This article was first published in the 2015 Lammas edition of Pagan Dawn
Can you can imagine Queen Medb, a legendary Celtic warrior with streaming blond hair, pale cheeks and golden birds perched on her shoulders, squatting down in her royal finery on the land of Ireland, making three enormous red rivers with her gushing menstrual blood – almost like the three rays of the Awen? She has just called a halt to a crucial battle, in order to menstruate. The battle was important, but honouring her inner clock was a matter of life or death for Medb.
We have no way of knowing for sure what our Pagan ancestors thought about menstruation. However, we do know that the ancient Druids revered the Goddess and so it seems likely that people would have valued the feminine experiences of menarche, menstruation, pregnancy, birth and menopause.
A rare reference to menstruation in pre-Christian texts is in the ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge.’ The Táin’ or ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’ as it is commonly known, is a mythological prose epic first recorded in the early Irish period. Male Christian monks recorded the story in three separate manuscripts in the 12th and later centuries. The fact that we have three surviving versions informs us that it must have predated this as a popular oral tale shared by Bards and enjoyed by people across the land. The epic tells of how Queen Medb of Connacht and her husband Ailill start a war against the youngCú Chulainn of Ulster in an attempt to steal its prize brown bull.
The part of the tale that concerns us here is almost at the very end where Medb feels her menstrual bleed commence and orders her commander, Fergus to take charge whilst she stops to bleed and urinate[i]. Here is the translation by Thomas Kinsella, 1969:
“Then Medb got her gush of blood.
‘Fergus’ she said, ‘take over the shelter of shields at the rear of the men of Ireland until I relieve myself’.
‘By god’ Fergus said, ‘you have picked a bad time for this‘.
‘I can’t help it’, Medb said. ‘I’ll die if I can’t do it’.
So Fergus took over the shelter of shields at the rear of the men of Ireland and Medb relieved herself. It dug three great channels, each big enough to take a household. The place is called Fual Medba, Medb’s Foul Place, ever since.
Cú Chulainn found her like this but he held his hand. He wouldn’t strike her from behind.
‘Spare me’ Medb said.
‘If I killed you dead’, Cú Chulainn said, ‘it would only be right’.
But he spared her, not being a killer of women.”
This passage is normally interpreted from a patriarchal perspective – that Cú Chulainn is repulsed by Medb’s blood and so retreats, also believing it would be dishonourable to strike her from behind whilst she is squatting. Some even make a case for the blood signifying her barrenness at this moment in time. It is more than plausible that the monks who wrote down the legend distorted it from its true nature, adding a veneer of shame upon Medb’s menstruation that was not originally part of earlier oral stories, when the Goddess and sacred feminine was venerated and worshipped. A strong female character such as Medh cannot have been one that the early church wanted to endorse. The new ideal for womanhood was pure and virginal, with no taint of sex or blood, an epitome personified by the Virgin Mary.
I propose a very different interpretation, a feminist re-framing of the legend. My belief is that Cú Chulainn was in immense awe of Medb when he stumbled upon her. A mortal woman, even a Queen, could not possibly carve earth and rock out with her bodily fluids, creating three immense channels! Despite his strength and bravery, teenage Cú Chulainn must have been quaking in his boots. How to compete with supernatural feminine power such as this? No wonder he meekly does as she tells him, despite having the upper hand, allowing her troops to pass and safely return home. He recognises Medb’s authority as a Goddess, exemplified by the power of her magical menstrual blood.
We have no way of knowing whether this was once the true narrative or not. It matters not though. It is an indisputable fact that Medb honours her need to menstruate, by calling a halt to the battle, despite being ridiculed by Fergus. She has already captured the brown bull, just as she set out to. The important work is done and now she asserts her prerogative to menstruate. This makes her a mighty menstrual warrior in my view.
What if all menstruators[ii] were to channel Medb’s energy and assert with pride their right to bleed? How different would our lives be if we felt bleeding was valued? If we listened to our inner need to slow down and practice self-care? Instead, we are taught to feel shame and waste precious energy by suppressing, hiding and masking our menstrual flow. Society expects us to pretend we don’t menstruate, for us to feel and act the same every day, despite the ever-changing nature of our ticking cycle. It is the expected norm that we swallow a couple of painkillers, keep the blood hidden and carry on with business or schoolwork as usual.
We menstruate for approximately 37 years of our life (varying according to number of pregnancies and other factors) – giving us five to seven years of bleeding.
We throw away an astonishing 125 to 150kg (23.9 stone) of disposable tampons, pads and applicators in our lifetime. That’s the same weight as an adult male Giant Panda! Can you imagine a lifetime supply all piled together in a big toxic heap?
