By André Zsigmond
The Promised Land?
A prisoner of conscience at the age of 18 - escaping from communist Hungary in 1981 - searching for the “truth”, I immersed myself in religious studies in England. During communism the study of religion and the Scriptures was actively discouraged - it seemed ‘obvious’ therefore that they would have all the answers. Needless to say, the Bible only raised even more questions.
I first became aware of the personal, cultural and religious significance of menstruation during my post-graduate research of the origins of male circumcision. Among other theories, the term “menstruation envy” – men’s desire to equal and imitate menstruation, creating parallel menstrual rituals - were suggested in studies of different cultures all over the world. (But this is a theme for another article.)
This revelation was the opening to me to search for, and discover the Goddess.
The Temple of Hera at Olympia is thought to be by far the oldest and predates the temple of Zeus (470 BCE - completed circa 456 BCE). In fact the earliest Greek temple, according to Carl Kerényi, was that of Hera, and it was a prototype for the later, more "Olympian structures”.
Hera’s first Temple - the Heraion of Samos - was a sanctuary on the Southern region of Samos. Research has revealed many of construction phases, the first dating to the 8th century BCE. The religion of Hera included menstrual rituals to follow the cycles of the moon and every four years the Goddess Hera was celebrated at the games & feast of the Heraia, where only women ran races. Runners were selected from three age groups representing the phases of the moon. These special games, Carl Kerényi believes, originated what became the Olympic Games.
Pre-Olympian Myth: On the day of the new moon, women of the city walked together to the river Eleutherion (ελευθεριον - freedom) - the Water of Freedom. They bathed and then gathered branches from the lygos bushes, which they laid in a circle. With the blessing of Hera, the lygos encouraged the flow of their menstrual blood that would complete the cleansing. As evening approached, they called upon the Goddess in Her appearance as the Moon. Or as Carl Kerényi has called Her "the spellbinding moonlight of Greece", the "origin of all things". Gradually Hera drew forth the blood of purification and renewed fertility.
Working as a complementary therapist in London, I have seen a significant increase in the number of women seeking help for menstrual problems in the last few years. During the course of treatments, I have time and again observed an overwhelming need to talk in detail about the physical and emotional experience of menstruation, as if there was an unstoppable desire to make it a shared experience.
Having read Comparative Religion at post-graduate level, I often see these occasions as an opportunity to recall the history of the Goddess as Her origin relates inextricably to the rituals and mythology of menstruation. Clients find these sessions especially healing, but Her story has not only engendered amazement, but often rage – anger, that this rich heritage is not in the public domain and is missing from general culture and awareness.
During treatments, these conversations have repeatedly developed into integral part of some sessions, leading to requests to give talks on the history of the Goddess as it relates to menstruation. Consequently I have returned to my alma mater to have another look at the literature and some of the archaeological, historical and etymological sources on this topic. (These notes are fragments of those informal talks.)
A lecture by the archaeologist, Constance M. Piesinger, on Neolithic Goddess Cultures of Old Europe, in June at last year’s Budapest Goddess Festival was another inspiration to reflect.
(I’m not the first person to be inspired in the Hungarian capital to rediscover the Goddess. I’m walking in the footsteps of Hungarian Classics scholar Carl Kerényi and the Biblical scholar Raphael Patai, who also began their search for the Goddess in Budapest, in their own fields of scholarship.)
The phases of the Moon affect the ebb and flow of the tides on earth. The Moon also affects our mood as well. The gravitational pull of the Moon affects all bodies of water, including the human body system, primarily made of water. Most commonly, women tend to ovulate around the time of the full moon and begin menstruating at the new moon. Many cultures throughout time have referred to a woman's menses as her "Moon time". From ancient times people recognized the connection of the Moon’s cyclic nature with the cyclic nature of women's menstrual cycles. Many creation myths follow the familiar theme that menstrual blood was the source, from which the World and humans were created. Greek, Roman, Norse, Celtic, Egyptian, Hindu and aboriginal Australian creation myths, all refer to the mysterious and sacred nature of the Moon's cycle and menstrual blood-flow as the very origin of life and Creation.
