Monday, June 9, 2008


(Once a Month, photo by Margaret Kalms)

The first writing in the world was numbers, not letters: Hatch marks and eventually cuneiform to keep track of the cycles of objects in the heavens, calendars, and from there to counting grain and other life essentials. Once these literal marks became symbolic, it was inevitable that we would make the quantum leap to symbols for sounds as well. We are the only species on the planet to have created written language, some time around 6000 years ago.

As humans, we had spoken language for many tens of thousands of years before that, and oral communication before clear language emerged. But it is with language which can be rendered into symbols that we see the emergence of what we can recognize as human culture: Agriculture and domestications of animals, the ability to live in one spot instead of traveling in bands, larger population centers, permanent care for disabled and elderly, organized community education of children. Each technological advance has provided the foundation for another atop it, until we arrive, more or less logically, to modern day.

The unanswered question is how did we cross the divide from primate consciousness into human consciousness: Who first made hatchmarks, and why?

Modern studies of how the brain works have revealed that all human learning involves metaphor. On a rudimentary level, when we encounter something new which needs interpretation, we do the equivalent of the Sesame Street singing game which goes "Which of these things is not like the other?" We compare and contrast, using metaphor. This occurs in at least three of the main languages used by humans -- verbal, mathematical, and musical. When we find a similarity, we link the new thing to the old, a synapse is formed, and we have the basis for retaining memory of the new thing so we may continue learning about it.

We actually cannot take in information and render it as a retained abstract in any other way.

Thus, to understand how the first humans took such a strikingly different path from all other life on earth, we need to imagine what they were experiencing, seeing, contending with to make that first leap -- and it needs to be common to every culture, every region, because this did not happen on one place only. Many different groups of humans were counting in prehistory.

One counting object does reliably appear in numerous early human cultures: Sticks, bones and stones marked with lines which add up to 29.5 days.

(Incised limestone ‘calendar’ from Wadi Jilat 7)

What does that number suggest to you? Yes, it's the lunar cycle. But it is also the average menstrual cycle of an adult woman.

(Menstruation, by Judy Clark, 1973)

In Judy Grahn's book, Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created The World, the foreword by Charlene Spretnak states:

'Grahn focuses on the meanings of separation in cross-cultural responses to menstruation. She first considers the origin myths of many cultures and notes that a high proportion of them begin with an undifferentiated space/time, an era of chaos and indeterminate form, from which creation occurs via separation: the separation of land from water, of earth from sky, of rivers from oceans, of mountains from plains. Grahn speculates that the foundation of so many origin stories -- a time of undifferentiation -- may be an extremely resilient reference to early humans' "crossing of the great abyss" from primate consciousness to the eventual development of conceptualizing, abstracting human consciousness. For this to occur, consciousness had to become externalized, that is, linked with events outside the human in ways that led to apprehension of patterns and concepts. Grahn believes that this pivotal development must have occurred in relation to females' dawning awareness that their 29.5-day menstrual cycle of bleeding was in rhythm with -- and hence related to -- an external object, the white moon in the sky. The resultant consciousness, which she calls "the menstrual mind," became externalized and displayed, particularly because of the necessity for females to teach their discovery to members of the group who did not menstruate. Males learned the metaforms, Grahn's term for various expressions of menstrual logic, such as principles of separation, synchronic relationship, and cyclical time. Eventually the males extended the meta forms, rearranged them, and mirrored them back to the females, creating what Grahn sees as "an ongoing dance of mind between the genders."'

(Venus of Laussel Wall Relief, prehistoric lunar goddess circa 22,000 BC)

In other words, our ability to symbolize the world and all human development which has followed from that ability began with our linking the cycles of women to the cycles of the moon. "How is this thing like another?" The primal, and ultimate, metaphor.

In her first chapter, Judy writes:
'One word recurs again and again in stories of menstrual ritual: taboo. The word comes from Polynesian tapua, meaning both "sacred" and "menstruation," in the sense, as some traditions say, of "the woman's friend. " Besides sacred, taboo also means forbidden, valuable, wonderful, magic, terrible, frightening, and immutable law. Taboo is the emphatic use of imperatives, yes or no, you must or you must not. Taboo draws attention, strong attention, and is in and of itself a language for ideas and customs.

'But it is not only in the nineteenth century accounts of tribal peoples that we find menstruation hedged with rules. The word "regulation" is linked to menstruation in European languages in the same way "taboo" is in Polynesian (though without also meaning "sacred"). In German, menstruation is Regel, in French regle, and in Spanish las reglas. All these words mean "measure" or "rule" as well as "menstruation" and are cognate with the terms regulate, regal, regalia, and rex (king). In Latin, regula means "rule." These terms thus connect menstruation to orderliness, ceremony, law, leadership, royalty, and measurement.

