Written by Jessica H. Simmons
In Western culture, our women do not have the societal right to hold menstrual traditions while functioning in society. Whereas in many cultures, women have the foundation of cultural heritage to remove themselves for the “ceremony of bleeding”, our women simply go to work, business as usual. However, in many of the lineages that I have studied with, and now often teach the essence of their “woman medicine” in my work, this “ceremony of woman”, or “ceremony of bleeding” is considered a sacred time. In order for women to channel the cosmic energies present during this time of “death & rebirth”, a woman needs her isolated space, to which she may conduct any rituals, prayers, or meditations, accordingly.
How many women in our society are fully aware of the 4 phase cycle that occurs each month? Has our society made it possible to at least educate our girls so that they are aware of their own fertility and bleeding schedule, and all of the natural forces that it entails? When a woman bleeds in this culture, is it common practice to call her boss and say “I have begun bleeding and will not be into work for the next 5 (or however many) days”? When a woman achieves her first bleeding, is she met with an initiation ceremony, or is she simply handed a box of tampons by her mother?
These examples, from the stories I’ve been receiving from the women in the U.S., are a tribute to how far removed our society is from the fundamental ceremonies and practices occurring naturally in indigenous societies regarding bleeding and fertility. Red Tent has foundations in the Hebrew culture. In Sun Dance (Lakota) a woman who is bleeding must reside away from the ceremony in a special lodge. In Ayurvedic belief, as in a majority of ancient cultures, a woman has restrictive functions while bleeding. Yet, these practices, to an outsider, may appear patriarchal and female suppressive in nature. However, there is hidden power, and a recognition of that power, in these cultures and we only need to be open, putting our own conditioning aside to see this.
In the Washoe tribe of Nevada, a woman fasts for her first bleeding, followed by an intense initiation of a run up 4 mountains (one for each direction), lighting fires for her tribe to see at the top of each. This is her initiation into womanhood. It is believed, in many indigenous American cultures, that the bleeding time is the time to communicate with the Spirits, to converse with the cosmos, and the Sun Dance ceremony itself was created for men to achieve that great blood sacrifice that women give each month.
A Sun Dancer once told me: “The greatest sacrifice and gift that we can make is that of blood. Our blood, our flesh, is the only thing in Creation that is our right to give. Women give blood once a month and in childbirth, and this is why there are ceremonial rights for such things and it is an honor to be a woman. But we men, we had to create a ceremony to give our blood and flesh. We do this to give to the Creator, and we do this in respect for the bleeding and childbirth that women must bear”. These words were spoken from a man in a ceremonial custom which has a special black lodge, away from all other spaces, where women reside during their menstruation. Yet, this remark clearly speaks reverence, not ridicule or patriarchal mentality.
Much misunderstanding is birthed from the view of Western mentality when peering into such customs. It seems, to a society attached to feminist ideas, that because a woman is removed and there are traditions that are exclusively for women, that it was somehow a forced concept by male power. Yet, this is farther from the truth than some would realize. In fact, in all that I have witnessed and experienced, such customs are in reverence to the power of the woman, not the inferiority. I believe we are the ones who invoke inferiority concepts to our women because we DON’T respect or recognize this power, and instead choose to replace ritual and ceremony with fast-paced lifestyles that do not allow us to remove ourselves and feel our own power.
A woman is not allowed in Sweat Lodge when she is bleeding because her energy is too powerful. It is believed that menstruation is a ceremony of it’s own: the Ceremony of Bleeding. And, as with the Sun Dance, I have heard from numerous sources within these ceremonial realms that the Ceremony of Bleeding is the inspiration for other ceremonies such as Sweat Lodge (among other reasons, of course).
Because Ceremony of Bleeding is considered a purification ceremony, as is the Sweat Lodge, there is no need for those ceremonies to intertwine. The Bleeding Ceremony is a private matter between Woman and Spirit, and when entering a ceremonial space, her ceremony becomes involved in the energy of the ceremony.
I have heard one Lodge Holder tell me: “The energy of ceremony, all ceremony, is clock-wise in spiral. But a woman who is bleeding carries the counter-clockwise energy of the spiral, and if these two forces collide, the ceremony can be chaotic. That is how powerful a woman is. She can effect the whole ceremony, everyone involved, through her presence and the power she is channeling at that time”.
