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Synopsis of Layne Redmond's When the Drummers Were Women - a spiritual history of rhythm

I highly recommend this book to all women - and men - who are interested in the spiritual aspect of drumming.
ISBN 0-609-80128-7 Published by Three Rivers Press / Random House 1997

It seems that women are rediscovering an important and long-lost spiritual connection with drumming. Women must intuitively sense that drumming was in ancient times a very important activity for women - it was the focus of their spiritual power. And perhaps we also sense that, in ancient times, and for thousands of years, women were the custodians of spiritual life.


Due to technological advances in the field of archaeology as well as extensive excavations over the last 25 years, much more information about our ancient past and evidence of goddess-based cultures has come to light. Our knowledge of prehistory and ancient history is being radically reassessed and reinterpreted in the light of these new findings.

In the Paleolithic Age (500 000 – 10 000 BC), European and western Asian cultures all worshipped various forms of a Divine Mother (e.g. Isis, Aphrodite, Cybele, Demeter, Artemis, Persephone). She is not just a female equivalent of the fixed Judeo-Christian idea of “God”, but more an archetype, or symbol, of the eternal female, with many layers of meaning, and appearing in many different forms. In her most ancient form, she’s embodied in the archetype of the Great Mother, who created her children and nourished them on the fluids of her body. For thousands of years, this nurturing Divine Feminine was the most significant representation of divinity.

People saw themselves as very much a part of the earth. The earth was seen as a manifestation of the Great Mother. And because new life came from women’s bodies as it did from the earth, women were seen as the human embodiment of the divine.

An understanding of the rhythms of nature was essential for the survival of communities. They had to be able to predict cyclical patterns – e.g. tides, seasons, animal migration patterns – and this gave rise to the earliest timekeeping systems. Because of the correspondence between the menstrual and the lunar cycle, women would have been particularly in tune with the rhythms of nature. The first timekeepers were probably women.


Sacred drumming probably began as an echo of the human pulse. The first rhythm we are exposed to is the pulse of our mother’s blood – even before our ears have developed. Our bodies developed in response to the rhythms of her body. Before conception, we began in part as an egg in our mother’s ovary. This egg was formed when she was a four-month-old foetus in her mother’s womb – i.e. we existed for five months also in the womb of our grandmother. This means that a part of us vibrated to the rhythms of our mother’s blood even before she herself was born. And this thread of rhythm runs back past our grandmother, and all the way back to the beginning of time.

In ancient cultures, rhythm was seen as the sacred and structuring force of life. Drumming played a very important role in religious rites. Priestesses would beat sacred frame drums to express the process of creation. The drum would summon the goddess, and it was also the instrument through which she spoke. So the drumming priestess was the intermediary between divine and human realms. By aligning herself with sacred rhythms, she would invoke divine energy and transmit it to the community. These rhythms would connect the individual with the rhythms of the community, the environment and the cosmos.


Drumming was very much a part of everyday life (as it still is in many indigenous cultures), and it was used in many different rituals for many different reasons. For example, one of its uses was to drive away evil spirits and purify spaces.

But one of the most important uses of the drum was in rituals which involved the archetypal pattern of death and rebirth. The drum helped to release the old and invoke the new. In funeral rites, the drumbeat guided the dead through the realms of the afterlife and was believed to hasten their rebirth [see picture]. And in the cycles of nature: the vibrational force of the drumbeat woke the sleeping life within the earth. Drummers played over freshly sown seeds to quicken their ripening. It was also used in menstruation and childbirth – certain rhythms caused the womb to contract, aiding menstrual flow or facilitating labour.

Around 2000 BC, a drumming ritual was performed every new moon, in order to resurrect the moon, as well as facilitate the flow of menstrual bleeding (which happened at the same time). Since the Paleolithic, menstrual blood had been considered a powerful magical substance for invoking resurrection or rebirth. It was believed that the concentrated bleeding and drumming of the priestesses had the power to draw the moon back, and simultaneously make the earth fertile.


