Menstrual Synchrony and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake.

Chris Knight. Menstrual synchrony and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake. In T. Buckley & Alma Gottlieb (eds), Blood Magic: The anthropology of menstruation. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp. 232-55

Over much of Aboriginal Australia men exercise ritual power through ceremonies (stated in myths once to have been the prerogative of women) in which they symbolically “menstruate” and “give birth.” The resultant power is conceptualized as a rainbowlike snake, which is said to be the source of life and which “swallows” humans and then “regurgitates” them, now “reborn.” This chapter discusses examples of such rituals and beliefs. It suggests that Australian Aboriginal culture in certain regions exhibits a phenomenon known in Western medical science as “menstrual synchrony,” and that such synchrony has been conceptualized traditionally as “like a rainbow” and “like a snake.”

It is shown that Australian menstrual synchrony is also conceptualized as “like a Mother” and “like a womb.” The chapter culminates in a hypothesis that links the origin of the Rainbow Snake ritual complex with menstrual synchrony. In a coda to the chapter I present some comparative evidence from ancient Greece, the ancient Near East, Western Europe, and East Asia which suggests speculatively a possible parallel to the model of linked menstrual synchrony and snake/dragon symbolism as offered in the chapter.

The discussion in this chapter forms part of a wider argument (see Knight 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986) that menstrual synchrony was once a basic experience of many of the world’s women and a source of female power in society. When for various reasons menstrual synchrony in traditional cultures broke down, its formal structures may have been preserved ritually by men, with secret initiation rites (which included men ritually “menstruating” together) and male-controlled versions of the Rainbow Snake being among the results.


Direct evidence of menstrual synchrony in Aboriginal Australia is scattered and sparse. We have no report comparable with, for example, Shostak’s (1983:68) note on the !Kung, who “believe … that if a woman sees traces of menstrual blood on another woman’s leg or even is told that another woman has started her period, she will begin menstruating as well.” Nor is there an Australian counterpart to the recent reconstruction of menstrual norms among the California Yurok, among whom it has been hypothesized that in some descent groups “all of a household’s fertile women who were not pregnant menstruated at the same time” (Buckley, this volume; also see Lamp, this volume). The !Kung and Yurok reports, however, are recent; in both cases the ethnographers were aware of the recent medical literature documenting menstrual synchrony among closely associated women (Burley 1979; Graham and McGrew 1980; Kiltie 1982; McClintock 1971; Quadagno et al. 1981; Russell, Switz and Thompson 1980). What indirect evidence we do have for Australian menstrual synchrony, from both early and relatively recent reports (see later discussion), was gathered at a time when menstrual synchrony was not acknowledged as a concept by social anthropologists in the field.

Yet enough exists even in the published record to indicate that Aboriginal culture acknowledged menstrual synchrony long before McClintock (1971) first documented it for Western science. Direct evidence appears in four domains:

  1. cat’s cradle string figures and an associated myth of two sisters, called the Wawilak [Wauwalak, Wauwelak, etc.] Sisters;
  2. certain other versions of the Wawilak Sisters myth;
  3. images of apparently menstruating dancing women from the Pilbara region of Western Australia;
  4. mythological images of collective menstruation from the Central Australian Aranda.

Scattered items of additional mythological evidence exist (see, for example, later descriptions in this chapter). Indirect evidence is more abundant but requires the reader’s acceptance of a theoretical interpretation of male ritual and its associated mythology.


Among the Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land (formerly known as the Murngin), menstrual synchrony is an acknowledged, ritually potent possibility. For example, at Yirrkalla, women traditionally made cats’ cradles that were said to represent, among other things, “menstrual blood of three women” (McCarthy 1960:466; see figure 10.1). “The women,” writes McCarthy (1960:424), “make their figures amongst themselves, and not in front of the men, particularly the old men, as a rule. The men walk past and do not look because the game belongs to the women’s sphere of life.” A woman may not make such figures with her husband. “Menstrual blood of three women” is not reported as a subject more frequent than topics such as “three vulvas,” “birth of a baby” and many others (McCarthy 1960:419). However, the theoretically possible male counterparts of these (“three men urinating,” “three penises,” etc.) are not listed as subjects; moreover menstrual synchrony is stressed in the string figure origin myth: “String first made by the two Wawilak sisters at Mudawa, near Buckingham Bay. They saw a lot of honey, about which they made a string loop.” Later the elder sister made a figure of the yams in her sister’s hands: “She then looked inside the latter’s vagina and made another string figure.” Later still, “The sisters sat down, looking at each other, with their feet out and legs apart, and both menstruated. Each one made a loop of the other one’s menstrual blood, after which they put the string loops around their necks.” They were subsequently swallowed by “a Snake” (McCarthy 1960:426).

