Peri¬≠ods in ancient Greece: how dif¬≠fer¬≠ent were they from today?

by Ailsa
Periods in ancient greece, period greece, Greece period history, bloody history, period history, history of the period, menstrual history, history of menstruation, menstruation in ancient greece, menstruation in ancient rome, Greek god of menstruation, ancient menstruation practices, Hippocrates menstruation, Perioden im alten Griechenland, Menstruation im alten Griechenland, Geschichte der Menstruation, Geschichte der Periode, Hippocrates Periode, Periodengeschichte, griechischer Menstruationsgott, alte griechische Periodenpraktiken, Ailsa, Vulvani

Peri¬≠ods have always been a part of human life, so they have always been a part of his¬≠tory. Pre¬≠vi¬≠ously, I wrote an arti¬≠cle about a period myth from the twen¬≠ti¬≠eth cen¬≠tury. This time I wanted to explore a dif¬≠fer¬≠ent part of his¬≠tory where day-to-day life such as peri¬≠ods is more mys¬≠te¬≠ri¬≠ous: the ancient world. Par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠larly, peri¬≠ods in ancient Greece.

How much do we know about this topic? Hon¬≠estly, not a lot. His¬≠tory tended not to be writ¬≠ten by men¬≠stru¬≠a¬≠tors, so men¬≠stru¬≠a¬≠tion was rarely writ¬≠ten about at all. The few texts we do have about it from ancient Greece are med¬≠ical texts, like Dis¬≠eases of Women (attrib¬≠uted to Hip¬≠pocrates). There is there¬≠fore the ques¬≠tion of how far we can read into texts about men¬≠stru¬≠a¬≠tion writ¬≠ten by peo¬≠ple divorced from the expe¬≠ri¬≠ence itself. But arguably med¬≠ical texts are less opin¬≠ion¬≠ated than expected. They are records of what the patients reported, so we can find in them the voices who didn‚Äôt have the chance to speak.

What were peri­ods in ancient Greece like?

Firstly, it is worth not¬≠ing that the expe¬≠ri¬≠ence of peri¬≠ods them¬≠selves may have been dif¬≠fer¬≠ent. Today there is a greater abun¬≠dance of nutri¬≠tious food and bet¬≠ter health and safety con¬≠di¬≠tions in many coun¬≠tries. In the ancient world, vit¬≠a¬≠min defi¬≠ciency, dis¬≠ease and exhaus¬≠tion would heav¬≠ily influ¬≠ence the body, mak¬≠ing peri¬≠ods more irreg¬≠u¬≠lar. Fur¬≠ther¬≠more, menopause may have occurred slightly ear¬≠lier: Aris¬≠to¬≠tle men¬≠tions it hap¬≠pen¬≠ing com¬≠monly at age 40. Hip¬≠po¬≠cratic trea¬≠tises tell us that a ‚Äėwomb¬≠ful‚Äô of blood was expected each month ‚Äď how¬≠ever much that is.

How were peri­ods in his­toric Greece viewed?

Views on peri¬≠ods var¬≠ied across the ancient world, to name only a hand¬≠ful. Egypt may have used men¬≠strual blood as a med¬≠ical ingre¬≠di¬≠ent. Pliny the Elder said men¬≠stru¬≠a¬≠tion ‚Äúturns new wine sour, crops touched by it become bar¬≠ren‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúbees die in their hives.‚ÄĚ It seems that peri¬≠ods in ancient Greece mean¬≠while were viewed as more nat¬≠ural. There are indi¬≠ca¬≠tions that, like the Egyp¬≠tians, they used men¬≠strual blood in med¬≠i¬≠cine, but noth¬≠ing concrete.

