Arguably, kinship was originally matrilineal. Even to this day, hunter-gatherer women have much solidarity and power. But what tribal myths recurrently denounce as women’s one-sided ‘rule’ is a fantasy. Examine such myths and it turns out that they concern women’s menstrual cyclicity, which men blame for women’s periodic ‘rebellion’, their periodic menstrual synchrony and corresponding power. In real life, hunter-gatherer women’s moon-scheduled rituals were playful and part of the order of things, as they still are among many African hunter-gatherers to this day. Men assert power for part of the month; women seize back that power during their countervailing ceremonies. It was only when such periodicity became lost – only when men seized power and insisted on a permanent monopoly – that women’s biological nature became perceived as a threat to the entire social order. One way or another, all the world’s great patriarchal religions continue to hold this view.
THE MYTH OF PRIMITIVE MATRIARCHY Matriarchy myths tell of an “original” period of supposedly disastrous “women’s rule” which came to an end when men gained power. The theme is known in many parts of the world. It is particularly prominent in those areas in which men seek a monopoly of ritual power through secret male initiation rites. Such areas include much of tropical South America, Africa, Melanesia and Australia. In the societies concerned, men organise an apparent conspiracy against women, using an array of theatrical devices, sound-making instruments, blood-shedding operations and ritual songs, dances and other performances in order – it seems – to intimidate women and separate them from their male offspring as these come of age. The success of these endeavours varies from place to place, but in general the logic which men follow and the myths and symbols through which it is expressed are so stunningly alike in such widely separated regions of the globe that anthropologists have long sought an explanation for the parallels. We argue that women’s “rule” refers, in fact, to les régles – to women’s periods, which – tradition holds – can be synchronised with one another and phase-locked to the periodicity of the moon.
Myths of matriarchy, writes Joan Bamberger (1974: 249), justify male dominance “through the evocation of a catastrophic alternative – a society dominated by women”. The final image of womankind which emerges from such myths, she continues (p. 280), “is that she represents chaos and misrule through unbridled sexuality.”
In the myths, woman-dominated society is envisaged not only as excessively sexual. It is seen as a world ruled by mysterious forces emanating in a more general way from nature. These are forces of “evil”, “witchcraft” or “medicine” bound up with darkness and the changing Moon (as opposed to the Sun) and intimately linked with both reproductive and sexual aspects of female physiology. In a number of myths it is the “Sun-man” or “Sun-father” who finally overthrows “women’s rule” (Bamberger 1974: 269, 273). Few specialists in comparative religion or mythology have doubted that such myths are assuming or alleging woman’s governance by the Moon (cf. Eliade 1958: 154-63, Lévi-Strauss 1978: 221-2, 506). The Oglala Indian saying that woman’s power “grows with the moon and comes and goes with it”, women secluding themselves monthly in their menstrual huts “to keep their medicine effective” (Powers 1980: 62, 57) provides a good example. Beliefs of this kind, while varied in their specific forms, occur virtually throughout the traditional world. Through their bodies and, in particular, through their reproductive organs, women are felt to have a peculiar and privileged mode of access to “medicine”, “magic” or “witchcraft” of a kind which is all the more dangerous for being linked with the moon, rooted in nature and therefore ultimately beyond male cultural artifice or control.
Against this background, we may examine same typical “primitive matriarchy” myths, several of them featuring a women’s Lodge or Hut suggestive of a communal menstrual hut:
The origin of the Nain. Tierra del Fuego: Selk’nam-Ona. In the beginning, witchcraft was known only by the women of Ona land. They practised it in a Lodge, which no man dared approach. The girls, as they neared womanhood, were instructed in the magic arts, learning how to bring sickness and death to those who displeased them. The men lived in abject fear and subjection. Certainly they had bows and arrows with which to hunt. “Yet”, they asked, “what use are such weapons against witchcraft and sickness?” The tyranny of women bore down more and more heavily, until at last one day, the men resolved to fight back. They decided to kill the women, whereupon there ensued a great massacre, from which not one woman escaped in human form. The men spared their little daughters and waited until these had grown old enough to become wives. And so that these women should never be able to band together and regain their old ascendancy, the men inaugurated a secret society of their own and banished forever the women’s Lodge in which so many wicked plots had been hatched (Bridges 1948: 412-13; quoted in Bamberger 1974: 270).
The essence of this myth is the allegation that women once “banded together” in some way connected with a “lodge” from which emanated death-dealing supernatural powers.
Our next myth adds to these themes that of a special “paint” used by women to change their apparent identities. The “Great Kina Hut” is the hut in which men carry on their rituals today:
The origin of the kina. Tierra del Fuego: Yamana. In the beginning, women had sole power. They gave orders to the men, who obeyed just as women do today. The men took care of the children, tended the fire, and cleaned the skins, while the women did no work in the hut at all. That was the way it was always to be. The women invented the Great Kina Hut and everything which goes on inside it, and then fooled the men into thinking they were spirits. They stepped out of the Great Hut, painted all over, with masks on their heads. The men did not recognise their wives, who, simulating the spirits, beat the earth with dried skins so that it shook. Their yells, howls and roars so frightened the men that they hastened into their huts and hid, full of fear.
But one day, the Sun-man, who supplied the women-spirits in the Kina hut with an abundance of game, overheard the voices of two girls while he was passing a lagoon. Being curious, he hid in the bushes and saw the girls washing off painting which was characteristic of the spirits when they appeared. They had also been practising their imitations of the voices of the spirits. Suddenly, the Sun-man confronted them, insisting that they reveal to him what went on in the Kina hut. Finally, they confessed to him: “It is the women themselves who paint themselves and put on masks; then they step out of the hut and show themselves to the men. There are no other spirits there, It is the women themselves who yell and howl; in this way they frighten the men.” The Sun-man then returned to the camp and exposed the fraudulent women. In revenge, the men stormed the Kina hut, and a great battle ensued in which the women were either killed or transformed into animals. From that time on, the men have performed in the Kina hut; they do this in the same manner as the women before them (Bamberger 1974: 269; citing Gusinde 1961: 1238-49).
