Menstrual Tropes & Misogyny
I’m not sure that the ‘pollution’ of menstruation is ever fully separate from the idea of essential femininity in the minds of misogynists or misogynist systems. How could it be? It still occupies a significant placement among the Mosaic purity laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and gets ample treatment in the Koran. It was a staple of the Christian banning of women from the priesthood after the Council of Nicea, and their barring from touching the altar or its regalia (women’s menstrual “polluted touch”). It is why, until recently women’s voices were not to be heard in Christian sacred spaces, including the Vatican, not even Mother Theresa’s.
Avoiding feminine ‘pollution’ provided the logic for the institution of boys’ choirs for the soprano sections of sacred music and chant and the creation of castrati to work as contra-tenors for Church music. Menstrual feminine pollution is the reason why women are still not permitted in the main halls of Orthodox synagogues or Mosques, and why in orthodox Christian churches women were ‘churched’ after childbirth as a prophylactic against their pollution via ‘lochia,’ or birth blood. Women were actually Churched for two weeks longer in the event of a female infant having been born, due to the greater spiritual pollution inherent in a female birth, and were required to perform additional ‘purification’ rituals, penances, and Acts of Contrition.
It is why female churchgoers had to wear hats or head coverings in church. Medieval medicine thought women’s hair was made out of menstrual blood and could turn into snakes, and also there were Pauline strictures against women’s ‘menstrual’ hair and the spiritual pollution sexually enflaming feminine hair might confer to angels watching over the virtuous men during worship. Women were compelled to wear gloves in church (to confine the ‘polluted touch’). It is also why there would often be a veil on the typical church hat so as to confine the ‘polluted’ feminine gaze. Female eyes were thought in Church theology, based on Aristotelian-Galenic medical models and Natural Philosophy, to have a direct hotline to the womb. Conceptions of the womb and of the feminine mind were the root of women’s and adolescent girls’ magical ability to manifest physical forms from sights entering into or out of their eyes as ‘vapours,’ a theory called ‘extramission.’
Rufinus, in his Exposition of Symbol (written in 404 for the instruction of catechumens), used the abjectification of menstruation to accentuate Christ’s spiritual immunity to feminine pollution: ‘It seems unsuitable (indignum) that such majesty should pass out through the genitals of a woman, for while there may be no contagion from contact with a man, yet there will be in this childbirth the injury of obscene touching… When therefore this is the case with material things, do you suppose that any pollution or obscenity could happen to that supereminent and incorporeal nature which is beyond all fire and all light?’
This argument positioned Christ in polarised opposition to the feminised, physicalised ‘filth’ that ordinary mortals were represented as ‘feeding’ on, the sinful material that Innocent III later cited as the prime evidence of humanity’s miserable, fallen condition. Thomas Aquinas represented Woman’s touch as capable of throwing Man down from pinnacles of spiritual perfection into moral infamy: “…through a woman’s touch a man’s soul — as Augustine taught — descended from its lofty heights, and his body fell under her domination and thereby into ‘a slavery more bitter than any other’ (In 1 Cor. 7:1).” Echoing Augustine, Aquinas tells us in the Summa Theologiae (II/II q. 151 a. 3 ad 2), “Nothing drags the mind of man down from its elevation so much as the caresses of woman and the bodily contacts without which a man cannot possess his wife.”
It’s the reason cited since the earliest suppression of women after the first warfaring city states arose, with their institutions of gender discrimination, male-dominant hierarchies, authoritarian elite structures and slavery as the cultural and ideological by-products of the culture and spirituality or cultus, of war. It is the original grounds of suppression and oppression of a subject population of this magnitude. And it is the grounds cited in the first male-dominant organized religions for the subjugation of women, from Zoroastrianism and its three bastard children, the Three Main Orthodoxies of the Judeo-Christian Abrahamic stem, of which Islam is merely the latest.
In the Zend-Avesta, the recorded survivals of the oral tradition of Zoroaster, the original Absolute Evil, Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, the model for the Judeo-Christian Devil or Saturn/Satan, was awakened in the form of a dragon from his 3,000 year long sleep and prompted to work evil against mankind (and I do mean ‘man’-kind). ‘For it is told that Angra Mainyu [the Devil], Lord of Evil and antagonist of the good Lord Ahura Mazda [God], having slept three thousand years was awakened by a female friend, Jahi (‘Menstruation’), who shouted at him,” saying, “Arise, O father of us all! For I shall now cause in the world that contention from which the misery and injury of Ahura Mazda and his Archangels are to proceed. I shall empoison the righteous man, the labouring ox, the water, plants, fire, and all creation.’ Whereupon Angra Mainyu, starting up, kissed her on the forehead, and the pollution called menstruation appeared upon the demoness….’ (Lederer, W., M.D., ‘The Fear of Women.’ New York and London, 1968.)
