I’ll have to be more careful than usual in this post about highlighting the bits that are based in lore and the bits that are based in my own gnosis. Fundamentally, we don’t have much relating to menstruating in the Irish lore. I lie – there’s shag all, if you don’t count the numerous weird and wonderful ways people managed to get pregnant and give birth in the lore. Even duchas.ie, usually a wonderful trove of treasure to look at the practices and spells and folklore of our ancestors, is bereft of such things. Now there’s a good reason for that, particularly in the duchas case – it was primary school children sent out to gather these stories and while people wouldn’t mind telling kids the stories that might scare the bejasus from them, there were some topics not suitable for children at all.
Manchán Magan, in his recent book “Thirty-Two Words for Field” (2020, Gill Books), explains why some of this is so: “Some of the most renowned female seanchaithe (storytellers) were known for their bawdy humour and they shared this openly with the folklorists who sought their knowledge in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. However, when speaking into the wax cylinder recorder they tended to be more circumspect, censoring certain things“. In the following passage, he recalls how these same seanchaithe, when settled into the chair by the fire and relaxed in themselves, would revert to the earthier version. The transcribed tales would be sanitised though. As well, the author recounts a story from Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, celebrated Irish poet, where although she grew up in a Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) area from the age of six, it was only after her marriage that she was inducted into the realm of the back kitchen and learned a whole new vocabulary.
Given these words couldn’t be shared with an unmarried woman, it’s no wonder strangers in the 19th century wouldn’t be told of them, particularly if, as was sometimes the case, the local priest had come along to smooth the stranger way into the community. So, a history of sending strange and sometimes foreign men, of different class and history, as well as children, to collect these words and stories, means many of them have been lost.
Even though we have lost much of our language and folklore, particularly in the area of women’s lives, including menstruation, these memories may not tell us the exact words use, they do tell us there were rich vocabulary surrounding these elements and menstruation, sex, intercourse, were spoken about! Mangan’s book has improved my vocabulary around my menstrual cycle immeasurably, even if I’m still struggling to remember some of the words off the top of my head!
So, sex, menstruation, the workings of the body were definitely spoken of in Ireland. Sex wasn’t invented in the 80s and 90s, with the advent of Gay Byrne and the Late Late Show on a Friday night (yes, Gaybo was once an avant garde presenter on both radio and television, speaking of issues that had hitherto been hidden – not saying he did a brilliant job at all times, but he was willing to speak and discuss issues like women’s rights, domestic abuse, sex outside marriage…)
On then to Brigid and her links to menstruation. She is listed in Cormac’s Glossary as goddess of healing and we know from Fergus Kelly’s A Guide to Early Irish Law (1988, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) that a woman-physician as one of the women that could be not dependent on a husband according to the law. He does add however, that in his sources, there is an indication that the term used, banliaih tuaithe, might refer to a midwife or a women who attends a woman at childbirth. So we have at least a loose link between Brigid and one end of the menstruation cycle!
Added to which, I can’t imagine that she would have an interest in healing and not have an interest in her own body…
Now all along here, I’ve been mentioning women, women’s bodies, Brigid as female, etc. It’s important to note that despite what modern menstruation spirituality tends to outline, not all women menstruate and not all who menstruate are women. That leads towards a very binary, static and outmoded vision of what gender is. While I have nothing in the lore that outright states Brigid would be accepting of someone who is a different gender to that which they were assigned at birth, I can’t help looking at her relationship with me, her work in healing and in the forge, her work with people who were maybe not valued as much in society as they should have been, the work with Brig Ambue and the cowless, and think she would not support those who are, due to the previously described outmoded understandings of gender, struggling to be accepted as they are in this world.
I’m not an expert in gender issues, it must be said, and I won’t conflate my experiences as a white, straight cis woman with those who are not any or some of those things. But I will say, I know something of what’s it’s like (a small part of what’s it’s like) to not be accepted as you are – I’m a woman in engineering and even to this day, I tend to have to prove myself over and over and over as an engineer purely because I don’t fit the stereotypical image of either woman or engineer. I can only imagine how much worse it might be when it’s not only your profession, but your sense of self that’s being challenged/ignored/scorned. And that’s before the abuse, the harassment, the oppression, etc, etc, etc.
If you’re struggling with menstruating or looking to gain a better understanding of your body and how it works, it’s easy to drop into menstruation spirituality or menstruation teachings in the modern world. But there are some serious issues there. There is an assumption that every woman moves through, or wants to move through, the great triple cycles of maiden, mother, crone (there’s been a fourth phase added in recent years of queen or enchantress, but let’s not go there for now, that’s a whole other blog post. And I do like the extra stage, I just don’t want to have to write three blog posts in one!)
Now there are huge issues in forcing all women into these boxes of maiden, mother, crone. And yes, I know, modern paganism has said it’s not about biological changes or stages, but more about appreciation, learning and development of self. The fact remains that these words are very gendered, very restricting and plain don’t work for all women, never mind the gender spectrum (I’m not even sure if gender spectrum is the correct way of putting it, but I’m damned sure we don’t have a gender binary so it’s the best I can do right now. Open to learning better though)
I’m a woman who can’t have children, for no apparent reason according to science – now, I’m not looking for advice, trust me that I’ve tried everything out there from acupuncture, meditation, visualisation, foods, movement… if you’ve heard of it, I’ve tried it. Not interested in hearing what worked for your friend or your cousin or this woman you know 🙂
It’s not a sore topic at all, right?
Anyway, back to the point. I’m a woman who can’t have children. While many people tell me the mother phase is one of creativity, of nurturing, of growing and doesn’t necessarily mean parenting a child, still when I hear “mother”, I think of the family I don’t have. And that’s just women with fertility issues. That doesn’t help women who don’t want children, or can’t have them for other reasons – financial, physical, emotional reasons, for a start.
Using maiden/mother/crone is limiting and exclusionary, in my opinion.
But where do we go from here? Well I’m working on a structure and outline that might help people deal with, come to terms with, work with their menstrual cycles or lack thereof without using gendered language or traditional gendered roles to work through it. It’s not easy cos it means examining everything I’ve learned and known about menstruation and body cycles and assessing it from an inclusionary point of view. Testosterone driven bodies have cycles just like oestrogen driven bodies do.
Plus, pretty much every body is different anyway. So, how do we inclusively group certain phases of different cycles to work for everyone? I’m not entirely sure this is possible. I think what is possible, though, is for everyone to have a better understanding and knowledge of their body and have a loose framework to hang that knowledge off. I know that understanding myself the times of my cycles when I’m more prone to tiredness, more prone to certain activities, more prone to anger, more prone to sleeping, more prone to reading certain things, eating certain things, etc, etc, etc, helps me live life a bit better and not get taken aback by my reactions or needs during any given phase. And I’d like more people to gain that awareness of their body, without having to trawl through information that’s abhorrently presented to them in the first place.