Post-Hysterectomy Reflections: Not All Women Bleed by Ivy Helman

Around the age of 8, or maybe 10, I learned my aunt had had a hysterectomy.  I remember visiting her house either shortly before or after the operation.  I can’t remember which, and it doesn’t really matter.  At the time, I don’t think I even knew what a uterus was or that I too had one.  

Just like me, she had suffered from uterine fibroids. This year, at the end of May, after nearly two years of various treatments including a failed myomectomy and ineffective prescription medication, I followed in her footsteps.  It was really the only option for me, although it was not an easy decision.  After surgery, there was the usual post-op pain and restrictions, but luckily my body has been healing well.  

Since the surgery, and as I prepare to teach “Gender and Religion” again in the fall, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with a student the first time I offered the class at Charles University.  We were about to begin discussing the article, “Why Women Need a Feminist Spirituality,” by Judith G. Martin, when a student pressed me on why we weren’t acknowledging that not all women bleed.  What he really wanted was to make sure that in our category of women, we were including transwomen.   Continue reading “Post-Hysterectomy Reflections: Not All Women Bleed by Ivy Helman”

(Not Yet) Elder Reflections by Chris Ash

Four years ago, as I went to touch up my roots with a shade of red I’d been dying my hair since I was 18, I noticed that what had started as a few random strands of gray amidst my natural reddish brown had become streaks of brilliant silver. I began dying my hair red as a style choice, long before I’d ever even thought of going gray. I loved the way my natural hair reddened in the summers, with copper highlights flashing under the beach sunsets. There was never an intention to hide gray or look younger, but there was a time in my thirties when the first few strands of gray seemed to make my darker roots look muddy, like they were dirty instead of graying.

But brilliant streaks of silver? This, I could do. I switched from my usual permanent henna dye to a temporary red to keep my roots touched up while the henna’d hair grew out, and waited. Three years later, all the permanently red hair had grown out, and I was ready to have fun. I went to the stylist, had him bleach out the parts I’d been dying red, and had him color it all with a wild ombre of colors that would look good with silver. My hair was a darkened nebula, silver roots reaching down into four different shades of purples of blues. After each new dye – a brilliant nebula, each time fading over a few months into a soft mix of gray-blues and silver. Even at the end of the fade-out, people still ask me if I just had my hair colored. Every week, the color seems a new shade.

Currently, I’m at the end of a fade out. Honestly, I probably would have colored it a few weeks ago if I weren’t so busy, but at this point my hair is mostly gray with some slight bluish highlights.

And twice in the last week – TWICE! – I’ve been offered the senior discount by well-meaning cashiers.

At 42. Continue reading “(Not Yet) Elder Reflections by Chris Ash”


Carol Eftalou - Michael HonnegerThough often asked, this is the wrong question.  Every statement about the “essential” or “central” teaching of any religion is based on a prior interpretation rooted in a particular standpoint. Thus, the idea that there is a “central” or “essential” core in any religion is not a matter of fact, but rather a matter of interpretation.

In discussions of religions, we often make global statements about our own and other religious traditions, such as: “Christianity is patriarchal to its core,” or alternatively, “The core teaching of Christianity is to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.” Or: “The true Islam teaches that God is love,” or alternatively, “Islam always teaches the subordination of women.”

These sorts of claims are made from time to time here on Feminism and Religion too. Every global statement that a particular religion “is” or “ is not” oppressive, calls someone to assert the opposite in the comments. I believe that statements about the “true” nature of any religion should should always be qualified. Continue reading “DO RELIGIONS HAVE AN “ESSENTIAL” “CENTRAL” CORE THAT IS–OR IS NOT–SEXIST? by Carol P. Christ”

Twelfth Night: Men’s Dance Rituals in Northern Greece by Laura Shannon

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The twelve days between Christmas and the New Year are still held to be holy days in Greece, a mystical and dangerous time when mischievous spirits emerge from the underworld, seeking to wreak havoc in the human realm. On the 6th of January, Theophania or Twelfth Night, masked men in goatskins and sheepbells dance through the streets to dispel these spirits, awaken the fertility of the earth, and ensure a good year. The name Theophania, literally ‘the appearance of god’, here refers to the return of the sun after the winter solstice, and fire and light are very important to this holiday.

