Periods Around The World
I created this section because I think that it is interesting that here in the U.S. we do little to honor a girl when she begins to menstruate, while in other cultures it is more of a big deal. Other cultures also think about periods differently, in general, and that's interesting too.
If you celebrated your first period in any way, or know anyone who did, I'd love to hear about it. Send me some mail, and maybe I'll make a new section just for those descriptions.
I found most of this stuff in books by anthropologists, people who go live with and study other people. Some of this might be outdated. People who didn't have much contact with the industrialized world can quickly become part of our "global village" and take on Western/Christian attitudes and leave their traditional ways behind.
Also, just because I say, for instance, that girls in such and such place celebrate their first period in a particular way, that does not mean that ALL the girls in that place will celebrate their period that way, or will celebrate it at all.
An elder (an older, respected member of the community) of the Beng people of Africa's Ivory Coast explains what his people believe about menstruation:
"Menstrual blood is special because it carries in it a living being. It works like a tree. Before bearing fruit, a tree must first bear flowers. Menstrual blood is like the flower: it must emerge before the fruit - the baby - can be born. Childbirth is like a tree finally bearing its fruit, which the woman then gathers."
Among the Tiwi people of Melville Island, a girl achieves special status with her first blood: she is called "Murinaleta" for four menstrual periods.
During her first menstrual period the Murinaleta leaves the general community and goes out into the wild with other women to set up a new camp. She is usually accompanied by her mother, her co-wives (she is already married) and any other older women. No men are allowed in the camp. During this time she is not allowed to touch water, or even a container holding water, so other women hold water to her lips. She is also not allowed to look at any bodies of water, because spirit beings in the water may kill her if she does. There are many taboos to follow the first time beside these, she also is not allowed to speak, or scratch her own skin. After this first special time she, like all other women, will have less strict precautions to take during her periods.
Every winter in a small town in Portugal most households kill a pig and cure its meat for later use. Among the women who organize the butcherings there is a strict taboo against menstruating women helping to butcher a pig or even entering a house where a pig is being cured. Whether or not the woman intends it, her menstruation gives her the evil eye, and her power is so great that she can ruin the meat by just looking at it.
When a woman comes to the door, she is asked "Can you see?" and if she answers that she can, it means she is not menstruating.
Aboriginal Australian men exercise ritual power through ceremonies in which they cut themselves to imitate women's menstruation. In some tribes men actually cut open their penises to reproduce the look of a bleeding vulva. They say that the women used to perform these ceremonies, that all of this ritual power really belongs to women (though their blood), but that men have learned how to trick women:
"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 that belonging to those Wuwalak (legendary bleeding 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... In the beginning we had nothing, because men had been doing nothing; we took these things from women."
Aboriginal Australian women make a cat's cradle design called "the menstrual blood of three women". They usually make this design when there are only women around. If a man walks past he will not look at their game because it is part of the domain of women. Cat's cradles such as this may be used in their rituals for a girl's first menstruation.
NATIVE TRIBES OF NORTH AMERICA
The Hopi, like many other peoples, have myths about the magical powers of menstrual blood. "The Bloody Maiden Who Looks After Animals" is a mythological woman, who, legend has it, was angry at some Hopi hunters. She killed them, and then appeared before all of the people covered with blood. She grabbed a live antelope with one hand, and wiped her other hand over her vulva. She wiped this hand on the antelope's nose, and twisted its nose, and then let it free. She then told the people that from then on it would be very hard for them to hunt the antelope.
The Navahos have a ceremony for menarche called Kinaaldá, which continues today. It is considered the most important of their religious rites. Its purpose is to make sex holy and fruitful. The menstruating girl is secluded and given instruction, and afterward there is a great celebration in which the entire communtiy is involved. Girls may go through more this ceremony more than once during their first year of menstruation.
An anthropologist was visiting the home of a friend of his who was a a member of the Yurok tribe of Northern California On the way home, his friend explained to the anthropologist that his wife was having her period, and so would not be joining them for dinner. The anthropologist was surprised that his friend and his wife followed the old ways of isolating women during their period. When they got to the house the wife appeared and explained that while she didn't have a menstrual hut to go to, she often stayed in the back room of their house during her period. Sometimes, though, she became restless and came out to talk, like tonight. The anthropologist asked her why she followed the old ways, and she explained that when she was very young, she was raised in non-Indian foster homes, where she was taught that menstruation was shameful, a punishment for women. When she returned to Yurok society her aunts and her grandmother, who were very well respected women, taught her differently, they trained her in the Yurok menstrual rules.