While Genesis, the most familiar creation story to the Western mind, in the Bible does not appear to echo this premise - God creating Earth simply from chaos and later forming the first man, Adam from earth, breathing soul into him. A closer examination of the original Hebrew text, however appears to reflect earlier creation myths that place a kind of primordial blood as the fundamental source of creation. Thus an examination of the Hebrew reveals that words for earth - adamah- and human/man– adam- can be traced to the actual root word: dam meaning blood. It is also important to note that unlike English, in the Hebrew language nouns are divided into feminine and masculine gender and interestingly both words (mother) earth (adamah) and soul (nefesh) are in the feminine gender.
Researching and analysing this theme from entirely diverse backgrounds, Chris Knight, Judy Grahn, as well as authors of ‘The Wise Wound’ and others, in their writings on different cultures and world mythologies, have shown that all religious ceremonies, rites originated from ancient menstrual rituals. Menstrual blood was considered by the earliest cultures to be one of the most sacred substances since it is the only kind of blood that's not linked to death and dying – but to the potential for new life.
In ancient times, the obvious and visible relationship between phases of the Moon and the female cycle clearly indicated women’s special relationship with nature generally and uniquely with the Moon. It has been suggested that the very first religious rituals developed, when in harmony with nature, as the New Moon menstrual synchrony was celebrated in small communities by women.
In various cultures the Moon became the symbol of menstruation and femininity. This is again reflected in language: in Latin languages -luna and once more in Hebrew -levanah, one of the expressions for moon is feminine.
A woman's cyclical life opens her to a vast elemental force that is both deeply intimate and at the same time cosmic; euphoric, creative, erotic and healing. She can enter the depth of this sphere monthly at menstruation and the menstrual cycle is itself can be the guidance for fully understanding and realizing this power, writes Alexandra Pope.
For our ancestors this power reflected the rhythms of Mother Earth as the female body is also able to renew, nurture, give birth, nourish and feed new life. For early humans it seemed that it is by design that the menstrual blood, the only blood that is not the result of illness or violence, holds the blessing and wisdom of Goddess Earth and each and every woman carry within herself HER wisdom and blessing.
The negative patriarchal attitudes to the Goddess, menstruation and women generally during the last 5,000 years are well documented today. Yet it is significant that in ancient Greece the Goddess Athena remained the representative of “Wisdom”. Later with the emergence of Christianity the very name Sophia, meaning “wisdom”, perpetuated this link between female bloodandwisdom.
In the English language the words “blood” and “blessing” has been traced back to a common root: bleodswean - “to sanctify with blood” - according to The Woman's Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets. Here, Barbara Walker suggests that the word has its origin in menstrual rituals.
The Kabbalah teaches us the Scriptures are full of alluded meanings. So it should not come as a surprise that the Hebrew word for blessing- berachah- is feminine. Moreover, in Hebrew, words that represent wisdom- hochmah, insight - binah, knowledge – daat, are all feminine.
Menstrual blood was not only seen as fundamental and central part of ritual, and perhaps magic. It was also widely viewed as a universal elixir of life. Ancient Taoist teachings imply that a person consuming it, could achieve longevity or even eternal life. Ayurvedic medical practices recorded the use of menstrual blood, and in the past it could be prescribed, both for internal and external use.
In Olympia the life of the Gods depended on ambrosia: the mixture of the Goddess Hera’s menstrual blood and honey ensuring their immortality. As well as the Moon, honey was also associated and used as a synonym for menstrual blood in many cultures. The word “honeymoon", according to The Woman's Encyclopaedia, refers to the lunar month following the wedding that would include a menstrual period, the real source of what was euphemistically called moon-honey. According to ancient beliefs, the groom had to be literally in contact with the source of life; the menstrual blood of the bride. There are similar expressions today in different languages. The Hungarian language has comparable traditions, calling this time mézeshetek - “honeyed weeks”. (Although it is obvious that some languages have simply translated the English expression.)
Milk and honey
In popular thinking, the patriarchal Jews of the Old Testament shared a common belief system, ruled by a male God. The evidence from the Bible itself paints a different picture. Raphael Patai, the noted Biblical scholar and author of The Hebrew Goddess states: "... it would be strange if the Hebrew-Jewish religion, which flourished for centuries in a region of intensive goddess cults, had remained immune to them." Archaeologists have uncovered Hebrew settlements where the goddesses Asherah and Astarte-Anath were routinely worshipped. And in fact, for about 3,000 years, the Hebrews worshipped female deities.