The rituals I describe here come from six tiny villages in the region of Drama, just south of the Rhodope Mountains, close to the border between northern Greece and Bulgaria. Similar rituals featuring masked, bell-wearing men appear all through the Balkans and Central Europe as far as the Swiss Alps. They will dance through the village streets, in the cemetery, and in front of every house, in a ritual of blessing and catharsis which has roots in age-old worship of Dionysus, god of fertility and wine.

For me, who came to Greece to study women’s traditional songs, dances and costumes, it makes a refreshing change to observe ritual customs almost exclusively performed by men. These activities take place in winter, either at Theophania or during Carnival, in contrast to spring and summer rituals which are chiefly in the hands of the women.  However, as we shall see, in order for men to assume ritual abilities and responsibilities normally ascribed to women, some of the men must dress in women’s clothes.

Here I would like to mention Carol Christ’s recent analysis of essentialism in feminist theory in her excellent post of September 15. In Carol’s words, the essentialist view holds that the “‘essential qualities’ of a thing (a table, a horse, a woman, or a man) precede the ‘existence’ of any individual in the group to which it belongs; these qualities are universally—always and everywhere—expressed by members of the group.”

Carol and I both live in Greece, where, as in many other parts of the world, tradition assigns quite different tasks and attributes to men and to women. Without reawakening the essentialist discussion here, I would just like to say that modern-day feminists do not have to agree on whether women and men are essentially or inevitably different; however, in order to understand Balkan culture, we do need to realise that people here believe in these differences and have done since ancient times.

Angelos Keras, the Archigos (leader) of the Arapides in Monastiraki (photo: Spyros Taramigos)
Angelos Keras, the Archigos of the Arapides in Monastiraki

Back in Drama, in the village of Monastiraki, preparations have been underway for days. The night before the big event, a designated house – half-ruined, but still with a roof intact – slowly fills with the joy of friends and acquaintances greeting one another. Red wine flows, and traditional goat soup is served free to all. A fire has been kept burning here continuously throughout the twelve nights of Christmas, producing sacred ash with healing and protective powers. Musicians play through the night, producing archaic sounds on the Macedonian bowed lyra or kemene, accompanied by large goatskin tambourines called daheres. These are the only instruments. The overall effect is all the more hypnotic as the musicians play in absolute unison; even the singing is monophonic, in a musical structure intended to emphasise old values of community and coherence.

Meanwhile, people dance the same few dances over and over. As on all ritual occasions, the repetition of familiar simple step patterns frees the dancers to focus on the inner work of igniting their own good mood and raising good energy (kefi) to bless the community.

After dancing and drinking all night, the male celebrants help each other dress in the early hours of dawn. They are truly fearsome in shaggy dark skins, tall conical masks, and wide leather belts from which swing three pairs of heavy double bells. One of their names, koudonofori, means bell wearers; they are also called Arapides, the Black Ones or Moors.

Looking behind the apparent racism of the terminology, these ritual dancers blacken their skin with burnt cork both to invoke the power and protection of the sacred fire, and also in order to enter the realm of darkness. Here, the dark is seen as the repository of the earth’s fertile powers, which their bells and dances aim to awaken, as well as the realm of things ‘not seen’ , such as the spirits known as kallikantzari, which pose a threat to the new light and the new year. They themselves must go unseen, in masks and disguises, to enter this realm.

'Arapides', masked ritual dancers at Theophania (January 6) in Monastiraki (photo: Lenka Harmon)
‘Arapides’, masked ritual dancers at Theophania in Monastiraki

Brandishing long wooden swords, this group – known as a tseta – appears fully capable of driving out any number of kallikantzari. The phallic swords and headdresses leave one in no doubt that the Theophania rituals are men’s rituals, yet the ability to give new life, to enter the realms of the dead, and to bestow the blessing of fertility are essentially women’s powers. To claim these powers, some of the men must dress as women, as Dionysian revellers have done since ancient times. These are theGilinges, or Brides. 

