Ancient cultures connected women's cycle of ovulation and menstruation to the phases of the moon, sometimes referring to women in menses as being "on their moon." The term menses comes from the Latin word for month, mensis, which is cognate with the Greek word for moon, mene. The menstrual cycle is thus perceived as a reflection of the cosmic cycles of nature in the female body, but this has not always been perceived as a positive connotation. For instance, the Greek philosopher Empedocles (c. 493–433 bce) believed that women menstruated at the waning of the moon, in order to purify their wombs.
From ancient times, then, there seems to have been an ambivalence towards menstruation: on the one hand, the onset of menstruation is celebrated as marking the change from girl to woman, who is now physically able to bring new life into the world; on the other hand, menstrual blood may be considered to be dangerous or polluting, thus rendering the woman in menses ritually excluded or separated. Different religions explain such strictures according to their own view of what is sacred and profane, what is pure and impure.
Indigenous or primal religions have historically tended to regard menstruation in a positive manner. Among Australian aboriginal, Polynesian, African, and Native American peoples, the first menstruation of a girl was often observed with seclusion in a separate dwelling, accompanied by female-only ritual practices and practical support from other women. This was followed by a ceremony, at which her new status as a woman was celebrated and recognized, and she was formally reintegrated into the group. Tlingit (Kolosh) custom was for the girl to remain in seclusion for a year, after which she would be given a ritual feast. Australian aboriginal groups still practice segregation at menarche, and prepare the girl for her return to the community by first immersing her in a ritual bath, then decorating her body with red ochre and white clay before the formal procession home.
The ritual segregation at menarche derives, in part, from the notion that anything excreted from the body—spittle, milk, blood, urine, feces, even tears—has inherent danger and power. Mary Douglas notes that since the orifices of the body represent its margins, symbolizing its points of vulnerability, so any matter coming from those margins may be seen as particularly susceptible (Douglas 1984, p. 121). If the body is taken as a microcosmic representative of the society as a whole, then the individual must take particular care to make sure that the power of such matter is kept in check, so as not to disrupt the equilibrium of the group.
From such a perspective, although menstrual blood is regarded as powerful, it is not viewed as polluting, nor is menstruation itself considered shameful. The menstruating woman is not unclean, but in a state of power that can throw male power out of balance, thus disturbing social stability. Women in menstruation and childbirth are therefore separated from the ritual life of the community, in order to contain their power at these times. Such is the ritual potency of menstruation that among indigenous Australians, men may imitate the women's menstrual bleeding through either subincision or piercing the upper arm, in order to bleed together on ritual occasions (Gross 2001, p. 307).
Attitudes toward menstruation vary according to the cultural perspective on menstrual blood. In societies where it is regarded as a medium of transmission of power, the woman in menses may be circumscribed and marked by other forms of ritual exclusion involving taboos relating to dietary restriction, and the avoidance of sacred objects, places, male implements (such as hunting or fishing equipment), tending the fire, practicing medicine or shamanic activities. In Hawaii, for example, women lived in a one-roomed menstrual hut (hale pe'a) that was on a plot of land removed from, and off-limits to, the general population. Similar huts were used by the Tlingit (Kolosh) people of Alaska, the Zoroastrians in Iran, and the Dogon of Mali. Such practices have declined in recent times.
Some of these taboos may also pertain in other religious traditions, which treat menstrual blood as a polluting substance, and the woman in menses as unclean, at least in ritual terms. As a result, women's participation in the sphere of public ritual is proscribed because of their state of impurity. Such proscriptions have been found in reference to ensuring the temple and ritual purity of both Greek and non-Greek mystery cults from as early as the third century bce. Orthodox (Hindu) Brahmans throughout India and Nepal retain the practice of excluding menstruating women from the kitchen and the shared dining table. Hindu and Jain mandirs and Parsi agiaries often have signs that women in menses are not to enter.
MYTHS OF MENSTRUATION
There are ancient myths from all cultures concerning the power inherent in menstrual blood. In Sumerian mythology, the great goddess Ninhursag, or Ki, heals the dying Enki by placing him next to her vulva, and generating eight healing deities to revive his eight ailing organs. The Norse Edda narrates how Thor, the god of thunder, was crossing a river when it started to rise, because the giantess Gjálp was standing with a foot on each side. Some interpret this to mean that her menstrual blood was flowing into the river. Thor hurls a rock, presumably at her vagina, to stem the stream.
One mythological motif common to many cultures connects the snake with the onset of menstruation. In tales such as those of the Wawalik people in northern Australia, women are chased, bitten, swallowed, or penetrated by snakes, and it is this experience that brings on menstruation. Biblical commentators throughout history have related the Levitical prohibitions on women in menses to the divine punishment of Eve after she has consorted with the serpent (Genesis 3.1-6). Through Eve, all women have thus been "cursed."
