The Sacred Initiation of a Young Woman

In most modern societies there is no celebration, not even acknowledgment, of a girl moving into womanhood. For the most part, young girls are given little help understanding the changes they experience as they go through this transition. Each girl’s unique, individual qualities as a beautiful young woman are certainly not publicly lauded.

The matriarchal Kuna people (or Tule as they call themselves, meaning “people”), however, who have long lived in regions of Panama and Columbia and are one of the largest indigenous groups in Central America to have retained their indigenous culture, show us a wonderful example of a much different experience.

The passage below, from Heide Goettner-Abendroth’s book “Matriarchal Societies”, describes their initiation ceremony for young women. I invite you to contrast this account with your own cultural experience. If you are a woman, put yourself in the place of the young girl in the initiation ceremony, and imagine how it would have made you feel as a young woman. Notice that the celebration is not just for family or close friends; it is enthusiastically participated in by all the men, women and children in the village.

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The most sacred Kuna Festival is “Diwe Inna,” the girls’ initiation into womanhood. For boys, there is no ceremony for the passage into adulthood, and no other Kuna ceremony has as much meaning as this one does. The Diwe Inna festival takes place one year after the puberty ceremony celebrating menarche (which used to be a purely female rite), and constitutes the girl’s initiation into adult womanhood. This is not the wedding ceremony; in fact, that ceremony—quite a simple one—comes later, and includes, among other things, the group game known as “Catch the Groom.” In contrast, the Diwe Inna ceremony is much more significant, and the entire village participates. The girl receives her woman’s name, becomes a full member of the mother clan and of the nation, and learns the matriarchal mythology that undergirds the cosmology of the Kuna.

The symbolism of the Diwe Inna ceremony is directly based on religious belief in the Great Mother Earth. The goddess is the mystery at the beginning of all of life, and the girl in the process of maturating into a young woman corresponds to her. The young woman is now physically, as well as socially, in a position to participate in the continuing creation of life, just like the goddess does; this gives her a share in the renewal of life of the clan, the community, and the world.

In a special closed room, in the presence of twelve other women including her mother, she will be initiated into the most sacred songs, sung by a “kandule,” or song healer. Here she learns that it is not the stag from the rainforest or the dolphin from the sea who brings children; rather, they come from the fusion of female and male eroticism, which is modeled on the example of Mother Earth and her Son-Lover, the sun. The song healer symbolically embodies Ibelele, the sun god, playing on his long, phallic flute. The twelve women accompany him with gourd rattles, the quintessential women’s instrument, because the gourd shape suggests a pregnant belly with its navel, or the female breast with its nipple.

Next, the life story of the young woman is recounted, beginning with her conception, in elaborate song, dance and pantomime. Her “new birth” from the goddess is celebrated, and at the high point of the days-long feast, she receives a newly woven marriage-hammock. It should be noted that at this point in her life her long, maiden’s hair has already been cut by an “iyedule”—a highly respected ceremonial priestess—at the “Disle Inna” festival held when the child is 5 or 6 years old. In this process, locks of her hair fly away like “soul birds” into the Otherworld, perhaps to let the dead know that here is a little girl who will one day grow up into woman, giving them another opportunity for rebirth through her. And even when the hair-cut does not take place until she is older, short hair and the nose ring are the signs of a married woman. Now, at the Diwe Inna, her face and hands are painted with the juice of the sabdur fruit, which is colorless at first but quickly turns black when it dries at the air. She receives her sacred, secret woman-name and is initiated into the secret knowledge of women: menstruation, fertility cycles, pregnancy and childbirth. The male song healer, at this point, is already absent, because the secret knowledge of women is taboo for men. It is connected with knowledge of women’s medicine, and is handed down exclusively from woman to woman; from mother to daughter, or from female healer to her apprentice. There is no comparable secret knowledge for men. Therefore, as the ceremony develops, it is an all women’s ceremony, of which the main role is performed by the iyedule, the priestess, in a dance symbolic of midwifery. After the completion of the spiritual “new birth” the young woman is brought out into the public festivities, and greeted by the crowd with joyful dancing.

