A Novel Approach to Menstruation and Spirituality

7 years ago

Your period. Cramps, tampons, mood swings and…a spiritual experience? This week we’ll explore that connection with Jessica Schafer’s review of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. This review originally appeared at Living Sexuality, the blog of Clinical Sexologist Becky Knight. It was part of the Best Blog Series Ever. Period. – a week’s worth of posts on menstruation. (re-posted with permission)

Book Review: Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent
by Jessica Schafer

When I first read Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent three years ago, I had never thought about what menstruation was like for women thousands of years ago. If I had thought about it, I probably would have shuddered at the idea. The Red Tent made me think again. Sure, it was probably messy, with no tampons and only homemade rags as pads. It was also probably really unhygienic considering how little people bathed in general. But Diamant weaves a really compelling picture of what menstruation might have meant to women in pre-modern times.

Because The Red Tent is an incredibly rich and complex historical novel, I will just focus on two things that intrigued me about Diamant’s description of menstruation:

It was a communal experience. The title refers to the tent women retired to at the New Moon at the onset of their period. They stayed together in the tent, sitting on straw, resting, relaxing and eating sweets for three days. During those three days they didn’t have to do any work and simply enjoyed being together and celebrating their days of rest.

It was deeply spiritual. Fertility, symbolized by monthly bleeding, was a powerful and mysterious gift. Innana, the great mother was worshipped and thanked for the gift of life. I loved the rituals Diamant constructed around menstruation and the way the rituals deeply honored women and the power they bear.

One of the main characters describes menstruation to her daughter like this:

“The great mother whom we call Innana gave a gift to woman that is not known among men, and this is the secret of blood. The flow at the dark of the moon, the healing blood of the moon’s birth—to men, this is flux and distemper, bother and pain. They imagine we suffer and consider themselves lucky. We do not disabuse them.

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In the red tent, the truth is known. In the red tent, where days pass like a gentle stream, as the gift of Innana courses through us, cleansing the body of last month’s death, preparing the body to receive the new month’s life, women give thanks—for repose and restoration, for the knowledge that life come from between our legs, and that life costs blood.”

What would change in your life if you could look forward to three days of withdrawal from the world, in which you could rest and celebrate your body? And what if you could spend those three days with your closest girlfriends, singing together, eating sweets together, massaging each others backs and listening to the stories of your lives? There would still be discomfort, cramps and everything else that comes along with it, but what if we saw it as an honor, something valuable enough to be celebrated?

The Red Tent is about much more than menstruation. It is a historical retelling of the story of Dinah, a character from the Old Testament in the Bible. Find out more about The Red Tent click here.


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Jessica Schafer grew up in Germany as a missionary kid. She now works as a Resident Director at Trinity Western University. She is doing a long distance training program in spiritual direction through the Haden Institute and someday soon wants to start an MFA in poetry. She blogs at Between Words, is on twitter, and is offering you her favorite poems for spiritual sustenance in her guest post this week at Magpie Girl.


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