Story by: Claire Floody | Illustration by: Beenish Shahab
At the base of a giant tree where an altar sits in Uvita, Costa Rica, Clarity Barton buries her menstrual blood as an offering to the earth. It’s February 2016 and it’s the first time she’s ever participated in a red tent ceremony, but the impact is lasting.
“Everyone cried,” she says. “Everyone. It was one of the most grounding practices that I’ve ever experienced.”
Barton was travelling in Costa Rica with her sister for a festival when she discovered the red tent and the women leading the ritual.
Most people have heard of the red tent ceremony from the 1997 novel The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. The novel is a biblical retelling of The Rape of Dinah, but this time from Dinah’s perspective instead of her brothers’. In the story, women come together in a menstrual hut (also known as a red tent) and share secret stories, wisdom and initiations amongst themselves.
The book didn’t become popular until 2001 when it became a New York Times bestseller after word-of-mouth support. It’s now published in more than 25 countries.
Although, it’s classified as historical fiction and Diament says on her website that there’s no evidence the women in the Bible ever used a red tent — the idea of a separate women’s space or menstrual hut is a real thing. They are a common feature in pre-modern cultures around the world from native Americans to Africans, she explains.
And now red tent ceremonies are a global phenomenon. The Telegraph covered the movement in February 2016 in a piece called Why women are gathering in ‘Red Tents’ across the UK. It highlights the Red Tent Directory, an online database of active red tent gatherings across Europe. A quick Google search reveals many other red tent websites targeted at different regions, including one for Ontario specifically.
The article also points out that although menstrual huts may have historically been used to isolate and restrict women, modern-day red tents embody the exact opposite. They are meant to be open, supportive and empowering spaces.
In Barton’s words, they’re a gathering of women for women where a range of activities and practices can take place.
“It’s very much whatever is needed in the moment. Whatever comes from presence and togetherness amongst women,” she says. Sometimes that can look like singing together, sharing stories and insight, processing emotions or — blood rituals, Barton says.
In the Costa Rican tropics, the ceremony began with a long discussion followed by each woman burying her menstrual blood in the ground, while everyone around her prayed. It was a five-hour-long process shared with both men and women, Barton says.
Those who didn’t have their own blood to offer, held space for those who did. Because these ceremonies are focused on being in the present, constructs like time are not as important as the process itself. Every ceremony varies depending on who is facilitating it. And they aren’t exclusive to women, rather Barton describes them as open and accepting spaces.
“It is inclusive to men and to non-binary people, children, pets, whatever. Whoever needs to be present,” she says.
“It was tremendously healing to have the men present and they expressed themselves mostly as supporters and space-holders for women to do this work.”
The ritual usually takes place in sync with the new moon, Barton says — which occurs roughly once a month. A new moon exists when the sun and moon are aligned, with the earth and sun on either side of the moon. Barton says it’s a time of introspection, to process and reflect on the emotions that come.
Barton identifies as a High Priestess and has studied and taught tantra and yoga, as well as leading women’s empowerment circles since September 2015. She says she connects to Wicca, as well as Shamanism, but the energy she embodies is universal.
“It’s an energy that we can all embody in a way,” she says.
Ever since her first red tent ceremony, Barton has kept up the practice. Every month for almost the past three years, she has given some of her menstrual blood back to the earth.
And the following August after her first ceremony in Costa Rica, she began leading other women through the ritual herself, sometimes in backyards or in parks across Toronto and at women’s retreats and festivals throughout Ontario.
The use of blood in magic isn’t new. Blood has played a significant role in traditional folk magic all over the world for centuries, says Sabina Magliocco, a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia. She is a folklorist and anthropologist who has studied new religious movements, such as modern Paganism and witchcraft for 25 years.
“A long time ago, even before we had scientific medical knowledge about blood, human beings understood that it was vital to life. And that if a person lost too much blood, they could die. So blood was seen universally as a symbol of life. The essence of life.”
Menstrual blood in particular is known for containing a special power of its own, she says.
“Women bleed once a month, but we don’t die, right? If an animal or a man bled once a month for five days, well that wouldn’t go so well. But women can do this and survive. So, menstrual blood becomes something that is imbued with both awe and power.”
Magliocco says the use of blood in traditional magic has a more “unsavory” reputation compared to it’s use in present-day witchcraft. She recalled spells and rituals she heard about while doing field work in small Mediterranean villages. She said she heard stories of women slipping their menstrual blood into men’s food, so they would fall madly in love with them. But she only ever heard whispers of this and never saw actual proof of its existence.
This would never be the case in modern-day witchcraft, she explains. Consent is an integral aspect of Wicca and she says that many present-day Wiccans don’t believe in coercive magic. Most rituals involving blood nowadays tend to be offerings like the red tent ceremonies, but these aren’t exclusive to Wiccans. Instead, she says they are more characteristic of modern Pagan and New Age traditions.
Nicole Cooper, a High Priestess who also identifies as a Witch, reinforced the importance of consent when practicing blood magic. And she quickly dismissed stereotypes like animal sacrifice or using the blood of an innocent, which she says have no place in Wicca.
Cooper is with the Wiccan Church of Canada and has been practicing the religion for more than 25 years. She also runs her own business called Madame Phoenix, creating all natural supplies for rituals, spells or various lifestyles. When she’s not in her workshop, she spends a couple of days a week working at the Occult Shop in Toronto. She says in Wicca you would never use the blood of someone without their permission.
“I feel that your own blood is the only blood that you have the freedom to use in magic and ritual. It can be used to make an immediate and direct link from you to something else.”
If a person is using their own blood in a ritual, no one else has to participate. Everyone has a choice, Cooper says.
Although blood’s held power in magic for a long time, menstrual blood or menstruation hasn’t always been viewed this way. There was a time, because of Christianity’s influence on western cultures, when a woman was considered impure during her cycle, Magliocco says. Some pre-Christian cultures also viewed menstrual blood as polluted.
Many of these rituals involving menstrual blood, like the red tent ceremonies, were created by modern-day Wiccans who wanted to reclaim the power of their period.
“Both the earth and women give birth. So, for a lot of women, these rituals are very powerful ways of reclaiming their generative power and making peace with themselves as women,” Magliocco says.
For Clarity Barton, it’s a practice that has seeped into every aspect of her life.
“It’s a deeper calling that has completely changed me. From the way that I carry myself in the world and the way that I experience reality, to the way that I look at the world.”