Periods have always been a part of human life, so they have always been a part of history. Previously, I wrote an article about a period myth from the twentieth century. This time I wanted to explore a different part of history where day-to-day life such as periods is more mysterious: the ancient world. Particularly, periods in ancient Greece.
How much do we know about this topic? Honestly, not a lot. History tended not to be written by menstruators, so menstruation was rarely written about at all. The few texts we do have about it from ancient Greece are medical texts, like Diseases of Women (attributed to Hippocrates). There is therefore the question of how far we can read into texts about menstruation written by people divorced from the experience itself. But arguably medical texts are less opinionated than expected. They are records of what the patients reported, so we can find in them the voices who didn’t have the chance to speak.
What were periods in ancient Greece like?
Firstly, it is worth noting that the experience of periods themselves may have been different. Today there is a greater abundance of nutritious food and better health and safety conditions in many countries. In the ancient world, vitamin deficiency, disease and exhaustion would heavily influence the body, making periods more irregular. Furthermore, menopause may have occurred slightly earlier: Aristotle mentions it happening commonly at age 40. Hippocratic treatises tell us that a ‘wombful’ of blood was expected each month – however much that is.
How were periods in historic Greece viewed?
Views on periods varied across the ancient world, to name only a handful. Egypt may have used menstrual blood as a medical ingredient. Pliny the Elder said menstruation “turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren” and “bees die in their hives.” It seems that periods in ancient Greece meanwhile were viewed as more natural. There are indications that, like the Egyptians, they used menstrual blood in medicine, but nothing concrete.
More certainly, they believed it was meant to start at 14 and indicated that the child was ready to marry and bear children. In fact, there was even the ‘wandering womb’ theory. This theory stated that if one didn’t procreate shortly after menstruating for the first time, their womb would wander about the body. Furthermore, they believed that if the period didn’t start by 14, the blood would cluster around the teenager’s heart. This could cause irrational behaviour, swearing, fever, and even depression or suicidal tendencies. In other words, hysteria – a 19th century word taken from the Greek for womb, hystera.
Hippocrates’s response to this was bloodletting, to get rid of the excess. With no knowledge of the difference between blood and period blood, it was all the same to him. And if a person stopped having periods altogether, he worried about them experiencing a build-up of blood, causing sickness, fits and ‘manly’ behaviour. Bloodletting was his go-to cure here, too; he is well known for swearing by it.
How did they handle periods in ancient Greece?
There is some information online that claims that periods in ancient Greece often saw menstruators using something similar to a tampon. Hippocrates is cited as mentioning small pieces of wood in soft lint being put into the vagina to catch blood. There are even references to Egyptians using papyrus fibres for these ancient tampons, while Romans used a softer cotton. Unfortunately, there is no actual evidence for this. The Hippocratic treatises mention inserting wool into the vagina to administer medical substances, but not in the context of periods. As Dr Helen King points out, that myth probably originated as marketing on the Tampax website.
So what did they use? We know that many women in the past rarely used products at all and simply bled into their clothes. Dr King suggests that a play by Aristophanes suggests wraps were worn around the thighs to catch blood. Furthermore, there is a story told about the Greek philosopher Hypatia, who threw menstrual cloths at unwanted suitors. This was supposedly to show them the reality of the body and break their idealised version of her.
Overall, we don’t have much information about the ancient Greeks in general. We especially don’t have much information about a topic largely of interest to people whose voices aren’t represented in historical records. But reading between the lines can show us different ways of approaching the same experience, which is relevant then and today. And if it helps debunk myths about a function as old as the human race, then that’s all the better!