More cer¬≠tainly, they believed it was meant to start at 14 and indi¬≠cated that the child was ready to marry and bear chil¬≠dren. In fact, there was even the ‚Äėwan¬≠der¬≠ing womb‚Äô the¬≠ory. This the¬≠ory stated that if one didn‚Äôt pro¬≠cre¬≠ate shortly after men¬≠stru¬≠at¬≠ing for the first time, their womb would wan¬≠der about the body. Fur¬≠ther¬≠more, they believed that if the period didn‚Äôt start by 14, the blood would clus¬≠ter around the teenager‚Äôs heart. This could cause irra¬≠tional behav¬≠iour, swear¬≠ing, fever, and even depres¬≠sion or sui¬≠ci¬≠dal ten¬≠den¬≠cies. In other words, hys¬≠te¬≠ria ‚Äď a 19th cen¬≠tury word taken from the Greek for womb, hys¬≠tera.

Hippocrates‚Äôs response to this was blood¬≠let¬≠ting, to get rid of the excess. With no knowl¬≠edge of the dif¬≠fer¬≠ence between blood and period blood, it was all the same to him. And if a per¬≠son stopped hav¬≠ing peri¬≠ods alto¬≠gether, he wor¬≠ried about them expe¬≠ri¬≠enc¬≠ing a build-up of blood, caus¬≠ing sick¬≠ness, fits and ‚Äėmanly‚Äô behav¬≠iour. Blood¬≠let¬≠ting was his go-to cure here, too; he is well known for swear¬≠ing by it.

How did they han­dle peri­ods in ancient Greece?

There is some infor¬≠ma¬≠tion online that claims that peri¬≠ods in ancient Greece often saw men¬≠stru¬≠a¬≠tors using some¬≠thing sim¬≠i¬≠lar to a tam¬≠pon. Hip¬≠pocrates is cited as men¬≠tion¬≠ing small pieces of wood in soft lint being put into the vagina to catch blood. There are even ref¬≠er¬≠ences to Egyp¬≠tians using papyrus fibres for these ancient tam¬≠pons, while Romans used a softer cot¬≠ton. Unfor¬≠tu¬≠nately, there is no actual evi¬≠dence for this. The Hip¬≠po¬≠cratic trea¬≠tises men¬≠tion insert¬≠ing wool into the vagina to admin¬≠is¬≠ter med¬≠ical sub¬≠stances, but not in the con¬≠text of peri¬≠ods. As Dr Helen King points out, that myth prob¬≠a¬≠bly orig¬≠i¬≠nated as mar¬≠ket¬≠ing on the Tam¬≠pax website.

So what did they use? We know that many women in the past rarely used prod¬≠ucts at all and sim¬≠ply bled into their clothes. Dr King sug¬≠gests that a play by Aristo¬≠phanes sug¬≠gests wraps were worn around the thighs to catch blood. Fur¬≠ther¬≠more, there is a story told about the Greek philoso¬≠pher Hypa¬≠tia, who threw men¬≠strual cloths at unwanted suit¬≠ors. This was sup¬≠pos¬≠edly to show them the real¬≠ity of the body and break their ide¬≠alised ver¬≠sion of her. 

Over¬≠all, we don‚Äôt have much infor¬≠ma¬≠tion about the ancient Greeks in gen¬≠eral. We espe¬≠cially don‚Äôt have much infor¬≠ma¬≠tion about a topic largely of inter¬≠est to peo¬≠ple whose voices aren‚Äôt rep¬≠re¬≠sented in his¬≠tor¬≠i¬≠cal records. But read¬≠ing between the lines can show us dif¬≠fer¬≠ent ways of approach¬≠ing the same expe¬≠ri¬≠ence, which is rel¬≠e¬≠vant then and today. And if it helps debunk myths about a func¬≠tion as old as the human race, then that‚Äôs all the better!

Published at 1. December 2021
Ailsa lives in England and studies in Scotland. She spends her time writing, daydreaming about fantasy worlds and wondering about the future of our own. As a student of history and politics, she is especially interested in thinking about how the experiences of women, LGBTQ people and other minorities fit into all three ‚Äď especially when the topic of menstruation is involved.

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