Mythology, Menstruation and the “Woman with the Issue of Blood”
By André Zsigmond
The Good News
Concern from the Vatican about environmental issues has been in the news lately. The ‘seven deadly sins’ have been updated to include environmental pollution and during his American visit the Pope repeatedly spoke of his concerns about damage to the environment. In July, on his Australian tour, “his holiness” recycled his speech on this topic once more.
I am a little reluctant to welcome these comments from the Catholic Church, particularly as in the Bible the best publicised environmental vandalism - the deliberate and senseless destruction of a wild fig tree - was in fact perpetrated by Jesus himself. This is how authors of the Good Book report it in the Gospel of Mark (11;12-21):
“The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard him say it… In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus: "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!"
Today, of course, a well-known public figure could never get away with such pointless vandalism, and anyone openly destroying a budding tree, in front of witnesses, would probably be crucified by the British press. At the time, however, only Juno, the Goddess of the wild fig tree, was watching with horror the obliteration of Her sacred tree.
Lammas (and fresh figs)
This is the time when thanks are given for the fertility of the fields. It was traditional in the Scottish Highlands to sprinkle drops of menstrual blood on doorposts and around the house using a wisp of straw1 and on Lammas Day people smeared their floors and cows with menstrual blood, an act of especial protective power at Lammas and at Beltane.2
Lammas is the Festival of First Fruits. Fig trees in the Holy Land also produce their first fruit about this time and up to late September. Modern Bible criticism also has a field day with the fig tree enigma. Scholars question if this took place in the spring, as reported in the Gospels, or late summer/autumn. They point out that Jesus was familiar with the seasons of the land and would not expect fruits on a fig tree in the spring. Others remark that it is completely out of character that a religious Jew, like Jesus, should destroy a fruit tree.
Cursing the Fig Tree
The sacred tree of the Roman Goddess Juno has been the symbol of the eternal feminine since time immemorial. Fig leaves have been seen as a representation of the divine yoni, and the image of the menstruating vulva of the Goddess is rightly seen in the fresh fruit.3 It is clear therefore that the authors of the Gospels4 needed to annihilate the fig tree.
Celebrated throughout the Roman world only by women, both free women and slaves, was the Festival of Juno Caprotina. Sacrifice of milk from the fig tree was offered to Juno in Her aspect as fertility Goddess. Branches cut from the fig trees were used to promote fecundity.
In the “cursing of the fig tree”, the basic story tells us that on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus becomes hungry. Seeing a fig tree he goes to pick some figs. It has no fruit because fig trees don’t bear fruit until late summer. Subsequently, Jesus curses the tree and it withers. The question is obvious: Why? As a miracle worker, it would have been just as easy for him to make the tree produce ripe figs, instead of destroying the tree.
The fig tree was not only one of the emblems of sexuality and fertility in the pagan world of Rome , but Jewish contemporaries of the gospel writers debated in pages of the Talmud if “the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil” in Genesis (2:9) was in fact a fig tree - providing sexual knowledge. Although we are used to the Christian interpretation, as in Latin, the words "apple" and "evil" are similar in the singular (malum—apple, malus—evil), the Hebrew Bible does not actually indicate what kind of tree it was. Rabbinic literature however records discussions about whether the Three of Knowledge was a fig tree or a pomegranate tree - “coincidentally” both symbols of the Goddess, fertility and of menstruation. By cursing the fig tree an emerging puritanical Christian church was ready to obliterate all that, forcing the Goddess into hiding.
Her wild fig tree however, has continued to be a symbol of the Feminine. Looking at the grammar in the ancient Hebrew text, it isn’t just by chance that the word te’enah - fig tree - has remained feminine. The authors of the New Testament could never really defeat Her.
I was again reminded of this, during a recent talk by Natasha Wardle, at this year’s Budapest Goddess Festival: the Goddess has been present in the New Testament within Mary Magdalene too.
The Woman with the Issue of Blood
This year, traveling to Budapest, I flew from London to the Austrian capital and decided to go to Budapest by boat, down the river Danube - a very picturesque journey and there is a regular service between the two cities. Spending a few days in Vienna, I also had time to search for the Goddess there, but the painting by the Italian Renaissance artist, Paolo Veronese, at the Art History Museum: Christ and the Woman with the Issue of Blood caught me by surprise.
Women were among Jesus' earliest followers and he relates to them with unique sensitivity. Jewish women, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and others, had accompanied Jesus and supported him out of their private means (Luke 8:1-3). It seems inconceivable, therefore, that he should wish to embarrass a woman “with an issue of blood” in such a public way.
The incident when Jesus, in a crowd, miraculously cures a woman suffering from menstrual problems is euphemistically called: “the woman with the issue of blood” and it is included in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The story is very simply told in Matthew (9; 20-22):
“And, behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment: For she said within herself: If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole. But Jesus turned himself about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; your faith has made you whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour.”
The versions of Mark (5:25-34) and Luke (8:43-48) are virtually identical but they extend Matthew’s story:
“And a woman who had a haemorrhage for twelve years, and could not be healed by anyone, came up behind Him and touched the fringe of His cloak, and immediately her haemorrhage stopped. And Jesus said, “Who is the one who touched me?” And while they were all denying it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing in on you.” But Jesus said, “Someone did touch me, for I was aware that power had gone out of me”. When the woman saw that she had not escaped notice, she came trembling and fell down before Him, and declared in the presence of all the people the reason why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” (Luke. 8:43-48). Mark’s account is very similar: “…And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said: who touched my clothes?...”
