Saturday, 9 November 2013

Menstruation and Ritual Purity

"Circe" by J Waterhouse (1911)
Lately I have been thinking about the question of menstrual blood and ritual purity. Menstrual taboos are most notably associated with conservative Judaism and Islam, but they also occur in fellow Indo-European religions in the east, such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and the indigenous religion of the Kalash. Meanwhile in the west, if social media is anything to go by, a number of polytheists seeking to reconstruct the indigenous religions of Europe (including the Religio Romana) also advocate menstrual taboos the general idea is that menstruating women should not perform ritual offerings (or enter temples) to the Gods because they are ritually unclean while they are menstruating. In light of all of this, and because I like to think I am genuinely open minded, I considered the possibility that there might be something to this apparently very ancient and widespread taboo.

It happened that a few days ago I had my periods and as I performed my household ritual I realised I felt something I had never felt before at my shrine – I felt a sense of spiritual unworthiness. I was wondering if I should be performing this ritual. Was I unclean? Was I therefore somehow spiritually invalid by reason of menstruation? Never before had I doubted myself like this at my home shrine … something about this feeling reminded me of something I had felt a long time ago. It was something like when a male friend of mine told me I was a slut (funny, because I never showed any sexual interest in him, just his friends;p). That word was meant to shame me and this feeling that I shouldn’t be making offerings to the Gods by reason of menstruation was a feeling not dissimilar to shame – just for being what I was (a menstruating woman) I was ashamed to commune with the divine.