In this myth, men are associated with the Sun. The women, by contrast, are associated with the waters of a lagoon, in which they used to wash off “paint” which acted as a “disguise”. When painted all over, the women inspired terror as they impersonated “the spirits”. They organised their sexual power in a fearsome great “hut”, but men eventually stormed this, taking it over for their own use and performing in it exactly the same rituals as the women had done before them.
A further myth introduces (a) the theme of flutes and bullroarers and (b) the theme of sexual dominance as expressed in the capacity to rape. It is narrated by a man:
The origin of the bullroarer. Amazonia: Mehinaku In ancient times the women occupied the men’s houses and played the sacred flutes inside. We men took care of the children, processed maniac flour, wove hammocks, and spent our time in the dwellings while the women cleared fields, fished and hunted. In those days, the children even nursed at our breasts. A man who dared enter the women’s house during their ceremonies would be gang-raped by all the women of the village on the central plaza. One day the chief called us together and showed us how to make bullroarers to frighten the women. As soon as the women heard the terrible drone, they dropped the sacred flutes and ran into the houses to hide. We grabbed the flutes and took over the men’s houses. Today if a woman comes in here and sees our flutes we rape her. Today the women nurse babies, process maniac flour and weave hammocks, while we hunt, fish and farm (Gregor 1977: 255). * * * * * In the next myth, women’s sacred flutes are associated with the waters of a lagoon. These flutes needed “feeding with meat” – that is, the women when in possession of them were able to compel men to hunt for them:
The origin of the sacred flutes. Amazonia: Mundurucu. Three women were walking through the forest long ago when they heard music coming from a lagoon. They investigated and caught three fish, which turned into three sacred flutes. The women played these to produce music so powerful that they were enabled to occupy the sacred Men’s House, forcing the men to live in ordinary dwellings. While the women did little but play on their flutes all day long, they forced the men to make manioc flour, fetch water and firewood, and care for the children. The men’s ignominy was complete when the women visited the men’s dwellings at night to force their sexual attentions on them (“Just as we do to them today”).However, the flutes needed feeding with meat. One day, the men – who were the hunters – threatened to withhold what they caught unless the women surrendered the flutes. Frightened of angering the fertility-spirits contained in the flutes, the women agreed, and the men seized the flutes and the power, which they have held to this day (Murphy 1973: 21 7-18).
In this myth, the men gain power by organising what may be termed a male counterpart to women’s menstrual “sex-strike” – a collective “hunting-strike”. They then base their power in what was formerly the women’s sacred “House”, monopolising now the “flutes” which “needed feeding with meat”. In this as in so many similar myths, the implication is that every collective, solidarity-engendering strategy which women once resorted to against men, men are nowadays justified in practising against women – and in a form as close as possible to the feminine-inspired original.
We now come to a myth which replaces “flutes”, “bullroarers, “masks” and “paint” with a strange power-conferring garment: a skirt made of fibres stained with the world’s first menstrual blood:
The origin of royal dress. West Africa: Dogon. A woman stole a fibre skirt which was stained with the world’s first menstrual flow. Putting it on herself and concealing her identity by this means, she reigned as queen and spread terror all around. But then men took the fibres from her, dressed themselves in the royal garment, and prohibited its use to women. All the men danced wearing the reddened fibres, and the women had to content themselves with admiring them (Griaule 1965: 170). The statement that the woman had “stolen” the power of menstruation expresses a male stance typical of myths of this kind. While many of the myths frankly acknowledge that men “robbed” women of a power which was “naturally” theirs, in other cases men assuage their guilt through a paradoxical assertion. It is claimed that women’s power – even when taking the form of the potency of the menstrual flow – had been “stolen” by women in the first place!
The following myth is called “The Origin of the Bullroarer”; it might have been called “The Origin of Menstruation”, however, since it simultaneously accounts for the first appearance of the menstrual flow. In contrast with the previous myth, this one depicts women’s menstruation in negative terms:
The origin of the bullroarer. Papua New Guinea: Kwavuru. Tiv’r, the Originator, was puzzled to hear a faint sound – like that of a bullroarer – whenever his wife moved. He asked her what the sound was, but she pretended not to know. Eventually, Tiv’r felt sure that it was coming from her vagina, and he commissioned various birds to steal the object responsible. A number of birds swooped down on her while, with beaded back and legs spread wide apart, the woman was engaged in sweeping the village. But each time, she frustrated them by abruptly sitting down. Only the parrot got near enough to draw blood: this is why parrot’s feathers are red.Eventually, Tiv’r called upon the little bird, Serekute, and threatened him with death if he failed to obtain the sound-making instrument. Tiv’r shouted to his wife to show a little more rigour in her sweeping, and as she bent down and the point of the bullroarer protruded from her vagina, the bird swooped down and snatched it away. The woman lay streaming with her first menstrual flow, while Tiv’r hugged the bullroarer to his breast and declared that henceforth it would belong to man alone (Williams 1936: 307-08).
Womankind, then leaves her vagina exposed, losing her power as a result.