The enduring presence of the feminine facet of God, the female deity, Sechina, in the Hebrew Bible also backs up Patai’s thesis. This is supported by evidence from wall paintings in the earliest known synagogue - built in the middle of the 3rd century CE at Dura Europos (in present day Syria). In the most sacred area of the building, the heroic women of the Old Testament are portrayed on the murals. Only one central figure is shown nude on the frescos. Raphael Patai, relying on early rabbinic literature, the Midrash, convincingly presents a case that the naked female figure is God’s female aspect - the Shechina.
The eternally present, but never actually revealed divine feminine, never ceases to permeate the language -lashon, soul- nefesh and land–eretz, of the Hebrew Scriptures. Can it be just a coincidence that these words are all feminine?
It is universally known that in Judaism, contact with menstrual blood is not permitted and consuming any kind of blood is forbidden as blood is believed to contain the (feminine) nefesh-soul (Leviticus 17: 14). The Kabbalah points out however that, after giving birth, the mother’s body transforms menstrual blood, to life-giving milk to feed the baby.
The familiar biblical phrase in Deuteronomy (11:9) “A land flows with milk and honey”- 'eretz zavat halav udvash’ - appears several times in the Bible, and serves as the description of the land of Israel. This phrase can be understood at many levels. The simple meaning is - a rich and fertile land. In Numbers (13:23), we read that the scouts return with pomegranates, figs and grapes as a confirmation that it is a land 'flowing with milk and honey'.
Here, repeatedly, the reader comes across an imagery of the feminine that was widespread in the ancient world. Pomegranates were a universal symbol of fertility because of their many seeds, and at the same time of menstruation because of the vivid blood red colour. In mythology, the pomegranate was a symbol of the Aegean Triple Goddess who evolved into Hera, who is often represented offering the pomegranate. The fig in early and oriental cultures was similarly a symbol of the feminine and fertility. In ancient Rome, where Hera has evolved to Juno, She was celebrated as Goddess of the wild fig tree. Ancient rabbinic literature also records discussions among the sages, suggesting that the “forbidden fruit” of the ‘tree of knowledge’ in the Garden of Eden was either the fig or the pomegranate that has given Adam and Eve sexual knowledge.
It is difficult not to notice the rich sexual and clearly menstrual imagery here. The fact that milk and honey are both considered feminine substances, literally or symbolically, strengthens this argument. Additionally the word 'zavat', which is translated as ‘flowing’ or 'oozing' , usually appears in the Bible within the context of sexual and body fluids, including semen and menstrual blood.
There is further evidence to support this interpretation of the feminine. The sexual imagery of the Bible in King Solomon’s poetry uses similar expressions. In the Song of Songs (4:11), we read: 'milk and honey are under your tongue’. Later (5:1) the erotic imagery of the feminine or even menstrual, seems even more explicit: “I have come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh, with my spice; I have eaten my honey-comb with my honey; I have drank my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yes, drink abundantly, O beloved.”
Searching for an additional layer of meaning, when exploring the word “honey” again the Kabbalah puts forward an effortless but compelling argument, simply by using numerology - gematria, the study of the numerical value of Hebrew letters to reveal hidden meanings of words of the Bible. It draws attention to the fact that the value of the letters in the word dvash - honey and the wordi sha - woman is equal. The numerical value in both words is 306. 3+0+6=9. Once again the timeless, pre-Olympian Hera comes to mind, Goddess of fecundity, renewing her fertility in the river at the new moon, revealing Her sacred number -9.
Kerényi, C (1975) Zeus and Hera: Archetypal Image of Father, Husband and Wife, Princeton University Press
Patai, R (1990) The Hebrew Goddess, (3rd enlarged edition) Wayne State University Press
Knight, C (1988) Menstrual Synchrony and the Australian Rainbow Snake, In T. Buckley and A. Gottlieb (eds), Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation, California: University of California Press
Grahn, J (1993) Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World, Boston: Beacon Press
Shuttle, P; Redgrove, P (2005) The Wise Wound, London: Marion Boyars Publishers
Pope, A (2001) The Wild Genie: The Healing Power of Menstruation, Sally Milner Publishing
Walker, B (1983) The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, HarperSanFrancisco
Latest posts by André Zsigmond (see all)
- Mythology, Menstruation and the Land of Milk and Honey - 11th September 2015
- Rape, Murder and Misogyny – The Real Revelations of the Kama Sutra - 26th July 2012
- Ancient Tantric Goddess Worship – Past and Present - 17th April 2012