also want to wear a crown of flowers, signifying her flowering adulthood.
To begin, the group can acknowledge and invoke her ancestors, all those in her family line who have crossed this threshold before. This affirms her place in the community, her procreative potential, and the natural beauty of her menarche experience.
The body of the rite involves sharing information on menstruation through story-telling and first-person accounts. Each participant is given the opportunity to describe her menarche experience. Not all of these stories will be joyous; some participants may become emotional as they recall feeling ashamed of their first blood. Yet this creates even stronger intent within the circle to honor the daughter currently engaged in this Blood Mystery. The group can balance feelings of grief with praise for her strength, courage and beauty.
An ancient form of honoring menarche is the Clay Rite, similar to the Apache use of cattail pollen. This is only appropriate if the daughter feels comfortable enough to be nude in the presence of her friends. Those who have not yet started bleeding cover her with wet, red clay, to symbolize her connection to the earth. This can be fun—a playful, messy act of saying farewell to childhood. If they are in a rural setting, the group may wish to construct a sweat lodge for the daughter, where she may spend a certain amount of time in seclusion. As an alternative, she might spend a night alone in a tent or cabin with her friends close by, singing or drumming to give her courage. Or she might simply go off by herself for a time to a place of total privacy.
After her time alone, several elders can instruct her regarding her fertility and responsibilities in the next stage of life. When they are finished, she returns to the larger group. Her friends may wish to form a birth arch at this point, lining up and passing her through their legs until she finally comes to her mother, who brings her out and into her embrace. As with actual birth, there is a moment in this act where time seems suspended—the power of this ritual is tangible. The “newborn” may then be washed clean of remaining mud by her friends who have already begun bleeding; thus they welcome her into the adult community. She should be dressed in new, beautiful clothing she can treasure for years to come, fussed over and adorned like the Goddess herself!
The group may then make some final comments or affirmations regarding the power of menstruation and appropriate use of this power in today’s society. Each participant may also wish to confide her own special ways of honoring her menstrual period. To close, the daughter’s mother may give her some jewelry, perhaps a family heirloom piece, or anything featuring red stones. She may also want to formally present her to whatever higher power they recognize, asking for protection and guidance.
When the ritual ends, feasting begins. Red foods represent fertility; guests may wish to toast the daughter with red wine. Perhaps other family members will choose to participate at this point. Male friends and relatives often find it hard to stay away during the ceremony and are very pleased when finally welcomed to join the festivities.
If such a formal ritual seems too complex or inappropriate for your family, simple variations may suffice. One mother told her daughter that when she got her period, she could choose any three things to do in celebration. On the first day of her bleeding, she opted for: 1) a shopping trip; 2) total silence from Mom for the entire day; 3) a steak. The last was somewhat controversial for this vegetarian family, but as her mother observed, “Eating a steak was my daughter’s ultimate statement of adult decision making power.”
Another option is for mother and daughter to go off together to some favorite outdoor place, reconnecting with nature and each other. They may want to go hiking or canoeing, or perhaps just build a campfire together, as long as they spend time alone and make it a celebratory day. The mother could use this time to review her daughter’s birth and tell her of her childhood—what her daughter was like when she was younger and all the great things she’s done in her life thus far. She might also share visions and hopes for her daughter’s future.
In addition to the aforementioned gift of jewelry, some mothers allow their daughters to pierce their ears on this day, presenting them earrings with red stones. Another precious keepsake is a “Menarche Book,” comprised of photos of all the women in the family and suitable for passing on to the next generation.
The day could end with the mother drawing a bath for her daughter, perhaps placing flower petals on the water. When it is over, the two can decide how to share the news with the rest of the family, and whether an special event of some kind would be desirable. Again, the most important thing is the daughter’s comfort; if she happily participates in planning a larger celebration, she will joyfully remember it for the rest of her life.
1 Cohen, David, ed. The Women’s Wheel of Life (New York, Harper Collins, 1991), page 64.
2 Ibid, page 62.
Other Blood Mystery rites may be found in The Women’s Wheel of Life by Elizabeth Davis and Carol Leonard. Find it on: Amazon