The next myth features a “sacred enclosure” which seems to correspond to the “lodges” and “huts” of many of the other myths. It is similar to the above story in saying that womankind lost her power when she opened her legs too wide, leaving her vagina exposed:
The origin of Ida. Papua New Guinea: Umeda One day the women – who alone held the secrets of Ida – were preparing for a ceremony as usual, asking and storing the materials, paint, masks etc. in the sacred enclosure. But this time, the men had decided to set a trap for them. They went hunting and killed so many pigs that, when the women had eaten, they lay about in postures of repletion, with their knees spread and their skirts out of place. The men copulated with the women, who “died” (slept, fainted). While the women slept, the men broke into the sacred enclosure, stole the masks, etc. and began to perform Ida for the first time. “We’re no good”, said the women when they woke up; “We fell asleep. From now on Ida belongs to the men” (Gell 1975: 172).
The image of women lying “with their knees spread and their skirts out of place” suggests womankind’s abandonment of cultural duty, her surrender of the weapon of sexual self-control. The men seize their opportunity to strike-break, taking advantage of the sleeping pickets, invading women’s sacred enclosure and in this way stealing the sacred power.
Two more myths in this vein are worth citing. In what follows, it is acknowledged not only that the flutes were originally women’s, but also that they functioned much more spontaneously and naturally in women’s hands:
The origin of the sacred flutes. Papua New Guinea: Wogeo. Two women invented the sacred flutes following a dream. The flutes played of their own accord. But then a man stole the flutes and started blowing into the holes. When the women tried to explain that blowing was not necessary, he kicked them out of the way. “Very well”, shouted the women in anger, “you males can keep the flutes. But flutes won’t sing by themselves again. You decided to blow this one, and that’s the way it shall be. And learning what to do won’t be easy – no, you’ll have to work hard and sweat.” (Hogbin 1970: 101).
The interest of this story lies in the notion that women’s flutes “played by themselves”, whereas when men possess them, an artificial effort has to be made.
The following myth stresses the genital, menstrual associations of the sacred flute, comparing and contrasting female menstruation in huts with male ceremonies in the Men’s House:
The origin of the sacred flute. Papua New Guinea: Gimi. A woman kept the sacred flute under her bark-string skirts until, one day, it was stolen by her brother. On putting the blow-hole to his mouth, however, his sister’s pubic hairs attached themselves to the man’s face: this is why men today have beards. The loss of her flute caused the woman to menstruate for the first time; ever afterwards, she was secluded each month in a menstrual hut. The men, meanwhile, began playing the flute inside the Men’s House, and have held power ever since (Gillison 1980: 156).
The final myth in this set falls into a slightly different category, since it says nothing about ritual or the transfer of sound-making instruments or ritual adornments to men. Nevertheless, something is transferred from female possession to male. The myth was given, writes Lewis (1980: 121), “in answer to my question why, exactly, the moon was connected with menstruation...”
The origin of the moon. West Sepik, Papua New Guinea: Gnau. A woman caught the moon in her net while fishing in the river. Calling it a turtle, she hid it in her house under a pile of firewood, intending to cook and eat it later. She began to prepare the necessary sago, leaving her house each day with the moon in its hiding-place inside. As she left, she barred her house, and each evening as she returned she refused to let her husband come inside, instead asking him eat his sago outside, always outside. He wondered why.
One day, while the woman was out, her husband peered through a crack in the wall and saw the light of the moon under the firewood. Calling to his brothers in secret, he obtained their help in breaking in to the woman’s house. They stole the moon. Singing, they pushed it up on a pole until it stuck fast to the sky. At this point, the woman was at work and saw the moon’s image reflected in the red-leeched sago washings in her vat. Desperate, she rushed back. Discovering her loss, she cursed her husband. The men hunted by night, killing phalangers and feeding them to the woman until her jaws ached. At last, she made it up with the hunters and demanded no more meat. “My grandchildren”, she said, “I was cross over my loss. I took all you hunted. From now on, you may eat the phalangers” (Lewis 1980: 122-3).
Much of the interest of this story lies in the manner in which it echoes recurrent themes – among them the link between cooking and the moon, woman’s “ownership” of the moon, the effects of this in enabling women to compel men to hunt for them and the practice of hunting by night. Two points in particular should be noted: (a) the menstrual connotations of the moon “reflected in the red-leeched sago washings” of the woman’s vat; (2) the fact that men’s gaining control over the moon and their trick in over-feeding the woman enabled them for the first time to eat their own kills. This seems reminiscent of men’s gaining control over- the flutes which “needed feeding with meat” in the Mundurucu myth discussed above. It will be remembered that womankind’s possession of menstrually symbolised, lunar- scheduled solidarity and power was the factor which – according to the arguments of Chapter 5 – enabled her to compel male hunters to provide her with meat.
Discussion We won’t dwell individually on each myth, or detail in any depth its ritual context. In terns of their logic, such myths are all sufficiently similar to be dealt with – following Bamberger (1974) – as a set.
If it is accepted that the fisherwoman’s “moon” in the Gnau myth symbolises womankind’s lost ritual power, then it may be said that in the case of all these different narratives, the formula remains consistently as follows: (a) women possess ritual power (b) they lose this power to men.
Since we are dealing with a set of variations on a theme, we may suspect that the myths are transmitting a message of some kind which remains constant despite the variations in coding. A relatively simple task is to arrange the components of the superficially different narratives within a grid which brings out the consistencies which we suspect to be involved. In the case of the set selected here, the women – it has been seen — begin with ritual power. It seems clear that the “flutes”, “bullroarers”, “masks” etc. are code-terms for something which is naturally to be found in womankind’s “lagoon”, “hut”, “enclosure” or “vagina”. This can be stolen when Woman loses or surrenders her ability to “band together” with her sisters in menstrual seclusion, or (to put matters another way) when she leaves her legs apart or her enclosure unguarded. But what is this “something” which is then stolen?