Some of the remaining direct evidence for Aboriginal menstrual synchrony will now be surveyed. R. Berndt’s (1951:22) version of the Wawilak myth states that ritual dancing was used by two “incestuous” women to synchronize their blood flows. With one sister already shedding quantities of afterbirth blood, the other began to dance: “She moved her body gracefully, shuffling her feet, swaying her body from side to side, and holding in her hands feathered string from which she made cats-cradles as she danced.” This, then, was a cat’s cradle ritual of the “secret” kind noted by McCarthy (1960) among living Yolngu women. It was also a puberty celebration — in the words of the mythical younger sister, “a very happy time, for this is my first menstruation” (R. Berndt 1951:27). The younger sister danced on, “and as she swayed from side to side the intensive activity caused her menstruation to begin” (Berndt 1951:22—23). Blood from both women was now flowing simultaneously, and it was precisely at this moment that “the Snake” also flowed from its own womblike “waterhole” and coiled around the Two Sisters and their child. “There is the suggestion,” comments Berndt (1951:22 n.), “that the snake found the blood attractive.” Certainly it is a noticeable feature of the myth in all its versions that blood must be flowing if “the Snake” is to appear; where there is no blood, there is no Snake.

Rock engravings from the Pilbara region of Australia include images of dancing pairs of women “suggesting the sisters in some Aboriginal mythologies” (B. Wright 1968: figures 99-115). Various of Wright’s (1968) figures may show menstruating women (e.g., figs. 85, 88), two of them dancing together (fig. 112). One drawing (fig. 383) depicts dancers beneath an arc (rainbow?) and beside what may be a snake. Wright’s figure 100 more clearly shows two figures with a snake, and figure 845 is reminiscent of the scene in which the two Wawilak Sisters “sat down… and both menstruated” (McCarthy 1960:426). If the parallel is valid, this image depicts two women conjoined by the same menstrual flow. Figure 105 again seems to show women linked by streams of their own blood, and figure 648 seems to connote cyclicity in the form of a snake. (We regret that the Wright figures were not available for publication in the present volume. — Eds.)

In western Arnhem Land women knew how to bring on their menstrual flows, if late in arriving, by “steaming, massage or violent exercise” (Berndt and Berndt 1951:45). We may speculate that dancing might have been the mythologically sanctioned form of “violent exercise” used to bring on the flow. Although there is little direct evidence for this, other regions of Australia repeat the notion as a mythological theme. Among the Aranda, for example, deposits of red ochre “blood” were formed by the mythical Unthippa women: their sexual organs dropped out from exhaustion, caused by their uninterrupted dancing over the spots where the ochre now lies (Spencer and Gillen 1927, 1:345).

Synchronous feminine bleeding appears in other Aranda myths. At a point along the Finke River is a traditionally used red ochre pit. At this spot two kangaroo women “caused blood to flow from the vulva in large quantities, and so formed the deposit of red ochre.” Traveling away westward, “they did the same thing in other places” (Spencer and Gillen 1899:463-464). In Aboriginal Australia (Flood 1983:46, 238) red ochre was a much-used symbol of ritual power.[1]

In many Aranda myths women who are referred to as alknarintja are recognized by the fact that they are constantly decorating themselves with red ochre, are associated with water, and are “frequently represented as menstruating copiously” (Róheim 1974:150). The alknarintja women of Aranda songs

…cut their breasts.
On their breasts they make scars.
They slap their thighs …
They are menstruating.
Their flanks are wet with blood.
They talk to each other.
They make a bull-roarer…
They are menstruating.
The blood is perpetually flowing. (Róheim 1974:138-139)

Such women possess bull-roarers and other symbols of power, and have solidarity — evoked in one song through the image of a clump of bushes “so thick and so pressed against each other that they cannot move separately” (Róheim 1974:144).

Indirect evidence such as this lends strong support to wide spread menstrual synchrony among Aboriginal women of Australia. In the next section I consider the phenomenon of mythological snake women and rainbow snakes and explore their relationships to menstruous women.


The Alawa Aborigines of western-central Arnhem Land say that certain mythic females, called “Mungamunga girls,” when they go into the water, become merged in the corporate identity of their “mother,” the “Kadjari.” (“Kadjari” and “Kunapipi” are alternative names for this mother figure.) This awe-inspiring woman emerges from the water: she “comes out as one person, but as she stands on the dry land she is manifested as a Kadjari with a group of Mungamunga girls” (R. Berndt 1951:189-190).

