Initiation into womanhood
There are places on the Earth where first blood is a cause for joy and womanhood a source of pride. There, girls receive presents and the whole community meets to feast, dance and celebrate new women in their tribe.
This text will be about such communities.
Girls’ initiation is not only about ceremonies, it is the whole time of puberty – turning from girl into woman. Together girls learn what it means to be a woman. An important part of this process is learning from elder women.
In some cultures there is another important aspect of initiation ceremony for girls – a rejuvenation, rebirth of the whole community. With her first blood, a life-giving, creative force fills the girl. This force has no name, or it has some sacred name, for example for Navajo Indians it is Changing Woman.
This is how the passage from childhood into adulthood looked like in some cultures of the world:
Adolescence is the time of learning and preparation. Anne Cameron in her book Child of Her People describes preparations for girls in puberty in the Cree tribe. Since they turn 8, 9 they spend a part of each day with a specially selected Grandma representing the elders. She teaches them the origin story of the tribe, the story of First Woman, First Mother and the origins of Mother Earth. She teaches them what it means to become a woman, about changes in the body and the development of the psyche. Girls learn self-defence and practice it on the tribe’s boys. They gain knowledge about herbs soothing pain and preventing pregnancy. When they are finally ready, they spend time alone, in cleansing lodges. Only after two years of such preparation they are accepted into the tribe as women. They are perceived as those becoming Mother Earth, fertile, capable of creating and giving life.
Pygmies in Africa thought that menstrual blood was a gift, accepted with joy and gratitude by the whole community. The girl went with her friends to Elima House. It was a special hut. An elderly woman from the tribe taught girls and prepared them to first Blood ceremony – Elima ceremony. As Colin Turnbull writes in The Forest People the Elima ceremony, in which the whole community takes part, is very joyful „elima jest jedną z naszczęśliwszych, najbardziej radosnym wydarzeniem w ich życiu”. Girls learned women’s songs and sang them loudly in the forest „tak żeby każdy mógł wiedzieć, że są one teraz Bamelina, ludźmi elima, dziewczynkami które zostały pobłogosławione krwią i teraz są kobietami.” After the ceremony there ensued two months of celebrations – meetings, feasts, dances.
Colin Turnbull The Forest People 186-194
Nootka tribe - Initiation for girls is an important celebration for the whole tribe. After her first menstruation a big party is thrown for the girl and later comes an endurance ritual, during which she is taken far from the shore, into the sea and she must return alone, swim back to the shore. The whole village is waiting for her. From that moment on she has the rights of a grown woman.
Judy Grahn, the author of the famous book Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World, describes ceremonies for girls in Kerala, India. These are ceremonies taking place in all castes and communities, in many they are the most expensive and most important ceremonies of the year. Once a year, with typically Indian flamboyance, ceremonies and family celebrations are organized for all girls who started menstruating within the last twelve months. These festivities could be compared to our first communions, because they are first of all family celebrations, not only religious.
Girls are specially dressed and painted, they have meetings with women as well as the whole family. Each girl undergoes a short separation time, when she is fed special food supposed to give her strength. During this time she is visited by friends. Elder women sing songs for her and prepare her a scented bath. She is usually wrapped in beautiful, red fabric and she receives presents – clothes and jewellery among them.
After celebrations with women there comes time for family celebrations. The young girl sits on a special seat – a platform decorated with flowers.
Everything culminates in a procession of young women through the city. The girls whose families can afford it ride elephants.
North American Iniginous People
Ceremony for Girls among Apache is called Mascalero– it is an annual holiday during which the first blood of all girls who started menstruating within the last year is celebrated. It is a 4-day public ceremony, after which next 4 days of private meetings ensue. Each night men – singers sing different 64 songs telling the story of the tribe. People celebrate and feast together, give girls presents and dance, dance all night long.
Mascalero is for Apache a very important ceremony, they believe that it ensures wealth for the whole tribe, it renews and regenerates it. When between 1873 and 1911 the government of the USA forbade celebrating Mascalero the number of Apache people fell drastically. It is believed that a girl menstruating for the first time has special powers – that’s why she blesses and heals members of her tribe.
In the Navajo tribe the ceremony for girls reaching puberty, Kinaalda, was one of the most important religious rituals. It lasted 4 days and nights. For that time the girl became Changing Woman - the most prominent Navajo goddess - and was treated with utmost respect. She was specially painted and given presents.
According to Navajo mythology Changing Woman created Sacred People and four original clans and was the first one to take part in the Kinaalda ceremony. She symbolized the life cycle – new beginnig, growth, death and rebirth and also 4 seasons.
What did Kinaalda look like?
During the ritual the girl was massaged, she also received sacred teachings. During the most important part of the ceremony she was initiated – a male or female representative of the tribe created a coloured sand picture in front of her – the name of the picture is also Kinaalda. While making it the elders explained the symbols and their power to sustain life on earth. The meaning of the picture was connected with the role of woman in creating the world – it is believed that a woman possesses creative power which can heal but also kill, and which was given to her by the Moon.
What is characteristic, Navajo and Apache are matrilinear cultures, describing descent on mothers’ line and respecting female energy.
Despite many changes that the indigenous communities of North America underwent, the Kinaalda ritual has survived until today, although in an altered form. As described by Lara Owen, author of Honoring Menstruation, in her relation from 1995 – half of the tribe’s girls have their Kinaalda. A month after a girl has had her first blood, her whole clan gathers for a ceremony lasting 4 days. Each day of Kinaalda the girl gets up at dawn and runs towards the rising sun. Each day she runs faster and faster. During these days she receives teachings from an older relative on what it means to be a Navajo woman. The girl and her family, women and men together, prepare a huge corn cake, which they bake in an oven specially built for this occasion. It is built from earth. On the last day a medicine man comes and the family prays all night long for the girl, her family and the whole tribe. This night is of extreme importance for the auspiciousness of the tribe.
On the last day the girl, who is perceived as an emanation of Changing Woman, puts on a traditional dress. She is combed in a special style. The first thing she does as a grown woman is to offer each participant of the ceremony a hot piece of corn cake.