When I posted “On approaching polytheism as a system,” I promised that I would start with a post on menstruation. This is that post, and its structure is as follows:
- Some term definitions and history
- Source materials and process
- Comparative praxis
- A look at the source materials
- Positional statement
Note: Since posting this, I’ve found some legit real information that isn’t a dead end into mid-20th century European scholars mis-citing people! There are some pieces of evidence in temple prohibitions, and I hope to get into that in a longer correction in the future. – Kaye, 31 July 2019
Note 2: I have written the follow-up. You can read it here. – Kaye, 4 April 2021
Definitions and History
Menstruation impacts more than just cis women, so I’m going to write out some vocabulary definitions.
- The term menstruant has been used in some of the source materials I’m working from to describe someone actively menstruating. I’m going to call anyone who menstruates during a period of ler life a menstruant. That should make what I’m talking about more gender-inclusive.
- Because I’m displacing a term, I’ll use menstruating person or active menstruant to refer to someone actively on ler period.
Words like female and male have been picked up by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) to make statements about gender. (BTW, as a cisgender woman, I actually never want to be called female as a noun outside of a gynecological context. It feels objectifying, as if people are talking about animals in a wildlife documentary.) I will instead use assigned female at birth (AFAB) and assigned male at birth (AMAB), two conventions that try to get around the transphobic ways in which female and male are used in English.
Synchronistically, I had an opportunity to use some of the research I’ve compiled earlier this year in a conversation on the Hellenion forums; this post will integrate some of what I wrote there, so if you are in Hellenion, see some text, and think, “Hey, wait, this looks familiar …” — it probably is.
It may also be familiar for another reason. In 2008, I wrote a post about menstruation and miasma. It was one of the first posts on my old blog. This evolved into a set of Internet arguments that lasted for years and which are the reason Timothy J. Alexander labeled me a feminist trying to destroy Hellenism from the inside.
After that blog ended, I stopped saying much about menstruation. While I have noticed every time someone has offhandedly described how icky and terrifying menstruation “must have been” to ancient peoples instead of actually showing me the meat (citations), serial comments on others’ blogs to dispute that are not a very prosocial way of confronting this widespread problem, nor do they provide good SEO so Hellenists googling menstruation in [Hellenism, Hellenic Polytheism, Hellenismos, &c.] can see a counterpoint.
I was also biding my time, just as bulbs must be planted far in advance of when they sprout and send their fingerlike green shoots up from the Earth.
My dearest parasocial friends, my germination period was a slow-moving buying spree. Whenever I see an inexpensive copy of a book about women in Ancient Greek religions appear on Alibris, I add it to my shopping cart and buy it.
It would be hypocritical for me to pontificate about why menstruation is not miasmic without citations. This was the main flaw in my argument from over a decade ago — both I and my interlocutors were citing things about miasma and then talking about our feelings.
Citations are not feelings. They are source materials that serve as a foundation for an argument that admittedly does involve feelings and subjectivity. Conversely, we should not rely too much on them — there’s a sweet spot to how useful they are for modern practice.
Here is a quick list of books:
- Greek Religion, Walter Burkert
- Women in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook, Bonnie MacLachlan
- Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation, Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant
- Women in Hellenistic Egypt, Sarah B. Pomeroy
- Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook, ed. Ross Shepard Kraemer
- Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, Sarah B. Pomeroy
- Aphrodite’s Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
The one flaw is that, as a non-Greek-speaker, I am likely missing some important citations that are in Greek-only published works or things that I cannot access. There is also apparently a lot of literature in German. This is why I have held off posting a new menstruation is not miasmic argument — the uncertainty that there is something that I just don’t know because I don’t know a language.
So I procrastinated.
However, the conversation on the Hellenion forums woke me up to just how many people online are assuming menstruation is miasmic without questioning why they think that and where it comes from.
Even if this post is provisional, if I don’t say something, it will not be said.
While looking through the above books, it’s important to note that I also used Google Books heavily — indices are nice, but as I broadened my search —— note the Hellenistic Egypt there —— it became clear that I had to supplement my work by using everything I could. Google Books and the HathiTrust Snippet View are indispensable for this.
The only book I found that included a mention of religious prohibitions surrounding menstruation was one that noted that in the Isis Worship Movement, the ritual prohibition was carried over from Kemetism.
That book is not in the list above because I saw this mention in passing while testing out an ebook database at work months ago and apparently did not write it down or leave myself a note. (Whenever we get something new, I play around in it; this can include things like doing canned searches based on the disciplinary coverage in order to check things like whether or not the chapter-level DOIs have been assigned, how easy it is to get it into a citation management tool, and whether the database contains materials that are relevant to the disciplines I liaise to or to the first and second year undergraduates who have me as their contact librarian. I once had to use news archives databases to answer a reference question from a paleontologist, so I try to be prepared for these questions in advance.)
