Coming of Age
(This is an accounting of a
young girl's "Coming of Age" ceremony excerpted from a letter written
by one of the participants)
Today I want to tell you about a coming of age ceremony in which I was privileged to take part. This event honored the first moontime (menstrual period) of the daughter of a close friend. If moontime teachings are familiar to you, then you will want to celebrate the fact that they have begun to spread. If they are new to you, take this accounting deep within and use it to increase your personal power and your appreciation of yourself and your feminine energy.
I will begin by explaining that I belong to a circle of women who gather from time to time to honor another sacred ritual, that of the sweat lodge ceremony, and to pursue various other aspects of native teachings, customs and understandings. As you may already know, the sweat lodge ceremony, as a ritual of purification, is an opportunity to release what you don't need, reconnect to earth energy, and strengthen your relationship with the Great Spirit. During our occasional weekend gatherings, at the home of a woman in our circle who has established a sweat lodge on her land in West Virginia, we've often found ourselves talking of issues around moontime energy. One reason this comes up is that, according to the tradition we honor, menstruating women don't go in the sweat lodge, and we must often explain this to newcomers. Years ago, upon first learning of this "restriction", many of us were puzzled and some felt angry.
But, by looking more deeply into Native tradition, to our delight we found that, far from being a form of discrimination, this rule about the sweat lodge was but a fragment of a much larger, communal honoring of menstruating women.
As we explored this further, we learned that, in ancient tribal life, all women of moontime age tended to bleed at the same time of the month, concurrent with the cycles of the moon. During this time they retreated to a moon lodge where they rested and nurtured themselves. The grandmothers prepared their food and their children, chores and responsibilities were looked after by others. This was a time for story telling and humor, for counseling and teaching the younger ones, for expression through art work and song, and for experiencing the bonds of sisterhood. Beyond all of this, and most importantly, it was a time for going within, for tapping the deepest aspects of feminine intuitive and generative power because the dreams and visions of moontime women were relied on by the whole community as a source of inspiration and prophecy. (When you contrast this wonderful and ancient tradition with the ridicule, shame and embarrassment we experience in our "civilized" culture, around this monthly event we've been taught to regard as a curse, it is small wonder we experience the phenomena of PMS.)
Over time, by reading various stories and legends, the women in my group also learned that in older times among Native Americans, and other cultures as well, it was common for the whole tribe or village to celebrate when a young girl had experienced her first moontime. One example, described in a book entitled "Daughters of Copper Women," tells of how in one village, to honor a girl's first moontime, as the community gathered together, bringing food and gifts for celebration, the grandmothers would dress the girl in the best ceremonial finery and everyone would gather at the shore of the lake. The grandmothers would then take the girl in a boat out to the middle of the lake where she would strip down to her skin and dive into the water. The grandmothers would row back to shore and wait with the rest of the tribe for her to swim back. When she reached the shore, everyone cheered and the people said, "A girl went out in a boat, and a woman swam back". The drumming, dancing and feasting went on for days.
I will never forget the force of my own feelings when I read this story. I felt happy and sad, jubilant and ripped off - all at the same time. It hurt that I hadn't known how to honor my own daughter in some way, and that no one had honored me, but it was wonderful to find out about (remember) such wonderful traditions.
When Sadie's mother and I began to plan her coming of age ceremony, we decided to hold it on a weekend date that had already been set aside for a sweat lodge ceremony. For most of our women's sweat lodge gatherings, it's typical for between 10 and 15 women to come. This time, there were 40, our largest gathering ever! Many of them had never been to a sweat lodge ceremony and didn't even know about the rite of passage we had planned.
Sadie's honoring ritual was conducted by a dozen women, many of whom had known her for a long time. The rest witnessed in silence. In a large room, which we had smudged and purified by burning sage, cedar and sweetgrass, the participants sat in a circle, lit a white candle in the center, and sang a special song to call in Spirit. As we sang, Sadie's mother brought her to the place of honor we had left open at the top of the circle and presented her to the group.
Dressed in white and wearing a garland of daisies in her hair, Sadie was a vision - an exquisite blend of innocence and emerging womanhood. As she knelt before us, her demeanor both shy and radiant, Sadie melted our hearts with the strength of her commitment. Her mother spoke first, telling of her joy and gratitude that we had come together to honor her daughter in this way. Then, sunwise around the circle, each woman in turn gave Sadie a gift, a blessing and a teaching, welcoming her into the women's circle. One woman had fashioned a dream catcher from material she gathered in the woods that morning, another had beaded Sadie a bracelet. Others gave crystals, jewelry, feathers, scented oils, smudge materials and the like, each a touching manifestation of the giver's regard for Sadie and respect for the occasion.
At one point, a cord of rope held between mother and daughter was cut, representing her withdrawal from childhood. As the eldest, I was the last to address Sadie and in so doing presented her with a scroll on which had been inscribed a special medicine name chosen for her earlier by her mother, myself and two others in our group.
While our ceremony was taking place, and as our sweet Sadie wept her thanks to each woman in turn, we experienced a phenomena beyond any of our expectations. Every woman in the room, through tears of joy and remembering, experienced an awakening and a healing. Our sacred ritual seemed to have blessed and honored each of us, and the presence of the grandmother spirits was palpable. Sadie's precious closing words were to urge everyone there to find ways to do this for other young women so that more might come into womanhood with pride, joy, honor and an awareness of the gifts and responsibilities of moontime energy. As she struggled to explain how wonderful we had made her feel, I glanced around the room at the faces of these women and knew with certainty that this was a powerful and holy moment and that we had done well.
We ended our ceremony by singing the Seneca Moon Song, and later that evening paid our respects to Sadie again by having her sit in the place of honor in the sweat lodge. Throughout the rest of the weekend, as I overheard various women making plans to conduct rites of passage for their sisters, nieces, daughters and granddaughters, and as I joined in discussions of ways to privately honor moontime energy despite the constrictions of modern society, I understood why so many had come, and gave thanks for the wisdom and magic of the ancient ones who had inspired and helped us put it all together.