Unspoken Worlds article reviews, pt. 1
I’m rather pleased by the articles I chose from the book Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives. Not only were they quick reads – a definite benefit when faced with the prospect of 30 books in three months – but I also found two good articles in the book for next semester’s Women’s Mysteries Comps class. I’m going to quickly mention them here, so I can easily find them later: Ulrike Strasser’s “Bones of Contention: Catholic Nuns Resist their Enclosure” (207-220), and Youngsook Kim Harvey’s “Possession Sickness & Women Shamans in Korea” (59-66).
So, back to the assigned articles. I’m reading them for my Ecofeminism Area of Emphasis, which means I have to tie them in to that subject. My three subsections under that category are (Re)embodiment, the Sacred Feminine, and Interrelatedness, and I have at least one article in all three subsections, which is nice. I’m going to try and do just a quick overview, since I can reference the articles themselves for pertinent quotes – though I don’t doubt the occasional personally wonderful quote will creep into the reviews. If you read something here that doesn’t make sense to you, I’d encourage you to go to your local library and read the articles for yourself – they’re quite interesting!
Rita M. Gross’ “Menstruation & Childbirth as Ritual & Religious Experience Among Native Australians” fits quite well under the (Re)embodiment subsection, in that it presents women’s lives and physical experiences as valuable and sacred. She opens with a personally intriguing observation: the aborigines were originally a gathering/hunting society with a “material culture [which] is exceedingly simple,” but which had an incredibly complex “social organization and world view” (301). She goes on to explore this in her article, which is a re-evaluation of previous studies on the indigenous aborigines, with an eye to realizing that they were almost uniformly conducted by male anthropologists.
This led to the unfortunate conclusion in the West that the aborigine men were both religious and societally sacred because they had religious rituals which were kept secret from women. Women, on the other hand, had to be obversely societally unclean and profane because they apparently had no similarly religious ceremonies – just some culturally unimportant, biologically related rituals about childbirth and that icky menstruation thing. However, the author makes indirect mention of “taboo” as being not so much “impure” or “disgusting” (which is how we tend to see it today), as instead signifying something which is overwhelmingly magically potent. Gross also notes the women’s rituals of menstruation and childbirth are:
laden with clues and characteristics that, were they found in connection with anything else, would be automatically referred to as “sacred” or “religiously significant.” All attitudes and behaviors that are correctly deemed clues to the sacredness of the male mode and of men’s rituals are also found in connection with women’s ceremonies … All these parallel attitudes are important because they indicate a parallel (not identical) access to sacrality. The women’s different religious life has the same outcome as the men’s – membership in the sacred community, not exclusion from it. (302-303)
Perhaps most fascinating, Gross also explores and provides examples of the intriguing concept that all the male aboriginal rituals (so-vaunted by male Western anthropologists) are in actuality symbolic imitations of women. Apparently some of the legends specifically reference the original men originally knowing nothing of the sacred, and jealously stealing religious items from the original women. Faced with the realization of the theft, the women generously decided to let the men keep the items because, as they say in the myth: “We have really lost nothing, for we remember it all and we can let them have that small part. For aren’t we still sacred, even if we have lost the [religious items]? Haven’t we still our uteruses?”
This offers some fascinating possibilities, as noted by Gross: first, that this mythology defines the world as very much “the province of women in important ways” (308). Secondly, “what becomes of classic patterns of male domination … when they are counterbalanced by awe of women’s sacral power?” (309). Thirdly, just as the Western world circumscribes and defines women’s rituals through the lens of men’s religious power, it seems turnabout is fair play: it is just as appropriate to examine men’s rituals through a feminist lens. I particularly like Gross’ closing comment: “it is hard to imagine that people could actually have claimed to study something ‘human’ without recognizing that women must be as much a focus of study as men.”
Re the choice of the word “theft,” that’s how the Aborigine men themselves described it. Also, I imagine there is an exceedingly fine line between “sympathetic imitative magic” and “cultural appropriation.” ;)
That last part reminds me of a quote by a woman writing pulp comics in the 50s: “Women are only allowed to write about womanly things. It’s men that are allowed to write about being human.”
Discussions of these similar sacralities, but the men’s being borrowed from the women, makes me think of things like the Sun dance, or certain tribes having men pass stones to simulate what women go through with childbirth. That sort of honoring is likewise sympathetic, not theft.