Rootsie's European Roots  
The URL of this article is:  

Blood Story

Pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight

A Review by Rootsie
April 30, 2005

"Moon made love to all the women. "Ari!” they screamed. "Why does my vagina bleed?"

Then Moon asked his mother for a black ball and a white ball of thread, which she threw from the house. Then Moon went up the thread to the sky, and all his people watched, and they said, "My child, my child goes playing to the sky."

Then many women, three days after he came, bled. One woman after another, all of them." Sharanahua-Peru (Knight, 401)

"In ancient times the women occupied the men's houses and played the sacred flutes inside. We men took care of the children, processed manioc flour, wove hammocks, and spent our times in the dwellings while the women cleared fields, fished and hunted. In those days, the children even nursed at our breasts. A man who dared enter the women's house during their ceremonies would be gang-raped by all the women of the village on the central plaza.

One day the chief called us together and showed us how to make bullroarers to frighten the women. As soon as the women heard the terrible drone, they dropped the sacred flutes and ran into the houses to hide. We grabbed the flutes and took over the men's houses. Today, if a woman comes in here and sees our flutes, we rape her. Today the women nurse babies, process manioc flour and weave hammocks, while we hunt, fish, and farm." Methinaku-Amazonia (Knight, 424)

"But really we have been stealing what belongs to them (the women), for it is mostly all women's business; and since it concerns them it belongs to them. Men have nothing to do really, except copulate; it belongs to the women. All the belonging to those Wauwalak [sisters], the baby, the blood, the yelling, their dancing, all that concerns the women, but every time we have to trick them. Women can't see what men are doing, although it really is their own business, but we can see their side. This is because all the Dreaming business came out of women-everything; only men take picture for that Julunggal [i.e. men make an artificial reproduction in their rituals of the Rainbow Snake]. In the beginning, we had nothing, because men had been doing nothing; we took these things from women." Yolngu-Arnhem Land Australia (Knight, 479)
Numerous stories from hunter-gatherers across the planet contain elements similar to these. Some tell of a time when women 'had the power, but abused it.' Others associate the periodicity of the moon with female menstruation. Sex and power have quite obviously been human preoccupations from our very beginning.

It is not surprising that blood would be our first, most diverse, and most potent cultural symbol, or that the deities that would eventually appear are similarly various: life-giving and death-dealing, light and dark, all-this, and all-that. These deities are female, and serpentine in form: the snaking flow of rivers, the flow of menstrual blood. We have from earliest days associated blood with fertility and nourishment, with relatedness, with our human essence.

The first taboos, or sacred rules, all had to do with blood, and menstrual blood and the blood of hunted animals became metaphorically linked. The universal incest commandment comes down to this: thou shalt not sex thine own blood. The ubiquitous 'own-kill rule' prohibits the hunter from consuming the flesh and blood of what he kills, with related rules against even touching the blood of a slain animal, or eating flesh that has not had the blood cooked out of it. There are totemic taboos against consuming the flesh of a 'relative,' i.e. one's totem animal.

And of course there is the seemingly endless variety of menstrual taboos, rules which until quite recently have been thought to prove that male-dominance and male-centered culture have always been features of the human landscape. There are rules which isolate menstruating women, which prohibit them from cooking or touching food, which say that a hunter must not lay eyes on a bleeding woman, which link menstrual blood to rot and decay, stench, uncleanness, poison, and death. Yet, peculiarly, there are numerous examples in these very same cultures of male blood rituals, in which males cut their arms and even their penises, and bathe in each other's flows! In many cultures are male initiation rites which participants themselves identify as ones 'stolen' from women, and which explicitly mimic female menstruation, circumcision being the most ubiquitous example. Does the existence of such rituals point to a time when males sought to reproduce in ritual form the life-giving blood power of women? Females were clearly the inspiration for the first manifestations of human symbolic culture. Were they also the progenitors of human culture itself?

It is important to understand that 'taboo' is synonymous with 'sacred' for hunting-gathering people. Danger and even terror exists in direct proportion to a thing's holiness. The 'religious' awe inspired by menstrual blood structures and sustains the moral world of hunter-gatherer people. Is it religious fear, rather than disgust, that accounts for menstrual taboos?
"The monthly seclusion of women has been accepted as a proof of their degradation in primitive communities, but it is far more likely that the causal sequence is to be reversed and that their exclusion from certain spheres of activity and consequently lesser freedom is the consequence of the awe inspired by the phenomena of periodicity." (Robert Lowie, quoted in Knight, 384)
It can well be said that our distinctly human sense of time itself is intimately associated with the imposition and lifting of taboos which, at their root, refer to female periodicity. There are 'raw' times and 'cooked' times; dark times and light times; times for abstinence and times for sex.

The incest taboo exits worldwide. What lies behind it? Or the 'own-kill rule'? Anthropologist Chris Knight says it is 'the spirit of the gift', the essence of which is this: whatever you are giving, you are really after all only giving from your self. And your 'self' has no meaning or power or spiritual potency unless it is extended in an act of giving. Your self is not for you. It is real to the degree that it is given to benefit others.

It has been universally assumed that males were the makers of the first rules. But in whose interest would it be to defer sex in favor of the hunt for meat? In whose interest a stable, relatively sedentary 'home base', and an emphasis on collective, gift-giving values over competitive ones?
"We begin, then, not with the supposed sudden emergence of male sexual generosity and self-restraint—as in the origins models of Freud and Levi-Strauss...but...with female child-rearing and economic priorities, female ultimate determination of social structure and female self-restraint in women's own direct material interests. From this, the incest taboo, food taboos, and the other basic features of the human cultural configuration will be derived." (Knight, 153)
The scenario Chris Knight presents in his Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture is a compelling one for those like myself who intuitively reject the idea that 'human nature' represents merely a slightly more refined version of the violence and sexual competitiveness displayed by monkeys and apes. Knight traverses the 200,000 years of our sojourn as distinctly human beings, examining the modern European interpretations of evidence of how our ancestors made the 'revolutionary' leap to identifiably human culture. His argument bears directly on the grievous situation humans are facing today. I believe that the crucial battle in the struggle for our human future is to be joined in the realm of story. What is our human story?

Knight's theory is at odds with the prevailing capitalist creation-myth put forward for most of the history of anthropology. As he examines mythological, ritual, and archaeological evidence, Knight explicitly and unapologetically brings his own 'bias' to the picture. He is looking for human solidarity and collective action on behalf of the well-being of all. In the relations between the earliest males and females, he, like Marx and Engels before him, identifies the very first 'class struggle,' and theorizes a female revolution.

It is of course every human's prerogative and tendency to look for the evidence that reflects his or her preferred story. This, Knight insists, bears directly on the development of modern science.


Pages: 1 | 2 | | 3 | 4


Rootsie's Homepage | Articles | Online Forum

Silver Bar

Amazon Books

Blood Relations : Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight
Blood Relations : Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight

The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould
The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild
King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Black Students. Middle-Class Teachers
Black Students. Middle-Class Teachers by Jawanza Kunjufu

From Lucy to Language by Donald Johanson, Blake Edgar
From Lucy to Language by Donald Johanson, Blake Edgar

The Shaping of Black America by Lerone Jr. Bennett, Charles White
The Shaping of Black America by Lerone Jr. Bennett, Charles White