In the meantime, the public has not been idle. Each clan is obliged, on the occasion of one of its daughters’ Diwe Inna ceremony, to feed the entire village and to get them drunk on chicha, a type of maize beer. Everything must be available in abundance, to be handed out in the large ceremonial house. Vessels for serving food and drink embody the uterus of the goddess, from whom all abundance comes; the alcoholic beverage is equivalent to her amniotic fluid, from which the spiritually newborn initiate has emerged. It is therefore considered a sacred duty for everyone to drink as much of the “water of life” as possible, in order to take part in the initiate’s rebirth out of the goddess. At the start of the festivities, the initiate will have distributed the first beverage cups, and everyone will have taken their first sip directly from her hand.

In Kuna belief, at the time of the creation of the world, the oceans were made from the amniotic fluid of Mother Earth. So at this celebration, after the first sip from the hand of the initiate, and after much subsequent drinking, dancing and tobacco-smoking to make the sacred ceremonies invisible to evil spirits, there is a great deal of bathing in the sea, in direct contact with the amniotic oceanic fluid of the earth goddess. Afterwards, the participants, dressed in new clothes, continue to dance and drink until the “longed-for child,” the initiate herself, is finally brought into the circle of the celebrating villagers at the end of her ceremony. The feast ends as it began, with dancing, exhilaration and intoxication.

In matriarchal societies, as exemplified by the Kuna, the girl’s initiation is the most important celebration, because by renewing the fertility through the young woman, hopes are fostered for the continuation of life on earth. Every female youth embodies the renewed, life-giving goddess herself. Additionally, the initiate is the embodiment of one of her female clan ancestors, reborn in her, who will now be able to carry forth the life of the clan. Matriarchal societies honor women’s fertility not only because it makes giving birth possible, but primarily because it can give rebirth; that is, it is the ability to transform death into life. It is this spiritual context that gives women their sacredness.

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How did that make you feel? What thoughts arose? Our civilization, characterized by separation, ownership and a rush to modernization and profit, has suffered many losses. It is, however, good to read passages like this with our intuition engaged, feeling into the intrinsic value of honoring the feminine. We CAN reclaim what has been lost.

Above all, this is also an honoring of sexuality, not a hiding or shaming of it. And it celebrates the essence of feminine beauty, rather than reducing beauty to body image. Interestingly, the Kuna only began wearing the bright, ornate molas through missionary influence. Originally, the beautiful designs were worn directly on their skin, sometimes covered with a simple cloth wrap.

The traditional Kuna matriarchal culture, practiced for millennia, continues today in the bush villages of mainland Panama and Columbia and on many islands. The women own the land, handle the economy and the social order is matrilineal and matrilocal.

Monogamy vs Polyamory is NOT the Issue

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There are two sides to the ‘humans are meant to be monogamous’ argument, which are passionately debated. On the con side, some say monogamy is separation, denial, ownership, possessive, limiting, compromise, ripe for conflict, selfish, etc. On the pro side, monogamy is simple, efficient, freeing, safe, enabling, secure, natural, creates paternalistic certainty, etc.

There are also two sides to the polyamory (i.e. humans are not meant to be monogamous) argument, also passionately debated. On the con side, some say polyamory is fear of commitment, indulgent, superficial, complicated, ripe for conflict, selfish, etc. On the pro side, polyamory is efficient, freeing, enabling, secure, safety in numbers, natural, creates community, etc.

The arguments have heated up as the practice of polyamory increasingly hits the mainstream. Some monogamists feel compelled to attribute polyamory as a cause of society’s breakdown. On the other hand, some polyamorists feel compelled to attribute monogamy as a reason for the breakdown of society in the first place.

Yes, the arguments regarding the pros and cons of each sexual relationship model are similar. It just depends on perspective, which is surely a recipe for circular debate.

As long as we stay distracted by labels and structures, without addressing the underlying fundamental needs and characteristics of human beings, we won’t get to the heart of the matter.

So what is the heart of the matter?

For me, the disagreement distills down to our approach to sharing; how we decide what and how we share. And how we apply what Willow and I call the “spirituality of sharing”, if we’re aware of it, to our lives.

