On the Rag: Menstrual Products from Ancient Greece to the Americas

Here’s part 2 of my series on the history of menstrual hygiene. If you want to start from the beginning, you can visit my first post, The History of Menstrual Hygiene From Free-Bleeding to Flow-Tracking Apps.

When we last saw our heroines, they were in Ancient Egypt plugging their cha-chas with tampons made of papyrus. No wonder the Egyptians walked like that.

Now we’ll hitch a chariot to the Greek and Roman Empires to see how our pagan sisters handled their flows.

What Was Happening Under Their Togas? The Women of Antiquity

Ancient Greek and Roman women commonly used discarded cloths to soak up their monthly menses. In Greek, the word for any rag is rakhoi; there’s no word specific to rags used for menstruation. In Latin, pannus menstruus describes a woman’s homemade menstrual cloth.

Let’s talk for a moment about ancient bad-ass Hypatia of Alexandria. As a great scholar of philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics, Hypatia was the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the 5th century (or is Neil deGrasse Tyson the Hypatia of the 21st century?). Young male students fought to attend her lectures not only because her of her beautiful mind, but also because she was easy on the eyes. In fact, one student developed a passionate infatuation with her and, to her annoyance, attempted to court her.

Here’s how it went down, according to legend (with a little interpretive help from yours truly):

Student: Damn, teacher lady! You are soooo fine! Let’s play satyrs and nymphs!

Hypatia: Thanks, but I’ll pass.

Student: Oh, come on. I saw you gaze seductively into my eyes during your lecture on the constellations. Our coupling is written in the stars.

Hypatia: Dude. It’s a public speaking technique. I made eye contact with each student in the amphitheatre. I’m just not that into you.

Student: But I need to see what’s under that toga!

Hypatia: Ok, fine. You want to see what’s under here? Here you go.

Student: What are these? And why are they red? Ermergerds. Are these–?

Hypatia: Yep. Them’s muh period rags. Still want to get up on this?

Student: Um. Ew. Nope. I’ll pass.

Hypatia: That’s what I thought. I’ll go back to being celibate now.

Aaand “scene.”

Let’s just hope that our 21st century Hypatia—er, Neil deGrasse Tyson—doesn’t meet the same end as his 5th century counterpart:

In 415 CE, as tensions between the Roman, Christian, and Jewish residents of Alexandria peaked, an elderly Hypatia found herself seized by an angry mob of Christian fanatics. They accused her of using witchcraft and counseling Orestes, Roman governor of Alexandria, to cut ties with Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria and impose strict limits on Christian and Jewish participation in public ceremonies (none of these accusations were substantiated). The mob dragged her to a church, stripped her naked, and according to 5th century historian Socrates Scholasticus, used pot-shards to flay her alive.

What happened to her remains after that is up for debate: some historians claim her dismembered corpse was burned on a pyre while still others claim parts of her body were scattered around the city. Her brutal death symbolized the fall of Alexandria as a great cultural center and a catalyst for the Fall of Rome.

But back to periods.

Did the women of antiquity use tampons? That’s where things can get confusing. Tampax, in a marketing campaign, claimed 5th century philosopher and father of Western medicine Hippocrates “described another type of tampon, which was made of lint wrapped around lightweight wood;” however, menstrual history scholar Helen King (I didn’t even know menstrual history scholarship was a thing) believes this to be an inaccurate reading of the Greek word motos. A motos was any bandage made of lint or other natural fiber used by physicians to staunch bleeding.

Later, the word “tampon” was used to describe medical dressings inserted into a wound (or, in cases of excessive menstrual flow, a vagina) to stop bleeding. It wasn’t until Tampax’s successful marketing campaign in the 20th century that the word “tampon” became synonymous with women’s menstrual hygiene. (More on that in a future post).

Let’s now focus on areas and cultures originating outside of Europe.

Way, way outside of Europe.

The (Dream) Time of Month for Australian Aborigines

Here’s the thing about Australian Aborigines: it’s nearly impossible to find written documentation of their ancient practices. This is partially because theirs is a rich oral culture; the indigenous peoples of Australia have transmitted their traditions through the medium of storytelling over the span of around 50,000 years. Aboriginal oral history is so accurate that modern anthropologists and geologists have been able to corroborate Aboriginal tales with natural events dating back as far as 10,000 years ago. It wasn’t until after English colonization that indigenous people adopted a writing system.

Another reason why information on Aboriginal menstrual practices is scarce: white people. To be exact: the ethnocentrism of white, male-dominated culture relegated taboo yet mundane subjects such as aboriginal women’s health practices to the academic backburner. The contemporary feminist approach to anthropology is changing that; however, traditional women’s practices are quickly vanishing as Aborigines assimilate modern Australian culture and abandon the ways of their ancestors.

So what exactly was I able to find out about how Aboriginal woman traditionally practiced menstrual hygiene? According to a fantastic article on menstrual synchrony by Chris Knight, Aboriginal myths flourish with references to women menstruating simultaneously and flowing freely.

