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First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

Chapter 5


You can’t touch the trees. They will die.1

‘You can’t touch the trees. They will die’. The statement, made by the totally modern-looking woman seated opposite me, had a certain shock value in this society of advanced technology and instant communication. Yet why should I be surprised? Few women growing up in the 1950s and 1960s would be unfamiliar with these so-called old wives’ tales, anecdotes of magic and women’s lore, usually greeted with derision or fascination as part of an informal education beginning at menarche and centring on women’s life matters. These were not stories in the sense of fairy tales but brief warnings, prescriptions or prohibitions that might be embroidered to make a point, shared between mother and daughter or friends who heard them from older female relatives. Some were believable and others frankly bizarre. Rosalia first heard about the power of menstrual blood when she experienced menarche in Sicily. Later, having migrated to Australia to settle in Melbourne, she recalled ‘we used to have a lemon tree with lemons all year round. You know what? One person went there and she loved lemons and she picked the lemons and she said it was so beautiful. Whether she had her period or not – from then on the tree went backwards’.2

Was this menstrual magic or a way of explaining the inexplicable? And ought we to be surprised to learn that the same belief remains part of cultural life for some young immigrant girls in Melbourne?3 These cautionary stories or anecdotes had a very real place in the life of girls at menarche in the recent past, and many continue to be observed among certain cultural groups today. In this chapter we will explore several issues. First, the similarities and differences between the stories recalled by women from diverse cultures. Second, the purpose served by menstrual lore and the meanings inferred by it. Third, where does the lore come from and what is the reason for its survival? Fourth, is women’s menstrual lore a part of all cultural histories and what is its relevance for girls in today’s societies?

The mode of transmission of women’s menstrual lore reflected the oral tradition of many cultures, and the fact that, even among cultures that are gaining a literate tradition, non-literacy is still predominant among women. Menstrual lore was a blending of myth and folklore that was entirely secular. For instance, at the onset of her menarche Maria feared she was sick. Her mother reassured her of her normality, at the same time warning her ‘not to use cold water. It’s no good and she told me not to have vinegar and not to have a lemon with my period. I didn’t know why but she explained to me it’s no good for you. No good for the blood’. Maria continued ‘you can’t touch the trees. They will die’. She repeated this twice for emphasis, continuing ‘and if we make the sauce not to touch the sauce and not to go near the sauce or the wine. Not to touch the grapes when you make wine ’cause it will go off’.4

The warning about the effects of vinegar and lemon juice were unfamiliar to Rosalia, in Sicily, although she had been warned about touching certain things, including tomatoes being made into sauce, remembering that ‘we used to make it in a big dish and dry it out in the sun and put in a lot of salt and then you put it away. You cover it with special material … it stays all winter. Mum said “when you’ve got your period don’t go near”, and not all women, but lot of women, have a very strong period and if they touch a plant or a tree it would have died’.5 Rosalia introduces two important issues here. Firstly, that not all Italian women share the same menstrual folklore and, secondly, that the effect of the menstruous touch does not belong to all women but primarily to those who have greater menstrual power or strength.

Among the second group of Italian women, Loretta did not believe that the touch of a menstruating woman might kill plants, but she was definite that ‘if you make a tomato sauce and you have your period the tomatoes don’t come good. They go off. There they cook a lot of sauce and when you go to help they ask “do you have your period?” If you say you do they say “no, no, no you can’t”’.6 Yet not all women shared this menstrual lore either. It had no part in Neve’s earlier life – ‘my mother not do this no touch this, no touch that’7 – and Alcina moved from a small town to Rome shortly after menarche – ‘I live in the city … and city life … I’ve never heard’8 – indicating the belief may have been confined to rural areas.

But the idea of harm emanating from the menarcheal and menstruating girl was evident in many other cultures. Within the rural area of northern Uganda, tribal belief in this destructive power was transmitted to Cecile at menarche. ‘They told me not to climb on the fruit trees because they will rot … like mangoes … the girls with periods are not allowed to climb the trees’.9 She recalled that girls and women were prohibited from drinking milk when menstruating but it took further reading to discover it was because of the belief that production of milk from the cows would be affected.10 Cecile made reference to menstrual avoidance of touching certain foods but from a practical viewpoint, ‘sometimes you couldn’t, but then it also depends on the women who prepare food. Even cutting a pineapple which they will do, they don’t, and you wouldn’t tell people [laughs] … but a woman has to cook’.

Menstrual prohibitions extended to questions about care of the menstruating woman’s body, including food that was to be avoided, and sometimes the need to protect the body from water. Ramona remembered ‘my mum told me I can’t wash my hair … because the blood will stop and something’s going to happen to you and is no good. I could have a shower but no long shower … but not to wash my hair. She told me never to go in the bath’.11 Beatriz, also recalled her mother’s instructions ‘you don’t wash hair … you don’t eat any sour things like lemons’.12 This was endorsed by Lola. ‘I wasn’t allowed to have a shower. Nothing to do with cold water because Mum said … I remember I asked why, and she said “because your period is going to stop”, and not to drink lemon. I used to love lemon. I used to cut a lemon in half and eat it, licking with salt, and now she said “no. No lemon at all”’. I asked for further explanation. ‘It is like a coagulant, and I think they believe that because in our country when we kill a lamb, we keep the blood. When you get the blood it’s just liquid blood … but if you put a lot of lemon in … you’re congealing it like a jelly and I think that was the belief, so if you drank lemon juice the period blood would congeal and I wasn’t allowed to touch the salad with the lemon juice dressing’.13

