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lip top 10: myths surrounding menstruation

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CC Image by imjustkimmie via Flickr

So it’s that time of the month and you’re feeling crappy. If you were living in any other historical period you may just well find yourself segregated from the rest of your community, you know, just to make you feel good about it. Oh, and you’ll be told that your menses is poisonous. The belief that products of menstruation contained toxins was held by some to as recently as the 1950s. We scoff at the idea now, but not only was this an area of legitimate scientific research, it also spawned some pretty ridiculous ideas.

Here are my top 10 archaic myths surrounding the poison of menstruation.

1. If a man sleeps with a menstruating woman he may contract leprosy.
This was stated by Albert Magnus in the Middle Ages, and I have to admit, my mind went straight to the gutter when I read it. Remember the myth that said leprosy caused body parts to fall off? Yeah, I went there.

2. A menstruating woman can poison beasts and children with a mere glance.
This one is also courtesy of our friend Mr Magnus. I can only assume that the poison was transferred by the gamma rays the woman was also shooting out of her eyes.

3. If a woman is menstruating on the day she becomes engaged she will have bad luck until her death.
This one falls more into the category of ‘superstition’ rather than ‘myth’ because it is a Prussian belief that still exists in some remote areas that were formally a part of the empire.

4. The poison seeped into breast milk and made babies sick.
This was hypothesised by a Czech paediatrician, who tested for this by putting flowers into vases of breast milk from menstruating and non-menstruating women. The flowers in the vases of those menstruating wilted faster. Let’s just ignore the fact that solutes in milk like lactose and fat actually dry out the plant and reduce turgor, which will make it wilt anyway. Science!

5. The release of poisons during menstruation purified women.
I actually like the idea of this one, however my idea of poisons that should be released are the ice cream I had last night and the cake batter I enjoyed an hour ago. The concept is actually quite similar to that of bloodletting, a practice which can be traced back as far as the Bronze Age. The ancient idea was that blood needed to be released to maintain ‘humors’, or a balance, and evolved to be a cure for disease – bleeding the illness out of the body.

6. The presence of a menstruating woman near a vineyard may turn wine into vinegar.
The origin of this myth is unknown, so I’m pushing it over to the ‘Old Wives Tale’ category. If this were actually possible, it would be a pretty neat way for vintner’s to wipe out their competition.

7. If a menstruating woman touches fresh meat or produce it will rot.
Pliny wrote about this in his Natural History in A.D. 77, going so far as to say fruit will drop from a tree, no touch necessary. It was ‘proven’ by a Viennese professor, B. Schick, only 100 years ago. His culinary experiment was to have women make dough, and found that the dough that was made by a menstruating woman did not rise as high as that made by non-menstruating women. Because dough, meat and produce are soooo similar, the results can be applied across the board. Of course.

8. A swarm of bees looked upon by a menstruating woman will die.
I could have lumped this into number two, but I love the specificity of it. This one also comes from Pliny, although I don’t know why he’s complaining. As far as I’m concerned, unless you make honey, a few hundred bees just hanging out together is a little foreboding. Someone is going to be stung, and I’m sure Pliny wouldn’t have been volunteering to be that someone.

9. The hair of a menstruating woman will not hold a curl if it is washed.
I don’t even understand this one. It raises many questions. If you curl your hair before your period starts will you lose those curls also? If you wash your hair before your period starts, but don’t actually curl until your period has started, will that curl hold because it is going into unwashed hair?

10. A menstruating woman should not go ocean swimming or camping, lest she be attacked by a shark or bear.
Okay, so this has nothing to do with poison, but it makes me giggle. To quote a girl I went to school with, ‘Can they still smell it if the tampon is inside you?’ We said yes.

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7 thoughts on “lip top 10: myths surrounding menstruation

  1. “If you were living in any other historical period you may just well find yourself segregated from the rest of your community, you know, just to make you feel good about it.” Doesn’t have to be in a different historical period actually. Just a different part of the world. I live in Nepal,and having your period here is like catching the swine flu or something. There is this system called the “Chaupadi Pratha” where women in rural areas are forced to sleep with goats, in animal sheds for 5 whole days, and it is not uncommon for people to freeze to death while they are menstruating in winter. Even in middle-class families, there is this rule that you cant go to the temple because you’re “impure” when your’e on your period. Its absurd, but socially accepted anyway.

  2. 10. A menstruating woman should not go ocean swimming or camping, lest she be attacked by a shark or bear.

    There’s a beguiling ambiguity to this one – like, you’ll be walking along to your little camp in the forest and all of a sudden be met by a rampaging shark. Or you’ll be in the middle of the ocean and all of a sudden a bear will discover how to swim.

    8. A swarm of bees looked upon by a menstruating woman will die.
    I could have lumped this into number two, but I love the specificity of it. This one also comes from Pliny, although I don’t know why he’s complaining. As far as I’m concerned, unless you make honey, a few hundred bees just hanging out together is a little foreboding. Someone is going to be stung, and I’m sure Pliny wouldn’t have been volunteering to be that someone.

    Now, I have to defend our fuzzy buzzy friends here. Bees swarm when a hive is ready to split and make another hive, a baby hive if you will. To do that what the bees do is eat up a tonne of honey to give them energy and then go and find a branch to rest on for a day or two before going to the place they have selected for their new home. They are *not* going to sting you when they’re in the swarm stage because they are basically just being incredibly fat and sleepy. And while they may not be making honey straight away, give them a month or two to settle in their new home and that’ll change.

  3. Pingback: Periods in Nepal - Turning girls into untouchables

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