At this point it may be useful to glance at some aspects of the ritual contexts to which these myths refer. It will then be seen that in some cases, male genital bleeding and flute-possession are quite explicitly linked with menstruation, although in other cases they are not. In what follows, we will touch on some ritual aspects of the Gnau, Mehinaku, Dogon, Wogeo and Gimi peoples whose matriarchy myths we have examined.
Gnau men ritually bleed from their penises, but, when asked whether this is “like” menstruation, reply: “No, it is not like menstruation” (Lewis 1980: 2). However, in Mehinaku myth and ritual, there is “evidence of the mutability of gender. During two ceremonies men shed ‘menstrual’ blood by scarifying their bodies and piercing their ears....” (Gregor 1977: 254).
Dogon men circumcise their youths, and, in discussing menstrual blood, the ethnographer’s informant Ogotemmeli “compared this blood with that shed in circumcision” (Griaule 1965: 146).
On the island of Wogeo, “the technique of male menstruation” involves wading out to the sea with a crayfish or Crab’s claw, until the water is up to the man’s knees: “He stands there with legs apart and induces an erection... When ready he pushes back the foreskin and hacks at the glans, first on the left side, then on the right. Above all, he must not allow the blood to fall on his fingers or his legs. He waits till the cut has begun to dry and the sea is no longer pink and then walks ashore.” The man then wraps his penis in leaves, returns to the Men’s House and stays there for two or three days, sexual intercourse being prohibited until the appearance of the new moon (Hogbin 1970: 88-9).
In discussing the Gimi “Rule of Women” myth, Gillison (1980: 163) turns to the initiation-ritual described in the myth: “....clan elders intern one or two of the men at a time inside a ‘menstrual hut’ or ‘flute house’ rapidly constructed in a clearing from palm fronds and wild banana leaves. Inside the hut, an older man applies a tourniquet made of peeled banana stems to the upper arm of the initiate and ‘shoots’ a protruding vein at the inside of the elbow with a miniature bow and obsidian-tipped arrow. As the blood spurts up...the men shout threats at the novice, telling him they will kill him if he reveals the secret they are about to reveal to him.”
And what is this secret? The Initiate whose blood “spurts up” is menstruating. The “secret” is that men are trying in this way to do artificially what women achieve in another way more easily. The novices, having sworn secrecy, are shown the most sacred flutes, which – although in a certain sense symbolic “penises” – are penises of a kind originally owned by women. When they were owned by women, they took the form of menstrual blood. The entire ritual, as Gillison (1980: 164) explains, is “predicated on the ‘secret’ idea that menstrual blood betokens women’s original ownership of the penis”.
The myths of the Gimi assert that menstrual potency left in women’s hands is deadly and destructive, whilst in men’s hands it becomes phallus-like and creative. The initiation rite in the forest is designed to transfer the menstrual power of women and attach it to men. “The rite”, as Gillison (1980: 164-5) puts it, “implies an equivalence between the penis and the creativity of menstrual blood in this sense: once menstrual blood is taken away from women (by men who menstruate) its phallic power is ‘restored’. Female attributes that are deadly in women become life- producing when they are detached from women and owned by men.”
A very similar point is made by Lindenbaum (1976: 56-8) in connection with the Fore, another tribe of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Men seek to take the potency of menstrual blood from women on the grounds that “menstruation is dirty and demeaning for women, strengthening and purifying for men.” Fore men “menstruate” from the penis and from the nose.
A hypothesis to explain our set of “matriarchy myths” can now be proposed. The “power” which men “steal” – stated in the myths to be something to do with women “banding together” – is that of menstrual synchrony and solidarity. Seen in this light, the myths we have examined appear suddenly to make good sense. They appear to be uncannily accurate descriptions of this reality. Because menstrual blood is believed to be supernaturally dangerous, it can be coded as the source of death-dealing “witchcraft”. Because the blood is “wet” and resides in the womb it can be coded as “fish” in a “lagoon”. Because the cycle is rhythmical, it can be coded as “music” or “dance”. Because it secludes women from their husbands – or, from another standpoint, excludes the husbands themselves – It can be coded as establishing Woman’s secret “Lodge”, “House” or “Hut”, which takes womankind to a world apart. Because blood is brightly-coloured and because, while secluded, women are no longer playing the role of wives, It can be coded as a “mask” or “paint” which effaces one feminine image and replaces it by another. And because menstruation’s cyclicity is lunar, it can be coded as woman’s prior ownership of “the moon”.
To these codings and equivalences we may add that if our hypothesis were correct, we would expect women’s power to express itself as a form of solidarity – a “banding together” – associated not only with menstrual huts but also with hunting and the obtaining of male-secured meat. As we have seen, these conditions appear to be met. A final prediction would be that men should be unable to take over and use for themselves women’s power without learning artificially to “menstruate”. This, we have seen, is the case. The myths explain how men establish the Men’s House or ritual Lodge as their political answer to women’s “banding together” In their menstrual huts. As the men’s counterrevolution is accomplished, male “menstrual blood” becomes sacred and life-giving, whilst women’s becomes polluting and feared, the first symbolising solidarity and power, the second, isolation and exclusion from power.
In short, men gain the “flutes”, “bullroarers and “lodges” – while women are left to menstruate in their little huts. And in this respect, it is not just that our hypothesis is confirmed within the realm of myth. At this point it is as if the characters in each mythical portrait were refusing to stay within the picture-frame, insisting on stepping out into real life. Men as they establish and affirm their ritual solidarity set out deliberately and in often-painful ways (a) to isolate menstruating women and (b) to menstruate collectively themselves. In this context it would seem that there are at stake sexual and political issues so burning as to be uncontainable within the confines of the myth-making mind. What are the political functions of the myth of original matriarchy? An answer now suggests itself. Men, it seems, need to menstruate in collective ritual performances because for some reason they lack an alternative language in which to express their jealously-guarded ritual power. The ideological function of the myth of matriarchy, in this context, is to legitimise the otherwise-inexplicable and certainly unnatural fact that today men menstruate and thereby “rule”. The myth legitimises this in pseudo-historical terms, constantly reiterating, as Bamberger (1974: 280) puts it, that “women did not know how to handle power when they had it”.