Yet we are Western women. And so, birth controls replace fertility awareness (and all of the natural intelligence found therein), tampons and shame replace a ceremonial time of holy communion, work and school duties over-ride our women’s ability to fully become immersed in a spiritual time of self and Cosmos. Is it any wonder that upon peering into foreign cultures that we see with ethnocentric eyes a vast ocean of “female suppression” and “terrible actions”?
In the West, a majority of women are so far removed from such rituals, and our mentality of feminine power so preoccupied with “ending sexism” that we have disempowered our very right to be separate in power. Furthermore, as I travel to women’s groups in the U.S., I am finding more and more a vast body of women that feel WE are the suppressed ones, as our society has birthed a system of living detached from nature and we must keep in the rat race to keep ourselves afloat in this system.
In our Western culture, the deeply attached idea that women are suppressed and we must work and push forward to prove ourselves equal with men, is not a concept that I personally resonate with. Nor do I feel that we were ever suppressed, as that is a concept of the mind. Because women have adopted such ideas here, I feel is the very root of the ignorance many of us women now hold regarding the sacredness of our femininity. We do not isolate ourselves for a week when we bleed, our fast paced society does not allow such a removal when in a working/studious position.
The menstrual technologies that we have adopted are sometimes quite “shocking”. We promote the use of bleach-laced cotton to be inserted into our vaginal canals to block the blood flow, which has led to serious cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome where women have lost limbs. I have learned from the Vedic lineage (Maya Tiwari), that there are ancestral practices to actually control blood flow during the cycle. A woman can hold mudras, yoga poses, and chant mantras, to channel the release of blood, which is done by squatting on the earth. No menstrual technologies needed.
In my experience, it is not a common practice for Western Women to track their cycles, giving them empowerment in knowing their own fertility, how it aligns with the Moon and natural forces unique to each woman. Through fertility awareness, we not only can know when we are fertile and may become pregnant or not, we also begin to recognize the intricate nature of each phase in our cycle: Virgin/Warrior/Spring (post menstruation, pre-ovulation), Mother/Summer (ovulation), Shamanic Woman/Fall (post ovulation, pre menstruation), and Crone/Inner Lover/Winter (menstruation). Each of these phases can be observed, powerfully, each month, and are reflective of the totality of nature, a wisdom and communication that can be channeled during these times. I have even encouraged the adopting of totem animals or spirits for women to ritually connect to their own experiences with these changing energies. Each phase is unique in energy (i.e. hormones), and thus we transform as our bodies undergo these cycles. Yet, a majority of Western women are ignorant to this. We have, after all, replaced this awareness with birth control, the only modern aim for understanding our cycles.
When Western women bleed for the first time, a subject matter of most interest to me, they are not met with a ceremony or initiation rights, but with a box of tampons and a lack of elder women to guide their experience through the passing of knowledge, ritual, or rites of Woman. We are a lost nation of Women. The Washoe women are not the only women who have initiation ceremonies for women coming of age, they are found all over the world. In these societies, there are also elder women, “Wise Women” as they are generally called. When a woman becomes of age, she learns deeply the arts of being a woman and channeling her energy according to her cultural customs, as passed by the Wise Women. Yet, the idea of this is shocking to most women whom I have heard their personal stories. It seems as though the subject of bleeding is one that our conservative culture wishes to avoid, maybe because of discomfort in addressing the issue, maybe because of ignorance to the depth in which it effects our lives as women.
And so, what would our world, as Western Women, be if we were to begin the re-surfacing of ancestral customs regarding feminine spirituality with our bodies and the Cosmos? What would our world be if our girls were initiated, educated in the arts of reading and communicating with nature through their cycles? What would our society see change if women were firm in their power, yielding not to societal expectations of working class? What would your life be like if a Wise Woman had mentored you in the Arts of being a Woman, handing you a sacred torch of ritual, ceremony, and power? What would our world be like if our women gathered for rituals and prayers, support and acknowledgement, and sharing of magic found therein?
I believe our world would change. And I believe, because these practices are derived from indigenous and ancestral cultures, that we can see past the veil of conditioned illusion when peering into the complex nature of descended feminine customs.
And so, in closing, I encourage women to contemplate their own cycles, fertility, and Ceremony of Bleeding in a ritual fashion, seeking ancestral wisdom through empowering ourselves into our born shamanic roles. Sisterhoods, arising all over the Western world, are vast in network and we can re-surface our rights as women through our connectivity. I also encourage a deeper look into some of the ethnocentric projections we place on cultures holding seemingly “feminine suppressive” practices, for their root is anything but. There is wisdom in the roots of humanity, and we have never been severed, else our tree would no longer live.