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Blood Story

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

A Review by Rootsie
April 30, 2005

"...rituals of sacrifice constitute not a separate 'system' characteristic of countless cultures and religions but only so many other ways of expressing the principle that one's 'flesh' is for others to consume or enjoy. They constitute only one portion of a continuous spectrum of rituals relating to animal or human 'meat' or 'flesh', other portions of this spectrum corresponding to 'totemism', 'atonement rituals', 'hunters' taboos', 'increase rites', blood avoidances, 'menstrual taboos', 'cooking rules', 'the couvade', 'male initiation rites'-and so on almost indefinitely." (115)
We are so very fond in the West of our myth of 'progress.' It has allowed us to disregard or forget our roots, running roughshod over the history of the past thousand years, formulating a vast ideological and religious construct featuring us as the great white saviors of the world, on top because of our self-evident superiority. In the capitalist worldview, there always have to be winners and losers, and the losers are invariably seen as those who just can't get with the program. How disconcerting it is to entertain the possibility that there are precious lessons to be learned from our distant past, lessons that hold keys to our survival.

The Rainbow Snake
"Among the many constructs through which the earliest science has come down to us is one with which the reader will be familiar-that of an immense, all-seeing, many-headed, winged, snake-like being or 'dragon,' making its presence felt in a multitude of cross-cultural images of composite beings, 'fabulous beasts', 'All-Mothers' and other monsters.

Behind all these images is the awareness the early cultures possessed of their own power. The reason for the paradoxical, dialectical nature of the imagery is the all-embracing, cyclical, conflict--transcending nature of the power itself. As we have seen, the power was collective-and therefore many-headed. It was an immense alliance--and therefore stretched, snakelike, across the landscape. It was dependent on the periodic flowing of blood-and therefore seemed bloodthirsty in its appetites. It involved the harmonization of menstruation with the periodicity of the moon-and so was experienced as cosmic, umbilical, birth-giving, astrological. Its potency was inseparable from the awesome symbolic potency of menstrual blood-which became encoded as the death-dealing snake venom or poisonous dragon breath emanating from its being. Its rhythm was that of perpetual cyclical alternation between opposite light and dark, marital and kinship, cooked and raw, fire and blood phases or states-and therefore became coded as a rainbow-like, betwixt and between entity in which all conceivable opposites were combined." (520-21)
Knight spends a good deal of Blood Relations closely considering the Australian Aboriginal creation story of the Rainbow Serpent. With little variation across the continent, the story concerns itself with the two Wawilak Sisters whose synchronous bleeding attracts the attention of an immense serpent, who devours and then regurgitates them. This is viewed as the very first initiatory journey into the spiritual realms, or 'the Dreamtime.' It marks the beginning of human culture. Knight notes the prevalence of similar stories across the globe, including the Egyptian one of the underworld serpent Apophis. Each sojourning soul must pass through the body of the serpent in order to reach a state of spiritual reconcilement within the realm of Osiris and become 'god man' and 'god woman.' The womb-like, vagina-like properties of this serpent-being are undeniable.
"These women-'daughters of the Rainbow'-are indeed 'like a snake', for no creature on earth more closely resembles a river or flow, or can coil itself into so many repeated cycles. And women are indeed 'like a rainbow'-because the blood-flow is not mere physical blood. As the symbol of the sex-strike, it carries women as if from world to world. Under the blood's spell, women move from their 'dry' phase to the 'wet', from the 'cooked' to the 'raw', and also from marital life to the world of seclusion and blood unity-just as the rainbow leaps cyclically between sunshine and rain, dry season and wet, earth and sky." (477)
This story forms the uniting core of Aboriginal ritual life. It is reenacted again and again, and without exception, it is reenacted by males. Despite the fact that initiated males are the first to admit that this Snake business is 'women's business,' woman is deliberately excluded from these mysteries, and the instructions she is given seem "precise mirror-image inversions" (469) of the 'insider information':
"When a woman is pregnant...she should keep away from pools and streams, for fear of the Rainbow-other women should get water for her.
Babies are especially vulnerable to attack from the Rainbow. In rainy weather, or if she gets near water, a mother should paint herself and her baby with yellow ochre or termite mound. And a menstruating woman should not touch or even go close to a pregnant woman or baby, or walk about in the camps, or go near a waterhole that other people are using. Traditionally, she should stay in seclusion, with a fire burning constantly to keep the Rainbow away." (467)
In place of solidarity, female segregation and seclusion are the rule. Initiated males know that the Rainbow is females' kin. "To be engulfed by its power would have been to feel an immense sense of kinship solidarity and strength," (469) a solidarity and strength males experience in initiation rituals "designed to sustain the reproductivity of both human and natural realms," (470) in which men cut themselves and one another and shed large amounts of blood. As with the story from the Amazon I opened with, one feels oneself in the presence of an elaborate 'cover story,' designed to disempower, separate, and marginalize females. The very existence of such stories and the extreme prohibitions around menstrual blood suggest at the very least a deep "charge' around the issue of female power. To Knight this constitutes evidence of an earlier time when, if we take these very same males at their word, females were acknowledged as the originators and sustainers of ritual life just as they were revered as the sources of human life itself.