These rules say that when a woman is menstruating she is very powerful, and she should isolate herself at this time so that she should not waste her energy on every day matters, or have her concentration broken by members of the opposite sex.
She learned that all of her energy should go toward meditating on the purpose of her life, and the gathering of her spiritual energy. The menstrual shelter is the equivalent of the men's sweathouse, a place where you go to look into yourself and make yourself stronger. They believe the flow of blood helps purify a woman's body for spiritual tasks.
During this time a woman must use a special scratching stick instead of absentmindedly scratching herself with her fingers because she must focus her whole attention on her body by making her conscious of even the most natural actions. She be aware of her entire body all of the time.
Through practicing the menstrual traditions women come to see that "the earth has her own moontime" and understanding that makes women stronger and proud of their own cycle. The Yurok woman also said that in the old days all of the village women who were fertile had their periods at the same time, so all of them would leave to go to the menstrual shelter at once. The men of the village used that time to go and train in their own traditions in their sweathouse.
This just a little observation: in Japan today tampons come with little plastic finger coverings - like cut-off fingers of gloves - so that women do not have to touch themselves "down there" when they put in a tampon.
This might sound a bit paranoid, but tampons which come with applicators like the popular brands used by women in the United States seem strange to European women whose tampons usually come without applicators. We have applicators so, like the Japanese women, we do not have to touch ourselves "down there."
Among the Arapesh people, who live in New Guinea, there is a traditional celebration of a girl's first menstruation. It takes place in her husband's home (Arapesh girls are married before they begin to menstruate), but her family takes part in it too. Her brothers build her a fine menstrual hut, a temporary home, where she sits with her legs crossed. Her woven arm and leg bands are removed, and the things she carries with her every day are taken away, so that she will have a fresh start on life.
She stays in the hut for three days, fasting. She drinks no water and eats no food. On the third day she comes out and an uncle makes little decorative cuts on her shoulders and buttocks. This is called scarification, and is considered a beautiful way to decorate the body.
In the South of India and in Ceylon, the Brahmin community performs a traditional ritual to celebrate the beginning of menstruation called Samati Sadang. The hope is that the girl will lead a fertile life. The girl sits on banana leaves and eats raw egg flavored with ginger oil and then she is given a bath in milk. When this ritual is over, the whole family comes together to feast and celebrate her becoming a mature female.
When a Nayar girl of India begins her period, she may be secluded, and then visited by neighbor women and dressed in new clothes. She usually will begin wearing a sari, a woman's dress, at this time. Later she and her friends will take a ceremonial bath, and then go to a feast where "drums are beaten and shouts of joy are given."
In a small village in Turkey, most of the villagers practiced Islam. The village women explained to a researcher that menstruation was given to women as punishment for Hawa's (Eve's) disobedience against Allah (God) in Cennet (Paradise). Her weakness, allowing Satan to tempt her to eat the fruit, is a sign that all women are morally weak and need to be watched over by men.
Turkish women who follow Islam are not allowed to enter the mosque (temple), touch the Koran (sacred book) or join the community in fasting during the sacred holiday of Ramadan while they are menstruating.
A menstruating woman also cannot join the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. If she starts her period on the way, she cannot enter the sacred part of the city. For this reason most women make the journey after menopause.
In Korea a girl may be given a dinner in her honor when she has her first period. One of the traditional dishes for this occassion is a special soup made out of seaweed.
In an ancient Celtic story called "The Cattle Raid of Cuchalainn" there was a beautiful, powerful warrior queen named Maeve. She led her people in battle against the legendary hero Cuchulainn.
According to the story, Queen Maeve was an equal opponent for this great hero. The only reason she lost the battle against him is because her period began and she had to get out of her chariot to take care of it. When she did, Cuchalainn snuck up behind Queen Maeve and captured her. The spot on which she bled was forever after known as "Maeve's Foul Place."
In Uganda when a girl has her first period she might get to stay home from school. Her mother and her aunts would then spend the day with her and tell her things she needs to know.
Later, her girl friends would come to visit her and have a party. They'd all sing a beautiful song about menstruation together to celebrate.
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