The Mungamunga girls, when diving into the water, may be called Kilji:ringkiljiring. When the Wawilak Sisters have been swallowed by a Snake in a waterhole (see earlier) they change their names to Ka’lerika’lering—a name derived from the Ma:ra term (the Ma:ra are neighbors of the Alawa). “This would suggest,” as R. Berndt (1951:173) comments, “that the Mungamunga and Wauwalak are identical.” Ka’lerika’lering means “having been swallowed” (R. Berndt 1951:35). The sisters now “belong to the Kunapipi side — the side of the great ancestral “Mother.” Becoming “at one” with “the Mother” in the water, whose all-swallowing uterus is the “inside” of “the Snake” (R. Berndt 1951:32, 43, 54), and becoming “at one” with “the Snake” in its waterhole therefore appear to be different ways of saying the same thing. This is confirmed by the fact that synchronous menstruation is practiced by the Mungamunga girls, too. In one song from the Ma:ra, a man called Bananggala “comes over and wants to copulate with the Mungamunga, but they are menstruating. They each say to him, ‘I’ve got blood: you wait for a while” (R. Berndt 1951:164). Another song from the same area concerns two men who encounter a group of Mungamunga girls by a lagoon: “No sooner do they seize a Mungamunga and put her on the ground, ready for coitus, than she slides away, jumps up and runs down to the lagoon, and dives into its water; then she emerges and joins the rest” (R. Berndt 1951:174). These women, then, have two ways of avoiding sex with a man: diving into the water, and menstruating. It seems that whether they are menstruating, diving into water, becoming submerged in the identity of a mother figure, or being “swallowed” by a snake, women are repudiating heterosexual intercourse and returning into a symbolic womb instead.

The mythology of western and northern Australia focuses centrally upon “swallowing” episodes of this kind. A Yolngu myth ends by describing how two sisters “decided to go into the waterhole and become a rainbow.” It is explained: “They wanted to be a snake, like the rainbow, when she is standing up in the waterhole and makes lightning” (Groger-Wurm 1973:120). These sisters, then, change their form into that of a rainbow snake, just as the Wawilak Sisters change their names to Having Been Swallowed and the Mungamunga girls submerge their separate identities into the corporate one of “the Mother/Snake.” The positive attitude of the women who “wanted to be a snake” is significant. The women desired to lose their separateness in the formation of a larger whole. There is no evidence to suggest that they would have welcomed the arrival of a monster slayer to “rescue” them from this fate (see the Coda).

Robinson (1966:61-66) provides a dramatic Murinbata story that is worth dwelling on at some length. It is reminiscent of myths from other parts of the world concerning a conflict between a winged snake or “dragon” and a male hero for the hand of a woman — except that the dragon (in the form of the rainbow snake) wins.[2] The rainbow snake Kunmanggur was in the water with a number of water-women or “Murinbungo.” A man called Ngalmin approached and tried to catch one; at first they had been lying along the riverbank in the sunlight, but they saw him coming and “ran and jumped into the water.” Ngalmin went away, disguised himself in mud, approached again and succeeded in seizing a young woman. He went off with her, camping at various places but always carefully avoiding “any big water.” The woman kept asking for water, but Ngalmin insisted on keeping to dry places. Eventually she went off, looking for water on her own, and found a billabong (pool), where she drank:

And when she drank, all the Murinbungo, the water-lubras, rose up out of the billabong. They had long streaming hair and they called out to her: “O, sister, sister, where have you been? We cried for you. Come back to us, sister.” The water lubras reached out their arms to her. They pulled her down to them into the water.

When Ngalmin discovered his loss he cried, cut his head, and lost all interest in life. He returned to the billabong and tried to recover his wife, but she resisted and the rainbow snake frightened him away. Again he attempted life without her but could not stop pining and crying. He returned to the water for a final time, saw his woman lying in the water and cut his head with a stone. He called out to the rainbow snake: “You have to give me your child. I cut myself. You see this blood belonging to me? You have to be sorry for me.” The rainbow snake just lay still, watching Ngalmin; the girl did not move despite the man’s pleas. At last Ngalmin jumped into the water to catch a fleeing woman. Kunmanggur the rainbow snake lashed out from the water, grabbed Ngalmin, crushed and drowned him.

This, then, is a dragon-slaying myth in reverse. The heroine wants to stay with her dragon protector; it is her would-be suitor who is killed. Another myth — from the Kimberleys — makes clear that to try to detach a woman from “the Snake” is to attempt to sever bonds symbolized not only by water but above all by the presence of blood:

A man called Purra was looking for a wife. One day he was crossing a creek when he noticed that its water was red. “Look,” he said, “a girl must be around here. She is at the time of the passing of blood and went into the water. That is why the creek is red.” He followed the water right up to its source. There he found a girl. Her lower half was in the water, but the rest of her was lying on the bank. “She is Tira’s [ rainbow snake’sI daughter,” Purra said to himself. He took the girl, “but he knew that her father, the serpent, would be after him.” He tried to run away but the Serpent followed. Purra kept lighting fires to keep the Serpent away, but one day “the big rain came”; it extinguished Purra’s fire-stick and caused a flood into which Purra’s wife disappeared. (Adapted from Bozic and Marshall 1972:121-123)

This myth eloquently links the notion of being wet or in the rains with a woman’s menstrual state and consequent non-availability as a wife. At the same time, it emphasizes that to be “wet” and menstruating is to be under the guardianship of the serpent.