At that point I started to feel suspicious – who made up this rule anyway? I had never come across any references to it in the number of books I had read by contemporary Roman scholars or ancient Roman writers. I then started to Google in earnest and came across a few sources but they were all of dubious value. The most frequently quoted passage comes from Pliny the Elder (a Roman aristocrat who famously died in 79 CE in the Bay of Naples during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) who wrote:
“…there is no limit to the marvellous powers attributed to females. For, in the first place, hailstorms, they say, whirlwinds, and lightning even, will be scared away by a woman uncovering her body while her monthly courses are upon her. The same, too, with all other kinds of tempestuous weather; and out at sea, a storm may be lulled by a woman uncovering her body merely, even though not menstruating at the time … If the menstrual discharge coincides with an eclipse of the moon or sun, the evils resulting from it are irremediable; and no less so, when it happens while the moon is in conjunction with the sun; the congress with a woman at such a period being noxious, and attended with fatal effects to the man. At this period also, the lustre of purple is tarnished by the touch of a woman: so much more baneful is her influence at this time than at any other. At any other time, also, if a woman strips herself naked while she is menstruating, and walks round a field of wheat, the caterpillars, worms, beetles, and other vermin, will fall from off the ears of corn. Metrodorus of Scepsos tells us that this discovery was first made in Cappadocia; and that … it is the practice for women to walk through the middle of the fields with their garments tucked up above the thighs. In other places, again, it is the usage for women to go barefoot, with the hair dishevelled and the girdle loose: due precaution must be taken, however, that this is not done at sun-rise, for if so, the crop will wither and dry up. Young vines, too, it is said, are injured irremediably by the touch of a woman in this state; and both rue and ivy, plants possessed of highly medicinal virtues, will die instantly upon being touched by her. 
"Full Moon Curse" by kate1304 
Much as I have already stated on the virulent effects of this discharge, I have to state, in addition, that bees, it is a well-known fact, will forsake their hives if touched by a menstruous woman; that linen boiling in the cauldron will turn black, that the edge of a razor will become blunted, and that copper vessels will contract a fetid smell and become covered with verdigrease, on coming in contact with her. A mare big with foal, if touched by a woman in this state, will be sure to miscarry; nay, even more than this, at the very sight of a woman, though seen at a distance even, should she happen to be menstruating for the first time after the loss of her virginity, or for the first time, while in a state of virginity. The bitumen that is found in Judæa, will yield to nothing but the menstrual discharge; its tenacity being overcome, as already stated, by the agency of a thread from a garment which has been brought in contact with this fluid …
… Bithus of Dyrrhachium informs us that a mirror, which has been tarnished by the gaze of a menstruous female, will recover its brightness if the same woman looks steadily upon the back of it; he states, also, that all evil influences of this nature will be entirely neutralised, if the woman carries the fish known as the sur mullet about her person.
On the other hand, again, many writers say that, baneful as it is, there are certain remedial properties in this fluid; that it is a good plan, for instance, to use it as a topical application for gout, and that women, while menstruating, can give relief by touching scrofulous sores and imposthumes of the parotid glands, inflamed tumours, erysipelas, boils, and defluxions of the eyes. According to Laïs and Salpe, the bite of a mad dog, as well as tertian or quartan fevers, may be cured by putting some menstruous blood in the wool of a black ram and enclosing it in a silver bracelet; and we learn from Diotimus of Thebes that the smallest portion will suffice of any kind of cloth that has been stained therewith, a thread even, if inserted and worn in a bracelet. The midwife Sotira informs us that the most efficient cure for tertian and quartan fevers is to rub the soles of the patient's feet therewith, the result being still more successful if the operation is performed by the woman herself, without the patient being aware of it; she says, too, that this is an excellent method for reviving persons when attacked with epilepsy.
Icetidas the physician pledges his word that quartan fever may be cured by sexual intercourse, provided the woman is just beginning to menstruate. It is universally agreed, too, that when a person has been bitten by a dog and manifests a dread of water and of all kinds of drink, it will be quite sufficient to put under his clip a strip of cloth that has been dipped in this fluid; the result being that the hydrophobia will immediately disappear. This arises, no doubt, from that powerful sympathy which has been so much spoken of by the Greeks, and the existence of which is proved by the fact, already mentioned, that dogs become mad upon tasting this fluid. It is a well- known fact, too, that the menstruous discharge, reduced to ashes, and applied with furnace soot and wax, is a cure for ulcers upon all kinds of beasts of burden; and that stains made upon a garment with it can only be removed by the agency of the urine of the same female. Equally certain it is, too, that this fluid, reduced to ashes and mixed with oil of roses, is very useful, applied to the forehead, for allaying head-ache, in women more particularly; as also that the nature of the discharge is most virulent in females whose virginity has been destroyed solely by the lapse of time.
Another thing universally acknowledged and one which I am ready to believe with the greatest pleasure, is the fact, that if the door-posts are only touched with the menstruous fluid all spells of the magicians will be neutralised … [Pliny, Natural History, book 28, ch 23]”
When Pliny wrote “there is no limit to the marvellous powers attributed to females” he wasn’t kidding – this passage from his writings is plainly one long list of mostly laughable superstitions (though I confess I rather like the one about blood on door posts neutralising magic). A few things stand out for me (in no particular order):
  • He has clearly not investigated the truth of his outlandish claims for himself – indeed his expressed fears of the supposedly magical properties of menstrual blood would probably have prevented him from doing so.
  • His notions about menstrual blood appear to derive from Greek authors – this suggests that menstrual taboos may have been a feature of ancient Greek polytheism and if it was a feature of Roman polytheism then it was possibly due to synchronisation with Hellenic polytheism.
  • He nowhere mentions that menstruating women should not make offerings to the Gods; nor does he claim that menstruating women should not enter temples. He merely states the case for menstrual blood having many magical properties.

"Bloody" by deideirine
Columella, a contemporary of Pliny, who wrote about Roman agriculture, appears to have shared similar views in terms of viewing menstrual blood as magically powerful. He suggests that the touch of a menstruating woman could be fatal to certain plants, but that, more usefully, a girl who is menstruating for the first time has the power to kill crop pests merely by walking around a field three times while barefoot (cited in J Lennon, Pollution and Religion in Ancient Rome (2013)) – which sounds very similar to the practice Pliny records as originating in Cappadocia (located in what is now eastern Turkey).

