A feminist history of menstruation by Metis
One upon a time, in primitive societies menstruating women were made to walk through paddy fields because they were shedding “blood of life” from their bodies that was believed to help crops grow. This theory is only recently been proved to be correct when researchers and scientists have claimed that “cells coming out of menstrual blood are highly regenerative” and scientists have used stem cells from menstrual blood to save limbs.
Let us go back a few thousand years – primitive people believed that women were far more powerful than men and if a menstruating woman ran naked through a field in the night, the power of her menstrual blood would destroy all crop worms. It was this power that made ancient South American Indians maintain that humans were created from “moon blood” since fertility was attributed to the moon in early cultures. The gods of the moon, like Ishtar, Quilla, Dschan, Selene, and Luna were female and often linked to fertility. Similarly the Mesopotamian mother goddess, Ninhursag, was believed to have created humans out of her “blood of life” and Mesopotamian women made loam dolls for conception-spell by painting them with their menstrual blood. This would be a perfect place to mention that the meaning of the name of the first man in many religions, Adam, means “bloody loam” and many ancient cultures believed that humans are created from “coagulated blood.”
It was in ancient Egypt that taboo against menstruation can be first found. An inscription at the Hathor temple has a list of gods with their specific dislikes; one god disliked menstruating women because they were seen as extremely powerful and a likely threat to patriarchy. However, in general public sphere menstruation was considered to have a life-giving and healing effect and was used for producing medicines and ointments. Interestingly, menstrual blood was supposed to have a cleansing effect; for example, in ancient spells for mother and child menstrual blood was used as ointment to protect newborns from demons.
In a “Wisdom Text” from ancient Egypt there are hints about menstrual hygiene particularly the ancient use of tampons made from several types of material like flax, papyrus and cotton. It is believed that Isis was the inventor of the first tampon in the form of the “Isis knot.” We also now know that “sham menstruation” and “sex-strike” was used by primitive women to oppress men.
Four hundred years before Jesus was born, Greeks firmly believed in the life-giving qualities of menstrual blood. Aristotle wrote in the 4thcentury BC that a fetus was born entirely out of menstrual blood and the role of the man was only to act as a ‘catalyst.’ Gradually Aristotelian view was displaced within 300 years by Greek myths that the woman’s body merely provided a vessel for the child, which was in fact entirely created by semen. Thus, although up till the end of the 18th century and early 19th century it was the Aristotelian theory that was taught in medical schools throughout the world, major world religions took a deep interest in the patriarchal view presented by the later Greek myths. We, therefore, have Scriptures teaching both views: Aristotelian view that a fetus is made entirely of coagulated menstrual blood and the Greek myth that it is made entirely of semen. Both views, we know today, are wrong.
Slowly men began to fear powerful women and aimed to bring them down by firmly establishing patriarchy and teaching that menstruation was taboo:
The Talmud, ancient store of Jewish wisdom, states that if a woman at the beginning of her period passes between two men, she kills one of them. The Lebanese believe that the woman’s shadow causes flowers to wither; a menstruating woman, they say, will kill the horse she rides. Pliny’s “Natural History” states that the touch of a menstruous woman turns wine to vinegar, blights crops, kills seedlings, blasts gardens, rusts iron (especially at the waning of the moon) kills bees and causes mares to miscarry. Frazer records that in Brunswick, Germany, there is a custom that if a menstruating woman assists at the killing of a pig the pork will putrefy.
A menstruating woman began to be seen as unclean, unsafe for others, in distress, and even mentally disturbed. Men began keeping away from menstruating women and started to believe that having intercourse with their menstruating wives would harm the women (although today science has offered theories that women feel sexiest and enjoy intercourse the most during their period which actually has benefits for their general health and well-being!). Unfortunately, in many cultures women on their period were put away in “menstrual huts” and shunned completely.
Over time, menstruation became associated with male honour and hence odd traditional practices developed like the Jewish tradition (note: it is not a religiously sanctioned tradition) of slapping a daughter who starts her period. It is believed that the original purpose was to “slap sense” into a newly fertile girl, warning her not to disgrace the family by becoming pregnant out of wedlock; or to “awaken” her out of her childhood slumber and into her role as a Jewish woman. In Hinduism a woman is banned from even approaching a temple; in Judaism and early Christianity a woman had to purify herself after period by sacrificing two turtle doves in the temple. A Muslim woman must also ‘purify’ herself after menstruation by taking a ritual bath. She cannot touch the Quran, fast or pray while menstruating and according to at least one oral tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, menstruation of a woman leads to “deficiency in her religion.”
Even today when science has constantly proved men (and women) wrong and cleared many myths associated with menstruation, men use menstruation as an excuse to oppress women by claiming that “women have less of these qualities than men” especially when they are menstruating. There are communities that train their girls to believe that menstruation will make them sick. Studies have now been conducted on the influence of religion on women’s menstrual well-being that show that “women who were most likely to suffer from menstrual pain and problems were the ones whose religion told them they were unclean or that they had to be submissive to men.”
Unfortunately women are not trained to capture the power of menstruation which was once widely feared in the ancient world. We are never taught as growing girls that “during the time of bleeding women’s ability to dream, have visions and attain altered states of consciousness is strong.” We are not taught that 4,000 years ago menstruation was neither shame nor taboo but was used as harnessed power making gods out of women. Instead of being taught that the fluctuations of our bodies make us more adaptable and resistant, we are taught by our societies that we have the “curse” – a result of our ‘original sin’, and that we are “unclean” and “in distress.”
Truth is that “menstruation is an initiatory time, when women can potentially open to a highly charged altered state, giving them access to a singular kind of power. The power of self-awareness, deep feeling, knowingness, intuition. A power that matures over time with each cycle” (Alexandra Pope).
Menstruation can be the best time for a powerful spiritual experience.
Edited on February 25, 2015