“In many Aranda myths women who are referred to as alknarintja [‘women who refuse men’] are recognized by the fact that they are constantly decorating themselves with red ochre, are associated with water, and are ‘frequently represented as menstruating copiously’ (Róheim 1974:150). The alknarintja women of Aranda songs

…cut their breasts.
On their breasts they make scars.
They slap their thighs …
They are menstruating.
Their flanks are wet with blood.
They talk to each other.
They make a bull-roarer…
They are menstruating.
The blood is perpetually flowing. (Róheim 1974:138-139)”

Red ochre, according to an Aboriginal myth out of Aranda, is the product of dreamtime kangaroo women whose menstrual blood dripped upon the ground. As in many cultures, sexual contact during menses is taboo for Aborigines, which might explain why “women who refuse men” prefer to portray themselves as constantly menstruating.

Another story describes how women handled menstrual hygiene through bathing in water:

A man called Purra was looking for a wife. One day he was crossing a creek when he noticed that its water was red. “Look,” he said, “a girl must be around here. She is at the time of the passing of blood and went into the water. That is why the creek is red.” He followed the water right up to its source. There he found a girl. Her lower half was in the water, but the rest of her was lying on the bank. “She is Tira’s [ rainbow snake’s] daughter,” Purra said to himself. He took the girl, “but he knew that her father, the serpent, would be after him.” He tried to run away but the Serpent followed. Purra kept lighting fires to keep the Serpent away, but one day “the big rain came”; it extinguished Purra’s fire-stick and caused a flood into which Purra’s wife disappeared. (Adapted from Bozic and Marshall 1972:121-123)

Snakes are often regarded in Aboriginal religion as closely associated with menstruation, either as a protector or as a predator. Some anthropologists suggest that red snakes in Aboriginal imagery are symbolic depictions of the streaks of menstrual blood that run down women’s legs; both protecting women from the sexual advances of men and consuming women in the flow of life.

The Native American Moon Time

Just as in the case of research into Aboriginal practices, finding legitimate information on how women traditionally handled menstruation in the Pre-Columbian Americas can be a tall order. First of all, you have to weed out all of the froo-froo “Moon Goddess” New-Agey Native American appropriation websites. If I see one more dream-catcher illustration, I’m going to weave my own dream-catcher to capture a crystal-gazing, sage-burning, patchouli-stinking hippie and hold her ransom until she takes down her website.

(No offense to any of my crystal-worshipping hippie readers out there, but guys—I really hate clichés.)

Second of all, there’s the whole “there is no such thing as ‘Native Americans’” thing. What, what, what, you say? (I hear a collective gasp)  Before you call the ACLU, hear me out, people: ‘Native American’ is a generic term created by white people to refer to the many, many cultures that existed before Europeans arrived on the North and South American continents. While Australian Aboriginal cultures vary little based on geographic location, it would take me at least a year to explain the beliefs and practices of each indigenous tribe of the Americas.

So here’s what I got in a nutshell:

1)      In North American peoples such as Lakota, Cherokee and First Nations in Canada, menses is referred to as Moon Time. Menstruating women are seen as full of formidable power and need to take time away from daily life to rest in a moon lodge.  Menstrual blood is seen as a spiritually cleansing substance, however, it can also drain men of their vital energies, so women are instructed to avoid men while their blood is flowing. Traditionally, women sat upon cedar shavings or soft moss and made menstrual pads out of hair and leather.  None of the sources I found discussed the use of tampons.

2)      Among the Navajo of the Southwest, a newly menstruating girl goes through a four day ceremony, known as Kinaalda, in which her elders introduce her to several traditional women’s duties and the community participates in ritual songs as well as washing and combing the initiate’s hair.  After her first three periods, a girl is considered sexually mature and her menstrual blood is a dangerous substance. Navajo women are forbidden to enter the hogan of anyone suffering from an illness for fear of the polluting power of their menstrual blood. As for hygiene products, menstrual pads woven out of yucca were found in the 1,000 year old ruins of a Basketmaker village.

3)      A traditional Aztec and Maya remedy for menstrual pain was a vaginal steam bath, in which a woman sits over a bowl filled with fragrant herbs placed in boiling water. Another ancient healing practice that’s growing in popularity in the States is Mayan Abdominal Massage; among the list of ailments it’s reputed to remedy is painful menstruation.

So there you have it: the menstrual practices of the Pre-Christian ancient world. Ancient peoples were universally in awe and fearful of the power of a woman’s womb, but didn’t do much to tame the flow of menses besides creating a physical boundary between a menstruating woman and the rest of the community. In fact, it appears that women’s bodies were rarely seen as something for men to control: menstruation was the sole sphere of women.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the way some Asian cultures approached menstrual hygiene and move on to Christian European practices.

If you have any further historical insights to contribute, feel free to leave a comment here on my Facebook Page! And while you’re here, go ahead and peruse the Bad-Ass Motherblogger Bookshop for books on the history of motherhood in all its forms.