The only other ancient “Roman” source I was able to find discussing menstruation comes from a much less gullible man who was actually Greek but lived in one of the most important cities within the Roman Empire – Soranus of Ephesus. He noted that:
“The best time for intercourse resulting in conception is when menstruation is ending and abating … [Soranus, Gynecology, cited in J Shelton, As the Romans Did (1998) at 24]”
This statement is interesting because it suggests an absence of menstrual taboos – he seems to be encouraging sexual contact “when menstruation is ending and abating”, not when it has ended, but when it is still present, though not strongly present (cf. Pliny's statement that quartan fever may be cured by sexual intercourse, provided the woman is just beginning to menstruate). In religions where we know menstrual taboos exist it is generally the case that a woman is not considered “clean” again until her periods have completely abated. In contrast to Pliny, the only powers Soranus ties menstruation in with are fertility (“as every season is not suitable for sowing seed on the ground for the purpose of bringing forth fruit, so too among humans not every time is suitable for … conception”) as well as hysteria, a woman’s illness which was apparently rather common in the ancient world – women suffering from the early stages of this affliction were said to suffer from “retention of menses” among a myriad of other symptoms (Shelton notes that hysteria was generally a disease experienced by childless women and suggests that it was actually a psychiatric disorder brought about by the extreme anxiety ancient women experienced when they were unable to bear children in a society which valued this attribute in a woman more than any other: Shelton at 302).  

Contemporary books dealing with Roman attitudes to menstruation are hard to find – which suggests that menstrual taboos were not a strong feature, if they were a feature at all, of the Religio Romana. Two books dealing with the role of women in ancient Roman polytheism that I would have expected to touch on this theme fail to mention it at all (as far as I can tell): S A Takács, Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion (2007) and C E Schultz, Women's Religious Activity in the Roman Republic (2006). I was also unable to find any reference to menstrual taboos in several well-respected books on the Religio Romana written by highly esteemed contemporary scholars: M Beard, J North, S Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 1, A History (1998) & Religions of Rome: Volume 2, A Sourcebook (1998); R Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome (1998): J Rüpke, A Companion to Roman Religion (2011); V Warrior, Roman Religion (2006); J North, Roman Religion (2006); J Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire (1982). However, J Lennon’s Pollution and Religion in Ancient Rome (2013) does discuss the issue. This is what he has to say:
“the subject of menstruation is discussed most openly in medical works … Soranus viewed the process as a natural bodily catharsis that needed to be monitored not feared, unless it failed to occur (a medical view shared by his predecessor, Celsus). Centuries later, various medical explanations for menstruation were discussed by Macrobius in his philosophical work Saturnalia, which included the theory that the process was the removal of harmful (vitiosus) material from the body … Beyond the sphere of medical enquiry however, references are few and far between …
"Heart's Grave Digger" by mikeestrella
A brief note from Festus reveals much about established attitudes to menstruation: ‘Ancunulentae refer to women during the time of menstruation, from which we get the word inquinamentum.’ Derived from inquinare, Richlin has observed that ‘inquinamentum is not a neutral word, and it appears with some frequency in sexual contexts’ … Festus quoted a far earlier reference to menstruation from the satires of Lucilius, who wrote during the second century BC, and seems to have viewed the subject as suitable for humour: ‘Bubinare means to pollute (inquinare) with women’s menstrual blood. As Lucilius says – “She bloodies you, but on the other hand he soils (inbulbitare) you.” Clearly the situation in Italy was not as rigid as Parker suggests was the case for Greece [Parker suggests that, because menstruation is not mentioned in ancient Greek comedies, extreme menstrual taboos were a feature of ancient Greek polytheism].
Some of the most revealing anecdotes about the contaminating powers of menstrual blood are concerned with agriculture … Warde-Fowler commented that the reports of Pliny and Columella were … indications of a positive aspect to the menstrual taboo. However, while the process of menstruation is utilised for beneficial purposes, its usefulness still derived from the [presumed] destructive qualities of the blood …
In spite of these destructive and harmful properties Pliny also lists a number of remedial or apotropaic uses, in which the touch of the menstruating woman cures gout, scrofula, skin-growths, erysipelas and fevers, as well as bites from rabid dogs …”
To my mind, none of this information confirms that menstrual taboos were a meaningful feature of ancient Roman polytheism; none of this states that there was a prohibition on menstruating women performing rituals or entering temples. All the above information tells us is that certain superstitions existed in relation to menstrual blood – which supposedly had both harming and healing magical powers.