'Ritual, from Sanskrit r'tu, is any act of magic toward a purpose. Rita, means a proper course. Ri, meaning birth, is the root of red, pronounced "reed" in Old English and still in some modern English accents (New Zealand). R'tu means menstrual, suggesting that ritual began as menstrual acts. The root of r'tu is in "arithmetic" and "rhythm"; I hear it also in "art,” “'theater," and perhaps in "root" as well. The Sanskrit term is still alive in India, where goddess worship continues to keep r'tu alive in its menstrual senses; r'tu also refers to special acts of heterosexual intercourse immediately following menstruation, and also to specific times of year.

'While in Latin menses, meaning "month," means the menstrual flow, in Scottish mense meant "propriety, grace." The family of words that revolves around the English word "menstruation" includes mental, memory, meditation, mensurate, commensurate, meter, mother, mana, magnetic, mead, maniac, man, and menstruation's twin, moon.'

(Placenta burial jar, 1150-1200, Korean Koryo period; stoneware with celadon glaze)

I was reminded of all this cultural connection when I read an article at The Raw Story last week which declared "Japanese researchers say menstrual blood can be used to repair heart damage. Scientists obtained menstrual blood from nine women and cultivated it for about a month, focusing on a kind of cell that can act like stem cells. Some 20 percent of the cells began beating spontaneously about three days after being put together in vitro with cells from the hearts of rats. The cells from menstrual blood eventually formed sheet-like heart-muscle tissue. The success rate is 100 times higher than the 0.2-0.3 percent for stem cells taken from human bone marrow, according to Shunichiro Miyoshi, a cardiologist at Keio University's school of medicine, who is involved in the research."

Why am I not the least bit surprised?


Judy Grahn's book is available to read online at Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created The World.

In response to Judy's book, a number of people are exploring what she calls "metaformic theory" and have a multi-genre, multi-disciplinary online journal studying it at Metaformia. Their introduction states:

"We think the world needs fresh new approaches to questions of the origins of culture, why humans differ from animals, why we are the marvelous, amazing, terrible, peculiar, cruel, kind, dangerous, and occasionally constructive beings that we are. So in this Journal we introduce Metaformic Theory because it is a new approach, one of several in the arena of menstruation and culture, but the one calling for the broadest changes in the way we think of human origins and processes through which we, and our ancestors, have attained the culture that surrounds us.
"We want to engage in a dialogue with and about theorists of consciousness."

They state that "Metaformic Theory is important because:

1. Metaformic Theory returns women to a crucial place in cultural origin stories, in our histories, in our rituals, in our religions, and in the ordinary and extraordinary everyday things that billions of women do all over the planet—so women can again identify themselves as being part of culture creation in major, leading, and centralizing ways.

2. Men are not displaced from a crucial role in cultural origin stories by this theory, nor are they demonized. The cultural contributions of men, as with women, are put into the perspective of ritual, and so both sexes have a better chance of understanding each other.

3. Evolution is postulated as a different shape than the vertical line of “progress” that so inevitably de-humanizes various groups while privileging others. Grahn’s theory holds that evolution is constantly braiding; beginning in the shape of horizontal strands consisting of the “parallel” rituals of each gender, which are categorically different from the rituals of the other gender. That is to say, women and men bleed differently, much of the time. As the strands of ritual elaborate into cultural forms, the sexes lose track of what each other is doing. One begins, historically, to become more elaborate than the other, with a consequent imbalance that affects everything. As part of this dialectical tension, “crossover groups” of various kinds, and in particular transgendered peoples, help to effect the bringing together of the ritual strands, into what can be imaged as a “braided” form, that allows a more balanced flow of evolution.

4. Menstrual theories teach that synchrony is a primary basis for evolution, women’s solidarity and intelligence, rather than our isolation, weakness or sinfulness, are emphasized. Women can help each other lose the shame and confusion of not knowing where we fit in as culture movers and shakers, and become engaged, active participants. This encourages and enables women to, for example, intelligently struggle to gain a full measure of control within institutions that affect them related to health and our bodies, motherhood, sexuality, the economy, marriage, education and children’s welfare, religion, government, science, the military, the welfare of the planet, and so on."

(Woman Words, poster by Margaret Kalms)

Hat tip to Doc Wendel for sending me The Raw Story article, which he thought might be significant to me because he remembered Myra singing "The Bloods" in Ginny Bates: 'Learn about your cervix and what's in it / There's a new day dawning when you got the bloods again' (from The Berkeley Women's Music Collective).

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