The theme of water and its effect on the menstruating body was recalled widely among my interviewees. Aleli in the Philippines learned that ‘when you have your period you’re not to have a shower the whole week. No showers until your period finishes. There is a word in Tagalog [Filipino language] that they call “pas mal”. I don’t know how to translate it to English but they said if you have the shower when you have your period, when you grow older you will have pains and aches’.14 Aleli pointed out that showers in the Philippines were never hot. Ria related similar lore. ‘When you’ve got your period first day, second day, third day you don’t bathe. That’s not allowed. I don’t remember why but you’re not allowed to do that. Just sponge down and clean yourself … not to get it in the vagina or even taking a shower … but really like bathing you have to wait until the thing has gone’.15 Corazon’s cousins were her informants. Their response to her menarche was urgent: ‘come, come, quick, quick, you have your shower, quick, but after this you shouldn’t shower any more because when you have your period you’re not allowed’.16 Nadia, born to a Lebanese mother in Alexandria, remembered being told that ‘we shouldn’t wash ourselves during the period. I asked my mother why. She said “you’ll have heavy bleeding because of the hot water”’.17 For Greek girls it was swimming rather than washing that was the issue. Alexandria-born Zosime recalled ‘we had showers there just boiling water in the tin and put some cold to make warm. Showers after toilet. Never be unclean’,18 and Alexandria-born Meletta, remembered ‘we have showers, cold showers but only showers. We don’t go to swimming’.19 This was endorsed by Athene, whose mother told her ‘you wash yourself, but no shower. No swimming’.20 In the Philippines Erlinda recalled ‘we’re not allowed to have a shower until the third day when it’s finished’.21

Prohibition of hair washing was widely reported. Maryam, a Christian from Lebanon, told me ‘we were not allowed to wash our hair when we had a period’. I asked why and was informed ‘it’s to protect her health because they believe when a girl has her period all the veins and arteries would be open and the hormones different so she will be more vulnerable to infection’.22 Maria, in Italy, also recalled being told ‘I cannot wash my hair’.23 Marjorie, in northern England, regarded it as an old wives’ tale: ‘you didn’t wash your hair when you have a period. I don’t know why but I think it was because you were considered not to be very well. And when you weren’t well, when you had a cold, you didn’t wash your hair because we didn’t have hairdryers in those days and we had, always had long thick hair. We didn’t say “she’s menstruating” or “she’s got a period” but “she’s unwell”. We certainly couldn’t go swimming, and we did swimming at school, so all the girls who had their periods would sit on the bench. As far as baths go I can’t remember but we only got a bath once a week’.24 Violetta, in the Philippines, remembered being told by her grandmother and aunties ‘not to take a bath but to wash in warm water … not hair’.25 This was corroborated by Corazon, who recalled, ‘you’re not allowed to have a shower, especially if you wet your head you’ll go crazy’.26

Restrictions on the foods a menstruating girl could eat were also widespread, although in some cases the women interviewed had not experienced them directly. Aleli noted that in the Philippines ‘you must not eat food that’s acidic like vinegar, green mangoes, anything with acid … sour in taste. It has to do with the passing of the blood. It will stop’.27 Levani, in Fiji, had vague recollections of hearing about menstrual traditions but has never been instructed by women members of her family. ‘I know that in other islands, Vanuatu for instance, there are certain kinds of food they are not allowed to touch while they are having their period. I don’t remember anything like that in Fiji’.28 Virisila, however, remembered ‘my mum and my auntie mentioned that when they had their period they were told not to shower for four days, and they were supposed not to eat certain foods … I think some kinds of leaves and some seafood. I remember asking them why that particular food and they said “we don’t know. That’s all we were told. We don’t know why”’.29

Menstrual food avoidance from menarche onward was remembered by Sue, a highly educated Chinese woman who told me the ‘only thing I can remember is my mother said “OK, no eating stuff like pineapple”’. It was believed that ‘particular foods would coagulate the blood a bit more’. To Sue, food avoidance ‘was more the kind of thing where they just said “look, it was too cooling” – the usual heating-cooling business we have in foods – “it was too cooling so stay away from that kind of thing”’.30 Qing, also Chinese, remembered ‘certain do’s and don’ts when we are experiencing the menarche. They advised me not to take the cold drinks because it would increase period pain’.31 Nirmala, in Indonesia, was told by her mother and grandmother to avoid eating egg during her period ‘because it gives the blood the strong smell’.32 Ria recalled food avoidance in the Philippines and how ‘we usually eat mangoes, green mangoes, that’s what we really like. We’re not allowed to eat the sour thing you know? The blood doesn’t flow’.33 Violetta heard the lore from her grandmother and aunties. ‘You will not eat sour fruits. They say the blood will clot’34 and Corazon heard ‘you’re not allowed to have vinegar, any sour things … green mangoes … because your blood will curdle’.35

While most menstrual lore proscribed or prohibited some actions, in a few cases there were specific activities prescribed at menarche. In the Philippines, for example, there was a tradition from ‘olden days, you have to go on four or five steps, and then you jump. This is signifying something. Maybe they’re regulating flow, I don’t know, but there’s something there so I just followed because my maid told me to do it. I’m panicking you know, I saw blood in my undies. Then my mother came at night time and was told about it and inquired “Have you done it?”’36 Erlinda recalled her mother telling her ‘to jump from the stairs, one-two-three, and I jumped because she said it will take three days for your menstruation to flow’.37 Violetta told me ‘they let us slip from the third step of the stairs so the menstruation will be only three days but I did not do that because my mum did not let me’.38 Corazon, on holiday with her cousins and the centre of their attention, remembered her auntie appearing and asking ‘“what’s going on here?” “Oh”, they said, “Corazon’s got her period now.” “Oh, come, come”, she said, “you have to jump [laughing] … you have to jump from the stairs”. We only have a few steps and anyway she said “doesn’t matter. You just have to jump from the top down”. I don’t know how many times, but they just asked me to jump’.39 Gloria was also directed by her auntie, ‘and she tell me to jump. Three times, so the period would not last too long’.40