At this point I am thinking about another famous agricultural writer from ancient Rome who actually predates Columella by around 150 years, and who, unlike Pliny and Columella, was not greatly influenced by the culture, religion or writers of Greece; indeed, he was noted for his disdain of Greek culture – Cato the Elder. In his On Agriculture, Cato does not mention menstrual taboos of any kind. In fact one of the things he mentions suggests the very opposite of a menstrual taboo:
“See that the housekeeper performs all her duties. If the master has given her to you [the overseer] as wife, keep yourself only to her … She must not engage in religious worship herself or get others to engage in it for her without the orders of the master or the mistress; let her remember that the master attends to the devotions for the whole household. She must be neat herself, and keep the farmstead neat and clean. She must clean and tidy the hearth every night before she goes to bed. On the Kalends, Ides, and Nones, and whenever a holy day comes, she must hang a garland over the hearth, and on those days pray to the household gods … [Cato, On Agriculture].”
These are rather regular intervals of worship that Cato advocates. The likelihood that the housekeeper would be menstruating during any one of these times is very high, and yet Cato makes no mention of menstruation precluding ritual worship and he certainly doesn’t mention any of the strange powers menstrual blood is meant to have in relation to pest control or crop damage.

Likewise, I searched three of Cicero’s most noted works (On the Laws, On Divination and On the Nature of the Gods) for references to a menstrual taboo and could not find any. Like Cicero and Cato, Ovid’s works provide an invaluable insight into ancient Roman ritual and religion and I am unaware of any allusion to menstrual taboos in his writings. As Cato, Cicero and Ovid are amongst the most important sources on the Religio Romana we have, I think it is fair to say the case for a menstrual taboo being an aspect of the Roman way to the Gods is pretty weak.

To conclude
All of my labours in researching the issue of menstrual taboos in Roman polytheism tend towards the conclusion that menstrual taboos were not a strong feature of the Religio Romana in ancient times – if they were a feature at all. However, there is evidence to suggest that menstrual blood was regarded by some as possessing magical properties, possibly as a result of cultural borrowings from Greece. Regardless, I was unable to find any evidence confirming the proposition that menstruating women were, are or should be precluded from engaging in religious worship in the Roman way to the Gods. This is not to assert that female ritual purity is not a feature of the Religio Romana at all – on the contrary, it is clear that the sexual behaviour of women in ancient times could either preclude them from, or qualify them for, participation in certain religious rituals. For example, only virgins could serve as priestesses of Vesta, while, on the other hand, prostitutes were specifically linked to certain fertility festivals such as the Vinalia and the Floralia – which serves to demonstrate the commendable tendency of the Religio Romana towards inclusivity as she honours the many varied manifestations of the divine.

"Black Out" by vennecto
I do not know enough about Hellenic polytheism to draw any conclusions about menstrual taboos in that tradition, but it seems that to the extent that menstrual taboos were present in ancient Greco-Roman polytheism, that the taboo may have been more pronounced in Greece than in Rome. 

As for the rest of Europe – well it is hard to say. I confess to know very little about Slavic customs so I will not comment. As for Celtic and Germanic customs – the unfortunate reality is that the historical record has preserved so little of the intricacies of polytheistic Germanic and Celtic ritual worship that we can only guess. However my guess is that there were no menstrual taboos for Celts and Germanic peoples. Firstly, because we have no evidence (to my knowledge) to affirm such a conclusion; secondly, because Celtic and Germanic peoples were known to live communally in round houses and long houses, to protect themselves effectively from potentially deadly cold; superstitious ideas about menstruating women being "impure" would have been highly impractical for people living in such a fashion.*