These are consistent mythological equations and themes. The great snake of the Wawilak myth “swallows” the incestuous sisters as they shed blood into a pool (R. Berndt 1951:23; Warner 1957:254). The Yolngu say that not so long ago a man took his two wives in a canoe for a trip from one island to another. One of them was menstruating. When they had gone for a short time, Yurlunggur the rainbow snake “smelt the unclean odour, came out of the Subterranean depths, and swallowed them all” (Warner 1957:76). In western Anthem Land among the Gunwinggu a menstruating woman should avoid associating with other Women around waterholes or streams; she should stay in seclusion with a fire burning “to keep the Rainbow away” (C. Berndt and R. Berndt 1970:180). In Western Australia the Wagaman snake, Djagwut,

lives in deep springs, rivers and billabongs. His spit is the “secondary” or “high” rainbow. He is the source of spirit-children and the protector of human life. He is especially dangerous to menstruating women, being able to smell them from afar (Stanner 1966:87).

Von Brandenstein (1982:58) suggests that “Muit” and similar names for the rainbow snake in Western and northern parts of the continent derive from a Kariera root meaning “blood & red & multi-coloured & irridescent” When Yolngu neophytes are shown “the Snake” for the first time, it is in the form of two immense white “Muit emblems” consisting of padded poles “with the rock pythons” painted in blood on the white surfaces gleaming in the light of the many fires” (Warner 1957:304). “The Snake,” then, may appear as a line of blood. The Wikmungkan of Cape York confirm this: the snake “is believed to be responsible for women menstruating” (McKnight 1975:95); seeing the red band in a rainbow, people say, “Taipan the-rainbow-snake-has-a-‘sore inside’ i.e. has her menstrual pains” (McConnel 1936, 2:103). The rainbow’s red band, the “snake,” and the menstrual flow are, then, explicitly one and the same.


Marshack (1977:286), referring to prehistorians’ difficulties in interpreting Upper Paleolithic “serpentine”/“meander” designs, notes that “what we ‘see’ or recognise conceptually are usually ‘units’ and ‘patterns’ in terms of our culture, units and patterns which are relevant to us in terms of equations derived from our West European training.” It is central to the project of social and symbolic anthropology to escape from ethnocentrism of this kind, yet it is not certain how far we have succeeded.

Radcliffe-Brown (1930:342) argued that the rainbow snake “represents the element of water.” On the basis of native statements that “the Snake” is embodied in seasonal wet/dry alternations, Warner (1957:378) concluded that it is “a weather-symbol.” On the basis of other native statements that “the Snake” is identified with the production of babies, R. Berndt (1951:12-13, 31) argued that it symbolizes “the Penis,” being the counterpart of the “All-Mother,” who symbolizes “the uterus.” For Elkin (1951:9), “no deep analysis is needed to show that the mythical Snake is a sexual symbol.” For Schmidt (1953:909, quoted by Maddock 1978a:2), the creature represents “the male element (membrum virile),” or “the male idea of the penis.” For Triebels (1958:129-130, cited by Maddock 1978a:2), in its snake aspect it symbolizes the spirally formed cosmic power that lay in the world’s virgin waters, while as rainbow it is an emanation of the snake.

Marshack’s (1977:286) note of caution is appropriate here. Snake symbolism in Australia, as elsewhere, is associated with the innermost mysteries of secret rites and cults. Because the “meaning” of the symbols is that given by these religious systems themselves, it is hardly likely to consist of a mental or physical reality — “water,” “weather,” “penis,” or “male idea of penis” — immediately recognizable or familiar to those whose belief system is rooted in the scientific rationalism of Western culture. Maddock (1974:121) suggests “that what is called the Rainbow Serpent is but a visually striking image of force or vitality, a conception that cannot adequately be given figurative expression.” As evidence he cites the Dalabon term bolung, which signifies not only “rainbow,” “snake,” and “the mother of us all” but also “ambiguity in form, creativity, power and time long past” (1974:122-123). The reality in mind “cannot be more than partially and misleadingly conveyed in visual and psychological images like rainbow or snake or mother.” In fact, Maddock concludes, no Western concept or expression can hope to convey the notion of what is meant. The rainbow snake is paradoxical to the core. As Yurlunggur of the Yolngu, he “is both in the heavens. . . and in the subterranean depths” (Warner 1957:386). “He is the highest in the sky and the deepest in the well” (1957:255 n.). Although “he” may be male, he is both “man and woman” (p.383). Likewise the rainbow snake of the Murinbata, Kunmanggur, is bisexual: “Even those who asserted the maleness of Kunmanggur said that he had large breasts, like a woman’s” (Stanner 1966:96). “It is as though paradox and antinomy were the marrow in the story’s bones,” comments Stanner (1966:100) on the basic Kunmanggur myth. Eliade (1973:115) writes that the rainbow snake is able to relate “to women’s mysteries, to sex and blood and after-death existence” because “his structure has permitted the Rainbow Ser pent to unite the opposites.”

What “the Snake” is cannot be simply stated. I propose that an understanding of it may presuppose an understanding of the rhythmic core and structural basis of human culture as such. The meaning of the snake refers us to the logic of Aboriginal Australian culture — and perhaps of all human culture, if we are to trace it to its source; consequently to understand the one may be to fathom the genesis of the other (see Knight 1986). In any event, we need an explanation of the fact that the rainbow serpent “is not confined in Australia to any particular ethnological province, but is very widespread and may very possibly be practically universal,” forming “a characteristic of Australian culture as a whole” (Radcliffe-Brown 1926:24). Indeed, on archaeological grounds, Flood (1983:134) speculates that the snake complex in northern Australia may represent “the longest continuing religious belief documented in the world,” stretching back seven or nine thousand years.

