The first menstruation is Life's own initiation of a young girl, taking her over the threshold into Womanhood, and into living with the moon cycles. This transforming event is much ignored in our time and society, giving the young woman a poor welcome into this new phase of her life. But if we turn to other, tribal cultures, and hear how they celebrate the girl’s rite of passage, we will find a body of ancient knowledge as well as inspiration to create new, meaningful rites of transition for Western women of today. Transitions that can make us, whether young or mature, feel at home in Nature's cycles of fruitfulness as they dance around and through us.
story I am going to tell here is a Healing Tale. It will take us through
four parts: The Power of Menstruation, The Tribal Ways,
Changing Woman in a Changing Society, and The Gifts of the13th Fairy.
Please receive from it what you can use.
The first menstruation is a rite of passage that doesn't have to be sought for or applied for. It comes to the girl, all by itself. From now on the blood will come every moon, be her companion in all her fertile years, except when she temporarily steps out of the cycle to bear a child and nurse it. Will she see it as a blessing or a curse?
Modern Western women have, as a rule, had a negative experience of their first period. "Nobody prepared me, I was sure I was going to die"... "When I told my mother, she started crying and told me to say more hail Mary’s daily to protect me from sin." For many the blood was a shameful secret which they came to terms with after a while, to others just a nuisance which they tried to ignore.
expectations to and her experience of her first flow mirrors the society's
attitude toward menstruation in general. Therefore I would like to begin
with an introduction to menstrual power as such. Seen in the light
of how common it is for Western women to have hysterectomies solely
because of menstrual pain and misery, it looks like there is plenty
of room for improvement in our relationship to menstrual power.
The Power of Menstruation
For as long as I have studied and practised shamanism, I have also worked shamanically with the powers of menstruation, Moon and Nature's other cycles. The following is a summary of the teachings I have learnt from traditional, animistic cultures, from other contemporary women's experiences, and from my own meetings and dialogues with the powers of Moon, Blood and Earth.
Almost all traditional cultures, present or past, recognise the extraordinary powers of menstruation. They realise that at that time a woman is surrounded by spirits, and the door opens to the other worlds. It is clear to me that the power of menstruation can be an important ally, a spiritual teacher and pathfinder in our life and personal growth, if we will listen to it and let it flow through us. The power comes to us every month, uninvited, and we feel its presence clearly. So the fundamental question is: Do we welcome the power and co-operate with it, or do we fight it and curse it?
Basically, I have found that the attitude that is the key for bringing yourself in harmony with the power of menstruation, is the same that is central for doing shamanic work. It consists of making yourself accessible to the powers and spirits of Nature, and co-operating with them in a conscious way. To acquire such an attitude is a big challenge, since our Western culture is based on conquering and controlling Nature and its cycles. Added to that, we have all unconsciously inherited the view that the blood is somehow unclean, or at least unmentionable.
It hasn’t always been like that. Once upon a time, a long, long time
ago, also here in Europe, the blood was held sacred, as was Earth, fertility
and sexuality. It is possible for us to realise again, that the cycle
of fruitfulness within a woman reflects the greater cycles of Moon and
Sun, as well as Earth's wonderful, rhythmic fruitfulness. This will
help us to bring healing and beauty back into our view of menstruation
and bleeding women.
Fighting or denying the power doesn't make it disappear. It will just find another way, expressing itself as pain and dis-ease. Many women only know the untameable power in this troublesome, defiant aspect. Most of the month we can put up with a lot, but a few days before the blood shows, we feel strongly when our boundaries are not respected, and we react. Therefore rebellion, pain, depression and anger are well known expressions of the menstrual power. This is what has been labelled PMS, the pre-menstrual syndrome, the horrible monster.
We could also call it "The Moment of Truth"! We could choose to listen to it, co-operate, and make creative use of it. It is a good time to make decisions about boundaries, and finding your direction. Even though its language can be harsh sometimes, you can trust that it speaks to us from a deep, honest place. This strange power always pushes us to be true to our Selves.