Final thoughts
My own feelings are that menstrual taboos are rooted in man-made superstition and possibly (sometimes) dualistic thinking (impure vs pure/female vs male/evil vs good) and/or misogyny. Apologists will claim that semen is widely considered unclean in the same way that menstrual blood is – but a man can just wash that off within a short period of time.  By contrast, a fertile woman menstruates for around one week in four. The notion that semen is unclean also gives rise to the obvious conclusion that because women retain semen inside us, which men can simply wash away after ejaculation, we are made “unclean” not only by menstruation but by semen! If an adult woman counts the number of days where she has been menstruation and sex/semen free she may find that she is actually “unclean” for more days in the month than she is “clean”. What this would mean is that women are effectively less able to commune with the Gods than men – and that proposition is just horse manure. I cannot believe that the Gods, whom we commonly associate with the natural world, could be so averse to the natural function of half of humanity.

* In an 11th century collection of church decrees Bishop Burchard of Worms (southern Germany) mentions the sin that "certain women are in the habit of doing ... They take their menstrual blood and mix it into food or drink and give it to their husbands to eat or to drink, so that they will be more lusted after by them" (cited in Hasenfratz, Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and The Germanic Tribes, Inner Traditions at 85). This suggests a continuation of a pre-Christian practice whereby menstrual blood was considered to have magical power; it is well established that Germanic women were regarded as having heightened abilities in the field of magic, it may be that their menstrual blood was considered to be among the manifestations of their magical propensity.

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook.


  1. Completely fascinating read. It got me thinking: What would be the implications for giving such a taboo the toss if you had indeed found evidence for it? I don't know much about paganism or polytheistic reconstructionism, but I've occasionally encountered, when reading pagan or polytheism sites, discussion reflecting a tension between authenticity and contemporary values.

    For my own part, I would set this discussion in context of two truths: (1) All religion traditions evolve over time as they come into contact with other ideas and new historical circumstances. (2) At any given period of time within a particular religious tradition, the appearance of a shared belief system--even if officially they set down on paper core doctrinal beliefs--is more like a set of partially overlapping circles, from the perspective of each individual follower or believer, with each person or sect within the system accepting and rejecting this or that part. I think this is plainly true for Christianity and Buddhism. I imagine it's true for others as well. So I don't think pagans would have to feel cheapened or counterfeit for having rejected an aspect of ancient belief that's unacceptable by contemporary standards. All religions have done it. All religions do it. Fortunately, that's not necessary here!

    I'm kind of at an impasse with Buddhism. My problem is with emptiness. I accept and agree with impermanence at the ordinary level of reality in which we live. Causes and conditions come together temporarily to create patterns called trees, people, weather, and so on. They come. They go. This takes place against the backdrop of the passage of time and the natural world where we find ourselves.

    But to say that the most basic aspects of reality, such as the universe itself, or subatomic particles (sorry, I don't know how else to say it) lack inherent reality against a more inherent nonexistence is an unsupported claim. This is because, as I think, there's no reference point for determining real and nonreal. Lacking a reference, it's not just realness of existence that is necessarily relative; that's also true for nonrealness. At the subatomic level, particles come into existence and go out of existence. Who's to say which state is their "inherently true" state?

    To make a long story short, and to cut out a lot of analysis, this has led me to wonder if something akin to pantheism has some merit to it--that material reality is spiritual reality. In this light, what I would call "rational animism" or "cautious polytheism" are closer approximations of truth than other belief systems.

    I can't say that I entirely like it, though I've had a crush on Roman religion for the past six months (in particular, Vesta; I wanted to be a Catholic nun when I was younger, and the life of public service and chastity is sooo appealing). Buddhism's emptiness gave me compassion from an astronaut's-eye view of life and helped me during my worst times.

    Any thoughts, large or small, would be appreciated. (I understand if you don't publish my comment, or only part of it, because it's too long.)