For Maddock (1978a:1), rainbows, snakes, sisters, and related images are “a host of fleeting forms in and through which a fundamental conception of the world is expressed.” As a first approach to an understanding of the Dalabon term for rainbow snake, bolung, he suggests that we should “lay stress on the cyclicity embedded in the concept and. . . draw attention to the role of cyclical thinking in Aboriginal thought generally” (1978b:115). Why should snakes and rainbows be used to conceptualize the force behind the changing of the seasons, the movements of the celestial bodies, the breeding times of animals and plants, and the cycles of life, death, and afterlife? “The curvilinear imagery of snakes and rainbows,” Maddock (1978b:115) answers, “might be considered apt to express the abstract notion of cyclicity.”

In accordance with Marshack’s (1985:141—142) interpretations of serpentine symbolism cross-culturally, let us take it, then, that “the Snake” in one of its aspects connotes cyclical time. It would then be an Australian version of “the serpent of time, of process and continuity, the serpent of self-birth and origins, the serpent of death, birth, and rebirth, the cosmic serpent, the serpent of such processes as water, rain, and lightning, the ouroboros that bites its own tail in perpetuity, the guilloche serpent of endless continuity and turns” (Marshack 1985:142). “The Snake,” like seasonal or any other form of cyclicity, would in this aspect express the logic of alternation, metamorphosis, and change, perpetually incorporating within itself its own opposite: it would be wet season and dry, the highest and the lowest, male and female, and so on.


Why were the two Wawilak Sisters “swallowed” by “a Snake”? Were they swallowed by “cyclical time”? I suggest that in a sense they were. It will be remembered that in McCarthy’s (1960:426) version of the Wawilak myth, the sisters sat down face to face “and both menstruated.” They then (a) encircled each other’s necks with “loops” of “menstrual blood” and (b) were swallowed by “a Snake.” Cyclical time seized (“encircled”) the Wawilak Sisters in the form of their own menstrual flows. Being “encircled” by blood and being “swallowed” by a snake were not two separate experiences but are alternative metaphors for expressing the same experience. What, then, is the Snake? On the basis of the evidence so far, the following hypothesis suggests itself.

The Snake is in the first instance a ritual phenomenon. In one of its aspects it is an all-female ritual presence (the opposite aspect is male and is discussed later). As female, I suggest, it is the ritual synchronization of women’s reproductive cycles and menstrual and/or afterbirth flows. It is a way of describing women in such close intimacy that they feel as if they are “one flesh,” “one blood”—or “one Mother.” As the Aranda song put it, they resemble a clump of bushes “so thick and so pressed against each other that they cannot move separately.” With their blood flows conjoining, they form a single flow or stream — its elements as harmoniously conjoined and as inseparable as those of a snake. The Two Sisters who in the myths “turn into a rainbow” or are “swallowed by a Snake” are in reality entering the “wet” phase of the menstrual cycle and becoming engulfed in their own blood-derived unity with each other. Like water-women diving into a river, they are being “swallowed up” in a collective medium that transcends the boundaries of each. Whenever an out-of-phase woman is brought back into synchrony, it is as if her “water-sisters” were claiming her back into their realm (see earlier discussion). These women are indeed “like a snake,” for no creature on earth more closely resembles a river or flow, or can coil itself up into so many repeated cycles. And women are indeed “like a rainbow” — because, given the ubiquity of menstrual seclusion rules in Australia, the blood flow carries them as if from world to world. They move from dryness to wet, and also from marital life to the world of seclusion, just as the rainbow moves cyclically between sunshine and rain, dry season and wet, earth and sky.


To be of value a hypothesis should make specific predictions and be testable. It should be possible to conceive of types of evidence that, if verified in the ethnographic record, would disprove the hypothesis. The model should also prove fruitful as a research guide, enabling us to seek out evidence that the hypothesis would predict but that had not been “seen” before.

If the hypothesis is correct, we could expect that everything that can be said of menstrual synchrony would be equally true of the (rainbow) snake. We may expect synchronized women to be termed “snake women,” with half of their being in a “wet” phase or element and half in the “dry.” Meanwhile, so-called snakes would turn out to be human mothers. They should menstruate, give birth to human offspring, and copulate with human partners. Assuming that menstrual blood is thought of as “wet” rather than “dry,” menstrual seclusion should be depictable as a snake’s drawing of women into a watery world. In terms of detailed mythological imagery, the “swallowing” episodes would be associated with pools, streams, marshes, rains, storms, wet season, and so on, while the “regurgitations” would be linked with dryness (fire, dry earth, sun, dry season, etc.). A “dry” swallowing and a “wet” regurgitation would disprove the hypothesis. Menstrual seclusion in the real world is a withdrawal from exogamous sex into “one’s own blood,” so no union with a snake should have the characteristics of legitimate exogamous marriage. Snake marriage should be a union of blood with blood — that is, an intimacy comparable with the incestuous relationships of the Wawilak Sisters. A “correct” marriage with a snake would invalidate the hypothesis. Given that menstrual blood is taboo and is also reminiscent of the blood in meat (Warner 1957:278, McKnight 1975:85; compare Knight 1983:41-42), the snake should connote the sanctity of both women and animal flesh during the “raw” or menstrual state.