Surely part of our role as Pagans is to honour and protect the Earth? It is an impossible order for our beautiful planet to absorb and transform all that is nutritious in pure menstrual blood when accompanied by bleaching agents, pesticides and plastic found in disposable pads and tampons.
The self-named ‘feminine hygiene’ industry makes millions out of our mortification, by convincing us that we need to buy disposable products. The ingredients are not listed on the packets and yet millions of us hug tampons tightly against the delicate tissues of our precious vaginas month after month from menarche (first period) to menopause. Tampons can even cause toxic shock syndrome, a dangerous disease that can lead to death, but we continue running this risk. The industries keep us hooked by drip-feeding our shame, which hangs around our wombs like an invisible albatross. Products are marketed as being ‘odour-free’, ‘scented’ and ‘russle-proof’, all in the same shade of dazzling white. The language used infers that menstrual blood is dirty, insanitary and unhygienic; something we need ‘protecting’ from.
We rarely question this negative language, which is internalized and constantly reinforced every time we catch the ‘feminine hygiene’ sign out of the corner of our eye in the supermarket. These connotations have been absorbed by individuals, but also by the public, private and voluntary sectors. These include schools and hospitals, which are full of young people who are especially susceptible to feelings of embarrassment.
Medb challenges us to fight this brainwashing and to embrace the gift of menstruation. It is healing to savour our blood flow and use it consciously to release all that we want rid of on a psycho-spiritual level. We can offer our womb lining back to the Earth, with ceremony or magic, as our blood is absorbed and becomes one with the land. Tuning in to the spiritual dimensions of our menstrual cycle also prepares us for pregnancy and birth (if we choose and are able to take this path) and eventually for menopause and death too.
Medb calls us to see the beauty inherent in menstrual blood, with its varying hues of red and brown. This is valuable blood that would nurture a foetus, if we were to fall pregnant, packed full of stem cells and rich nutrients. We can use reusable menstrual wear such as a cup, sponge or washable cotton pad to catch our blood, honouring the Earth and our self. We can also follow the lead of the Native American moon lodge tradition and spend time dreaming, visioning and searching for new direction whilst menstruating. There is a growing Red Tent movement where groups of menstruators gather to share womb and menstrual stories, supporting one another with their journeys.
We bleed approximately once a month and go through the same cycle as the moon, even if they don’t move in synch. It is said that our fertile ancestors all ovulated together at the full moon and bled during the dark moon, before the advent of electricity and artificial night lighting. Now we bleed at all times during the moon’s cycle, but can still tune into her energy and explore this relationship.
The menstrual cycle is a blessing. It enables us to harness different energy if we roll with it, rather than expecting to feel the same every day. Menstruators are cyclical beings, and can attune to the rhythms of the solar year and moon cycle. What a precious gift for a Pagan, if we can empower ourselves to grasp it. After the bleed we enter a spring-like state with lots of energy and enthusiasm for starting new projects. This builds up until we peak at ovulation, the summer-like time of maximum growth. After this we move into the dark half of the cycle with an increasing inner focus. The pre-menstruum is likened to the season of autumn. Here we can finish projects off, listen to our intuition and speak our mind assertively. This is the stage where everything that is not working in our lives shows up vividly, whether we want it to or not, akin to an inner lie detector. Finally we swing around to menstruation, our spiritual winter, time to shed and disintegrate into our dreaming.
We can use each stage of our cycle as a sacred practice for living our lives. Ovulation is a time to make dynamic strides in the world and the pre-menstruum is an opportunity to prepare for menopause. Menstruation offers a chance to practise the letting go that death eventually requires. Pre-ovulation allows us to integrate the wisdom learnt and explore new paths. The more times we make this cyclical journey in full consciousness, journeying deeper into the blood mysteries, the more empowered we become, to find joy and purpose in our inner and outer worlds.
It is time for Pagans to reclaim Mebb as a trailblazer menstrual warrior Goddess and modern archetype. With her help we can regain our lost connection with our blood and honour menstruation as we offer our blood back to the Earth with gratitude, for wisdom acquired that month. Medb enables all menstruators to reclaim the sacredness and magical potential of the menstrual cycle for themselves. Our blood is truly liquid gold, an alchemical tool for personal and spiritual development.
[i] The words ‘blood’ and ‘urine’ are both used in the text and we can hypothesise that this arose as ignorance of female physiology by the male cleric writers, not realising that menstruators shed blood steadily over a number of days and not just during urination.
[ii] I have used the term ‘menstruator’ rather than ‘woman’ to make it clear that menstruation does not exclusively belong to women and to emphasise that not all women menstruate. Some transgender men experience menstrual bleeding, along with people who identify as non binary or intersex. Others who identify as women do not menstruate due to illness, surgery, pregnancy or menopause.
Heartfelt thanks go to Professor Ronald Hutton for steering me in the direction of ‘The Tain’.