With permission from The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS) www.aras.org. Copyright ARAS.
The impressive necklace worn by the nude menstruating woman is clearly more than a mere decoration. In menstrual symbolism the neck frequently substitutes for the invisible neck of the womb or cervix. (Shuttle, 253) Here the contours of the jewel allude to her sacred precinct, the vagina, and the sunburst around her neck to the primal, life giving energy of the menstrual blood. Brísingamen, the legendary necklace of Freyja, Norse goddess of love, fertility and prophetic wisdom, is a metaphor of this kind. Wood,18th century, India.
The undulating foliage, issuing like a luxuriant head of hair from the flower above her head, is an evokative image that points to the spiritual dimension of menstruation and the bleeding vulva as source of growth and abundance. The composition moves us to comprehend that a woman’s flowering is rooted in the soil of her blood. It exposes what she has been taught to hide, the blood gushing from her vulva, the vital energy that our culture has exiled to the menacing realms of the unconscious.
The extraordinary potency of the menstrual blood inspired ambivalent feelings in the human heart. On the one side it was believed to have curative and fertilizing properties and be an effective love potion; on the other, it was considered unclean and polluting. And so was the menstruating woman. Anything she came in contact with was considered to be contaminated. Becoming negatively taboo from the standpoint of others, she could herself become alienated from her creative source.
In primitive view the embryo of a new life is “built up” from the blood, which ceases to flow during pregnancy. (Neumann, 31) By the same token, menstruation spells death and dissolution of structure. It thus becomes the germinating soil of a new cycle of possibilities. It carries an evolutionary force which mythology gives us reason to believe thrust humanity out of a state of unconsciousness.
Menstruation speaks in the poetic language of dreams. Its energy is frequently depicted as a mount, particularly the horse that moves with the liquid rapidity of the sea waves, its mane the briny foam. According to Norse mythology Sun’s husband bore a horse’s name. Her avatar, Freyja, goddess of love and fertility, bleeds her red-gold into the sea as she plunges the depths in search of her lost husband, Óðr, whose name denotes the intense stirrings that are the raw material of poetry and the poem itself as well.
The chord struck at a girl’s first flow reverberates through her subsequent cycles. It can become her key to the music of being or throw her into discord with her own self. Many tribal societies celebrate crossing into womanhood with a ritual. Kinaaldá, a rite marking the intitiation of the Navajo girl, is a reenactment of the celebration of the first flow of Changing Woman, goddess of the seasons and cycles of life. During the four day ceremony the initiate becomes her embodiment and is held to be endowed with powers to heal and fructify (Weideger, 34). A ritual may serve to “mold” the girl into the conventional role of wife and mother, or it may put her own individual and spiritual needs to the fore, subjecting her to a solitary quest for a dream or vision that will point to her path in life, and perhaps grant her a guardian spirit or a power animal as well. She could be called to become a medicine woman or shaman, although in other traditions and for other individuals such a calling does not come until the end of the fertile years (Høst, 4). The poetic vision, that transiting into menopause woman retains her wise blood within, is steeped in an old belief. Persecution of women, old and young, during the witch hunt of the Middle Ages is attributed to the fear of this blood (Grahn, 262).
Seclusion of the menstruating woman has been widely practiced since time immemorial, be it in a special hut or a dark corner of the house. Darkness was emphasized, for it was understood that during this phase, locked in a mysterious embrace with the black-faced moon, she is returned to the original chaos with its infinite treasures. A woman in receptive contact with her feminine “tides” often finds they lead her into her own depths and the first soundings of new life at organic, intellectual and imaginal levels. This is a gift that begs to be received. Cultural attitudes, shaped by legacies of the past, make it hard for contemporary woman to surrender to the erotic pull of the creative dimension and her own potential. Suppressing her gift, treating it with distain, she “rides the rag” and gift becomes curse.
Encyclopedia of Taboos: “Menstruation.” Oxford, 2000.
Grahn, Judy. Blood, Bread and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Boston, 1993.
Høst, Annette. “Blessed by the Moon: Initiation into Womanhood.” http://www.shamanism.dk/
Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. Princeton, NJ., 1972.
Shuttle, Penelope and Redgrove, Peter. The Wise Wound: The Myths, Realities, and Meanings of Menstruation. NY, 1988.
Weideger, Paula. Menstruation and Menopause: The Physiology and Psychology, the Myth and the Reality. NY, 1976.