The exhaustive testing of these aspects of the hypothesis is beyond the scope of the present chapter (for further testing see Knight 1983, 1985). However, other predictions based upon the hypothesis seem already to have been validated in previous sections of this essay. Notably, if our hypothesis is correct, the Snake should be an immense blood-red cyclical phenomenon, analogous to the changing of the seasons, responsible for women’s periodic “death” to marital life, embodying all opposite phases in itself and associated in the first instance with women, pregnancy, fertility, and “wet” things such as rain, storms, floods, and menstrual or other blood. It should prove hostile to marital or exogamous sex, “swallowing” women and their offspring into “incestuous” blood unity whenever and wherever blood was flowing. It should be “sacred,” representing the “tabooed” state of game animals and women alike (compare Knight 1983:41-42). It should be incompatible with fire and cooking (as these destroy visible blood — Knight 1983:41-42; 1986). Although a great deal of this is substantiated by the available myths, there is a further probability not yet raised: the Snake should be a ritual entity beyond the power of men to usurp or control — except in the event that men were able to simulate menstruation and childbirth themselves.


Despite its being a “fantastically painful” operation (Gould 1969:112), subincision is practiced over an immense area of traditional Australia (fig. 10.2). The penis is cut along the underside, the incision reaching to the urethral canal; the organ then opens out wide. During rituals the wound is re opened to produce a flow of blood. The more sacred the ritual (as a general rule), the more bloody — and the more taboo it is to women.

In 1937 Ashley Montagu (1937:320-325) first put forward the theory that “subincision in the male was originally instituted in order to cause the male to resemble the female with respect to the occasional effusion of blood which is naturally characteristic of the female.” He admitted that the idea “must appear fantastic” but provided ample supporting evidence. According to Róheim (1945:171), subincision ritual restrictions look “like a simple inversion of the menstruating taboo, the men saying: ‘We are not allowed to see your bleeding so we shall not allow you to see ours.” The Pitjandjara call the subincision hole a “penis womb” (Róheim 1945:164). Róheim (1945:171) notes further that subincision in general produces [photopress:men_sync_fig_2.jpg,full,centered]
“a penis that is also a vagina,” adding, in agreement with earlier writers, that the bleeding men “are playing the role of menstruating women.” More recently, Berndt and Berndt (1964:145) confirmed Montagu’s original interpretation to this effect.

If the operation is so painful, why do men do it? In keeping with the view of cultural origins that informs this analysis (Knight 1986), I suggest that culture begins with a tendency toward menstrual synchrony; that this determines the symbolic language on the basis of which ritual power is expressed; and that when — in certain regions or at certain epochs — the synchrony breaks down, its formal structures are ritually preserved by men, whose tendencies toward dominance cannot now so effectively be checked. C. Berndt (1965:274) writes of menstruation as “a rite performed more or less automatically by women (although imitated artificially, in various regions, by men).” This chapter has suggested that it is the factor of synchrony that transforms the private experience of menstruation into the collective realm of “rite.” In Aboriginal Australia men’s “menstrual periods” are elaborately synchronized with each other, and there is evidence that the phasing was connected with the periodicity of the moon (Berndt and Berndt 1970:131, 133, 141; Maddock 1974:159; Warner 1957:296; compare Knight 1985, 1986). For example, Berndt and Berndt (1945:309-310) watched a male initiation rite in the Ooldea region of western south Australia, during which ten men simultaneously began puncturing their penis incisures:

The blood was sprinkled on the thighs of the men, either by holding the penis at each side and letting it drip, or by moving so that the bleeding penis flopped from side to side, or upwards and downwards, the blood touching the lower buttocks and loins.

The Berndts (1945:308 n.) note that “the actual initiation was held during the period of the new moon.”

Yolngu men, while not subincising, cut themselves to produce blood. The Wawilak myth tells of how men gained the necessary blood and dancing instructions from the Two Sisters, and this is how Warner (1957:278) presents an interpretation of the blood-letting phase of the corresponding Djungguan reenactment of the myth:

Native interpretation. — The blood that runs from an incision and with which the dancers paint themselves and their emblems is something more than a man’s blood — it is the menses of the old Wawilak women. I was told during a ceremony: “That blood we put all over those men is all the same as the bloodBut really we have been stealing that came from that old woman’s vagina. It isn’t the blood of those men any more because it has been sung over and made strong. The hole in the man’s arm isn’t that hole any more. It is all the same as the vagina of that old woman that had blood coming out of it.”