One of the reasons this topic can be so difficult is that practices surrounding menstruation vary across cultures. There’s colonialist baggage, too, and a rampant capitalist valuation process that can muddy the waters whenever someone talks about this.
When my mother handed me my first pad, she apologized that there wasn’t a celebration and said something about Native American tribes, menstrual sacredness, and secluded spaces where active menstruants could just be alone. (I’ve summarized this in a single sentence, but my mother pontificated. She was an archaeology/anthropology major in undergrad and left the field for library science, but her field work involved a lot of research on Native American, and specifically Haudenosaunee, societies.) This was the #longread version of what many white women say about Native American nations’ religions and the social place of womanhood. In reality, womanhood and patriarchy in any culture are extremely complicated issues. In the Northeast Americas, there are ritual purity reasons why active menstruants were secluded, and the religious and cultural rituals were there in response to that.
Synchronistically, I was pleasantly surprised when reading something I found on a site called India Facts — someone on Twitter shared something about menstruation in Hinduism in a book someone writing for India Facts had published, and I decided to see if there was something on his blog that preceded it because I was curious. He had published a series of posts [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6] that evaluated menstruation from a variety of South Asian religious and cultural perspectives. To prepare to read offensive things, I remind myself of my core values, prepare my best resting bitch face, and dig in. My pleasant surprise refers to the fact that it wasn’t like what I assumed at all — it was, with a few cultural differences, the exact same set of practices that western white women laud when moralizing about Native American spirituality. (I’d want to see a few more sources before claiming I truly know anything, though, because one of the worst cognitive fallacies of the Internet era is using a single person’s research as a proxy for what an entire group of people think, and Hinduism is a very large religion. I’m thus limiting myself to commenting about that specific series of posts.)
The differences among how these various narratives are treated depend on how much a specific set of cultural practices is valued by capitalist-consumerist New Age culture, which right now places a huge capitalistic value on plastic shamans and a racist “noble savage” mindset that objectifies Native Americans. The same marketplace devalues Hinduism as “icky” — many pieces of it that are adapted by Westerners, such as yoga, must be divorced from the religion in order to be accepted by consumerist spirituality.
In general, I think that what Westerners think about menstruation is mediated by what we are exposed to in the capitalist spiritual marketplace and Abrahamic religions’ ritual purity codes.
Finally, there is modern menstruation culture in general. Over the past decade, menstrual tech has become an enormous market that is quite literally changing menstruants’ lives. We have the diva cup, birth control, Thinx and Dear Kates, and even reusable tampon applicators to reduce plastic waste. (I have a Dame reusable applicator coming to me in the mail and am incredibly excited; my periods are too heavy for the diva cup to be a good idea.) People have started to study menstrual cramps instead of gaslighting menstruants about them at the doctor’s office. There is now significant backlash to politicians and celebrities treating menstruation as dirty. This is not just a Western trend, but something occurring worldwide, as shown by people challenging cultural norms around the world that limit activity and agency of menstruants and active menstruants.
And you know what? I do wish that menstruants were given extra sick days to deal with periods. I do not get cramps, but some people I know get cramps that are so bad that they cannot keep food down due to vomiting. My bleeding can be so heavy that I get dizzy spells, and I use a super plus tampon with a pad backup that I have to change literally each hour and a half on my heaviest days.
If your worst symptoms are on the first 2-3 days of a period, that means you must either show up to work like that or use sick time for periods instead of being legit sick. People who are non-menstruants are at an unfair advantage. Public health is important — in addition to making vaccines available, we need to ensure that every single person has the same access to sick time for colds, flus, and the like. That does not happen now.
What Sources Say
Almost all sources we have from Greece indicate that menstruation was primarily discussed in a medical context, not a ritual purity one. Llewellyn-Jones has this to say about it on page 262 of Aphrodite’s Tortoise:
Many societies see menstruation, the leakage of blood, as pollution, although in the case of ancient Greece, mention of menstrual blood is conspicuously absent from the kind of sources that speak of female pollution. It is possible that menstruation may have been so shaming and so secret that it was not mentioned even in the sacred laws, although medical writers envisaged monthly bleedings as normal, healthy, and desirable traits of the fit female body. Women needed to bleed to stay well and fertile and, in fact, the notion that menstruation (and menarche in particular) was a ‘good thing’ may have been reflected in the (possible) practice of offerings of menstrual cloths as dedications in the sanctuaries of marriage or childbirth-goddesses such as Hera and Artemis.
