Women’s Blood: From Sacred to Shame

Shares

On August 21, 2017, I stood in my backyard in Silverton, Oregon and watched the total eclipse of the sun. Millions of people, just in the United States, travelled to somewhere on the path of the eclipse to witness this extraordinary event. A very young girl interviewed on the news explained precisely what caused the eclipse – the alignment of the moon in front of the sun, blocking out its rays.

30,000 years ago, people witnessed another event that was just as extraordinary, but for which they had no explanation. When the shaman took the young boys to the back of the cave to redraw and repaint the animals of the hunt, they knew that if they were trampled by a beast or hit with a stone or rock, they would bleed and die. Yet in the front of cave where the fire was kept stoked and the women gathered, another phenomenon was taking place. At any given time, one or more of the women were likely experiencing their menstrual cycles. Imagine what the boys thought when they learned that girls could bleed and not die. Because our early ancestors depended so much on the cycles of nature, they knew about the relationship of menstruation to the moon’s cycles, both occurring at 28 day intervals. Women also bled during childbirth as the placenta was ejected from the uterus. This led many early cultures to think that women’s blood had formed the child. Obviously, this was long before the knowledge of the role of men’s sperm entered the picture.

The figure above, the Venus of Lausel, is a sculpture of limestone that dates from the Upper Paleolithic about 20,000 years ago. A woman holds a bison’s horn in her right hand which signifies the crescent moon. It is also notched with thirteen lines which represent the thirteen days of the waxing moon as well as the thirteen months of the lunar year. She points to her womb which, in the words of the authors of The Myth of the Goddess, creates “a connection between the waxing phase of the moon and the fecundity of the human womb.”[1] They further state “in this way the pattern of relationship between the earthly and heavenly orders is acknowledged.”[2] Blood is further associated with this figurine as red ochre was used to paint over the sculpture.[3] In the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish, to which the Israelites were exposed during their exile in Babylon, Ninti, the daughter of the goddess Ninhursag is chosen by the other gods to create humankind which she does by using a mixture of blood and clay. In later references, the Indians of South America “declared that all humanity was created in the beginning by the Great Mother’s ‘moon blood.’”[4] The Roman Pliny the Elder, a writer in the first century of the Common Era, “taught that a baby’s body is formed from a ‘curd’ of menstrual blood.”[5] In the Middle Ages, women were still making clay manikins and “anointing them with menstrual blood—the sacred ‘blood of life’—in order to conceive real children.” Unfortunately, these actions often got them charged and killed as witches. Medical texts up to the 18th century still taught the prenatal function of menstrual blood.[6]

A change occurred to this veneration of women’s blood when agriculture and herding dramatically altered the ways of our species. They went from more or less egalitarian hunter gatherer tribes to a male dominated patriarchy. Of course this change was gradual. But settling into villages and then cities caused huge transformations in how our ancestors related to each other. In the past, a tribal member may have had some objects that “belonged” to him, but there was nothing of great substance that was owned by an individual. Agriculture and herding brought about private property and the start of the “haves and have nots.” Eventually larger and larger divisions occurred including outright ownership of human beings themselves.

At the same time, a process which started in the Bronze Age (around 3200 – 1200 BCE in the Near East) and was completed in the Iron Age (1200 BCE to 500 BCE) was the transformation of worship of a female divine to a male divine. This occurred across many cultures. One of the earliest was written down in the Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish. Marduk, one of the male gods, gets his fellow male gods to support him as chief god by killing Tiamat, the female sea serpent upon which the Biblical Leviathan is based. While the Hebrew Tanakh (Christianity’s Old Testament) refers to a divine assembly of gods and also female goddesses, the process of monotheism was probably not completed until the return from the exile in Babylon of the Israelites at the end of the Iron Age.

The change from worship of a female divine who creates from within herself and is part of nature differs drastically from a male god who “makes creation as something separate from himself.”[7] In one version of the creation story in Genesis, the notion of creation from blood remains. “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7). The word Adam used for this first man is based upon a Hebrew word meaning bloody clay. However, it no longer signifies the work of the female divine. Instead, as Barbara G. Walker explains, “God’s breath was supposed to articulate mystic words that could bring everything into being.”[8] The womb of the Mother Goddess as the start of life is abandoned.

In addition, the female blood which was once seen as the creator of life, now is deemed unclean. Sanctions written into the holy text now condemn menstrual flow.

When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean.  Anyone who touches her bed will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.22 Anyone who touches anything she sits on will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, they will be unclean till evening. (Leviticus 15: 19-23 NIV)

 If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the Lord to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood. (Leviticus 12:5-7 NIV) (Please note that for a son she only has to wait thirty-three days.)

The church used these passages to exclude women from any responsible positions within the church hierarchy. Regulations set down by Theodore, Bishop of Canterbury, in the 7th century, forbid women who were menstruating from entering the church and taking communion.[9] As late as the 17th century rules were still being enforced for women in their “fluxes” to remain outside the church.[10]

How can women today read this and not be angry? How can they not recognize that the Bible is a book written by men to enforce their superiority over women? The subordination of women because of their menstrual blood is the antithesis of the reverence for the mother which gives birth to the next generation of the tribe. Please don’t keep silent. Share these stories with other women. If women leave religion, it’s over.

 

Karen L. Garst

The Faithless Feminist

August 26, 2017

 

 

 

[1] Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London, England: Arkana, Penquin Books, 1993), 6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. 161

[4] Barbara G. Walker, Man Made God (Seattle, WA: Seattle House Publishing, 2010), 77.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (New York: Harper Collins, 1983), 635.

 

[7] Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London, England: Arkana, Penquin Books, 1993), 273-4.

[8] Barbara G. Walker, Man Made God (Seattle, WA: Seattle House Publishing, 2010), 46-47.

[9] Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (New York: Harper Collins, 1983), 643.

[10] Ibid.

About the Author Karen Garst

Leave a Comment: