A few years ago, I wrote a post about menstruation and miasma after combing through sources trying to identify pieces of evidence about it. Unsuccessful in this search, I wrote a post about menstruation in which I discussed the lack of mentioning it in any written documents that I had seen. I have since been corrected, and I promised a follow-up. Here it is.
Petrovic and Petrovic, who wrote Inner Purity and Purification in Ancient Greek Religion, did find mention of a menstrual taboo in a sanctuary inscription for the Goddess Athene Lindia. Here is the text, as translated by them on page 235 of “Purity of Body and Soul in the Cult of Athena Lindia: On the Eastern Background of Greek Abstentions” in Purity and Purification in the Ancient Greek World:
Visitors may proceed as pure according to the regulations within the lustral basins and the gates of the temple: let them enter piously, abstaining from looking at [breast-fed?] children, purified from causes of divine wrath, from causes of pollution and transgression, (5) not only in respect to their body, but also to their soul. They are not to carry iron weapons. They are to wear pure clothes, without head-gear. Without shoes, or in white sandals, but not made of goat skin. One should have nothing goat-y. (10) And no knots in (one’s) belts. After miscarriage by a woman, or a bitch, or an ass, 41 days. After deflowering, 41 days. After death of a member of the household, 41 days. After washing of the corpse, seven days. After a visit (of the house of a deceased person), three days. (15) After [contact with] a woman who has delivered a child, three days. A woman who has delivered a child, 21 days. After [menstruati]on, after the woman has cleansed herself. After sex, after one has washed or cleansed himself. After [sex with] a prostitute, one day. After things unlawful, one is never pure. (20) Priests, singers, musicians, performers of hymns, temple attendants, after involuntary [pollution], are always pure after sacred purifier’s application. You have trodden the virtue-bringing path toward Olympus, so enter—If you are coming pure—stranger, then enter with confidence, but if you are carrying blame with you, leave the blameless temple—go wherever you want, but stay away from Athena’s precinct.
This novelty, in conjunction with some things that modern Greeks practicing polytheistic religions have said, leads me to believe that there is a place for viewing some aspects of menstruation as miasmic. The fact that it may have an Eastern origin doesn’t matter, as it would just be one of many, many things that Greek religion picked up long ago in conversation with nearby polytheistic religions. However, speaking as someone who practices Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism and not Hellenism itself, there is room for nuance in how we (where “we” means people doing HeSP, not anyone else) manage menstruation over the course of daily household rites and other religious undertakings while having our periods.
It is important to consider the symbol of menstruation itself. The way I want to proceed is by talking about Aristotle, or at least Aristotle as quoted by Proclus and remembered with heavy paraphrase by me. Aristotle wrote somewhere that “women turn mirrors’ reflections red while on their periods,” as Proclus reports him having said so in one of essays on the Republic, which I read in its French translation. (Note: there isn’t an English one yet.) Since reading it, I have often returned to that passage while doing common household tasks ranging from cooking dinner to cleaning my bathroom to racing to change my bedsheets before my cat jumps on the bed to dealing with (gore warning) the massive amount of semi-dissolved uterine tissue that my body decides to gift me with every month as if my uterus were a place for SyFy to offload its spare horror movie blood.
The most incredible thing about the Aristotle passage is that it’s fairly easy to test, even in an era when mirrors were made of polished metals and not the glass we use today. It is right up there with “you will spoil milk and ruin fields.” However, in recent weeks, I have started to think about the anecdote in a different way. It suddenly dawned on me that I could consider the role of the mirror in the entrancement of Dionysos and the role of the flower that entices Persephone. Red is the color of blood, and it is the color of life and death; it is tied to generation. Menstruation, under most circumstances, is a symbol of fertility, linking a person (at least in potential, if an ovum is fertilized) to the continuation of the cycle of birth and death. It, through the pains that come with it, echoes the clashes on the meadow in the Myth of Er when souls incarnate. Homo sapiens is one of only a few mammalian species that has such overt cycles (hiiii spiny mice!), and this is a generative symbol that would not be accessible to us as souls were we incarnated into a species that managed fertility and reproduction in another way; we would have culturally fixated on something else. Even artificial practices must tap into the specific context of our species if they are to be successful at all. To add, fertility and its markers have been, for a long time, crucial to our species’ survival due to childbirth and infant mortality rates; however, in many parts of the world today, fertility is often seen as an inconvenience because it makes some sex acts risky. As I pointed out in the original post, we have a renaissance of techniques and tools to make periods cleaner, safer, and less cumbersome. Much of the mess is now intangible to others, especially if someone who gets bad cramps is skillful at hiding pain.
If someone is in pain — ranging from headaches to cramps and beyond — that is miasmic, and it’s important to take care of yourself. Please put on the hot water bottle and rest. If you want to make a small prayer at a household shrine, focus on healing Gods and the household Gods, maybe even Artemis or Demeter, but don’t do anything else. There are exceptions — like, if you promised to do a 30-day prayer challenge for a God and it’s day 18, you need to uphold your obligations, so do something small.
If pain is not an issue and you are doing a basic household practice, go ahead! It’s important to honor the Gods, and a household practice is not the same as formal temple worship or something done in a larger group. Be mindful of any fatigue and do what you judge yourself prepared to do. Focused devotion and contemplation exercises are, in my personal experience, what tend to be more sensitive to my cycle, so that’s where you want to be careful and find your inner steadiness. In yoga classes, teachers often implore people to listen to our bodies when we go into a practice because our ego may desire a higher intensity level than our physical state can handle. The same can be said for prayer.
My personal experience with focused prayers and contemplation while menstruating is that, unless I am fatigued, I feel more “receptive,” where I define “receptive” as that fuzzy peaceful open-spaced feeling one gets while praying with the interior-light feeling in one’s head. In that case, the prayers tend to go smoothly — I actually notice more of a blunted impact when praying on impure days in the lunar calendar than I do from my period. Still, if we think about symbolic connections to Gods, I’m far more likely to have a good experience praying to Gods who have some role in generation or who are in the Life parts of their triads (if we reach for Platonism, where the triads are being-life-intellect/remaining-proceeding-reverting). It’s not that I can’t pray to Athene or whomever. It’s just going to take more work because the correct way to do a focused prayer would require finding symbolic and contemplative formulae that sidestep certain aspects of my embodied self at a time of the month when I am extremely aware of them. I also get ovulation pain/bleeding, so for me, there are two points of the month when I need to be careful about this. To complicate things even further, other actions can modify this experience. For instance, if I have an unexpected opportunity to be completely chaste (yes, completely) for a week or two, if I use said opportunity, the impact dampens the ovulation stuff. Periods of chastity are well-documented in ancient (and modern) sources for people who are acting in officiant capacities close to a God or Gods or who are into mysticism. These abstinence states are (usually) meant to be cyclical, not permanent. It’s something that anyone could try, regardless of whether or not that person has a period.
Some Goddesses, like Artemis and Hekate, are connected to reproduction and to the embodied souls; others, like Athene, are almost completely removed from it, as she is immaculate and intellectual. Everything that exists around us is a token and a symbol of some God or other. It is like activating a second piece of metal with a tuning fork when the frequency is just right. There are many frequencies that do not produce this resonance, and there are many that stand no chance. This is not the same as miasma, although in the case of menstrual cycles, the two overlap.
Things get tricker when we are talking about temples and sanctuaries, though, because a sanctuary is a sacred place that a community has decided to acknowledge as sacred to (a) specific God(s), and both it and the rituals conduced there are using the sympathetic chains of word, action, presence, space, and sacrifice to establish favorable connections with the God(s). Changing them requires consulting with the God(s) — and likely divination — via prompting from members of the ritual community. Any changes require detailed theological work to ensure that the end product is syntactically viable. Does a period count as taboo in the space if someone is on birth control, for example, or if the dissolved uterine lining never leaves the body because someone is using a cup or cervical disk and otherwise feels fine? Someone from outside the community is a stranger and does not have the same clout to propose adding nuance or clarification to these rules. In an alternative universe in which Athene Lindia’s Rhodian temple still stood intact and active, I wouldn’t demand access if I were touristing there and my period started because even though I also worship Athene, I am a stranger to that community, and it’s not my lane. Many sanctuaries’ taboo lists didn’t mention menstruation at all, so in those cases, I would just use common sense to determine if I were fit to enter or not.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if we focus too much on topics that are easy or (at first glance) obvious when we talk about the miasmic. I only have firsthand knowledge of how my menstrual cycle impacts my spiritual and devotional practices because (as least in this lifetime) I am in the segment of the human species that (a) spends a part of my life having one and (b) has a devotional practice during my fertile years, but even if I didn’t have one, I’d still know at least a little about them because they’re hard to miss. I suspect that there are many less visible things that happen to others of which I am ignorant. People just aren’t blogging about them, so those topics remain under-discussed.
That’s really all I have to say, and I hope this at least began to do justice as a follow-up to that post from a few years ago. Finally, while keeping in mind all that I said above, never underestimate the power of a shower.