At the core of our existence is the truth that we are all sharers, whether we acknowledge it or not. We must ‘share’ the total amount of energy available on earth—Mother Earth if you like—at any given moment, with everything else that she is comprised of. Even at the penultimate moment we call ‘death’, we share. Although our physical body dies, our ‘life energy’ does not. Energy cannot die or disappear, so we ‘share ourselves’ back into Mother Earth’s energetic system, transformed into something new. There is no decrease in energy. In the same way, a vegetable grown in our garden does not die when we eat it. The energy of the vegetable is simply shared, and transformed. Death, you could say, is an illusion. It actually represents an act of sharing.

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It is humbling to understand that if every human on earth suddenly died it wouldn’t matter to Mother Earth. Our collective human energy would still continue, and she would share it with whatever life forms evolved after us. Mother Earth, if you like, with inputs of energy from the sun, moon and stars, is an ongoing sharing system of attraction and reproduction and flow. She shares. She ‘gives’ energy to all living things, to all types of matter. She has no prejudice or favorite. How the energy ‘pie’ is split up at any given moment is not her concern. Sharing is a divine mandate for all that we call life, and indeed for all matter. This understanding is at the root of the ‘spirituality of sharing’. (Willow will blog more on this later.)

It is ironic that for all our science and technology and centuries of thought, it was the earliest tribes of humans whose lifestyle most clearly reflected an intrinsic understanding of our connection to Mother Earth and the ‘sharing’ of all things.

Part of our rise to pre-eminence as a species was the adoption of sharing principles as a way of life. There were no ‘possessions’. People shared food, and housing, and land, and lovers, and children with each other. Early matriarchal societies were modeled after Mother Earth’s constant gifting. Sharing and gifting were spiritual imperatives. Women were central to the celebration and maintenance of the spirituality of sharing.  They were viewed as having a ‘knowing’ and special alignment with Mother Earth’s gifting through birthing. And they were revered for it.

Yet somehow, over the past few millennia, we have ended up with a world economic system that is directly opposite the principle of sharing. Our exchange economy is all about possessions, and runs on the principle that for everything we get we must pay something in return. Everything has a ‘price’. This is reflected in the theology of Christianity and other ‘newer’ spiritual belief systems and in almost all of our social structures. The culture of possessiveness has, to a large degree, fueled the debate about monogamy and polyamory.

But, what if instead of focusing on frivolous arguments about labels and structures, we returned to Mother Earth’s imperative—the spirituality of sharing—and let that govern our relationships, politics and business?  

What could it mean to approach all of life with a deep, abiding desire to share without attachment? To renounce ownership? To share what we consider to be precious: money, power, home, land---yes, even our partner. What would it mean? And how would it change our world?

Now that would be a worthy dialogue.

The Bonobo Factor: Sexy Feminism

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Read the introduction to this series of posts here.

Bonobo Love Secret 02 - Feminism Can Be Very Sexy

“Sex At Dawn” co-author Christopher Ryan writes:

When females are in charge, everyone lives better (including the males). While male chimps run the show, among bonobos, it’s the females who are in charge, with much better quality of life for everyone involved (see #1 -- more sex = less conflict).

What does this mean for us?

Well, first off, it means we have things seriously backwards.

Today our world is almost completely patriarchal in nature. It wasn’t always this way. Human beings, after all, have been around for a very long time. A common number that archaeologists use for the existence of “modern humans” is about 200,000 years. By our current measurement of time, we call it 2013. Hmm... so that means we’ve been around for almost 1,000 times as long as the period from Christ’s existence to the present. Yes, we’ve been here a very long time.

In her book, “When God Was A Woman”, Merlin Stone looks beyond our 2000 years of Christianity to find lots of evidence of Goddess worship throughout pre-history. While some of her findings have been hotly debated, she shows that female divinity was recognized, worshipped and integrated into societal structures throughout pre-history.

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Ryan and Metha in “Sex At Dawn” cite work by early anthropologists, who described the lifestyles of newly discovered indigenous peoples and tribes as Europeans spread across the globe, which supports this. Many of these peoples, absent of any influence for multiple millennia, were discovered to be matriarchal in worship and social structure, fostering a peaceful, prosperous and egalitarian way of life guided by the wise intuition of the women.

In a recent conversation with a Deputy Chief of a First Nations tribe in British Columbia, Willow and I were moved to hear about their peaceful matriarchal ways that lasted until the government intervened in the middle of the last century.