The first step of harmony and co-operation is welcoming, and this can be expressed in a simple ritual. The next step is to pay attention, get curious, and go into a dialogue with the power. I have found that the ancient shamanic ways and ritual methods are perfect for this, but you might also find that other disciplines, like dreamwork, meditation or guided visualisations work well. "Menstruation, as dreams, responds to sincere interest .”(2)
All this points to the importance of making the first meeting with the
blood a good one, so it will be a Welcome to the power.
The Tribal Ways
"When I was nearly as tall as my mother, that thing happened to me which happens to all our women though I do not know if it does to the Whites; I never saw any signs. It is called menses." (Maria Chona, of the Tohono O’odham)(3)
Since the rite of the first menstruation has disappeared from our own society, we must turn to more traditional cultures to gather basic information. Many cultures hold that the first menstruation is a crucially important time. It is a time of magic. The girl is between the worlds, and in this state she is malleable, she can be moulded, or shaped! That means that whatever the girl experiences in those days will be imprinted on her personality, and will have consequences for the rest of her life. Therefore traditional peoples utilise this moulding, shaping quality in a conscious way. Great efforts are taken to ensure that the girl will experience what is considered best for her, or/and what is considered best for society, or the tribe as a whole.
Though the ceremonies and celebrations of different societies vary a
lot, they display a common cluster of features or important elements,
that show up consistently even in cultures otherwise very different.
It is this cluster of ritual elements which holds the timeless power
to trans-form and initiate. Most of the examples I will use here stem
from Native North America, simply because I had more reliable source
stories from that area. But before we begin, it should be noted that
there is no single North American Native way of relating to a girl's
first menses or menstrual power in general, just as there is no single
"Indian Spiritual Tradition". What is presented to us here
is a colourful patchwork, a heritage that calls for our willingness
to listen and learn as well as our ability to think for ourselves.
The healing power of this state is widely recognised: A Cibeque Apache explains how a pubescent girl "is just like a medicine man, only with that power she is holy.”(3) Also much further north we find how after the Oglala Sioux rite "...all the people rushed op to her and placed their hands upon her, for now she was a woman, and....there was much holiness in her.”(4) The curing power of the girl's touch or blood is found in many places. In rural Scandinavia, up into the last century, menstrual blood was used for love-magic, and for healing of people and cattle when all else failed. And the blood from a girl's first flow was considered especially potent.
Because of this intensity of her peculiar power, many tribes isolate
the girl, often for four days. It is a very widespread view that the
menstrual power is sacred and dangerous, and therefore it must be handled
with care, much like we handle electricity. However, there are
also other reasons for the girl to "sit apart", as we shall
turn to now.
For the Yurok of California, the puberty ritual of their upper class women for example, was more personal than public. It basically includes a period of fasting, dreaming, and isolation for five to ten nights, with daily bathing in a sacred pond. Tela Lake, a Yurok, relates how: "On the tenth night she stands in the middle of the pond and centers herself between the power of the water and the power of the ....full moon. Then she prays to Sky Woman and asks for strength, protection, long life, some kind of special gift, and wealth (i.e. spiritual growth). Afterwards she dives deep into the pond and tries to find a good luck stone. Then she returns to the main house and tells the older women or the medicine women about her dreams, vision, or spirit contact (5)".
In the Seneca nation of the Northeastern woodlands, girls used to retire into the woods on a “mild” vision quest at first menstruation and paid particular attention to their dreams. Through dreams experienced during such a period the dreamer could be granted orenda, magical power, and a guardian spirit or power animal.
Mountain Wolf Woman, born around 1900, of the Winnebago, remembers such a dream and how she spent her first period at age thirteen in the snow covered wood: “.....Near the water's edge of a big creek, at the rapids of East Fork River, they built a little wigwam [for me]. I was crying. I was crying (meaning both crying and praying) and I was frightened. Four times they made me sleep there. I never ate. There they made me fast. That is what they made me do. After the third time I slept, I dreamed: There was a big clearing. I came upon it, a big, wide-open field, and I think there was a rise of land there...There in the wide meadow, there were all kinds of horses, all colours. I must have been one who dreamed about horses. I believe that is why they always used to give me horses.”(6)
In some cultures, a dream or vision (some languages do not distinguish between dream, spontaneous vision and shamanic journey) at menarche might also call the girl to become "doctor", that is medicine woman or shaman. For other tribes or individuals, the call to become a medicine woman does not come until the other end of the fertile years, when the mature woman enters the Age of Transition, leaving motherhood behind her.
