Culture and menstruation
The word "menstruation" is etymologically related to "moon". The terms "menstruation" and "menses" are derived from the Latin mensis (month), which in turn relates to the Greek mene (moon) and to the roots of the English words month and moon.
To many, such cultural associations appear persuasive in view of the fact that in humans, the menstrual cycle quite closely approximates the moon’s 29.5-day synodic cycle, unlike in chimpanzees (~36 days) or bonobos (~40 days). Statistical information from hunter gatherers is lacking, but where large-scale western studies focus on women’s peak reproductive years – removing outlier values – the cycle length gravitates around 29.1-29.5 days, while the figure for women in their thirties shortens toward 28 days. In no extant human population has statistically significant lunar phase-locking been demonstrated. Turning to the evolutionary past, however, a possible adaptive basis for the biological capacity would be reproductive levelling: among primates, synchronising to any natural clock makes it difficult for an alpha male to monopolise fertile sex with multiple females. This would be consistent with the striking gender egalitarianism of extant non-storage hunter-gatherer societies. A further deep-time evolutionary pressure may have been lions’ habit of eating people on moonless nights. When early Pleistocene hominids in Africa were attempting to survive by robbing big cats of their kills, according to some evolutionary scientists, it may have been adaptive to restrict overnight journeys – including sexual liaisons – to times when there was a moon in the sky.
The idea that menstruation is – or ideally ought to be – in harmony with wider cosmic rhythms is one of the most tenacious ideas central to the myths and rituals of traditional communities across the world.
“String was first made by the two Wawalik Sisters at Mudawa, near Buckingham Bay... The sisters sat down, looking at each other, with their feet out and legs apart, and both menstruated… Each one made a loop of the other one’s menstrual blood, after which they put the string loops around their necks”.
— "McCarthy, F.D. 1960. The string figures of Yirrkalla.".
The !Kung (or Ju|'hoansi) hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari “believe....that if a woman sees traces of menstrual blood on another woman’s leg or even is told that another woman has started her period, she will begin menstruating as well”. Among the Yurok Indians of northwestern California, according to one ethnographic study, "all of a household’s fertile women who were not pregnant menstruated at the same time…" Menstrual synchrony, in particular by association with the moon, is a belief found in mythology throughout the world.
"She said that she had been instructed in the menstrual laws by her maternal aunts and grandmother, who in their times were well-known, conservative Yurok women.... the young woman said that in old-time village life all of a household's fertile women who were not pregnant menstruated at the same time, a time dictated by the moon; that these women practised bathing rituals together at this time... If a woman got out of synchronization with the moon and with the other women of the household, she could 'get back in by sitting in the moonlight and talking to the moon, asking it to balance her'".
— "Buckley, T. 1988. Menstruation and the power of Yurok women".
In Aboriginal Australia, the supernatural being known as the 'Rainbow Snake' has been interpreted as, among other things, an indigenous way of conceptualising the ideal of synchronised tidal, lunar, menstrual and seasonal periodicities whose overall harmony (it is believed) confers spiritual power and fertility. One of the most thoroughgoing analyses of primitive mythology ever undertaken was that of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who concluded that, taken together, the indigenous myths of North and South America expressed men's worry that, unless women's periods were carefully monitored and synchronised, the universe might descend into chaos.
Sacred and powerful
In some historic cultures, a menstruating woman was considered sacred and powerful, with increased psychic abilities, and strong enough to heal the sick. According to the Cherokee, menstrual blood was a source of feminine strength and had the power to destroy enemies. In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman who uncovers her body can scare away hailstorms, whirlwinds and lightning. If she strips naked and walks around the field, caterpillars, worms and beetles fall off the ears of corn. Menstrual blood is viewed as especially dangerous to men's power. In Africa, menstrual blood is used in the most powerful magic charms in order to both purify and destroy. Mayan mythology explains the origin of menstruation as a punishment for violating the social rules governing marital alliance. The menstrual blood turns into snakes and insects used in black sorcery, before the Maya moon goddess is reborn from it.