Listening to the menstrual lore of women from such a diversity of cultures provided clear evidence of common themes which fall into in three distinct forms. First, the harmful effect of the menstrual body to plant life and certain food preservation processing. Second, the harmful effect of certain substances to the menstrual body, internally by ingestion or externally by contact with water. The third theme involved practices at menarche intended to control the menstrual body. I will examine these three forms at greater depth, beginning with Rosalia’s statement, which infers a mythical quality with deeper layers to it: ‘not all women, but lot of women, have a very strong period and if they touch a plant or a tree it would have died’.41 Rosalia introduces the binary concept of life and death as women, the givers of life, become the destroyers. She articulates the thought that menstrual power is not universal among women but belongs only to those with a strong period, women perhaps overtaken by a force whose strength is symbolised by pain and flow, breaching the body’s boundary to emanate as a separate entity of destruction.

The idea of this destructive power, emerging in a heightened form at menarche and recurring with all subsequent menstrual bleeds, entered Western thought through the writings of Roman naturalist and philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder, who was born in Como in 23 CE. Pliny’s Natural History combines a written account of the natural world with integrated essays on human achievements and organisation drawn from 100 other works.42 He emphasises the dangers of ‘the power of a menstruous woman’, particularly one ‘menstruating naturally for the first time’, cautioning that ‘young vines are irremediably harmed by [her] touch, and rue and ivy, plants of the highest medicinal power, die at once’. Even metal was affected: ‘the edge of razors [are] blunted, brass contracts copper rust and a foul smell’.43 Pliny remained influential in writings about menstrual lore and customs, referenced for example in a 1915 paper by the physician Raymond Crawfurd, on the superstitions of menstruation. Crawfurd cites Pliny’s ‘seeds which are touched by her become sterile, grafts wither away, garden plants are parched up, and the fruit will fall from the tree beneath which she sits’. In this passage, arguing the threat to fertility by the menstruous woman, Crawfurd perceives the key to women’s destructive menstrual force – her power over male virility in the unending struggle over survival of the fittest.44 Power exists, too, in the context in which Pliny compiled his text, according to Classical historian Lesley Dean-Jones, who claims Pliny’s anxiety over the menstruating woman reflects his concern over women’s increasing power and autonomy in his own society.45

The destructive power of menstruation continued to disturb the men who documented it and centuries later the durability of menstrual lore is seen in the work of British anthropologist-folklorist, Sir James Frazer (1890) who argues that:

in various parts of Europe, it is still believed that if a woman in her courses enters a brewery the beer will turn sour; if she touches beer, wine, vinegar or milk, it will go bad; if she makes jam it will not keep; if she touches buds, they will wither; if she climbs a cherry tree, it will die.46

And in an anonymously written article printed in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, in 1910, the author points out how menstruating women have historically been regarded in ‘a hostile light’:

old-fashioned Wessex and Worcestershire countrywomen, for instance, believed, and perhaps still believe, that when in this condition, they ought not handle raw meat for fear of spoiling it. German peasants, in the same way, believe, according to Ploss (Das Weib, 1884), that a menstruous woman entering a cellar turns the wine of the Fatherland to a sourness, and that if she cross a field she spoils the growth of young vegetation.47

The beliefs persisted. In 1940 the anthropologist M.F. Ashley-Montagu observed how the great French perfumeries prohibited women working during their periods, and in the famed mushroom-producing areas menstruating women were prohibited from picking. Nor could they work with silkworms in the south of France. Wineries, both in France and in the Rhine area of Germany, forbade menstruating women to be near or to touch any container in which fermentation of was taking place.48 Even today among Italians living in Toronto menstruating women are considered unsuitable for winemaking or tomato-canning activities; oral historian Luisa del Giudice points out the imitative colour connection with menstrual blood.49 Closer to home, a science teacher at a private co-educational college in Melbourne, with pupils from diverse ethnic backgrounds, comments on the conviction held by many of her female pupils that:

they can’t pick a lemon from a lemon tree when they have their period. It would poison the tree. Their mother doesn’t pick lemon from the lemon tree but would actually wait for the husband or son to come home to do that. Some suggested that you can’t water the garden, can’t take pickles from the pickle jar, otherwise you spoil the rest … One of my students even told me ‘I don’t know if you know Miss but you are not allowed to shower for five days because it stops your period’.50

Further examples of belief in the power of menstrual touch are found in Vanuatu, previously the New Hebrides, as Levani from Fiji recalled. Ni-Vanuatu women who were menstruating did not go into the area where young plants were growing, according to feminist literary scholars Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton and Emily Toth.51 Furthermore, Filipino folklore relates that ‘if a woman is having her monthly sickness, she should not visit or step on any garden because the plants will turn yellow and it will be destroyed in some way or another’.52 Similarly, the anthropologist Robert Levy discovered that in the Society Islands of Tahiti, women stayed away from the garden areas while menstruating because of the belief that plants they touched would become diseased, fruit would be ruined and flowers would wilt.53 More recently, the anthropologist Denise Lawrence, while observing gender relations within the social structure of a small rural town in southern Portugal, found the belief that the contact or even presence of a menstruating woman would cause plants to wilt. Lawrence’s work focuses on the effect of the menstruating woman on the socio-economic life of the small town, where gender equality exists in domestic relations and family savings and wealth are invested in pigs. The big event of the year is the annual household slaughter, providing cured meat for family use and for social obligations.The main concern is spoilage by a menstruating woman, whose mere look would cause loss of the source of family protein, money and status. More interesting is the agency women employ within the framework of this belief, which Lawrence argues allows them to maintain a central role in their society. Women are responsible for recruiting additional labour, both male and female, for the annual pig killing and curing activities, and also have control over who enters her property at the time.54