Knight describes
"...a deep feeling that it is unsatisfying merely to keep women ignorant, that it is preferable to flaunt in women's faces the things of which they are kept ignorant...As the primordial potency of menstrual synchrony is both shown to women and yet made terrifying in their eyes, men set about alienating the value of womankind's blood-making and child-bearing capacities-even to the point of claiming that the production of babies is in some sense valueless when performed by women, yet of immense culture-creating value when symbolically acted out by 'child-bearing' men." (475)
There is deep tragedy in this, generations of sons born to women who grow to keep secrets from their mothers, even to despise them and see them as less.
"That blood we put all over those men is all the same as the blood that came from that old woman's vagina. It isn't the blood of those men anymore because it has been sung over and made strong. The hole in the man's arm isn't that hole anymore. It is all the same as the vagina of the old woman that had blood coming out of it. This is the blood that snake smelled when he was in the Mirritmina well..When a man has got blood on him he is all the same as those two old women when they had blood. All the animals ran away and they couldn't cook them." (471)
Knight convincingly cites the far later 'patriarchal foundation myths-Perseus and Andromeda, Hercules and the Hydra [Medusa], Zeus and Typhon, Marduk and Tiamat, Indra and Vritra, St. George and the Dragon' (491)-and I would add Adam, Eve, and the Serpent and even St. Patrick, as echoes down the ages of the 'victory' males won over female power.
"...wherever or whenever synchronization could be broken down, enabling men to exercise more stable and permanent marital rights in their wives, it is not difficult to appreciate how, in cultures stretching to the outermost corners of the globe, the severing of women's periodic links with 'heaven' or 'the skies' came to be conceptualized as the dismemberment of a 'winged serpent' or woman-seizing 'dragon' by some patriarchal hero who established the present permanence of marriage and order of the world." (505)
Monogamous marriage is another of those capitalist institutions that anthropologists have needed to celebrate as the most primary and basic human configuration. The sex-strike theory suggests that the kinship ties which are so much emphasized during 'wet' times are more important in the grand order of things than marriage. Collective values always trump individual ones in hunter-gatherer groups.
"[Levi-Strauss] suggests...that harmony and order were created only when men succeeded in prioritizing marriage bonds as the basic building-blocks of the cultural domain...I have argued that male order embodies no special best, masculinist ritual activity and its associated mythology represents a politically distorted imprint made from a pre-existent template." (511-12)
Knight's book suggests that the counterforce to male domination is a female solidarity that leads not to female dominance, but to a social order that gives primacy to the nurturance of the young and the well-being of the collective. Those of us who find solace and encouragement in those most-ancient images of fat and fertile earth goddesses do not imagine a time in the past when females had the upper hand. We simply hope instead that they emblemize a moment in our history when female power and beauty were revered rather than reviled. We hope that there were communitarian times in our past when females were viewed as partners to males. The viciousness of female oppression may well be a sustained and violent backlash against a time when the rhythms of women dictated the rhythms of daily and of ritual life. The matrilineal and matrifocal organization of hunter-gatherer societies may be another vestige of such a time.
"Although there was plenty of room for magic-for an awareness of the world-changing potency of such activities as dance, poetry, and song-religion was not needed because there was no one to mystify, no one to exploit, no one whose conceptual world needed standing on its head...Mysticism and convoluted theologism emerged only when masculinist institutions began reasserting themselves as the first step in an immensely drawn-out process which was to result in class society and so-called 'civilization.' Constructs of the 'feminine' became deified only in proportion as real women, in the flesh and blood, were deprived of their power. Goddesses, gods, and other miraculous powers could enrich themselves only in proportion as ordinary humans were impoverished-robbed of the magic in their own lives. Only in the course of this process was genuine science-or 'the ancient wisdom', if you prefer to call it that-progressively subjected to the distorting lenses of sectional interest, partisan special pleading and political ideology masquerading as science." (321-22)
Even the images of the ancient goddesses are emblems of our loss and impoverishment, an intense human disempowerment for which our world suffers so profoundly. The despoiling of the earth, the endless wars to which fathers sacrifice their sons, centuries of racism, imperialism, colonialism...can all of these be laid at the door of a radical imbalance between the sexes? Well, it is difficult to imagine a more redemptive idea than 'your self is not for you.' If, as Knight submits, male appropriation of female power accounts for its virtual disappearance from our modern discourse, then indeed gender imbalance can be seen as at least one indicator of how badly we have lost our way.

But we don't need a new story to lead us out of our mess, it seems. We just need remember the oldest story there is.
"The notion of divine rule 'in harmony with the celestial spheres' stemmed ultimately from womankind's time-honored reliance on the moon as the source of her synchrony and therefore of her power. Whenever and wherever men have claimed to possess any such mandate, it has been a deception and a usurpation. The first representatives of ritual or 'supernatural' authority were menstruating women. The first 'mandate of heaven' was the legitimacy won by women when...they wrote our culture's rule in their own blood." (491)


Gould, Stephen Jay The Mismeasure of Man. W.W. Norton. 1996

Knight, Chris. Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture. Yale University Press. 1991.

Oppenheimer, Stephen. The Journey of Mankind:The Peopling of the World

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