However, not all puberty ceremonies for girls have questing and isolation
as part of them, far from it. There is for example neither isolation
nor questing in the Kinaaldá, and no questing for the Tohono O’odham
girl, as Maria Chona tells about below.
It is a very common feature of the girl's transition, that an older woman is chosen to assist and instruct the girl. It is her task to alert the girl to the physical, social and spiritual changes in her. This is the tribe's or culture's clearest attempt to mould or shape the girl to fit into the proper woman's role, as it is seen by that culture. It can have both a very pragmatic side, focusing on the wish for strong, hardworking women, and a more spiritual side, impressing on the girl the mythical origin and divine quality of her new fertility.
Maria Chona, of the Tohono O’odham, formerly known as the Papago in Arizona, related around 1930: "They don't let us sit still and wait for dreams. That is because we are women, too. Women must work...They chose my father's cousin to take care of me. She was the most industrious woman we had....Then that old woman would talk to me: 'Work hard. If you do not work hard now, you will be lazy all your life. Then no one will want to marry you'...I listened to her...I wanted to be a good woman.”(3)
Although the Kinaaldá ceremony also includes strenuous work, the most important task for the elder woman assisting the Kinaaldá girl is to re-enact the mythical role of Changing Woman's mother, First Woman. Just like First Woman did with young Changing Woman, the elder woman dresses the Kinaaldá girl in the finest white shell jewellery and clothing, and moulds and massages her to physical perfection while singing the sacred songs.(8) In this way the young girl is reminded, indeed physically shown, how she is going through the very same process as the goddess did at the dawn of time.
Black Elk says about the girls’ puberty rites: “They are important because
it is at this time that a young girl becomes a woman, and she must understand
the meaning of this change … She should realise that the change which
has taken place in her is a sacred thing, for now she will be as Mother
Earth and will be able to bear children.”(4)
The moulding magic also makes the girl's own behaviour and actions during her ceremony important. It is a widespread view, that it will shape her attitude toward life, and influence her future mental and physical health. As a modern Chiricahua Apache man says: "It seems to me that it turns out this way. There's my wife. She went through the ceremony very well, obeyed, and was good. You take C., she was mean and balky...Today she's very mean. And now she's cross, has a bad mouth and a high temper. But she's a good looking woman all right!”(3)
As part of this ritual magic the Navajo girl, as well as her Apache
cousin, run to meet the rising sun every dawn during the rite, longer
and faster for every time. Because Changing Woman taught that the longer
a girl runs at her Kinaaldá, the longer she lives a healthy life in
Although this is not a common part of most girl's rites, even in more
chaste cultures, the young people sometimes take advantage of the privacy
of the prescribed isolation of the initiate, and there are quite a few
stories about how she might receive nightly visits in her moon hut.
Most North American peoples also used to see the appearance of the first
blood as a sign that the girl was ready to be sexually active, or even
marry. The lessons of her "godmother" would then also include
the proper sexual education.
The puberty rite of the Oglala Sioux, a band within the Lakota nation,
is called Ishna Ta Awi Cha Lowan, literally meaning "Her
Alone They Sing Over", and it ends with a feast and a Give Away.
Much further south the Hupa and Chilula call their ceremony ”The Flower
Dance”. The names give poetic expression to the common attitude of
the tribal rites of passage, so different from our society's ignore-ance
of the event: The girl is the center of attention of her kin and her
community. Younger girls watch her being celebrated, stepping
over the threshold, looking forward to their turn. Maria Chona
ends the story of her month-long initiation this way: "And then
they danced me. All that month they danced me, until the moon got back
to the place where it had been at first. It is a big time when a girl
comes of age; a happy time .”(3)
Changing Woman in a Changing Society
In a time where many indigenous peoples are reclaiming their traditions and pride, the puberty rite is a powerful way of transmitting tribal values to the next generation. But sometimes also contemporary girls of these cultures turn away from going through the rite: "I don't like being Kinaaldá; I get tired of the beads, the running, and having to sit up all night.”(8) said a Navajo girl, trying to escape the prescribed second ceremony by hiding her menstruation.