Rituals of a similar kind are a condition of male ritual potency throughout Aboriginal Australia. To acquire ritual power a youth or man has always to “die” and “be reborn,” and the symbolic language is that of pools and waterholes, wombs, blood, rainbows, and all-swallowing Mothers who are Snakes. Men not only “menstruate”; they are also the agents of their own kind’s “rebirth,” and they “give birth” by taking youths or boys into their collective “womb” — which may be a deep pit — and subsequently expelling (“regurgitating”) them. The original womb is depicted to the uninitiated as having been a monstrous, cannibalistic Mother or Snake, always thirsty for blood. This “bad dragon” — usually associated with the evils of womankind — is said, however, to have been killed and replaced with a more benevolent male-controlled symbolic substitute that does not permanently kill those it “swallows” (Hiatt 1975).

In terms of the model presented in this chapter, it seems clear that the “bad dragon” is the menstrual synchrony and power of women; the “good” one, the male substitute. Male myths justify the usurpation of women’s menstrual power by describing the female version in lurid terms as a cannibalistic monster from which humanity had to be rescued (Hiatt 1975).

Interestingly, however, these male myths are rich with ambivalence and a sense of tragedy at the loss of the original Mother/Snake. The Murinbata snake-woman Mutjingga, for example, had to be killed when she swallowed ten children alive; men cut open her belly and rescued the still-living victims, thus providing the model for contemporary male ritual rebirth (Stanner 1966:40-43). Men regard this tale as “a sorrowful story”; the Old Woman, they say, was once “truly human” and had “primal authority.” With her death a disaster of almost incomprehensible dimensions had occurred. “The loss to man,” say the Murinbata, “was irreparable.” The symbolic substitutes for her are felt to be inadequate. “Because she died,” they say, “men now have only the bull-roarer, which was made in order to take her place… stand for her and … be her emblem, symbol and sign” (Stanner 1966:43, 54, 56). The sound of the bull-roarers — heard across Australia at moments when ancestral blood is flowing — is, among the Ma:ra, explicitly thought to be the sound of the dying ogress’s blood (R. Berndt 1951:150-151).

When Mutjingga swallowed the ten children, she took them down into the waters of a river (Stanner 1966:40-43). When the Wuradjeri medicine man wishes to acquire power from the water-dwelling rainbow snake (called, in this case, Wawi) he has to paint himself in red ochre, follow a rainbow to where it enters a pool, and dive down under the surface (Elkin 1977:87).

Countless other examples could be cited. In this chapter I have suggested that all such processes of immersion in water, all such intimate encounters with a Snake or Rainbow or Mother, are male replications of the female potentiality to conjoin, through menstrual synchrony, in a blood-union transcending the boundaries of the self. The Snake, as Aboriginal paintings from the Oenpelli region of Arnhem Land make clear (fig. 10.3), is a rhythmic line, a flow inseparably associated with the body of womankind. It is a symbol of periodicity — or of “the abstract notion of cyclicity” itself (Maddock 1978b:115). An implication is that the entire structure and language of ritual potency is derived by men from the opposite sex. As Yolngu men say in reenacting the myth of the two Wawilak Sisters,

But really we have been stealing what belongs to them (the women), for it is mostly all women’s business; and since it concerns them it belongs to them. Men have nothing to do really, except copulate, it belongs to the women. All that belonging to those Wuwalak, the baby, the blood, the yelling, their dancing, all that concerns the women; but every time we have to trick them. Women can’t see what men are doing, although it really is their own business, but we can see their side. This is because all the Dreaming business came out of women — everything; only men take “picture” for that Julunggul [i.e., men make an artificial reproduction of the Snake]. In the beginning we had nothing, because men had been doing nothing; we took these things from women. (R. Berndt 1951:55)

To this Aboriginal analysis I add only that I am not suggesting that universal, or near-universal, patriarchy is caused by men’s menstrual envy, resentment, or desire to appropriate
women’s menstrual synchrony or its associated power. What I have been trying to show is that the formal structures of men’s rule in the Australian Aboriginal societies considered bear the stamp of feminine menstrual ritual.


“I will put enmity between thee and the woman,” said God to the Serpent (Genesis 3:15), “and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head and thou shalt bruise his heel.”

Blacker (1978:113) has explored “the manner in which, in many parts of the world and particularly in the Far East, this commandment of God has been ignored. We find on the contrary a close and mysterious identification between serpents and women.” Blacker is referring to the snake women of Asian folklore — creatures whose appearance is human until they are spied upon while in seclusion and discovered to be a snake. A Japanese version tells of a woman whose husband spied on her while she was giving birth. Within her parturition hut on the seashore, she had turned into a sea snake or dragon. Angry at having been discovered, she returned to the sea, leaving her baby behind. Her human sister then adopted the boy, married her “son” when he had come of age, and produced from this incestuous union the first imperial ruler of Japan (Daniels 1975:12).