Comparatively, this does match something that I read in the menstruation blog post series about menstruation and ritual purity in Hinduism. Some goddesses in Hinduism have no menstrual prohibitions, especially goddesses whose cultus includes strong and powerful menstruation-based metaphors and religious reasonings. In Ancient Greece, it is not found in the sources at all — religiously, women and men in antiquity were equals, and it was one of the few places where women could achieve high-level status.
Llewellyn-Jones continues to say that women’s gazes and sexuality, however, were considered dangerous and polluting if not controlled — hence women’s veiling. Unbound hair is fraught outside of certain cultic activities (often involving Dionysos), and menarche was typically the point at which AFAB youths started veiling.
Stereotypes about women included our wildness — it was much more dangerous than something like an AFAB person’s menstruation.
The medical literature has lengthy concerns about menstruation that were more related to childbearing than anything else. The mortality rate in many ancient cities was staggering. By Late Antiquity, it was a factor in why so many rich people left for the countryside during certain months — cities had actual plague seasons, much like modern cold and flu season, but without the medical interventions or widespread knowledge of sanitation. Treating menstrual problems was good for the community because it meant AFAB people could have kids to replace the large number of people dying each year.
Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation includes many sources that address this question. Their primary concern is differentiating normal and beneficial periods from those that can be harmful to AFAB people. A lack of menstruation in a fertile-aged AFAB person is considered a sickness that needs treatment.
Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World only includes menstruation purity regulations in Judaism and Christianity. There is no mention of it in the book’s sections on polytheistic religions.
Women in Hellenistic Egypt is a book I purchased simply because I wanted to see if there was an elusive source that might be picked up by a historian working with a culture outside of the Greek city-states. On page 137, there is a reference to a purification period being required before one could visit a temple. Pomeroy speculates that this law came from the Greek mainland; without her citing further evidence, it is just as probable to me that this is part of the fusion of Greek and Kemetic customs in that period.
Burkert’s Greek Religion is similar — he includes a note somewhere saying that menstruation was a purification process and that this is the likely rationale for why most priestesses were older women, but the citations are all in German. I think it is important to note that the widespread justification for older women as priestesses as some sign of menstrual uncleanliness ignores that women had important cultic functions at all life stages. At Delphi, the Pythia is said to have been a younger woman until a rape incident, so there are plenty of other variables.
Page 334 of Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation has a source that does say that some types of AFAB excretions are defiling when absorbed by men by contact, including women’s bathing water. If you are a cis man dating a menstruant, this is meaningful for you. If you’re the menstruant, ¯(ツ)/¯ — you’re fine.
None of this research excludes the gender stereotype issue. In Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, Pomeroy includes a note on page 237 about the earliest nonmedical reference to menstruation. There, it is related that Aristophanes used the word choiros (pig) for AFAB genitalia and choirokomeion (pigpen) for menstrual rags. Aristophanes was a comic playwright, so I’m not sure what we can draw from this beyond that he was probably making a joke that relied on the gender stereotype of women’s sexual voraciousness.
Some Final Thoughts
Menstruation in and of itself is not miasmic.
If you are a menstruant who is having health side effects like severe cramps, though, it’s probably best to rest — if you can’t focus on the gods, you should not be pushing it. If you have access to a doctor or gynecologist, please see lim. Endometriosis, hormonal imbalances, and other health conditions are real. According to medical research, is also very important to eat a nutritious diet, take your vitamins, and mediate stress, and these lifestyle changes can be explored in conjunction with medical gynecology. Many menstruants are low in iron, for example. Otherwise, the normal practice of showering before ritual practice and keeping clean and hygenic is a great solution.
That said, I think that a very fruitful area of orthopraxic development is how to adapt the very rigid gender binary of Ancient Greece to the modern context, which is more gender diversity aware. As an unrelated example, I’m using gender-neutral pronouns for Dionysos now; that seems accurate based on my knowledge of the god and the results of a question I asked in divination.
There are a few things in the source materials that I cited that would require some further thought in the 21st century CE, specifically about menstrual rag dedications — is this a gender imperative or an AFAB imperative? What would the goddesses actually want if there were a temple to one of them in the modern era and people were to start doing this?
If you have responses to it or if you would like to build on it in any way, feel free to do so either in the comments or on your own blog. I am especially interested in what people who are not cisgender think. Also, if you know German or Greek and know something that I do not, I’m interested in that, too.
Finally, I believe that the most important thing to note is that menstruation is a medically normal process that happens to roughly half of the individuals in the human species at some point in one’s lifetime. Our medical knowledge is much more advanced now, so on another level, it is much more sound to base how we think about menstruation in a religious context on current science and its intersection with ritual etiquette, not on something that cisgender men found distasteful millennia ago.