    1. Thanks for your lovely comments:) As for your questions:

      1. What I would have done if my research had turned up a different result would completely depend on what those sources said. So it is really hard to answer that question specifically. I think what you are interested in is whether or not one should "update" certain religious or spiritual paths? Basically I think the answer to that question depends on whether or not something is fundamental to the path you are looking at. If I followed Zoroastrianism then I would probably have to accept a very strict interpretation of the menstrual taboo because I gather that is a reasonably important aspect of their religion. However if we are talking about non-core features of a certain path, then I think it is ok to reinterpret these non-core features in order to bring them into line with changed social realities. I do think that uncritically accepting every minute aspect of a "reconstructed" religion for contemporary times is to zombiefy that path. We can be sure that Roman polytheism would look very different today compared to 2000 years' ago had it continued uninterrupted by Christian persecution.

      2. As to your thoughts on emptiness - my understanding is that these teachings are fundamental to Buddhism? My understanding of emptiness in Buddhism is pretty basic so I dare not express an opinion on it but I can say that my own experience of Buddhism is that I find that it is better (for me at least) not to get too hung up on intellectual concepts and instead see whether or not the practice (meditation, avoiding actions that harm others, etc) works for me. Buddhism has a number of concepts that are meant to be "experienced" (through meditation?) rather than intellectually grasped. I suspect teachings on emptiness fall into this category.

      Pax et Fortuna

    2. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply. There's much more I want to say--especially with regard to avoiding misapprehensions about my consistency of belief over the course of my life--but it's off topic from this blog post, too long for a comment box, and there's no time to type it all in.

      I know that praise, like criticism, can sometimes upset people's balance. I hope I won't do so if I praise your blog one more time. It's truly awesome.

  2. A well documented and interesting post (as usual). Just to add some reflections to this interesting discussion, I've examined the Liber Medicinalis by S. Sammonicus. In chapter XXXIII (Profluuio cuiuscunque sanguinis et matrici - Therapy for bleeding) the author wrote:

    "Menstruus inmenso si profluit impete sanguis,
    sucida lana malos remoratur subdita cursus,
    mortua quin etiam producit corpora partu.
    sed quaecumque fluit uis inmoderata cruoris,
    subernus cortex calidis potatur in undis
    ante minutatim studio uincente terendus.
    pulei calido purgatur femina potu.
    sed si forte cruor clausa cunctabitur aluo,
    aut molles nepetae aut rutae quacunque bibentur.
    at si puniceos fundit uessica liquores,
    marrubium ex passo tritum perfunditur undis:
    hi poterunt haustus rutilum purgare colorem".

    At the moment I've no time to provide a complete translation (maybe I'll do in the future, maybe...). But it is important to note that menstruation was not considered as a "problem" or a disease. Just the massive bleeding involved some remedy. This is just to say that, taking apart the rather magical remedies suggested, in this description Sammonicus adopts a quite modern, rational and "calm" approach. There's no mysterious, obscure or impure considerations: this is just a bleeding which, when excessive, has to be somhow treated simply to restore the woman's health. That's all...

    After all: what's the difference between menstruation and digestion (in physical terms)? Are they two expressions of the "being", the existence of a body or not?

    I can't understand why, for some "cultures" and the involved individuals, a women having a menstruation can be impure while a man digesting his meal not...

    It always so funny for me, as Roman Polyteist, to think about the bizarre correlations some people make in their mind, I can conclude just saying that I suggest anyone to take the longest distance from those ideas, ideologies, cultures, religions, which ultimately "discriminate": pure/impure, man/women, right/wrong, true/false.

    Can you conceive how stupid can be to discriminate women just for a menstruation, a bleeding?

    Keep on walking alone the Path.
    Pax et Fortuna


    1. Many thanks for your compliments and for the quote from Sammonicus:) I think I kind of understand it (I confess that my Latin is not great) - it seems he is writing about traditional remedies for very heavy menstrual bleeding. He doesn't seem too freaked out about it as far as I can tell; he could just as easily be discussing any other medical ailment. His approach seems broadly similar to Soranus, at least in terms of being rather matter of fact about it all. As you say, there's "no mysterious, obscure or impure considerations":) Good to know!

      Pax et Fortuna

  3. Just a funny writing "Freudian" mistake: of course "keep on walking ALONG the Path" (sorry again for my english...). But: why did I write "Alone"? This is a good question...

    Sorry again and again...