Nature and culture Our own, western myths differ in that they deny even the possibility of women’s power. But they agree in arguing that culture and social order were established in the first place through the work of men. Writing of institutions embodying male dominance generally, Lévi-Strauss (l969a: 116-17) argues that these have “absolute priority” over all others “because political authority, or simply social authority, always belongs to men....” Lévi-Strauss (l969a: 116) posits an initial situation – taking us back to the origins of culture itself – in which incest-avoidance and the institution of marriage were founded as the cornerstone of culture’s supremacy over nature. Central to this conception are two claims: (a) that exogamous “marrying out” is always and everywhere the exchange of women between different groups of men and (b) “that the relationship of reciprocity which is the basis of marriage is not established between men and women, but between men by means of women, who are merely the occasion of this relationship”. The very inception of culture, then, rests on relationships of exchange and reciprocity only between men, who use women only as the means of forging relations between themselves. In this scheme of things, woman-to-woman bonds have no place at all.
In his Mythologiques, Lévi-Strauss extends this argument. Not only was the establishment of the incest- taboo and of marital alliance a culture-founding achievement of the male sex: so also was the establishment of rules and taboos governing the cooking and consumption of meat (Lévi-Strauss 1970). And the same applies to the establishment of les règles – the “rules” inseparable from women’s menstrual periods. Nowhere does Lévi-Strauss intimate that women could have had anything to do with this, except insofar as women were a part of that “nature” which it was culture’s project to master and transcend (1978: 221-2).
It is a point worth emphasising: Lévi-Strauss is asserting, not only that culture in general is an invention of and for men, but that even when it came to such matters as cooking and – to take matters to their logical extremes – the timing and synchronisation of women’s menstrual periods, all of the structure- imparting, rule-making work had to be performed by men. The reason for women’s subjection, writes Lévi-Strauss (1978: 221-2), is above all the fact that women’s menstrual synchrony – synchrony both in social terms and in the form of harmony with cosmic rhythms – was not something which could be left to women to safeguard. Not only the cosmic order but the social order, too, would have been “endangered by a state of anarchy in which the regular alternation of day and night, the phases of the moon, feminine menstruation, the fixed period for pregnancy and the course of the seasons did not mutually support each other”. The transition from nature to culture demanded “that the feminism organism should become periodic”, and it was men who had to ensure that organised, synchronised feminine periodicity upheld the structures of cosmic and social order despite women themselves. In this context, womankind’s “physiological insubordination” – her (alleged) tendency to menstruate and give birth unexpectedly and at random – has to be crushed under the force of rituals and regulations ensuring “the correspondence between social and cosmic rhythms.” And these regulations (les règles) have to be quite externally imposed upon women’s minds and bodies – “instilled into them by their upbringing” – “by a social order willed and evolved by men”.
Admittedly, Lévi-Strauss is in all this presenting what he takes to be the message of a series of Amerindian myths, including in particular myths of primitive matriarchy. But in discussing the myths of Mythologiques as a whole, Lévi-Strauss argues that they express ideas so widespread that they tell us something about “human nature” itself, a “nature” with which man’s actual genesis “cannot have been in contradiction...” (Lévi-Strauss 1973: 304-05). In short, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that he believes in these myths. Culture, it is suggested, could only have come into existence as the myths say it did, when nature – in the form, in particular, of womankind’s sexual and reproductive power – was brought under male control.
Is female to male as nature is to culture? Perhaps surprisingly, a very similar view is advanced by a feminist anthropologist, Sherry Ortner, whose paper Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture? (Ortner 1974) has become a standard reference in cross-cultural discussions of gender relations.
Ortner takes Lévi-Strauss as a starting-point from which to explain the general fact of women’s subordination in human societies. Motivated by the “wish to see genuine change come about”, Ortner argues that a precondition of effective feminist action is the recognition “that we are up against something very profound, very stubborn, something we cannot rout out simply by rearranging a few tasks and roles in the social system, or even by reordering the whole economic structure” (Ortner 1974: 87-8). This “something” which women are up against is “culture” in the sense in which this term is understood by Lévi-Strauss.
As the argument is clarified in a later paper (Ortner and Whitehead 1981: 7), woman’s biology-governed sphere is “the domestic domain” – the sphere of the “biological family”. But, according to Lévi-Strauss (1969a), culture can only sustain its pre-eminence over nature by linking these “biological units” into wider systems of alliance, using the incest-taboo to impose “marrying out” and thereby to prevent biological families from turning in on themselves. Ortner’s argument is that since it is always the case “that men control the sphere of wider social coordinations, while women occupy the subunits being coordinated” (Ortner and Whitehead 1981: 7), it follows automatically that women must always be subordinate to men.
Like Bamberger (1974), Ortner finds the central motif of myths of matriarchy – the idea that women could dominate men just as easily as men dominate women – a pure chimera. “1 would flatly” assert, she writes (Ortner 1974: 70), “that we find women subordinated to men in every known society. The search for a genuinely egalitarian, let alone matriarchal, culture has proved fruitless.”
Women are always linked to the domestic sphere, and hence always controlled and transcended just as “culture” controls and transcends the sphere of biological “nature” in general.