Because structurally similar myths are to be found worldwide, and because they are particularly prominent in Aboriginal Australia, it is worth dwelling on their common features. The myths link (a) women in seclusion with (b) water, (c) incest, (d) snakes, and (e) the origins of ritual power or divine kingship. In Greek mythology Echidna, Delphyne, and Keto “are different names for the same monstrous snake woman or sea monster” (Fontenrose 1959:95-97). Echidna was half young woman, with bright eyes and fair cheeks, “and half snake, dwelling in the depths of the earth, eating raw meat.” She was the “sister-wife” of the monstrous multi colored winged or feathered hundred-headed snake known as Typhon, who still rumbles beneath Mount Etna (Fontenrose 1959:73-74, 95-96). Under another name she was Skylla, a woman from the waist up and a fish from the waist down, described in the Odyssey as living in a cave opposite Etna and seizing and eating sailors as they passed through the straits of Messina (Fontenrose 1959:97). The Sumerian counterpart was the snake woman Tiamat, out of whose defeated body were created earth, sky, and the world we know (Fontenrose 1959:150).

Like the Sumerian Marduk, mythological divine kings and gods the world over are said to have acquired their power through a cosmic battle with the forces of evil or helpless femininity in association with a monstrous snake. The legend of St. George and the Dragon is, of course, a variation on the theme. Womankind, according to patriarchal ideology, stands in dire need of rescue from her original connection with sin in dragonlike or snakelike form (Frazer 1911, 2:155; Fontenrose 1959:469; Ingersoll 1928:194-195). Only once the evil has been slain is the world made safe for marriage as a sacred bond. Only then is the stable world order known today secured (compare Knight 1983).

A recurrent theme, however, is that the male hero, having slain the Dragon, usurps its extraordinary potencies for himself. A Japanese version illustrates this clearly:

A man came to a house where all were weeping, to learn that the last of seven daughters was to be given to a seven-headed dragon, which yearly came to the seashore to claim a victim. The man assumed the girl’s form, and induced the dragon to drink sake from seven pots. He then slew the drunken monster. From the end of its tail he took out a sword which is today the Mikado’s state sword, and married the maiden himself. (Adapted from Ingersoll 1928:105)

Ingersoll (1928:148, 149) notes the dragon reputedly worn on the crest of King Arthur’s helmet, and the dragons used as ensigns by Roman soldiers in their wars with the Britons; he also notes the red dragon as the current emblem of the Prince of Wales. The gold mask of Tutankhamen features a snake with two heads — one birdlike, the other that of a cobra — on the ruler’s forehead (Daniel 1981: facing page 13).

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to detail the world’s royal lineages whose power is symbolized by winged snakes or “dragons.” It is worth noting, however, that the early emperors of China were born from a human woman’s copulation with a dragon. “Such a stupendous affair,” writes Schafer (1973:23), “occurred in the dawn of time when Shun’s mother conceived after a visitation by a rainbow dragon.” In China and Japan the emperor was termed “dragon-faced”; in view of the fatal consequences of seeing such a face, visitors granted an audience were suitably protected, hearing only a voice emanating from behind a bamboo screen (Ingersoll 1928:100).

“In China,” writes Schafer (1973:28), “dragon essence is woman essence.” But it should be appreciated that “the dragon” was not safe, sexually available femininity, but womankind in her ritually potent “wet” and “dangerous” phase when she was anything but “feminine.” The dragon is always ferocious and therefore in a certain sense “male.” “Masculine femininity” and “feminine masculinity” express the core of this creature’s being. It was Frazer (1900, 3:204), following hints from Durkheim (1897), who first drew attention to a seemingly incongruous parallel that illustrates this point and with which this discussion may conclude. The divine kings of much of the ancient world were subjected to taboos that included two in particular: they were not to see the sun and not to touch the ground. “Now it is remarkable,” writes Frazer (1900, 3:204), “that these two rules — not to touch the ground and not to see the sun — are observed either separately or conjointly by girls at puberty in many parts of the world.” The dragon-empowered kings were treated as if they were “menstruating men” (compare Hogbin 1970), being subjected to seclusion rules uncannily like those imposed upon menstruating women throughout most of the traditional world.


Acknowledgments. An earlier version of this chapter was presented at the World Archaeological Congress in September 1986 (Southampton, England).

Note. Readers should be aware that much of the previously published material cited by Knight in this chapter is deemed both sacred and secret by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. We republish these readily available ethnographic materials respectfully, for scholarly purposes only, and in hopes that our doing so may ultimately serve the interests of the native peoples of Australia. —Eds.

[1] This was also the case in Upper Paleolithic Europe (Leroi Gourhan 1968:40, Shimkin 1978:271; Klein 1969:226).

[2] I deal with non-Australian “dragon,” “snake,” and other serpent myths in the Coda. It seems clear that use of the term “snake” in reference to the Australian rainbow serpent is a matter of cultural conditioning (and perhaps bias). The mythological creature is a flying serpent — as easily called a “dragon,” in English, as a “snake.” For this reason I use the English “snake” and “dragon” interchangeably in the following discussion.


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