Reading the versions of Mark and Luke, there is a fundamental question that needs an answer: throughout his career Jesus performs healing and miracles. Yet this is the only occasion in the New Testament when he’s said to call out that his virtue or powers are affected. Why is this?
In the 21st century this relatively minor detail may appear unimportant. However for centuries, every word in the Bible was considered to have special significance and relevance. Why, then, do the authors of Mark and Luke need to humiliate this woman in public? Jesus raises the dead, cures the sick, the leper, the blind, etc, expels demons from people, walks on water (or when he doesn’t walk on water, he turns it into wine) - he is unflinching. Wherever Jesus is, a crowd constantly surrounds him to touch him or his clothes, to be cured.5 Obviously a multitude of people may contain anyone from people with a contagious disease, to the person with an in-growing toenail. Yet the only occasion when, reportedly he remarks openly that his ‘powers’ or ‘virtue had gone out of him’ is a superficial contact of the edge of his cloak by a menstruating woman.
What is hidden behind the message in the Gospels that compels them to offer the reader the blood of Jesus repeatedly and at the same time warn of danger in menstrual blood?
“Jesus said to them…: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life… For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink…He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.” (John 6:54-59)
This “cannibalistic allegory” would have made the Palestinian Jews sick with nausea, and totally out of character for an authentic person living in the Roman province of Judea as a religious Jew, writes one of the greatest Jesus scholars of our time, Geza Vermes.6
In the Hebrew Bible, contact with menstrual blood is a simple prohibition. Why then does it become such a danger in the New Testament that Jesus exclaims: his ‘power’ or ‘virtue’ has been affected by it?7 No doubt the authors are issuing a clear warning: if such contact with a menstruating woman has put the virtue and power of Jesus the ‘Son of God’ in peril, than what chance of survival would ordinary mortal men have, should they come in contact with such women!
At this point it is interesting to remember that Matthew’s Jesus does not call out in any way (Matt. 9: 20-22): he simply turns around and reassures the woman. He does not need to create a commotion and single her out to humiliate a menstruating woman in public. The explanation may be found in the fact that Matthew’s primary audience is the relatively small Jewish community, who by and large observe the Jewish menstrual laws. There is no need to caution and warn off an audience of the “lethal consequences” where physical contact is generally avoided anyway. Bible scholars have shown, however, that the Gospels of Mark and Luke address a Greek-speaking, Hellenized audience, worshipping pagan and Roman gods and goddesses. They have preserved and incorporated ancient Goddess worship. The use and consumption of menstrual blood is an essential part of ceremonies. Records show that even rituals performed by early Christian groups continued using menstrual blood (and semen) in their ceremonies, agape feasts, as late as the middle of the 4th century.
Epiphanius of Cyprus (CE. 310 ca. – 403), suggests that a Christian group called the Phibionites indulge in lavish feasts that begin with a special greeting: The men shake hands with the women, secretly tickling or stroking their palms. An erotic gesture or perhaps a code designed to alert members to the presence of outsiders. Epiphanius' testimony carries weight, because he admits that he himself fell in among them. Married couples separate to engage in ritual sexual intercourse with other members of the community. The union is not meant to be for procreation, however, for the man withdraws before climax. The couple then collects his semen in their hands and ingests it together while proclaiming, “This is the body of Christ.” When possible, the couple also collects and consumes the woman's menstrual blood, saying “This is the blood of Christ” (Panarion 26.2-8).8 Other Gnostic groups have also consumed women's menstrual blood for the Eucharist, while pagans, as has been shown, considered it a sacred gift from the Goddess. (See in the Imbolc 2008 issue the first part of this article.)
In Gnostic mythology, the spiritual elements of the Divine Feminine were inextricably bound to menstrual blood. According to the Church father Epiphanius, writing about 40 years later about his ‘outrageous’ youth, women were the ones to persuade him to participate in these Hieros Gamos, that today may appear very similar to the ancient pagan rituals. Although the gospels predate these recollections of Epiphanius by 200-250 years, there is no doubt that menstrual blood, which was considered sacred, has been used for thousands of years to celebrate the Goddess and Her festivals. This practice without doubt, has continued at the emergence of Christianity and has even found fertile ground within the budding Christian sects.
It seems therefore, that far from simply expanding and giving a more detailed account of the case of “the woman with an issue of blood” - the Gospels of Mark and Luke make a deliberate attack on menstruating women as they were still seen, both in pagan rituals and by the emerging Christian Gnostic groups as symbols and representatives of the Divine Feminine.
This year, the success of the Third Goddess Festival in Budapest, in the very center of Europe, with remarkable contributions from well-known Goddess women from around the world, was for many participants, a further sign of Her return.
- The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets , Barbara G. Walker HarperSanFrancisco, (1983)
- Mark 11;12-21 and Matthew 21;19
- Mark 3.10 “For he (Jesus) had healed many; so that they pressed on him for to touch him, as many as had plagues.” See also Matt. 12;15 and Luke 6:17-19
- The Resurrection , Geza Vermes, Penguin Books, London (2008)
- The words: ‘power’ and ‘virtue’ are used interchangeably in different Bible translations. Older translations, like the King James version tend to use ‘virtue’.
- The Panarion of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, Philip R. Amidon, translator, Oxford University Press, New York, (1990) also quoted in: Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor, Halvor Moxnes, Routledge, London, (1997)
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