Such myths of menstruation often relate to structural changes in group behavior. For instance, among the Dogon people of central Mali, the appearance of menstrual blood is the result of an act of incest between the Earth Mother and her firstborn. Here, again, the first menstruation represents the introduction of death and disorder in the world, and thus the need to circumscribe all subsequent menses through certain prohibitions.
Hindu textual tradition relates the origin of menstruation to a sinful act. A myth in the Rig Veda tells how the male divinity Indra kills the dragon Vritra (also known as Ahi—"snake") and releases the waters: this becomes reconfigured through history, so that by the time the Mahabharata was composed (between fifth century bce and fourth century ce), Indra's act involves him committing brahmanicide. Various texts describe how Indra calls upon different elements to take a portion of his sin in return for compensation. Women are always mentioned as one element, and are afflicted with menstruation as a result (Taittiriya Samhita 2.5:1-2; Markandeya Purana 46.1-65). Their compensation is to enjoy sexual activity until childbirth. Thus, a woman's periodic impurity becomes the punitive counterpart to her capacity for sexual pleasure.
A powerful illustration of the value Hindu tradition places upon purity and modesty with regard to containing the pollution of menstruation is found in the Mahabharata. There, Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandava brothers, is forceably dragged before the assembly of men—not the proper place for a virtuous woman, and certainly not for one who is menstruating, as Draupadi is at the time. She wears the "one garment" of the woman in menses, which her captor, seeking to humiliate and dishonor her even further, tries to pull off, but as he unravels her skirt, so more material appears, to cover her shame. Thus preserved from degradation, she is seen by all to be the ideal wife, who knows and follows dharma, and through whom husbands and kingdoms are saved.
MENSTRUAL BLOOD AS EMPOWERING OR PULLUTING
In contrast, Hindu Tantric texts speak of menstrual blood as "blood-food," which contains powerful healing and magic. Vamachari Tantric initiation is said to involve drinking menstrual blood and semen, and the ideal sexual partner to be menstruating when uniting with her male consort, so that he may be blessed and share in the female cosmic energy of the Shakti, whom the female devotee represents.
Chinese sages called menstrual blood the essence or energy (chi) of Mother Earth, the yin principle that gives life to all things. From the Taoist perspective, a woman's menstrual blood is the essence, which can be harnessed to extend her lifespan. A man's semen (xing) serves a similar function, holding all his yang energy. Together, these two bodily fluids are the sources for life—both natural and immortal: when they interact, yin and yang form the Tao, the Way. Women who have attained higher levels of Tao practice are said to be able, through inner alchemy, to stop the menstrual cycle, so that its energy flows up to the heart and brain. This process is called "Cutting the Red Dragon."
In the early Shinto sacred texts, the Kojiki and Nihongi, which are the main sources of Shinto myths and legends, menstruation was welcomed as it meant that the woman was ready to assume the role of a spirit medium (miko). Certain sects of the Shinto tradition continue to teach that the complementary balance of the sexes is the foundation of the world. With the advent of Buddhism in Japan, however, attitudes toward menstruation shifted. In the Muromachi period (1333–1573), a Chinese apocryphal text, the Ketsubonkyo ("Blood-bowl") Sutra, became popular; it teaches the way of salvation for women who have fallen into Hell because of the pollution entailed in the shedding of menstrual blood.
One of the ancient texts of the Zoroastrians, the Vendidad also considers menstrual blood to be extremely polluting (as is any substance leaving the body—including hair, saliva, and breath), and there are strict injunctions as to how a woman should be segregated "three paces" from the rest of the community and "fifteen paces" from other elements of creation, so that her glance does not contaminate them. One of the greatest sins is for a menstruating woman to have sexual intercourse (15.7, 13-16). The Vendidad refers to menstruation as an incursion of Angra Mainyu (the Destructive Spirit) into the world (16.18-19). A later text largely redacted in the ninth century, the Bundahishn, contains one of the few etiological myths concerning menstruation: the "whore demon" Jeh revives Angra Mainyu from a three-thousand-year stupor and he kisses her on the head, at which moment she becomes the first to be polluted by the blood of menstruation (4.4f.).
The injunctions as to how to combat such demonic onslaughts are elaborated in the later Zoroastrian texts, where the woman in menses is said to be like a corpse, in that her issue of blood represents dead matter that would have lived if inseminated. After menses, a woman was supposed to purify herself with a ritual scrub of bull's urine and water. Only at menopause was she considered to be perpetually clean.