The sociological theorist Emile Durkheim argued that human religion in its entirety emerged originally in connection with menstruation. His argument was that a certain kind of action – collective ritual action – could establish simultaneously totemism, law, exogamy and kinship in addition to distinctively human language and thought. Everything began, according to Durkheim, when a flow of blood periodically ruptured relations between the sexes. ‘All blood is terrible’, he observed, ‘and all sorts of taboos are instituted to prevent contact with it’. During menstruation, females would exercise a ‘type of repulsing action which keeps the other sex far from them’. This same blood was thought to run through the veins of women and animals alike, suggesting the blood’s ultimate origin in ‘totemic’ – part-human, part-animal – ancestral beings. Once menstrual blood had been linked with the blood of the hunt, it became logically possible for a hunter to respect certain animals as if they were his kin, this being the essence of ‘totemism’. Within the group’s shared blood resided its ‘god’ or ‘totem’, ‘from which it follows that the blood is a divine thing. When it runs out, the god is spilling over’.
Most Christian denominations do not follow any specific rituals or rules related to menstruation. Some Christian denominations, including many authorities of the Eastern Orthodox Church (also known as the Russian, Ukrainian, or Greek Orthodox Church, distinct from the Roman Catholic Church), advise women not to receive communion during their menstrual period. Other denominations follow the rules laid out in the Holiness Code section of Leviticus, somewhat similar to the Jewish ritual of Niddah. Healthy women have adequate outflow during this cycle, which renders them impure for sacred devotions, even more so in public.
The traditional Islamic interpretation of the Qur'an forbids intercourse, but not physical intimacy, during a woman's menstrual period. Judaism does likewise. During menstrual periods, women are excused from performing prayers and fasting. In the Qur'an it is considered a "harm" or a nuisance, and women should not be pestered during this time. Respect for women on their cycle is valued. They are advised to not enter the mosque without any important purpose, but are encouraged to be present at religious services such as Eid Al-Adha or Eid Al-Fitr. After the period, a spiritual bath, which is also required of both partners after sex, Ghusl, is also required before prayer and fasting may continue.
In Judaism, a ritual exclusion called niddah applies to a woman while menstruating and for about a week thereafter, until she immerses herself in a mikvah (ritual bath) which is basically intended only for married women. During this time, a married couple must avoid sexual intercourse and physical intimacy. Orthodox Judaism forbids women and men from even touching or passing things to each other during this period. While Orthodox Jews follow this exclusion, many Jews in other branches of the religion do not.
Conservative/Traditionalist members of the Orthodox Church observe the ancient practice of abstaining from Holy Communion during menstruation. This is a fairly common practice throughout Greece and Russia and other historically Orthodox Christian countries. However, in most non-Orthodox countries—especially in Europe and North America—a sizable majority of women do not practice this ancient rule, although a minority of women still do. In fact, many Orthodox Christian women are unaware of the ancient practice of abstaining from Holy Communion due to menstruation, or merely view it as an "old wives' tale". Many Orthodox Christians in Non-Orthodox countries are advised to disregard this practice, as it is seen as an excuse to not participate in the sacrament of Communion and in fact, discourages laity involvement in the service of Divine Liturgy.
Hindus in India tend to view menstruation, especially first menstruation or menarche, as a positive aspect of a girl's life. In South India, girls who experience their menstrual period for the first time are given presents and celebrations to mark this special occasion.
However, in orthodox or Brahmin Hindu families, menstruating women are asked to stay away from domestic activities for a period of 4 days, and even physical intimacy is prohibited. In very conservative Brahmin households, women have a separate room to stay in, separate plates and cutlery, and do not enter the kitchen or any sacred section of the house. Brahmin women who are into activities such as singing, tailoring or art, do not touch their tools for these three days. Any festival or occasion that comes during the woman's time out of the house, is negotiated discreetly. On the third day, after the Brahmin woman takes a ritual bath, she is considered cleansed and may resume her normal routine. This often described as a spiritual practice, but is usually only found in Brahmin families - most other subcultures require the women to carry on as normal.
Hindus in Nepal have a more assertive view, traditionally keeping women isolated during menstruation, when women who are menstruating are not allowed in the household for a period of 3 nights. A recent court ruling in Nepal has abolished this practice.
In Buddhism (Theravada or Hinayana) menstruation is viewed as "a natural physical excretion that women have to go through on a monthly basis, nothing more or less". However, in Japanese Buddhism, menstruating women are banned from attending temples.
