Hello all! I’ve decided to start a little mini-series on this blog called, ‘bleeding through the periods’, (I’m really too proud of that pun) as the title would suggest. This will be a look into menstruation throughout different times in history, This week we will be looking at Ancient Greece.
I’d like to think I have a pretty good idea of the general understanding of menstruation and women’s bodies having written my masters dissertation on the topic. However, while my dissertation focussed on attitudes during the early modern period, this post will be looking at Ancient Greece and will be touching on Ancient Egypt.
Originally, blood (of any kind) was thought to be the ethereal fluid that pertained to the Greek God’s blood, within Greek mythology. It was also sometimes said to retain the qualities of the immortals’ food and drink ambrosia and nectar. Unsurprisingly, there hasn’t been much written or recorded on the experience of a woman during her monthly flow. Like a great deal of history, these events were written by men, and so unadulterated avoidance and ignorance was bliss. These male scribes were bound to be more concerned with other matters such as enslavement and erecting monuments of their leaders. Ultimately, Ancient Greecians were pros at incorporating menstrual blood into their various festivals and events of worship. For example, the spring planting festival involved the spreading of menstrual blood mixed with wine over fields. They believed that this would increase the fertility of the soil. It’s interesting to compare the attitudes between Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. While some regions held menstruation in a somewhat positive light which helped increase fertility and the general improvement of one’s life. Other regions like Ancient Egypt held this overriding negativity towards a woman’s natural bodily function. Why was this?
In Ancient Egypt, superstition was much more frequent where members of society believed menstrual blood to be linked with magical qualities and spell casting. Of course, this ideal became rife during the sixteenth-century where female ‘witches’ were condemned and hanged for their dealings with the devil, which some historians have labeled ‘the women’s holocaust’. However, in classical Greek texts which were linked to Hippocrates, it was noted that a ‘nosebleed is a good thing if the menstrual period is suppressed’. This was also the case with vomiting blood, an idea that lasted in Western Europe until the mid-nineteenth century. Many physicians argued that any type of bleeding was good as it proved that a woman was fertile. This was because the blood was meant to form the baby and in turn, to nourish the womb. They also argued that the vision of a woman bleeding was comparable to, ‘a sacrificed beast’. In Ancient Greece, this was seen as being admirable as animal sacrifice linked the lives of the human race, to those of God. Clearly, Greek mythology had a huge part to play in the perception and ideas of female bleeding.
One of the most interesting aspects of looking at this particular topic is to explore how these women dealt with their periods. While not having the luxury of the foolproof ‘always’ pad or the famous Tampax, dealing with that much blood would have been pretty tricky. However, these ladies of the land weren’t stupid. For example, Ancient Greeks wrapped cotton lint around splinters of wood and used that as sanitary protection. These were also very sustainable as they were said to have been re-used every month, the height of convenience! Similarly, Ancient Greece adopted a method where tampons were crafted out of soft papyrus around wood or they would make pads out of wool, paper, moss, even animal skins, or grass. Supporting the positive view of menstruation, this time in a woman’s life was seen as a cleansing time where the blood was supposed to have healing powers. Clearly, the fog of superstition and intrigue was high surrounding the beliefs around menstruation.
Ultimately, mythology and superstition are the backbones of how societies think and view menstruation. Throughout history, the views on menstruation were constantly altering, from bad to good, and then good to bad and then bad to good again! I don’t believe there is one singular reason as to why this happened, but it must be said that men had quite a lot to do with it.
I hope you enjoyed this post! Until next time,