The actual text in the Zend Avesta, from Müller, F. M., ed. The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. V.: The Pahlavi Texts, The Bunahis and Bahman Yast, trans. E. W. West. Oxford, 1880: ‘Rise up, thou father of us! For in that righteous conflict I will shed thus much vexation on the righteous man and the labouring ox that, through my deeds, life will not be wanted, and I will destroy their living souls (nismo); I will empoison the water, I will empoison the plants, I will empoison the fire of Ahura Mazda, I will make the whole of creation empoisoned. And so she recounted those Evil deeds a second time, that the evil spirit was delighted and started up from that confusion; and he kissed Jahi on the head; and the pollution which they call menstruation became apparent in Jahi. He shouted to Jahi thus: ‘What is thy wish? So that I may give it thee.’ And jahi shouted to the evil spirit thus: ‘A man is the wish, so give it to me.’ The form of the evil spirit was a log-like lizard’s (vazak) body, and he appeared a young man of fifteen years to Jahi, and that brought the thoughts of Jahi to him.’ I think that the historic demonic contract described in this passage, or the elements of it that migrated into Judeo-Christianity, are what came to bear in the Witch Hunt, and is what Baldung is illustrating, through inference and cathexis, in the ‘Witch and Dragon’ drawing above.
Feminine blood, by which was meant uterine blood and the polluted ‘vapours’ and humours it generated, was synonymous with Original Sin — mortifying, polluting and damning. It was synonymous with The Fall, and provided the reason for Man’s hapless and vulnerable postlapsarian, ‘fallen’ estate. Acres of ink have been spilled by the Christian Fathers in abjectly describing the dynamic — The Curse of Eve.
Menstrual tropes were active during the Inquisition in condemning women to be ‘cleansed by the flame’ as ‘witches. Feminine blood conferred The Curse of Eve, could coerce by means of sexual temptation, and could not even be looked on by Inquisitors torturing or executing women condemned as menstrual ‘witches.’ Feminine blood, from “her eyes, from her ears…” from “her…wherever,” must not be glimpsed, even when issuing from female martyrs and saints.
As Pope Innocent III famously averred in his seminal work in the contemptus mundi tradition, ‘The Misery of the Human Condition’ (De miseria…), female blood was “filthy to speak of, filthier to hear of, filthiest to see….Hear now on what food the child is fed in the womb; actually on menstrual blood, which ceases in the female after conception so that the child in her womb will be nourished by it. And this blood is reckoned so detestable and impure that on contact with it fruits will fail to sprout, orchards go dry, herbs wither, the very trees let go their fruit; if a dog eat of it, he goes mad. When a child is conceived, he contracts the defect of the seed, so that lepers and monsters are born of this corruption. Wherefore according to Mosaic law a woman during her monthly period is considered unclean, and if anyone approach a menstruous woman it is commanded that he be put to death. Because of this uncleanness it is further commanded that a woman keep away from the entrance to the temple for forty days if she bear a male child but for eighty days if she bear a female.” (Innocent III/Lothario dei Segni. De miseria condicionis humane, ed. R. E. Lewis. Athens, 1978.)
In all fairness, Innocent III was getting his stuff from Pliny the Elder (c.50 AD), who was regurgitating Aristotle, much like St. Augustine, St. Paul (called ‘the Philosopher Saint’), St. Jerome, Isidore of Seville, and St. Thomas Aquinas, among other ‘Fathers of the Church.’ But his example serves to exemplify the enduring discourse around the Aristotelian theory of ‘feminine defect’ (the visible evidence of which was menstruation) and ‘polluted’ feminine blood. Theological and secular discourses like these not only openly fueled the Witch Hunt and other historic femicidal events, but they underwrite contemporary male violence toward women and girls as the currently leading Human Rights abuse on Earth. They supply the context in which a thriving subtext of misogyny plays out in available Health Care for women and mothers, or the lack of: “The US was one of only 13 countries, including North Korea and Zimbabwe, that saw its maternal death rate increase since 1990. We are going in opposite direction of the whole worldwide trend,” according to University of Maryland researcher Marian MacDorman, who co-authored the best available national study of US maternal mortality in 2016.
When unconsciously misogynist scientific researchers of the 1970s and 80s, following the still extant Aristotelian medical model, discovered that fetuses persistently thrived and fared better when they were properly being nourished by their natural matrix of uterine blood in real wombs rather than test tubes or disembodied, artificial ‘sterile’ see-through plastic wombs, they were ‘surprised’ and seemingly couldn’t figure it out. Their unconscious biases were preventing them from seeing the obvious. More recent (and more enlightened) research and approaches have recognized uterine blood and menstrual fluid as ‘the perfect food’ — clean, rich in nutrients, minerals, amino acids, immune boosters, and nurturant qualities, and that it is a rich source of sound and healthy stem cells for use in life-saving transplants.
Polluted feminine blood tropes are why Donald Trump’s ‘dog whistles’ to his base, denigrating powerful or threatening women, like Hillary Clinton, Mika Brzezinski, or Megyn Kelly, with abject menstrual imagery, land so hard. It is why Trump ‘feminine blood’ comments and Tweets inflame systemic, institutionalized misogyny so successfully. There is still a widely dispersed, deeply embedded distrust of femininity and of feminine blood, instilled over centuries of indoctrination and fear-mongering.