Lawrence’s research provides evidence that aspects of menstrual lore can still have practical relevance. These tales of the destructive menstrual touch which, like other myths, are usually considered untrue and arise from some past event that resonates with human experience, allow inaccurate claims to take on a life of their own in people’s minds. The historian Paul Cohen argues that over time, such beliefs can increasingly be accepted as factual, and Lawrence illustrated this by showing how the Portuguese community’s belief in the destructive menstrual touch influenced social thought and action, being expressed in certain attitudes and values to serve a particular present and women’s role in it.55 It is the semblance of truth existing in the distorted past event that historians Rebecca Collins and Bain Attwood insist must exist for a myth to form successfully.56 However, ethno-historian Jan Vansina argues that adaptation or distortion to fit a purpose makes myth an unreliable source, despite the fact that it remains central to the world-view of any culture.57 Most important, in the context of menstrual touch, is the accuracy of Cohen’s observation that myth assumes its most bizarre characteristics when historical evidence is absent.58

Without historical evidence the mythical quality of menstrual lore presents problems for interpretation. How are we to ‘read’ the stories of threat to lemon and mango trees and to other plant life, and what do we make of the menstrual power to ruin a year’s supply of vital sauce? At the 13th Katherine Briggs Memorial Lecture, in 1994, anthropologist Mary Douglas presented a paper discussing the interpretation of stories and myths, arguing that when social context is missing, meaning is attributed afresh by each new reader or listener who will, by habit, seek to interpret the original intention. Citing a French version of the familiar tale of Red Riding Hood as a vehicle for interpretation Douglas shows how understanding comes through cultural knowledge. More generally, Douglas surmises that folktales mirror life as it was, as a commentary on a current happening, and that the world of women was in reality a world of ‘blood, sex and rivalry’ in which beliefs about female physiology were transmitted from generation to generation. In myth and folktale the bodies of women are constructed as a contradiction to those of men. In opposition to men’s isolation from the cycles of nature, women have monthly menstrual cycles equating to Nature’s year, swinging them between emotion and rationality, mirroring Nature’s seasons of fermentation, budding, laying and proliferating. Their work is focused on the body in birthing, feeding, bathing and caring, and Douglas suggests that it was women’s recognition of connection between their own bodies and the natural world that caused them to impose restrictions on themselves. By avoiding touching fermenting wine, or pork curing in brine, they prevented any destructive bodily contagion caused by their like-state.59

Douglas argues that every time we read myth or folklore we try to locate the original meaning, and Cohen argues for the association between myth and human experience. I have found both in my many readings about menstrual lore and the widely shared belief in the dangers of menstrual touch. Looking for a missing link to help explain the centuries-old belief, I considered both the context and the conditions of women’s labour. The ordinary tasks of a woman’s daily life may not have held any significance in transmission of menstrual lore, nor to the men who later wrote the myths, but there is relevance. For instance, Lawrence has given the example that culturally and historically women did not slaughter animals. Their job was the preparation of meat for keeping through the salting and curing processes. In Italy they helped harvest, prepare and cook the tomatoes. In other countries their labour followed similar patterns. The work was arduous, requiring physical exertion over fires for long hours, day after day, during late summer and autumn. Often these women worked in conditions which made them sweat profusely. Hence they produced the physical circumstances that subsequent scientific research has theorised is necessary for the secretion of menstrual toxin. (This research is discussed later in the chapter.) It can also be argued women’s menarche and menstruation produced the political circumstances necessary for collective action by providing an interlude from their labour, one justified and maintained through myth. Moreover, the significance of myth in inter-group relations includes the propaganda value for men of the group, who could claim power through association, in relating the myth. So the story of menarcheal and menstrual power, and its effect on plants and meat processing, remains alive in some cultures until change, through education and technology, removes the need for it, committing it to the memories of old women and the perpetuity of writing.

The second form of menstrual lore is cautionary, warning of the harmful effect of certain substances to the menstrual body, internally through ingestion of certain foods and externally by contact with water. Once again, scientific research has provided certain validation for this age-old belief. Although many young girls, such as the Singapore-born Chinese Sue, were educated in a modern system, women’s menstrual lore remained influential. Sue clearly recalled her mother’s succinct ‘no eating of stuff like pineapple’. Similarly in Sri Lanka, foods including pineapple, pawpaw and mango were avoided due to the belief that they cause extreme blood loss and cramping pain, with Malays and Chinese in Malaysia believing pineapple to have abortifacient properties.60 In Haiti, Yolette Garaud, who experienced her menarche at 10 years of age, learned that:

A girl past eight years old was not supposed to eat certain fruit, like pineapple. Anything that was sour was a no-no. When I asked my grandmother why, she told me it was because at that age a girl’s body is changing and those fruits interfere with certain chemicals, and that death could be the result of such interference. Not knowing better, I just swallowed the story. Years after, I discovered it was just one of the thousands of myths surrounding menstruation.61

In her study of food beliefs and critical life events in peninsular Malaysia, medical anthropologist Lenore Manderson found pineapple, considered to be sharp and cold, was the most cited food cause of heavy menstrual flow and pain.62 Once again, scientific study has endorsed that which women in pineapple-growing areas have long known. The stem and fruit of the pineapple plant contains the substance bromelain, which has been tested as an anti-inflammatory agent for use in various medical conditions. On of the side-effects listed is menstrual problems: ‘bromelain may cause abnormal uterine bleeding or heavy/prolonged menstruation’.63 Its supplementary use for dysmenorrhoea, or painful periods, is noted in a UK hospital information sheet:

Bromelain: an enzyme found in pineapples, which has exceptional anti-inflammatory and blood thinning properties. Also relaxes smooth muscle (the uterus is made of smooth muscle) and increases the production of ‘good’ prostaglandins while reducing the production of ‘bad’ ones.64

It might be asked which comes first, menstrual pain that modern day Western institutions treat with bromelain from pineapple, or the heavy menstrual flow that bromelain causes? Evidence suggests wisdom in the menstrual lore of avoidance.