As it waxes and wanes, it exerts real physical influence on the earth and its inhabitants through the tides and female menstrual cycles. It is the oldest symbol of rhythm and the oldest way of marking time. This is why in many traditions, the moon is represented as a goddess playing on her moon-shaped frame drum, marking and creating the rhythms of life.

Venus of Laussel (25 000 – 20 000 BC) [see picture]: guards the entrance to a cave in southern France – the oldest known image that associates a goddess with a moon symbol. She’s holding a bison’s horn in her right hand – a very ancient symbol of the new moon, as well as one of the oldest known musical instruments, used to invoke the power of the deity. The horn has 13 incisions, representing the 13 days from new moon to full moon, as well as the number of lunar months and menstrual cycles in a year. Her left hand rests on her womb – indicating that she’s aware of this connection.


About 5000 years ago, the peaceful goddess-based cultures were destroyed by invaders, who, quite brutally, imposed their patriarchal system on the tribes they conquered. It was a social system based on male domination and an authoritarian and hierarchical social structure. Wealth was acquired by conquering others, rather than by developing methods of production. The symbols of the goddesses were gradually demonized and given evil connotations.

Later, with the fall of the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity, the Divine Feminine was eradicated altogether. The early Roman church fathers insisted on the exclusive worship of one male God. This has had vast implications for how we see ourselves: divinity becomes exclusively masculine, so we stop seeing the feminine as being divine. Suppression of the goddess meant the suppression of women, as well as the suppression of the feminine (in both men and women). The church obviously recognized the connection between women's spiritual power and drumming. In the 6th Century, Pope John III banned the sacred frame drum. Even professional musicians were not allowed to be baptized. By banning sacred drumming, the patriarchal religions cut off our access to significant parts of our psyches.


The banning of sacred drumming had huge implications, and was also very symbolic in that, literally, our society fell "out of rhythm" with nature. The order of the Universe is rhythmic, and we all have a psychic and physiological need to be in sync with the earth’s cycles. In ancient cultures, the tempo of human life was synchronized with the rhythms of the earth. The priestess’s frame drum expressed the rhythms of the cosmos, and helped people to connect with it. People understood that rhythm was a part of life, and that women’s bodies were intimately linked to these rhythms.

Another symbolic change was the scrapping of the lunar calendar. The earliest time-keeping systems were based on the lunar and menstrual cycle. The first to change the lunar calendar were the Sumerians, in 2500 BC – in order to regulate tax collection. (Problems with the lunar cycle: the length is not constant; and time of the new moon varies according to location.) Later, the Romans imposed the Julian calendar that we still use today in the Western world.

In addition to this, our modern Western culture is very much technology-driven, which has resulted in a lot of artificial rhythms. Artificial light creates artificial cycles of day and night; the stresses of life cause high blood pressure in our bodies, and we don't breathe properly. We're also constantly bombarded with all sorts of artificial rhythms and waves from e.g. cell phones, TV's, radiowaves, etc.

Another implication of living in a technological culture is that the rhythms we are exposed to are much faster than natural rhythms. Even if we can't consciously detect the sound of air conditioners or the microsecond ticks of computer chips, we are affected anyway on a cellular level. The body tries to remain in harmony with its environment, and we wonder why we're suffering from stress, and driven to the point of panic.


The banning of women’s drumming from religious life was central to the disempowerment of women in Western culture. We lost an important part of ourselves.

Connecting with your own sense of rhythm is one of the oldest forms of healing and self-integration. Drumming can be a very empowering experience for women. Drumming is a powerful tool for reconnecting with the rhythms of nature, our bodies, and our inner selves. So by drumming together, we can start to recover and reintegrate those parts of ourselves that have been lost.

Drumming helps us to reconnect with and celebrate the divine feminine in all of us. It literally invokes divine energy and helps us to connect with it. We can learn once again to recognize ourselves as reflections of the divine, and to reclaim our ancient role as transmitters of the sacred. And in so doing, we can restore the values associated with the divine feminine – compassion, healing, nurturing and nourishing, and respecting life in all its forms. We can live in greater harmony with the natural world. And by healing and transforming ourselves, we also heal and transform our society.

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