Some religions have gone as far as to question whether a person can attain liberation while in a female body, which is prone to such infirmity as menstruation. This was the perspective taken by the Digambara ("skyclad," or nude) sect of the Jains at the time of the composition of the Suttapahuda around 150 ce. In this text, the author Kundakunda maintains that a woman's menstrual flow contributes to her general inability to be pure-minded, and signifies that she is never totally free from harm (himsa). It was for this reason, rather than the inappropriateness of female nudity, that women could not achieve moksha (liberation), which was attainable only by those who were full mendicants. In the early twenty-first century, in both Digambara and Svetambara ("whiteclad") schools, all women are excluded from the main cella of the manir with its proximity to the revered images, and women in menses are barred from the main hall.
THE IMPACT OF GREEK AND ROMAN ATTITUDES
Much of the Western cultural approach to women and their bodily functions derives from the doctors and philosophers of classical Greece. In the sixth century bce, the physician Hippocrates described the four sensible qualities of the human body as hot, cold, moist, and dry, which Empedocles later associated with the four elements of fire, earth, water, and air. Males consisted of the positive elements and qualities—fire and air, hot and dry; women of the negative—water and earth, moist and cold. This natural science influenced Aristotle's (384–322 bce) conclusion that menstrual blood derived from the residue generated by women's cold, wet (passive) nature; because of her coldness, woman could not produce seed (semen), and was therefore just the matter from which the fetus was conceived after the sperm had acted to provide the form. The correlate of this notion was that the shedding of menstrual blood demarks an unsuccessful conception, wherein the blood is unformed dead matter, a failed life.
This negative concept persisted for many centuries, through the Greek and Roman eras, to the beginning of Christianity and on. By the time of the Roman writer Pliny (23–79 ce), a woman's monthly flow was thought to have a deleterious effect on virtually anything that it touched. In his Natural History, Pliny writes that menstrual blood is so harmful that contact with it causes crops to die, new wine to sour, iron and bronze to rust, and hives of bees to die! Centuries later, the Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) cited Aristotle in his Summa Theologica, adding that menstrual blood is naturally impure and infected with corruption (2.2189). The Christian approach toward menstruation was, then, directly influenced by the pseudo-scientific teachings of the Greeks, although it also maintained some of the practices of Judaism.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Israelite woman is considered to be ritually "unclean" (tuma in Hebrew) while menstruating, and for seven days afterwards (Lev. 15.19-24). So, also, male genital discharge causes "uncleanness" for seven days (Lev. 15.1-15) and a seminal emission renders the male "unclean" until the evening (Lev. 15.16). Tuma refers not to physical uncleanliness, but to the spiritual status that results from contact with death: the unfertilized egg shed during menstruation, or the semen that is "wasted" becomes tuma, because it represents the loss of the soul of a human who could have existed.
Rabbinic injunctions in the section of the Mishnah (c. 200 ce) known as Niddah ("separated" or "removed") refer to a separate house where the menstruating woman was isolated. This practice continued among Ethiopian Jews until the twentieth century, and many orthodox Jews in the twenty-first century continue to adhere to the sexual separation of husband and spouse for at least twelve days. When menstruating, a woman was not supposed to attend synagogue or public prayers. Some authorities say that she is not supposed to look at the open scroll of the Torah, or touch a holy book. Women may end this time of separation with immersion in the mikvah, a ritual bath that removes the tuma of menstruation. The mikvah is not an act of physical purification, since the woman must have showered beforehand, but rather a time of spiritual rebirth by immersion in the waters that represent the womb of creation.
By the third century ce, Christian church fathers were beginning to introduce a distinct menstrual taboo, wherein menstruation was perceived as a reprehensible stain that needed to be purified: It was God's punishment for Eve's sin in eating the fruit of knowledge offered by the serpent. (Some Western societies still refer to the woman's monthly flow as "the Curse.") St. Jerome (342–420 ce), addressing the issue of asceticism in letters to three noble Roman women, advocated a stringent regime that would have led to amenorrhea, effectively removing the curse of Eve. Jerome also adopted Aristotle's view that conception during menstruation would produce abnormalities in the child.
The influential Church leader and writer Augustine of Hippo (354–430) believed that a woman's biological functions—the "curse" of menstruation and the mess of childbirth—showed her to be a lower form of human than man, and that her worth lay only in her ability to procreate. He maintained that the Levitical prohibitions on contact with menstrual women should be upheld. In contrast, a letter purportedly written by Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604) to Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604 ce) states that a menstruating woman cannot be prohibited from receiving Communion (although it is praiseworthy if she chooses not to), nor is the menstrual flow sinful. But this was not the view of other church leaders from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries, who discouraged menstruating women from entering a church or accepting the sacrament of Communion.
A popular Christian belief that menstrual blood produced or attracted demons continued through the Middle Ages until at least the sixteenth century. The implication of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which developed during this time, is that just as she is conceived without the stain of original sin, so she is spared the punishment of menstruation.