Sue had been instructed on the effect certain foods had on menstrual blood coagulation and on traditional Chinese ‘heating-cooling’ foods, which she did not elaborate on. Qing recalled advice from her sister about the effect of cold drinks on menstrual pain. According to sociologist Cordia Chu, who researched the menstrual beliefs of 97 Chinese women with diverse geographic and economic backgrounds from Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China, there is a general conformity to the underlying principles of yin-yang relating to concepts of cold-hot during menstruation, but some regional variation in defining which foods are cold in nature, and no reference made to the exotic pineapple. Chu argues that at menarche and during menstruation female bodies are significantly under the influence of the cold principle, yin, causing systemic imbalance, so any substances which exacerbate imbalance should be avoided. Women are advised against temperature-cold yin foods because they are thought to impair blood flow, with resultant pain. Conversely, foods cold in nature are thought to cause excessively heavy blood flow and are to be avoided. Maintaining the yinyang harmony is endorsed by the People’s Republic of China in public health information texts advising women against eating sour, salty, or cold foods while menstruating, advice still considered important by Chinese trained in Western medicine.65

In north-east Thailand, girls at menarche hear about food avoidance and how menstrual blood, considered a ‘hot’ substance, can emanate a heat that harms plants classified as ‘cool’ (such as mint). Thai menstrual lore includes anecdotes about the ingestion of cold-temperature foods, which obstruct menstrual flow, forcing it to the head and bringing about insanity.66 They share the belief in humoral physiology with Malays, and have similar hot-cold food classification and avoidances at menarche and during menstruation.67 Menstrual lore related by Filipino women was notably alike in the belief that food high in acid prevented good blood flow. Repeatedly, they related that at menarche girls were told not to eat green mangoes and to avoid anything containing vinegar.

The link between menstrual flow and the ingestion of certain foods was widely believed. In Chile menarcheal girls were told to avoid lemon, as we have seen. Spanish-speaking Lola’s explanation of cause and effect, based on the cultural practice of adding lemon juice to the blood of a freshly slaughtered lamb for keeping purposes, is based on the scientific principles of objectivity and reproducibility but appear physiologically skewed in the action of ingested lemon juice on the menstrual process. Nevertheless the belief was widespread, with Maria in Italy relating that she too had been told to avoid lemon because of its effects on her menstrual blood flow. Among Mayan women in Chichimila, Mexico, the anthropologist Yewoubdar Beyenne found the same avoidance of lemons for the same reason: the congealing effect on menstrual blood.68 The cautionary purpose of this form of menstrual lore was to ensure menstrual health as an indicator of good general health, hence reproductive health, among women of many cultures as we have seen above.

Equally of concern was the effect of water on the body of the menarcheal girl or the menstruating woman. A medical guide for women published in Canada in 1901 illustrates this concern:

Great care should be used to guard against any influences that may tend to derange the menses. Sudden suppression is always dangerous. Cold baths, foot baths, wetting the feet by the wearing of thin shoes, are very injurious during this period. A young woman anxious to attend a party or ball during this period sometimes takes a hip bath to arrest the discharge, but what a train of horrors follows such an insane act, and still there are many foolish enough to do this. 69

The ‘train of horrors’ risked by socially active girl, was a ‘cold of the uterus’ that might progress to chronic uterine inflammation, of major concern in Western societies at the time. Menarcheal girls worldwide to be cautioned about the effects of water on the menstrual body, but with diverse reasons based on different vulnerabilities. Maryam in Lebanon believed that water on her head endangered her health because during menstruation her blood vessels were open, making her vulnerable to infection, and in Taiwan today the same concept of vulnerability is present in women’s belief that bathing makes the menstrual body vulnerable to germs.70 In the Philippines, Ria was told just to sponge and clean herself but never to get cold water in her vagina. Marjorie in England also associated water on the menstrual body with unwellness, recalling how menstruating girls were excused from swimming classes at school. Cold water was associated with menstrual pain according to Maria in Italy and Virsilia in Fiji, and with the effect on menstrual flow by Ramona and Lola in Chile.

In Alexandria, Nadia was told that washing her body would cause heavy bleeding, and in Ukraine Olena’s grandmother told her that hot baths would have the same effect. In the Philippines attitudes to water varied. The belief that wetting the head caused craziness, as Corazon related, is also part of English folklore, which attributes ‘brain fever’ to hair washing.71 Aleli remembered being told that cold water on the menstrual body would predispose her to later rheumatism. Showering was prohibited for seven days.72 Ria and Erlinda recalled a three-day prohibition on showering, and a collection of Filipino folk-medicine proscriptions recommends the menarcheal girl or menstruating woman ‘should not take a bath for if she does the blood would stop flowing.73 The belief that bathing causes menstrual pain remains present in parts of the Philippines.74 In every directive of this menstrual lore is the same purpose as that of food avoidance: menstrual health signified by flow as an indicator of women’s reproductive health. When that becomes controlled by other means, including socio-cultural shifts and education, the significance of this menstrual lore may be lost.

The third form of menstrual lore, described at the beginning of the chapter, told of certain activities performed at menarche in the Philippines that were intended to control the duration of future menstrual periods. This prescribed activity has a firm place in Filipino folk-medicine and is reported by health professionals, working among adolescent girls in Mindanao, as one of the intergeneration transmissions of menstrual lore carried out ‘for the sake of tradition’.