Guru Nānak, the founder of Sikhism, condemned the practice of treating women as impure while menstruating. In Sikhism, the menstrual cycle is not considered a pollutant. Certainly, it can have a physical and physiological effect on the woman. Nonetheless, this is not considered a hindrance to her wanting to pray or accomplish her religious duties fully. The Guru makes it very clear that the menstrual cycle is a God given process. The blood of a woman is required for the creation of any human being. ‘By coming together of mother and father are we created, By union of the mother's blood and the father's semen is the body made. To the Lord is the creature devoted, when hanging head downwards in the womb; He whom he contemplates, for him provides.’ (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p. 1013).
The requirement of the Mothers’ blood is fundamental for life. Thus, the menstrual cycle is certainly an essential and God given biological process. In other faiths blood is considered a pollutant. However, the Guru rejects such superstitious ideas. Those who are impure from within are the truly impure ones. ‘Should cloth be reckoned impure if blood-stained, How may minds of such be deemed pure, As blood of mankind suck? Says Nanak: With a pure heart and tongue God's Name you utter: All else is worldly show, and false deeds.’ (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, pg. 140).
Meditating on God's name is of importance. Whether your clothes are blood stained or not (including clothes stained from menstrual blood) is not of spiritual importance. Thus, there are no restrictions placed on a woman during her menstruation. She is free to visit a gurdwara, take part in prayers and do Seva. In The Feminine Principle in the Sikh vision of the transcendent, Nikky Guninder Kaur-Singh writes:
- ‘The denigration of the female body “expressed in many cultural and religious taboos surrounding menstruation and child-Birth” is absent in the Sikh worldview. ... Guru Nanak openly chides those who attribute pollution to women because of menstruation’.
Woman's menstrual blood is considered to be impure in several important Jain texts. The bleeding that occurs in menstruation is thought to kill micro-organisms in the body, making the female body less non-violent than the male body - although that idea does not have any scientific support. Jainism does not permit women to cook or attend temples while menstruating.
In Japan, the religion of Shinto did and still does play a part in their society. The Kami, the spirits they worshiped, would not grant wishes if you had traces of blood, dirt, or death on you. While menstruation is not entirely blood, the ancient Japanese did not know that. As a result, women who were menstruating were not allowed to visit any of the Kami shrines for the duration of their menstrual period. Even today, women are not allowed to enter Shinto shrines and temples during menstruation, and in some instances, women are completely banned from climbing the tops of sacred mountains due to their 'impurity'. Furthermore, the tradition is kept somewhat alive in the belief that the shedding of the endometrial lining is a kind of death. It is theorized that the Kami are the reason Japan is kept so clean and, in many houses, minimalistic.
In Bali, a woman is not allowed to enter the kitchen to perform her usual duties, nor is she allowed to have sex with her husband while menstruating. She is to sleep apart from the family and has to keep her clothes that she wears while menstruating away from any clothes that she could wear to the temple. One of the most important regulations is that a woman is not allowed to attend temple while menstruating.
In Sumba, women keep their cycles secret, which makes men see them as deceitful. Women from Sumba believe that because of their secrecy, they will always have control of the men. “Men will never know how much we really can do to control these things. We have all kinds of secrets, and they should always believe that we can control even more than we really can”.
Women are supposed to avoid intercourse while menstruating. It is believed that sexually transmitted diseases are the results of women deceiving men and having intercourse while they are menstruating. Gonorrhea translates as “disease you get from women” in Sumba; it has become a social problem. When a man would get this disease, the only way they believed he could rid himself of painful sores was to pass it to a woman. The reasoning was that a woman’s body can absorb infection and purge it during a cycle.
In Shaktism the Earth's menstruation is celebrated during the Ambubachi Mela, an annual fertility festival held in June, in Assam, India. During Ambubachi, the annual menstruation course of the goddess Kamakhya is worshipped in the Kamakhya Temple. The temple stays closed for three days and then reopens to receive pilgrims and worshippers. It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world, attracting millions of visitors each year, particularly for Ambubachi Mela which draws upwards of 100,000 pilgrims per day during the 4-day festival.
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