I was reading about a holiday called Ambubachi Mela, which is observed by Hindus for three days during monsoon season. This is the first holiday I have come across which marks not the birth or death of a divine being; but their menstrual cycle.
Gods: they’re just like us!
I kid you not, the goddess Kamakhya has a period once a year, when the holy river goes into a flood. The rains and water rushing everywhere represent a positive, renewing force; but there was one fact that brought me to a screeching halt.
For three days, because the goddess becomes impure, she has to go into seclusion the way women traditionally did when they had their cycle. The temple closes during this time. On the fourth day, after the goddess is ritually bathed and re-purified, people can go into the temple and worship. Perhaps this is a matter of art imitating life, but it got me thinking about our perception of blood.
There’s a thick association between blood and primal forces. Blood is life. Blood is sacrifice. Blood is the mark of adulthood, either by ritual or by surprise in your pre-teens. I understand that that blood corrupts. If you hunt and kill something without cleaning it of organs and fluids, it will quickly rot. Open wounds and infections kill us. The thing is, women aren’t meat. It’s not an open wound. Where does purity come in? Just because it’s gross? Blood sacrifice is pretty gross too, but some Aztecs and Vikings still thought it would be a cool present for a divine being. Technically, it’s poor scholarship to compare what’s happening in India with what happened in Mexico and Scandinavia during different eras, but there’s something about symbolic blood that seems to resonate across time and distance.
That said, it seems counterintuitive, or unjust, to say that blood is both powerful and holy during ritual, and then it goes back to being gross and shunned in an everyday context. Ambubachi Mela is a time of austerity and cleansing in the hopes for future fertility, and menstruation is a pretty good mythological metaphor in this case. The thing is, if all ritual is arbitrary, based on our own recognition and application of nature’s patterns, why observe blood (represented by water) as impure rather than divine? It’s part of a divine story, in a divine context, coming from a divine being. It has me thinking not so much about that particular myth, but the idea of purity.
A lot of subjugation has happened over perceptions of purity, but purity doesn’t last. All food turns to shit, eventually. All peoples intermix, eventually. There is a huge difference between looking at a biological function and saying, “that’s gross,” and looking at the person whose chemistry produced it and saying, “you’re gross. You’re so gross you can’t participate in society for three days.”
I understand why a woman would want to peacefully retreat during that week. The sequester isn’t the issue. It’s the specific mark of “impure” that niggles at me as a writer.
So when a writer goes out, settles in, whips out his or her pencil and starts to create a world, that world might include arbitrary rituals. They look great, sound cool, and you come up with a myth and it helps ground you in that world. Purity will come up at some point in the context of the world you’ve built. Call it virtue if you like, but there will be a social stratification between those who do things correctly, and those who will not get the holy high-five.
When someone offers blood as a prayer, is it the blood that holds the power, or the idea of sacrifice itself? Is menstrual blood considered non-sacrificial because it just happens?
If blood is universally divine because it’s an offering of oneself, then surely there are other offerings on par with it. Imagine the kind of world where blood and fine craftsmanship are equally divine. Where the endurance of suffering is all well and good, but the labor and effort of creating something marvelous is more precious — the giving of oneself, rather than the sacrifice of oneself. If knowledge, creativity, and excellence were as valuable as flesh and blood, what then defines impurity?
To be empty. To lack. To starve.
This is the story I’m working on now.