To most westerners the ceremonies described here contains both practises of great beauty and practises we would consider oppressive. Some of them serving the spiritual needs of the girl, others putting the social needs of the tribe far before those of the girl. I should note that in my selection I have put emphasis on stories which could have an inspiring or healing effect on our attitude to menstruation. I could also have presented tribal stories and features of a more oppressive character, but really, who needs that? We have enough of that in our own background, and my purpose has been to gather material for healing and positive change.
the girl's rite reflects the tribe's or culture's view of women, women’s
roles and women’s power- doesn't our own?
Another aspect we must consider to get a balanced picture is that when traditions around menstruation degenerate, the last aspect to be remembered and practised is the exclusion of women from ceremonies. This exclusion, and nothing else, is unfortunately how many Western women interested in shamanism and Native American ways have been introduced to the whole concept of menstrual power. For many it has reactivated old feelings of shame, of being outcast, and sadly, some of the women have concluded that this meant they should not or could not do any shamanic or other spiritual work at all when menstruating. But the "exclusion" is only half of the story, and it is not a universal truth either. Remembering the “personality traits” of the power of menstruation we can better understand the practice of exclusion for what it is. It means to me simply that certain traditions or controlled ceremonies do not, in their design, have tolerance for the untameable menstrual power. And we do not have to uncritically import that view or that tradition into our own spiritual practice.
This brings us to the big issue of how we can take part of the human heritage stored in tribal ceremonies without falling into the trap of becoming wanna-bees. Ceremony in itself is only the means, not the goal. Ceremony is the form, power and spirit the content. I see no purpose in imitating a culture specific form, no matter how much I respect that culture. I will rather let myself be inspired by the content, and let that take root and form in my own place and time.
On my workshops on moon cycles and shamanism I have invited grown women to do a special healing journey: To go to their spirit helpers and ask to be led through their first menstruation again, as it should have been celebrated. The opportunity to do this over, to heal old hurts, has been met with enthusiasm, and the journeys often have elements of the "classic" puberty rites, without the journeyers knowing anything about those beforehand. The women come back telling about instructions and tests from an old wise teacher, rituals and dances in a circle of women, bathing in a moonlit pond, having their hair washed and combed, their bodies adorned.
This confirms for me, that the core content of the traditional rites
is an ancient human heritage which transcends time and culture, and
which speaks to deep spiritual needs, including the spiritual needs
of women of today.
One great difference between tribal and western cultures is the different view of individuality. Roughly said, in our society we tend to put the needs of the individual’s "freedom" before the needs of community, whether local or global. It has given us great opportunities for un-compromised personal growth and unfolding. We have paid with broken families and networks, loneliness and feelings of separation. Tribal societies on the other hand, can tend to smother the individual for the sake of community's needs, as is hinted in some of the examples above. We should remember that any new ritual or celebration of the first flow must be created in accordance with the girl's needs, on her terms, and not trespassing her boundaries. Remembering the moulding magic, the purpose is first and foremost to give the girl the best possibilities to enjoy her first meeting with the cycle. Just as it happens on Native American reservations today, many girls might shrink away from the mere thought of a public celebration, especially one with their extended family. However low key the girl wants the event, I feel it is important that there is some reward or positive change accompanying the first menstruation.
Another difference is that in our society, the first blood comes long before the girl is considered a grown woman, sometimes even before she is a teenager. And that does make it harder for a girl of our society to welcome the blood, because what is it for? She is now sexually mature, but she is not supposed to be sexually active quite yet. The privileges of true woman- and adulthood seem far away. There are still years ahead of her before it is considered beneficial or acceptable for her to enter a serious love-relationship or use her new ability to bear children. This makes it even more of a challenge to turn this experience into a meaningful one for the girl.
gap in time between seeing the first blood and being a grown woman means,
that there are probably parts of the traditional transition, that the
girl will not appreciate until she herself feels she has come of age.
This could for example be her 18th birthday, or finishing secondary
school, moving away from her parents, or beginning an education. As
a woman exclaimed: "I didn't miss not having my first menstruation
celebrated. But I do miss not having been celebrated as a woman."