On the day of a girl’s first menstruation, she must jump over three steps of the stairs. This will limit her menstruation to three days afterwards.75

This and the other aspects of menstrual lore recalled by my interviewees has been part of women’s knowledge for over 2,000 years. It is gender specific, usually transmitted by older family members – grandmothers, mothers, aunts or sisters – at the occasion of menarche and takes three identifiable forms, each relating to power. In the first instance, the overt purpose is the transmission of belief that harmful and destructive power begins emanating from the menstrual body at menarche, necessitating prohibition of certain physical actions for the protection of specified matter. The covert purpose of this form of lore is the transmission of agency that women have from the effects of their power, allowing them an intermission from their labour, particularly for women in non-industrialised areas. The second form of menstrual lore transmits the belief that the menstrual body is vulnerable to the harmful power of certain matter entering the body internally, through ingestion, or externally through contact. The third form combines the transmission of belief with prescribed, and supervised, physical action intended to generate power over the menarcheal body through control of blood flow. While scientific research into aspects of the first two forms has produced data indicating that certain menstrual lore may be based on observable fact, there is nothing for the third form which remains somewhat anomalous in its cultural practice and containment. However, it must be remembered that for all but one interviewee English was a second language, and for many fluency was lacking, so that menstrual lore told in regional dialects may ‘read’ differently. Nonetheless, there is a notable uniformity of belief among the individual Filipino participants who reiterated the event, cultural practice and intended effect.

Although there are noteworthy similarities and a broad cross-cultural global distribution in the menstrual lore related, it is not nationally widespread in the countries represented and some Italian interviewees, for example, were either unfamiliar with, or disbelieving of, stories told by other Italian women in the group. Characteristic of the genres of myth and folklore, the shared similarities include lack of context, particularly chronological, making historical interpretation and explanation of meaning in the conventional sense almost impossible. Although menstrual lore was, and remains in some cultures, ‘owned’ by women in the oral tradition, English language and literature scholar Christine Neufeld argues that the advent of literacy enabled men, with the authority of education, to document the lore as ‘old wives’ tales’ in the subversive context of gender politics, evident in assertions made by the authors about women, who were their sources of information.76 Overall, the purpose of menstrual lore, which goes back to ancient times in every culture, is to protect women’s reproductive health. Today, menstrual lore has almost disappeared in the industrialised world except among recently arrived immigrant communities, where women enforce certain cultural beliefs perceived to benefit young girls, or where transmission through other media is presented as part of a bigger picture of menarche and menstruation.

As part of the bigger picture, the place of scientific investigation into the phenomenon of the destructive power of the menarcheal or menstruating woman deserves acknowledgement. In 1920 the paediatrician Bela Schick, whose name would later become known through the Schick test for susceptibility to diphtheria, received a bunch of fresh roses that his attendant was reluctant to handle. Insisting that they be put in a vase of water, she complied. The roses wilted shortly afterwards and, in discussing their condition, Schick learned the woman was menstruating and her reluctance to handle the flowers was because she anticipated the effect from previous occurrences. Curious, Schick followed up historical sources on the subject, including Pliny, and, challenged by general opinion that the destructive power of menstruation was nothing more than superstition, decided to test the matter. He demonstrated that during the first two days of menstruation an unidentified toxic substance circulated in the blood and was excreted through the skin, including the hands. Its effect on flowers was found to be prevented by the use of sterile gloves. In another test, using a minimal amount of circulating blood, Schick found the growth of yeast was inhibited. When not menstruating, women’s blood produced no change.77 However, in his 1940 paper Ashley-Montagu refers to ‘certain women’ having the destructive menstrual power, which links with Rosalia’s conviction that it was not homogeneous.78

Other scientific investigations followed. In 1923 pharmacologists David I. Macht and Dorothy S. Lubin, using living plants in their research into toxicology, tested bodily secretions from healthy menstruating women.79 In all cases their results indicated that immediately pre-menstrual, and during the first two days of a period, levels of toxicity were evident in menstrual saliva, in skin secretion from the hands, which showed variations in levels of toxicity between individuals, and in axillary sweat.80 Blood products tested included serum, showing significant variation in toxicity between individuals with the highest levels obtained from young girls at and just post-menarche; red blood cells; and whole blood, which proved the most toxic of all. Additionally, whole dry blood and dry menstrual blood were tested and shown to retain their toxic properties,81 something of significance in Chinese belief, where it was believed to be dangerous to walk on the streets because of the possible presence of dry menstrual blood.82 A decade later, in 1934, medical researchers William Freeman and Joseph Looney modified the methods used by Macht and Lubin, to test the blood of healthy women for further evidence of menstrual toxin. The blood was taken within three days from the start of a period, usually the first day, and again mid-cycle. Their findings showed no increased toxicity at menstruation.83

Research continuing through the 1930s convinced Ashley-Montagu that 20th-century science had seemingly explained the long-held idea that menstruating women were imbued with a power destructive to plant life and other matter.84 It appears that the war years may have reduced both opportunity and interest in further research but in the 1970s references to menstrual toxin reappeared in the British medical journal Lancet, with Dr Helen Reid commented on ‘the brass-ring sign’, a black stain under the gold rings worn by women, attributed to skin secretion immediately before menstruation or during the first two days of a period.85 Dr Reid’s observation, with its shades of Pliny, caused Dr Geoffrey Davis to ask ‘what is this stuff?’ drawing attention to the fact that although the pharmacological basis for menstrual toxin had been provided by Schick, Macht and Lubin, identity of the actual agent remained unknown.86 The physiologist Vernon Pickles argued that although toxic to certain plants, menstrual toxin was less harmful to animal tissue. Pickles speculated on the possibility that it may belong to the group of prostaglandins, linking it to premenstrual depression, and called for further investigation.87 He later interested botanists in the subject, arguing the need for a better plant-test system to enable isolation of menstrual toxin, now referred to as menotoxin. With J. A. Bryant and D. G. Heathcote, Pickles tested menstrual fluid from students not taking oral contraceptives and found evidence of accelerated deterioration of Kalanchŏe flowers. They were unable to isolate menotoxin from the many prostaglandins, and conjectured that it may not be a single substance, or emanate only from the menstruating uterus, but might instead be a substance or substances linked with menstrual mood instability.88 From then on, little was heard about menotoxin, although the gynaecologist Nelson Soucasaux maintains there is some truth in the old stories of the destructive power of the menarcheal or menstruating woman. He points out that prostaglandins are present in the endometrium, the uterine lining which breaks down as menstrual blood, and these are responsible for menstrual contractions. As a result, Soucasaux argues a connection between menotoxins, which remain an unidentified substance or substances, and prostaglandins, stressing that the body which produces many toxic substances must constantly excrete them to enable maintenance of normal blood chemistry levels.89


