Skip to main content

Menstruation and Circumcision

By Karen Garst ~

Late at night a lone man picks up a piece of ivory. Near the entrance to the cave, a fire is still glowing. He cannot seem to go to sleep. He picks up a sharp flint and carves a figure of a woman with pendulant breasts and a stomach that could only mean pregnancy. The time? 30,000 years ago. Why is he doing this? Is it because women and their ability to give birth is so important to his tribe which has just lost three members on a hunt? Is he enthralled with the way a woman’s body changes during pregnancy? Does he wonder why only the women get pregnant? He finally begins to feel tired. He puts the flint down and drifts off to sleep invoking the Earth Mother who provides for them all.

Conjecture? Absolutely. Possibility? Definitely. As more and more attention is given to archeological finds of this era, it is likely that the role women played in giving birth was venerated. Because of the awesome aspect of nature – providing sustenance, having regular cycles – as well as for the devastating events that sometimes occurred, many researchers have posited the probability that the form of the first “religion” probably involved an “Earth Mother” or “Nature Goddess.”

In the Paleolithic era, our ancestors, like the man portrayed above, had already figured out how important blood was. Even before they began hunting and killing animals, they would have known that if they received an injury where they lost a lot of blood, they often died. It would be interesting to know what their first thoughts were of women’s menstrual cycles. Because they were familiar with the cycles of the moon, they also must have been aware of how closely women’s menstrual cycles paralleled their rhythm.

But what did they think of menstruation? Why did women bleed and not die? Why did older women not bleed? Why did women stop bleeding when they were pregnant? Why was a baby born with a sack of blood-soaked placenta? Remember that early on, they had no idea how sexual intercourse contributed to the birth of a child. One can debate when man had first knowledge of this, but there certainly was a time when they did not. Even as late as when Christian missionaries first arrived in Britain, they stated that the local tribes recognized no relationship with a father.[1]

Barbara G. Walter, author of many books about the worship of the goddess, states the following:

Female menstrual cycles, thought to have been established by the Moon Goddess, displayed that essence of life each month, but kept it hidden when it was occupied with creating a baby, or with providing an elder woman with her mysterious, wisdom. There is no stronger taboo in human history than the taboo that forbade men to touch or even look at this awesome blood. In fact, the very word taboo originally applied to menstrual blood and meant magical, sacred, wonderful.[2]

Even the story of Adam from the Bible has been developed from this association with blood. The word Adam itself is derived either from the Hebrew for red, or the Akkadian word for make.[3] One possible origin for this story derives “from the Mesopotamian Great Goddess who formed the first humans out of clay and brought them to life by anointing them with Her own moon-blood.”[4]

So how about men? Circumcision may well be the world’s oldest surgical procedure. One scholar believes it was practiced at least 15,000 years ago.[5] The earliest known evidence comes from an image carved on a tomb in Egypt from 2400 BCE.[6] Some hypothesize that it was a rite at puberty to mimic the onset of menstruation in young girls. Today, the procedure is coming under fire and many doctors no longer encourage circumcision of infant males. It is still an important rite in certain Hebrew sects. There was also a parasitic disease called schistosomiasis. One of its impacts was blood in the urine. From ancient times to the 20th century, it was seen as a male version of menstruation and therefore a rite of passage for boys.[7]

The importance of these two “events”—menstruation in women and circumcision for a man—is the reversal in importance that took place when monotheism came to be the standard for the Jewish religion. A woman’s menstrual cycle, once revered with a Mother Goddess and life-giving attributes, became just the opposite—the symbol of something dirty and unclean. Just a few Bible verses will show what I mean.

When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.  (Leviticus 15:19-21)

If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days. (Leviticus 12:5)

You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. (Leviticus 18:19)

Mortal, when the house of Israel lived on their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and their deeds; their conduct in my sight was like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual period. (Ezekiel  36:17)

I think you get the picture.

Circumcision, whose origins do not reveal the purpose of such a rite, became very important in the history of the Jewish religion. This procedure became the evidence itself of the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham.

You (Abraham) are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. (Genesis 17:11-12)

While we do not know why this tradition started, we do know its impact on women. Circumcision became the evidence of male power. Because women were not circumcised and only men were, the men became the only ones who could be priests. It was they that were closest to God. In a time where there was no such thing as separation of church and state, they held all the municipal power as well.

While the early Christian community said that circumcision was NOT necessary to be part of the church, there was no change in the power structure. Women were still seen as unclean and unable to participate as priests in this fledgling religion, except in the very early days. And lest you think that this is all old history and not the way it is today, I close with the following quotation by Mark Driscoll, founder of the Mars Hill nondenominational mega-church franchise.

Women will be saved by going back to that role that God has chosen for them. Ladies, if the hair on the back of your neck stands up it is because you are fighting your role in the scripture.[8]  

It is time for all women to leave religion. It is a mythology created by humans that justifies all sorts of constraints on women. Indeed, as I have said so many times, religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality.

Karen Garst, The Faithless Feminist.

[1] Barbara G. Walker, Restoring the Rites of the Goddess: Equal Rites for Modern Women, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), 79.
[2] Ibid. 118.
[4] Barbara G. Walker, Restoring the Rites of the Goddess: Equal Rites for Modern Women, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), 118.
[6] Ibid.