A school teacher might also take the role of Elder, preparing the girls.
A young Danish woman really appreciated that her female teacher gathered
all the girls in the class and shared with them her knowledge of sexuality,
birth control and menstruation in the open and intimate atmosphere of
a "women's lodge", making it possible for the girls to continue
their own talks in the same manner. Black Elk's words: "at this
time her virtues and habits passed into the young girl" comes to
vision seeking, or equivalent, milder practises, might feel more appropriate
later when the girl is faced with choosing education, finding her path,
and other big issues.
It is very important for a mother in this situation to be clear about which are her own needs, so she does not (with the best of intentions) project them onto her daughter causing resistance and embarrassment. More than once I have seen how the mother wants a celebration or a ceremony for her daughter, because she herself never had one.
But it is never too late. A woman who wants to "start all over",
like the women on my workshops, can create her own initiation into womanhood,
her own rite, and maybe take inspiration from some of the stories in
this article. On a full moon night perhaps, or when her menstruation
starts, she can do the ritual all by herself, or be assisted by a trusted
friend, calling on her own spirit helpers, or, for example, Changing
Woman or the moon goddess. The experience can be deepened by a shamanic
journey as described above, or by a guided meditation or imagery with
the desired elements.
To be able to transmit values genuinely, we must live them. We
can bring the cycles of nature into our life by celebrating the turning
of the seasons with songs, flowers and games, - by supporting
the friendship the child often already has with the moon and spirits
of nature, adding knowledge and lore, - by doing our best to be in open
harmony with the menstrual cycle our selves,- showing by our example
that Nature's cycles are something to dance with, not something to fight.
The Gifts of the 13th Fairy
I want to end with a gem from our European treasure of fairytales, a story of a girl’s initiation into womanhood.
We all know the story called Sleeping Beauty. You remember how the King and the Queen only had 12 golden plates, and therefore they didn't want to invite the 13th fairy to the party for celebrating their daughter. All the other 12 fairies came and each of them in turn bestowed her gift, her blessing onto the Princess. But then, to everybody’s embarrassment, the 13th fairy showed up anyway. And because she was not invited, she was angry and she brought a Curse: On the Princess's 15th birthday, (on her coming of age), she would prick herself on a spindle and die! (The dying-part was later softened into "sleeping for a hundred years").
The parents tried to avoid the unavoidable by having all spinning wheels destroyed and being very protective of their daughter. Nevertheless, the day the Princess turned 15, she found herself exploring unknown corners of the castle, all by herself. And furthest up, in a secluded chamber, she met an old woman spinning on a spinning wheel. As foretold, the girl pricked herself on the spindle, and upon seeing the red blood, fell into a deep sleep. Red thorny roses covered the whole castle, but when a hundred years had passed, they opened for the Prince. He woke the Princess with a kiss, and they lived happily ever after.
In fairytale language, the 12 golden plates tell us how the solar principle is well esteemed in our culture. 13 is the number of the moon, unwelcome and seen as a bringer of bad luck in our society, which doesn’t care much for either moon energy or the energy of women's moon cycles. You could even see the 13th fairy as the moon goddess, ruling women's cycles, too. The fairies are the female spirits or goddesses, who in pagan times were called upon at a child’s birth, to bring blessings, and predict the future. Norns, Fates, Disir or just Fairies, they have many names. Now, the spindle has a universal sacred meaning too: The Norns are said to spin the unavoidable fate, the life thread. And Navajo legend tells of Spider Woman spinning, creating the web of life. In the secluded chamber you recognise the persistent theme of the girl's initiation taking place in seclusion, in isolation, often supported by and old, wise woman.
What the 13th fairy brings the Princess then, is menstruation and sexual maturity. Red roses, with thorns.
see, for all the King's and Queen's excluding, avoiding and ignoring,
they couldn't avoid their little girl growing up into sexual maturity,
they could not exclude life's own initiation of her. They might
as well have invited the 13th fairy, because she comes anyway!
That’s the wisdom and the lesson of the story. And if we do invite her
and show her the respect she is entitled to, she will arrive in a much
better mood, and bring a Blessing, not a Curse!