In view of the current understanding of physiology, and the highly sophisticated research equipment that makes possible an exploration of connection between the menstruating body and traditional menstrual lore, it almost seems a pity that the whole phenomenon of menstrual lore is disappearing. It could be argued, though, to have outlived its purpose in today’s world. The purpose being control, practised in two ways: control of knowledge relating to the menstruating body by older women, and transmitted to a girl at menarche; and control by the girl, according to instructions received, over certain activities during menstruation, and in one example given by interviewees, activities by a girl to control duration of menstruation. The relationship between the transmission and reception of the lore, constructed in the transformative state of menarche, communicated to the girl that women’s menstruating bodies were both powerful, and vulnerable to malevolent power, particularly at menarche.

The survival of women’s lore was evident in the interview data and indicated the wide cultural spectrum of its history as well as the similarities in form and content, told as brief anecdotes of a prohibitive nature, and including some Mediterranean lore recognisable from the writings of Pliny in 32 C.E. indicating an ancient existence.

Interview data showed a wide variation in women’s understanding of the rationale behind the prohibitions and avoidances they described. No one mentioned ‘menotoxin’ although it was perhaps alluded to by several women in their references to ‘strong periods’ of potentially toxic affect. Chemical intervention has meant that menstrual problems are in general less a part of menstrual life for women than they were in the past. Indeed, the growing tendency toward chemically controlled menstruation may well prevent further investigation into a biological explanation for the rationale behind menstrual lore and belief in the destructive power of menarche and menstruation. Yet while myths are transmitted orally, visually, or in writing, human curiosity about the event or experience that attributes young girls and women with a supernatural power will almost certainly remain, so, too, will menstrual lore be kept alive by folklorists in oral presentation and writing. Although there may be no further scientific study into the phenomena of the menstrual touch, or investigations into the effect of certain foods eaten during menarche and menstruation, the subject will maintain historic relevance because of its glimpse across the centuries into human thought, and the ways in which diverse cultures made almost identical meanings about the process that begins at menarche.

1    Maria, 14 years old at menarche, Italy 1957.

2    Rosalia, 13, Italy 1950.

3    Fida Sanjakdar, “Teacher talk’: the problems, perspectives and possibilities of developing a comprehensive sexual health education curriculum for Australian Muslim students’, Sex Education, vol. 9, no. 3, 2009, p. 267.

4    Maria, 14, Italy 1957.

5    Rosalia, 13, Italy 1950.

6    Loretta, 10, Italy 1947.

7    Neve, 11, Italy 1941.

8    Alcina, 15, Italy 1947.

9    Cecile, 16, Uganda 1965.

10  Varina Tjon A. Ten, ‘Menstrual Hygiene as a big taboo’, Menstrual Hygiene: a Neglected Condition for the Achievement of Several Millennium Development Goals, European Commission – EuropeAid, Zoetermeer, 2007, p. 6.

11  Ramona, 15, Chile 1964. Cold water avoidance, hair-washing, ice-cream and cold drink prohibition during menstruation was widely practised among certain Spanish women who experienced menarche prior to 1975, according to anthropologist Britt-Marie Thurén in ‘Opening doors and getting rid of shame: experiences of first menstruation in Valencia, Spain’, Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 17, nos. 2–3, 1994, pp. 219, 222.

12  Beatriz, 12, Chile c.1960.

13  Lola, 17, Chile 1967.

14  Aleli, 10, Philippines 1959.

15  Ria, 13, Philippines 1955.

16  Corazon, 12, Philippines 1956.

17  Nadia, 11, Lebanon 1950.

18  Zosime, 11, Egypt 1934.

19  Meletta, 13, Egypt, year unknown.

20  Athene, 13, Greece c.1956.

21  Erlinda, 12, Philippines 1964.

22  Maryam, 15, Lebanon 1942.

23  Maria, 14, Italy 1957.

24  Marjorie, 12, England 1956.

25  Violetta, 14, Philippines 1938.

26  Corazon, 12, Philippines 1956.

27  Aleli, 10, Philippines 1959.

28  Levani, 16, Fiji 1967.

29  Virisila, 11, Fiji 1964.

30  Sue, 13, Singapore 1967.

31  Qing, 12, Hong Kong 1962.

32  Nirmala, 13, Indonesia 1964.

33  Ria, 13, Philippines 1955.

34  Violetta, 14, Philippines 1938.

35  Corazon, 12, Philippines 1956.

36  Ria, 13, Philippines 1955.

37  Erlinda, 12, Philippines 1964.

38  Violetta, 14, Philippines 1938.

39  Corazon, 12, Philippines 1956.

40  Gloria, 13, Philippines 1959.

41  Rosalia, 13, Italy 1950.

42  H. Rackham, ‘Introduction’, Pliny, Natural History in Ten Volumes, vol. 1, trans. H. Rackham, William Heinemann Limited, London 1967, pp. vii–ix.