This brings us to a discussion of considerable importance in considering the significance of menstrual synchrony, a potentiality of which Ortner seems unaware. Why are women, according to Ortner, pre- eminently linked to the domestic sphere? “It all begins of course”, argues Ortner (1974: 73), “with the body and the natural procreative functions specific to women alone.” She explains: “It is simply a fact that proportionately more of woman’s body space, for a greater percentage of her lifetime, and at some – sometimes great – cost to her personal health, strength, and general stability, is taken up with the natural processes surrounding the reproduction of the species...”
In other words, woman’s body seems to doom her to mere reproduction of life...” whereas man’s body makes very few demands for expenditure of energy in reproduction. Since there is no way that this energy-expenditure could enhance or contribute to womankind’s potentiality for collectivity or cultural power, this effectively excludes her from cultural management while freeing man to concentrate upon it (Ortner 1974; 75). Woman is therefore for biological reasons imprisoned in the realm of “nature” so that – since “it is always culture’s project to subsume and transcend nature” – her subjugation follows as a matter of course (Ortner 1974: 73).
Ortner advances her position as a contribution to the struggle against sexist cultural assumptions. It is difficult to avoid concluding, however, that arguments such as these are part of the problem. Essentially, Ortner concurs with the myths we have been examining in one vital respect: with them, she agrees that men’s dominance over women is the condition of culture’s reign. For culture to come into existence, feminine “nature” had to be “transcended” and “subsumed”. In what follows, this widespread and most tenacious of sexist cultural assumptions will be critically examined.
Woman, power and nature Myths of matriarchy make the point that even though women once held power, this was a power which men had to take over if nature was to be culturally ordered and controlled. This is implied even despite the seemingly-contradictory assertion that women were the first custodians of ritual power. The notion that ritual power is “naturally” women’s becomes interpreted negatively: women’s ritual power is “only” natural, as opposed to cultural. It is a point well brought out by Stephen Hugh-Jones (1979) in his ethnography of the Barasana of northwest Amazonia. Here, women very definitely possess the coveted ritual power of He – the power of self-renewal and rebirth – but “only” in natural form. The Barasana admit, that is, “that women are semi-immortal: through menstruation, they continually renew their bodies by an internal shedding of skin” (p. 250). During menstruation and childbirth, women come into the most intimate contact with the mysterious “skin- changing”, season-changing, rain-making and life-making cosmic powers which men seek to harness through their own “menstrual” rites. But – and this is the important point – it is argued by men that women’s ritual power “is not controlled by the women themselves; rather it is they who are seen to be controlled by their nature and their bodies.” In one sense, then, “the women are seen as being closer to the He world than men, but this world is on the side of nature and beyond the control of human society” (p. 251). Men’s He is embodied in cultural symbols; women’s is simply in their bodies. Women are controlled by the He world, whereas men seek “to dominate and control the He world”, a process which “involves the dominance of men over women” (p. 251).
Evidence of this kind could be cited ad infinitum, and superficially gives support to Ortner’s thesis. However, a counter-argument has been put forward by Gillian Gillison in the light of her fieldwork among the Gimi of Papua New Guinea. Gimi men fear women’s menstrual blood and seek to control its potencies. Were Ortner’s arguments correct, writes Gillison (1980: 143-4), a prediction would be that Gimi men’s attitude towards menstruation should prove to be one of disgust or contempt stemming from the blood’s association with “nature” as a realm “lower” than that of “culture”. The evidence does not bear this out. Gimi men’s fear of menstrual blood is “not explained by an underlying contempt for lower forms of life in nature nor by a drive to control them.” On the contrary, although women’s menstrual and reproductive power is identified as non-human, “men’s ambition, as expressed in their rituals, is to identify with the non-human world and to be revitalised by its limitless... powers”. Far from implying Woman’s “natural inferiority”, men’s rituals “suggest her reproductive superiority” (p. 165); the purpose of men’s rituals – among the Gimi as elsewhere – is in such contexts “to perpetuate a connection between a human and a non-human world when the latter is in the ascendancy” (p. 172). Menstruation, then, is one of the “superior” powers with which men must come into communion if they are to have any hope of exerting ritual power themselves.
Other evidence supports Gillison’s case. Commenting on the Mundurucu matriarchy myth examined earlier here, Yolanda and Robert Murphy (1974: 91) draw attention to an implication which would seem to be intrinsic to all primitive matriarchy myths: “We could not find a shred of evidence to indicate that men think that women are inherently, biologically, and irredeemably inferior or submissive. Indeed, the whole key to the myth is that women once did exercise dominance, and that they had to be overthrown in a primal revolution.... Women are indeed inferior in the ideology of Mundurucu men, but they are also threatening, male status is not secure and immutable, fixed in nature and beyond challenge, for women once held power and can regain it if male vigilance is relaxed.”
In other male secret cults, too, the fear of allowing women to see or touch men’s “sacred flutes” or other instruments expresses men’s anxieties concerning their power, not their confidence. It is difficult and potentially embarrassing for men to maintain the fiction that they know better than women how to express the mysterious forces and rhythms of menstruation and birth.
The situation of men among the Chagga (a Bantu tribe living on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro) is particularly difficult. Their method of claiming to be in some sense pregnant is to assert that their anuses have been stopped up with a ngoso or plug. Consequently, they have only to break wind accidentally in the presence of women or children for the falsity of this claim to be betrayed (Raum 1940: 318). In this case as in so many others, without the great secrecy, formality and social distance placed between women and men, the elaborate fictions could not be maintained. Were women able to peruse at close quarters the “menstruation” and “childbirth” of men, their scorn and/or amusement could cause the entire enterprise to collapse in shame or hilarity. “Should they know, they would laugh at us”, say the men who perform the Nama cult of the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea (Read 1952: 6). Or as a Kuman man told Nilles (1950: 30) in approximately the same (Chimbu) region: “Should we show this flute to our women and children they would laugh at us and we men would lose all authority over them.”