Pappoudes ('Grandfathers') with lozenge-shaped beaded amulets, and Gilinges ('Brides') in Ksiropotamos (photo: Lenka Harmon)
Pappoudes (‘Grandfathers’) with lozenge-shaped beaded amulets, and Gilinges (‘Brides’) in Ksiropotamos

Wearing women’s clothing may be a means for men to temporarily gain access to the realms of life and death, where normally only women may go, or to symbolically give birth to the life-affirming fertility and joy which bring renewal at this dark and hungry time of the year. (Men wearing women’s clothing for ritual purposes are depicted in archaeological finds dating back to the 5th C. BCE; I think we see it today in the ecclesiastical robes worn by Christian priests.) In an additional affirmation of what is seen as women’s power, the Brides’ costume is rich in goddess embroideries, while all the members of the party wear beaded amulets in the lozenge-shaped symbol of female fertility going back to Neolithic times. Goddess symbols are also stamped on many of the bells.

As well as the Arapides and the Brides, the tseta includes Pappoudes or Grandfathers in Thracian men’s traditional dress, and Evzones or Tsoliades wearing short white pleated foustanella kilts and thetsevres, a special garment made of twelve large white kerchiefs sewn into a triangle densely fringed with beads, sequins and coloured threads, which takes four months to prepare.

Musicians and 'Tsoliades' ritual dancers in Monastiraki (photo: Lenka Harmon)
Musicians and ‘Tsoliades’ ritual dancers in Monastiraki

There is also an occasionally appearing Bear, who some say represents ancient worship of the Goddess Artemis.

As they journey together through the village, the bell-wearers leap and stamp, swinging their bells back and forth in an apotropaic din – this will indeed awaken the earth! – almost drowning out the eerie sound of the lyras and daïres. The Evzones dance with athletic half-turns which send their short kilts sailing up to their waist, emphasising (so I am assured) the fertile power of the male generative organs, without revealing the organs themselves.  At every house the entire tseta is rewarded with abundant food and drink, in the living tradition of sacred hospitality which is the most powerful blessing of all.

Hospitality to strangers in Ksiropotamos (photo: Lenka Harmon)
Hospitality to strangers in Ksiropotamos

By three o’clock, the whole village gathers at the plateia to dance. Hundreds of people spiral into a single circle with one leader, keeping the large centre open as a sacred space for the tseta to enact ancient rituals of death and resurrection, plowing and planting, and the hieros gamos or sacred wedding. The dancing goes on until dusk and then continues at a taverna through a second consecutive night.

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Everyone joins in the great circle dance in the plateia of Monastiraki

Each village has its own variation of the Theophania rituals. In some places, children and women also participate: in Ksiropotamos young girls dance in traditional costume, while in Petrousa, all the dahereplayers are teenage girls. Some traditionalists view this change with unease, but I must confess my pleasure at seeing thirteen young women lined up like priestesses of Cybele from the time when the drummers were women. Here too, people dance at crossroads, springs, sacred trees and finally around an enormous bonfire.

Cauldrons at the crossroads in Ksiropotamos (photo: Laura Shannon)
Cauldrons at the crossroads in Ksiropotamos

Fire is important in all the Theophania rituals, and cauldrons on open fires are a key part of the festivities. This is another symbol of women’s power adopted on this occasion by men – traditionally, women cooked in pots; men roasted meat over an open fire. In Petrousa, the Dance of the Cooks can still be seen. Although it is no longer danced around the cauldrons themselves, the symmetrical step pattern still focuses the energy or ‘fire’ of the dancers in a particular way.

It seems to me that these fire-focused rituals hint at the unnamed presence of the Goddess Hestia, whose domain is centred on the hearth, source of light, warmth, food and all that is beneficial to the home. The nikokira, the lady of the house, was seen since ancient times as Hestia’s priestess. Her role is to tend the sacred fire through practical and ritual work and to literally focus its brilliance (estiazo, fromHestia, means ‘to focus’) so that it may bless the household and all its inhabitants. In ritual activities such as the Theophania, through the mediation of men dressed as women, this focused fire can be brought once a year from the private space of the home – the realm of the women – into the public space of the village, the realm of the men.  This union of men’s and women’s fertile powers is the hieros gamos, the holy spark of blessing which ensures health, wealth, happiness and abundance for all in the coming year.