Islam also has certain rules and exceptions for women in menses. Menstruation is addressed three times in the Qur'an, including Sura Al Baqarah verse 222, which may be paraphrased as: "They ask you concerning women's menstruation [mahid], Say: 'It is a hurt and impurity [adha, translated as having both meanings].' So keep away from women during their menstruation and do not approach them until they have become clean [tahara]. But when they have purified themselves, then you may approach them,… as God has ordained for you." This verse prohibits sexual intercourse during menses, although other physical expressions of love, such as hugging and kissing, are allowed.
The practical implications of the adha of menstruation is that women do not perform the five prescribed prayers, touch the Qur'an, make tawaf around the Ka'aba, or fast. These omissions do not have to be made up, except for the fast during Ramadan. In some Muslim communities, women do not go to the prayer hall or religious center at all during menses. In one hadith, Aisha reports that the Prophet asked her to bring a prayer carpet for him while she was menstruating. When informed of her state, the Prophet said: "Your menstruation is not in your hand." This is interpreted to mean that women are not entirely ritually excluded. A woman in menses can offer personal prayers (du'a); recite the Qur'an in private, or hear its recitation; study other religious texts, including hadith; and participate in Eid celebrations. Purification takes the form of a ritual bath (ghusl) that involves washing the whole body, including the head.
HINDU AND BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVES
One example of the persistence and elaboration of ancient taboos relating to menstruation may be found in the Hindu tradition, where the polarity between that which is pure (sauca) and impure (asauca) developed to the extent that, by the late eighteenth century, the impurity of menstruation was believed to continue even after death. A woman who had been menstruating at the moment of death could not, then, be cremated until four days later, after a ritual bath—the normal duration of ritual impurity for menses. An unusual corollary of this understanding of menses as polluting is the notion that a woman who suffers from amenorrhea must be even more inauspicious, since she is thought to elude the laws of nature evidenced by menstruation. A similar taboo is found in the Buddhist Theravada text for nuns, the Vinaya Pitaka, which declares that the initiation of a novice may not take place while she is menstruating, nor if she has amenorrhea.
While explicit reference to the purity laws surrounding menstruation may not be made in many religious contexts in the twenty-first century, women who choose to practice a degree of separation during menstruation for religious reasons claim to enjoy relief from their routine activities, such as cooking, attendance at congregational worship, or fulfilling their spouse's sexual needs. Although the Zoroastrian place of segregation (Dashtanistan or punigan] in Persian) is no longer used, women may still choose to isolate themselves somewhat during their monthly cycle; they may not visit the fire temple, attend festivals, marriages, initiations, or funeral ceremonies when fire will be present, or light a fire; they may not touch holy books or objects; and they may abstain from sexual intercourse.
Despite the advances of science and medicine concerning the physiology and psychology relating to the female menstrual cycle, the notion that women are physically vulnerable at this time and must therefore act with caution continues to impact upon societal superstitions about washing hair, participating in sports, bathing or swimming, and engaging in sexual intercourse during menses. Such taboos are not enforced, but are often imparted from woman to woman.
One contemporary gynecologist, Christiane Northrup, has revisited the ancient association between the cycle of the moon and a woman's monthly cycle. She suggests that a woman's hormonal changes during her cycle affect her energies and moods, so that it might benefit her to take the occasional break from the demands of everyday life, particularly during the luteal phase of the cycle when progesterone levels are high, and which represents the "dark of the moon" (Northrup 2002, pp.105-107, 134f.). This approach connects female biology to a creative psychological cycle that echoes the cycles of the natural world.
Allen, Paula. 1986. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press.
De Troyer, Kristin, et. al., eds. 2003. Wholly Woman, Holy Blood: A Feminist Critique of Purity and Impurity. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.
Doniger O'Flaherty, Wendy. 1976. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley, University of California Press.
Douglas, Mary. 1984. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.
Gould, Ketayun. 1994. "Outside the Discipline, Inside the Experience: Women in Zoroastrianism." Religion and Women, ed. Arvind Sharma. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Grahn, Judy. 1993. Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Boston: Beacon Press.
Gross, Rita M. 2001."Menstruation and Childbirth as Ritual and Religious Experience among Native Australians." In Unspoken Worlds: Women's Religious Lives, ed. Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Imam Shurnbalali. 2001. Nur al Idaah: The Book of Tahara. Kidderminster, UK: Inter-Islam Publishing Company. Available from www.inter-islam.org/Actions/Tahara5.htm.
Jaini, Padmanabh S. 1991. Gender and Salvation: Jaina Debates on the Spiritual Liberation of Women. Berkeley: University of California Press. Available from http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft138nb0wk/.
Joseph, Alison, ed. 1990. Through the Devil's Gateway: Women, Religion, and Taboo. London: SPCK.
Northrup, Christiane. 2006. Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom, revised edition. New York: Bantam.
Rose, Jenny. 1989. "The Traditional Role of Women in the Iranian and Indian (Parsi) Zoroastrian Communities from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century." Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute. Bombay: K. R. Cama Oriental Institute.