Indeed, Heide Gottner-Abendroth, in her seminal work “Matriarchal Societies”, describes in detail many peaceful and prosperous matriarchal societies that still exist to present day. Ironically, they are almost completely ignored by social scientists exploring human social behavior. Her extensive work identifies the many benefits these societies enjoy with women in charge.

What is interesting is that ‘women in charge’ looks very different from ‘men in charge’. In other words, matriarchal social organization is not just patriarchy with women at the top instead of men. It takes on a completely new type of power structure that is based on collaboration, egalitarianism and prosperity for all.

While our current patriarchal societies have proven to disempower women, matriarchal societies not only empower women to utilize their nurturing wisdom, they also empower men. We hope to touch on many of the reasons why this is so in future posts.

What does this mean for us? The bonobos urge us to look more closely at matriarchal societies throughout history and begin to explore how matriarchal community living might help us shift stale male-centric social paradigms.

Read Part Four HERE

The Bonobo Factor: Intro

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“It’s humans that have the hang ups. Sex in bonobo society is a mechanism to reduce tension. Sort of like a handshake!” Quote from a Youtube video posting. Here’s a quick view of bonobo sex.

Bonobos. Have you heard of them? More and more of us have. In Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s thought-provoking book “Sex At Dawn” we read this:

“Genetically, the chimps and bonobos at the zoo are far closer to you and the other paying customers than they are to the gorillas, orangutans, monkeys, or anything else in a cage. Our DNA differs from that of chimps and bonobos by roughly 1.6 percent, making us closer to them than a dog is to a fox, a white-handed gibbon to a white-cheeked  crested gibbon, an Indian elephant to an African elephant or, for any bird-watchers who may be tuning in, a red-eyed vireo to a white-eyed vireo.”

 

Pretty amazing… and sobering at the same time. Bonobos have only been studied fairly recently. When they were first discovered they were considered a ‘sub-group’ of the chimpanzees. For a long time most scientists considered the chimpanzee hierarchical, power-focused model of ‘society’ most like humans. Ryan and Metha point out that with more study of the bonobos and early human matriarchal societies, and deeper understanding of human physiology, comes evidence that we may in fact be much more closely related to them than chimps. Their book includes this passage:

Crucially, human and bonobos, but not chimps, appear to share a specific anatomical predilection for peaceful coexistence. Both species have what’s called a repetitive microsatellite (at gene AVPRIA) important to the release of oxytocin. Sometimes called “nature’s ecstasy,” oxytocin is important in pro-social feelings like compassion, trust, generosity, love and yes, eroticism. As anthropologist and author Eric Michael Johnson explains, “It is far more parsimonious that chimpanzees lost this repetitive microsatellite than for both humans and bonobos to independently develop the same mutation.”

 

Oxytocin is worthy of a blog post on its own. Maybe several. But for me this is a significant find.

So what if we are more closely related to bonobos than chimps? What does this mean? Well, first it means a lot of resistance. Why? Because bonobos are notoriously free and open in their sexuality. Bonobos have been observed to, “engage in sex to ease tension, to stimulate sharing during meals, to reduce stress while traveling, and to reaffirm friendships during anxious reunions.”

In other words, they have sex a lot. And it is primarily female-driven, because their societal construct is matriarchal in nature. They even have sex with males from neighboring communities, or tribes, when they cross paths. Make love, not war. This does not sit well in our ‘modern’ patriarchal world, with all its embedded hierarchies, where loving sexual energy is extremely ‘narrowed’ and constrained and often becomes power exchange rather than honoring union. The paradigm shift required to embrace a “bonobo-like” human existence would be huge! But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask ourselves the question: would life be better if we embraced our bonobo-like nature?

Here’s a quick preview of that list:
1. More sex = less conflict.
2. Feminism can be very sexy.
3. Sisterhood is powerful.
4. Jealousy isn’t romantic.
5. There’s promise in promiscuity.
6. Good sex needn’t always include an orgasm, and “casual” doesn’t mean “empty” or “cheap”.
7. Sex and food go better together than love and marriage.

You can read Christopher Ryan’s original post here, or here.

Over the next few blogs posts I will reiterate Christopher Ryan’s comments about each point, and then follow with a response as to what I think that means for us, if we, indeed, embraced the ‘Bonobo Factor’.

Read Part Two HERE