Menstrual Taboos

by | December 3, 2011


“Contact with menstrual blood turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die… Even that very tiny creature the ant is said to be sensitive to it,” wrote the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder in his Natural History in AD 77. Taboos surrounding menstruation can almost be called a “cultural universal”: something that exists, in some form, across all cultures, throughout all time. We, humans, simply don’t like talking about the curse. Here are a few of the more extreme restrictions placed on women during that special time of the month.


-Among the Warao of Venezuela, menstruating women must live and sleep in a special hut away from the village.


-Menstruating women belonging to the Iroquois tribes of the South-eastern United States must not prepare, touch or even look at medicines. Their contact with medicine, according to traditional belief, would not only destroy its power but also harm its intended recipient.


-According to a custom of the Crow people of the western United States, menstruating women are forbidden from coming near sacred objects or men starting out for war. They must also ride inferior horses.


-The Mae Enga of the New Guinea highlands believe that contact between a menstruating woman and a man will turn the man’s blood black and slowly kill him. An anthropologist reportedly knew a Mae Enga tribesman who divorced his wife because she slept on his blanket while bleeding.


-According to the Eskimo, if a man comes into physical contact with a menstruating woman, an invisible vapour will attach itself to the man and make him less successful at hunting.


-Among the Beng of Ivory Coast, a menstruating woman may not touch a corpse, cook for old men or set foot in the forest. She may not touch the logs or coals on the fire of a non-menstruating woman.


-The Bible mandates that menstruating women must refrain from sexual contact. Leviticus 18:19 reads: “You shall not approach a woman in her time of unclean separation, to uncover her nakedness.” An Orthodox Jewish woman cleanses herself by taking a ritual bath after her period ends.


-In Malekula, an island of the New Hebrides, a menstruating woman may not enter a garden in which young plants are growing.


-Menstruating women belonging to the Kaulong tribe of New Britain are confined to the forest. They must be careful to avoid gardens, dwellings and water sources.


While most cultures treat menstruation as a curse, some see it as a blessing. Among the Vaishnava Bauls of Bengal, menstrual blood is thought to have potent energising properties. Traditional songs lyrically refer to it as a river that rises once a month. An anthropologist studying the Vaishnava Bauls reported that it is customary for a girl’s family members to ingest a few drops of her first menstrual blood, sweetened by milk and sugar.


Image Credit: Koji Minamoto