Nikos Papadimitriou, an Arapis in Ksiropotamos (photo: Lenka Harmon)
Nikos Papadimitriou, an Arapis in Ksiropotamos

Continue reading “Twelfth Night: Men’s Dance Rituals in Northern Greece by Laura Shannon”

Reciprocity, Empathy, and Reconciliation: The Roots of Human Morality in Our Primate Ancestors by Carol P. Christ

carol mitzi sarahA link to a talk called “Moral Behavior in Animals” by Franz de Waal recently found its way into my email inbox. I am a big fan of Franz de Waal because his findings confirm what I always believed—that animals are intelligent. I followed the link and other suggested links and spent most of the evening listening to de Waal.

De Waal began his studies of animal behavior at a time when instinctual behaviorism was academic orthodoxy: the idea that animals can think and feel was “poo-pooed” by “scientists.” As de Waal observed ironically, everyone who has a pet knows better than that. But academic researchers continued down this path, expressing contempt for ordinary people who thought their pets were intelligent and the likes of de Waal who suggested that scientists might be colossally wrong.

De Waal’s discovery that chimps almost always “reconcile” after fights by touching hands, hugging each other, grooming, and even kissing, led him down “the garden path” to his discovery that what he calls the “two pillars of morality”—“reciprocity and empathy”– are found in primate social systems and in those of other higher mammals including dolphins and elephants . Continue reading “Reciprocity, Empathy, and Reconciliation: The Roots of Human Morality in Our Primate Ancestors by Carol P. Christ”

Essentialism Reconsidered by Carol P. Christ

carol mitzi sarahIn my Ecofeminism class we have been discussing essentialism because some feminists have alleged that other feminists, particularly ecofeminists and Goddess feminists, are “essentialists.” They argue that essentialist views reinforce traditional stereotypes including those that designate men as rational and women as emotional. I too find essentialism problematic, but I do not agree that Goddess feminism and ecofeminism are intrinsically essentialist.

Goddess feminists and ecofeminists criticize classical dualism: the traditions of  thinking that value reason over emotion and feeling, male over female, man over nature. We argued that the western rational tradition sowed the seeds of the environmental crisis when it separated “man” from “nature.”

Goddess feminists and ecofeminists affirm the connections between women and nature in an environmental worldview that acknowledges the interconnection of all beings in the web of life.

This view has been criticized as essentialist. Is it? Continue reading “Essentialism Reconsidered by Carol P. Christ”


carol-christThe charge of “essentialism” has become equivalent to the “kiss of death” in recent feminist discussions. In this context it is taboo to speak of Mother Earth.  Yet, I would argue there are good reasons for speaking of Mother Earth that do not add up to essentialism. What if the values associated with motherhood are viewed as the highest values? What if the image of Mother Earth encourages all of us to recognize the gift of life and to share the gifts we have been given with others?

For those not familiar with the “essentialism” debate in feminist theory, it might be useful to define “essentialism.”  In philosophy, essentialism is the idea that every “thing” has an “essence” which defines it.  In its pure form, essentialism is a by-product of Platonic “idealism” which states, for example, that the “idea” of table is prior to every actual table and that every actual table is an embodiment of the idea of table.

Aristotle disagreed with the Platonic view “way back then,” arguing that the idea of what a table is can be inferred from actual tables, and so on for every “thing.”  There is no need for an idea to exist prior to the existence of anything. Rather ideas help us to name and categorize existing things.  In the 20th century “existentialism” again challenged “essentialism,” asserting that “existence precedes essence.”  Existentialism argued that free individuals are defined by what they do, not by what they “are” prior to or apart from their actions.

When Whitehead said that all western philosophy can be understood as a footnote to Plato, he was referring in part to disagreements among philosophers about the relationship of ideas to things and existence to essence.

In the context of feminist theory, the charge of “essentialism” is used to criticize theories which speak of woman as opposed to man or feminine as opposed to masculine. Continue reading “IS IT ESSENTIALIST TO SPEAK OF EARTH AS OUR MOTHER? by Carol P. Christ”

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