As Gourlay (1975: 109) comments: “If the men would ‘lose all authority’ over women simply by showing them the flutes and being subject to the ensuing ridicule, then either the men’s authority rests on infinitesimal grounds or their vanity is so extreme that the entire social structure can be toppled by a woman’s laughter.”
And to this we might add that if the entire social structure can be toppled in this way, then this says something about the social structure itself.
For all their claims about women being “nature”, men experience women as a cultural threat. The men are attempting to maintain secrets which it would be culturally humiliating for them to divulge to the opposite sex. There is no adequate parallel here with the manner in which culture harnesses the forces of nature to its own purposes, no matter how much men may strive to make this ideological point. Men in their relations with nature should have no reason to experience their activities as a precarious fraud – with all the feelings of fear and exposure, humiliation and guilt attached – unless the “nature” concerned were in fact vested with prior cultural legitimacy and rights. The fact that men do see their mastery as based on fraud indicates that what is being resisted is not “nature” but, in fact, an alternative cultural legitimacy which women are seen to represent. Issues of legitimacy and illegitimacy, of truth and falsehood, of pride and humiliation can only be fought out between parties which are wholly within the symbolic, cultural realm. They cannot be features of the relationship between “culture” and “nature” as conceptualised by Europeans or as Implied in Ortner’s paper.
Between two cultural logics The paradoxical existence of “menstruating men” (Cf. Hogbin 1970) poses a problem for Ortner’s analysis. Men ought to be able to harness or control the forces of nature without having to pretend to be those forces. It is not self-evident why, in order to control women, men must pretend to be women. This is certainly not a typical feature of relationships of dominance or control in other spheres. We need a more sophisticated explanation than any which Ortner’s or her co-thinkers’ paradigm can provide.
In the mythico-ritual complexes under discussion it is not just “nature” – and not even simply human female “nature” – which male ritual power is functioning to transcend and suppress. What is being suppressed is an alternative cultural logic opposed to the prevailing logic of male sexual rule. This feminine alternative to men’s rule rests on women’s capacity to go “on strike”; it involves, in its pure form, the synchronisation by women of their menstrual cycles. This synchronisation is a ritual, cultural achievement of women themselves, and lies at the basis of all the mythico-ritual complexes under discussion. It presupposes strong woman-to-woman bonds, whose centrality throws doubt upon Lévi-Strauss’s conception of culture as in essence a system of marital and other arrangements and agreements arrived at between men.
Menstrual synchrony is touched on or connoted in many of the traditional myths and associated belief- systems we have examined. Often, what is stressed is the idea of harmony between the menstrual cycle and other cycles of cyclical change and renewal. Two case-studies – concerning the Fore of Papua New Guinea and the Barasana of northwest Amazonia – may help us to clarify this aspect of menstrual synchrony as a form of ritual power.
The Fore case. Eastern Highlands, Papua New Guinea The Fore case illustrates the major points of the argument so far: the link between menstrual cyclicity and wider rhythms of renewal, the threat which men may see in this, the “political inversion” through which men usurp the symbolic potency of menstruation whilst turning real menstruation into a female curse or burden – and finally the link in male ideology between mastery over nature and men’s dominance over women: “In a sense, female menstrual cycles provide a physiological regularity, like the annual ripening of the pandanus fruit, which is an ecological given... Yet the order in this case poses a threat, since it is a structure provided by women, not men, a phenomenon Fore and other New Guinea groups attempt to neutralize by male rituals of imitative menstruation..., letting blood from penis and nose”.
In this way, “a political inversion is accomplished; menstruation is dirty and demeaning for women, strengthening and purifying for men.” Women’s own menstruation, given this political inversion, becomes a perpetual suppressed threat. But it is not the only threat: it becomes symbolic of a general threat felt to be posed by nature and the forces of the wild. “There is a sense of a universe under constraint, of predatory forces purposefully brought under masculine control.” Only with difficulty is mastery over the animal world upheld: myths allow of the possibility that animals might once have gained the upper hand. “But the most precarious victory of all concerns the ownership of the sacred flutes, said to have been once in the hands of women. While the flute myths, stories of male trickery and violence, are myths about the subjugation of women, they are also embryonic statements in the history of the battle of men to control women’s bodies. As one Fore man observed: ‘Women’s menstruation has always been present; men’s bleeding, that came later’” (Lindenbaum 1976: 56-8).
The Barasana case. Northwest Amazonia. We have become familiar with the Barasana already in this discussion. But at this point it will be worth reviewing more of the evidence contained in Christine and Stephen Hugh-Jones’ remarkable two-volume ethnography of this culture.
Like the Fore material, the Barasana case illustrates many of the themes of the preceding discussion, being particularly valuable for stressing the link between menstrual onset and the onset of the annual rains. It is also worth noting how the fairy-tale motif of “skin-changing” is interwoven with other images of cyclical change.
The initiation-rite known as He House is a rite of artificial male collectively-synchronised “metaphorical menstruation” designed to help bring on the rains, which are a “skin of the universe.” It occurs “at a time of cosmic skin-change”, namely, the time of the onset of the annual rains (Christine Hugh-Jones 1979: 153). Rain, besides being a “skin”, is also the menstrual flow of the most important of all ancestral beings, Woman Shaman, from whom all contemporary shamanic powers derive (p. 156; see also Stephen Hugh- Jones 1979: 100).
During He House, the men apply to their bodies red paint, which “is identified with menstrual blood” (Stephen Hugh-Jones 1979: 184). No woman is allowed to touch this paint; if she does, she “will immediately start to menstruate; the blood which flows is this paint” (S. Hugh-Jones 1979: 76). The ritual involves men “giving birth”: in order to do this, they “must first be opened up and made to menstruate” (p. 132). The boys who are to be newly “born” must first be put back into a “womb”: they are said to be swallowed by an anaconda (p. 218) and returned to the condition of foetuses (p. 77). This condition is compared to that of “crabs and other animals that have shed their old shells or skins” (p. 120). He House brings about rebirth; it is “believed to bring about a change of skin” (p. 120), both of the initiates and of the universe, the process being “associated with the moon” (C. Hugh-Jones 1979: 156) and modelled on women’s menstruation, which “is an internal changing of skin” (S. Hugh-Jones 1979: 183). Women are excluded from the He rites, despite (or more accurately because of) being “naturally” closer to the He world then men (S. Hugh-Jones 251). The matriarchyn myths tell of how men seized the sacred He instruments from Woman Shaman, and punished her and all womankind by causing female menstruation (S. Hugh-Jones 1979: 266). The most coveted object which men tried to steal was a life-giving gourd. However, they were able to gain only an artificial replica of this. Woman Shaman kept and still keeps in her possession the true gourd: it was her vagina, which alone confers real immortality. Men admit that their attempts to achieve rebirth and immortality through the artificial gourd and other paraphernalia of lie House are somehow “false”. “We were told directly”, writes Christine Hugh-Jones (p. 154), “that He wi (He house) is like women’s menstruation, but that women really do menstruate while He wi is bahi kasoase, imitation”. Or, as the women say: “The men make as if they too create children but it’s like a lie” (S. Hugh-Jones 1979: 222). * * * * * The magical power of menstruation, then, has something to do with its perceived connection with wider rhythms of natural, social and cosmic renewal. It is this connectedness – “harmony” and “synchrony” are also applicable terms – which men appear to envy and attempt to duplicate by artificial means.
As for the rituals themselves, they are presented in each native idiom as based on a ground-plan set out in the “rule of women” myths. Certainly, the rites quite accurately replicate the logic of those myths. In the Barasana case, by possessing the gourd which symbolizes Woman Shaman’s vagina, the men attempt to “appropriate the ultimate female powers of sexual reproduction for themselves and so maintain their control over women” (C. Hugh-Jones 1979: 155). In the Fore case, men possess on a symbolic level the ultimate female potency of menstruation, operating a “political inversion” so that women have their “original” ritual power turned against themselves (Lindenbaum 1976: 56-8).
In a Baruya (Papua New Guinea) matriarchy myth, the fact that men steal the power from a feminine menstrual hut is spelled out in so many words: “In the days of the Wandjinia (dream-time), the women one day invented flutes. They played them and drew wonderful sounds from them. The men listened and did not know what made the sounds. One day, a man hid to spy on the women and discovered what was making these melodious sounds. He saw several women, one of whom raised a piece of bamboo to her mouth and drew the sounds that the men had heard. Then the woman hid the bamboo beneath one of her skirts that she had hung in her house, which was a menstrual hut. The women then left. The man drew near, slipped into the hut, searched around, found the flute, and raised it to his lips. He too brought forth the same sounds. Then he put it back and went to tell the other men what he had seen and done. When the woman returned, she took out her flute to play it, but this time the sounds which she drew were ugly. So she threw it away, suspecting that the men had touched it. Later, the man came back, found the flute and played it. Lovely sounds came forth, just like the ones that the woman had made. Since then the flutes have been used to help boys grow.”
Godelier (1986: 70-71), who recorded this story, comments: “The message of this myth is clear, in the beginning, women were superior to men, but one of the men, violating the fundamental taboo against ever penetrating into the menstrual hut or touching objects soiled with menstrual blood, captured their power and brought it back to men, who now use it to turn little boys into men, But this power stolen from the women is the very one that their vagina contains, the one given to them by their menstrual blood. The old women know the rough outlines of this myth and relate it to young girls when they have their first period.”
Such stories, then, describe how – like so many strike-breakers – men violate women’s menstrual space and solidarity, In effect invading women’s menstrual huts so as to secure the symbols of blood-sanctity for themselves. Myths of this kind – we can now see – are accurate descriptions of the essential structural facts. In describing how women are “robbed”, they simply delineate the logic of all that happens in the ritual sphere. It would be different if the rituals were mere theatre – mere re-enactments of an entertaining or compelling narrative. But they are not. They are the political imposition of the myth of matriarchy’s message. While in myth, the ritual expropriation of womankind is described, in ritual it is performed. The fact that women may suspect in the associated ideology something “like a lie” (S. Hugh-Jones 1979: 222) does nothing to detract from this political accuracy of the myths. Women’s suppressed awareness merely means that the mythico-ritual structure Is constantly under threat, so that it cannot be sustained without unceasing conspiracy, secrecy and threatened or actual violence perpetrated against the community of women.
In a sense, then, the myth of matriarchy is good anthropology: It is the perspective of dominant men wherever women’s solidarity is perceived as a continuing threat. But as in the case of all anthropology of this kind, its allegations are not simply to be taken on trust. It is one thing to accept that there is a good fit between story and political reality. Quite another would be to accept as science the central ideological thrust of these myths – the allegation, namely, that women’s periodicity must be suppressed in order for culture and morality to prevail.
For Joan Bamberger on ‘Primitive Matriarchy’ click here.For Sherry Ortner’s 1974 article on the inevitability of patriarchy, click here.For Camilla Power and Ian Watts on the origins of gender, click here. For other sources and further reading: click here and go to ‘References’ (pages 498-530).