43  Pliny, Natural History, vol. VIII, trans. W. H. S Jones, William Heinemann Limited, London, 1963, p. 57.

44  Pliny, Natural History, vol. VII cited in Raymond Crawfurd, ‘Notes on the superstitions of menstruation read before the historical section of the Royal Society of Medicine on Dec. 15th, 1915’, The Lancet, vol. 186, issue 4816, 18 December 1915, pp. 1332, 1344.

45  Lesley Dean-Jones, Women’s Bodies in Classical Greek Science, Oxford University Press (1994), Oxford, 2001, pp. 248–249.

46  Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion (1890), abridged edition, vol. II (1922), Macmillan and Company Limited, London, 1957, p. 794.

47  Unknown author, ‘The folklore of menstruation’, The Lancet, vol. 175, issue 4507, 15 January 1910, p. 184.

48  M. F. Ashley-Montagu, ‘Physiology and the origin of the menstrual prohibitions’, The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 15, no. 2, 1940, p. 212.

49  Del Giudice, Louisa, ‘Wine makes good blood: wine culture among Toronto Italians’,, p. 18.

50  Sanjakdar (2009), p. 267.

51  Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton and Emily Toth, The Curse: a Cultural History of Menstruation (1976), Revised edition University of Illinois Press, Urbana 1988, p. 11.

52  Francisco Demetrio y Radaza, S. J. (comp. and ed.), Dictionary of Philippine Folk Beliefs and Customs, Book III, Xavier University, Cagayan de Oro City 1970, entry 1759, p. 609.

53  Robert L. Levy, Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1973, p. 146.

54  Denise Lawrence, ‘Menstrual politics: women and pigs in rural Portugal’, in Blood Magic: the Anthropology of Menstruation, Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb (eds), University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988, pp. 120, 122–123, 125, 128. ‘Menstruating women should never salt pigs or enter a dairy or the butter will not churn/the cream will not rise/the cheese will not set’ is part of the collection in Mary Chamberlain’s Old Wives’ Tales: Their History, Remedies and Spells, Virago Press Limited, London, 1981, p. 231. Chamberlain gathered the collection of tales from herbal and domestic medical books and folklore and indicates these particular tales have been transmitted orally.

55  Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys: the Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, Columbia University Press, New York 1997, pp. 211–215.

56  Rebecca Collins, ‘Concealing the poverty of traditional historiography: myth as mystification in historical discourse’, Rethinking History vol. 7, no. 3, 2003, p. 343 and Bain Attwood, Possession: Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History, Miegunyah Press, Carlton 2009, p. 121.

57  Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition: a Study in Historical Methodology (1965), trans. H.M. Wright, Routledge and Keegan Paul, London, 1969, pp. 156–157.

58  Cohen (1997), p. 214.

59  Mary Douglas, ‘Red Riding Hood: an interpretation from anthropology’, Folklore, vol. 106, 1995, pp. 1, 4–5.

60  Chandrani Weerasinghe, Srikanthi Karaliedde, T. W. Wikramanayake, ‘Food beliefs and practices among Sri Lankans: temporary food avoidances by women’, Journal of the National Science Council of Sri Lanka, vol. 10, no. 1, 1982, p. 61, 63–64.

61  Yolette Garaud, ‘A student’s journal: on menstruation’, Women’s Studies Newsletter, vol. 6, no. 3, 1978, p. 23.

62  Lenore Manderson, ‘Traditional food beliefs and critical life events in Peninsular Malaysia’, Social Science Information vol. 20, no. 6, 1981, pp. 964–965.

63  ‘Drugs and supplements: Bromelain’,

64  ‘Dysmenorrhoea’, Patient Information, Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals,

65  Cordia Ming-Yeuk Chu, ‘Menstrual beliefs and practices of Chinese Women’, Journal of the Folklore Institute, vol. 17, no. 1, 1980, pp. 41–44. See also Charlotte Furth and Ch’en Shu-Yeuh, ‘Chinese medicine and the anthropology of menstruation in contemporary Taiwan’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 1, 1992, p. 36.

66  Andrea Whittaker, Intimate Knowledge: Women and their Health in North-east Thailand, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards 2000, pp. 72–74.

67  Manderson (1981), pp. 949–950.

68  Yewoubdar Beyene, From Menarche to Menopause: Reproductive Lives of Peasant Women in Two Cultures, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1989, pp. 105–106.

69  Mary R. Melendy, Perfect Womanhood for Maidens – Wives – Mothers, World Publishing Company, Guelph, Ontario, 1901, pp. 93, 182.

70  Furth and Shu-Yueh (1992), p. 37.

71  Chamberlain (1981), p. 231. See also Daryl Costos, Ruthie Ackerman and Lisa Paradis, ‘Recollections of menarche: communication between mothers and daughters regarding menstruation’, Sex Roles, vol. 46, nos 1–2, 2002, p. 54.

72  I have encountered this among Chinese women immediately post-partum.

73  Francisco Demetrio y Radaza, S.J., (comp. and ed.), Dictionary of Philippine Folk Beliefs and Customs, Book II,(1970), Xavier University, Cagayan de Oro City 1970, entry 1390, p. 443.

74  World Health Organisation Western Pacific Region, ‘Sexual and reproductive health of adolescents and youths in the Philippines: a review of literature and projects 1995–2003’, Office of Publications, World Health Organisation, Geneva, 2005, p. 64.

75  WHO Western Pacific Region, ‘Sexual and reproductive health of adolescents and youths in the Philippines: a review of literature and projects 1995–2003’ (2005), p. 64.

76  Christine Neufeld, ‘Speakerly women and scribal men’, Oral Tradition, vol. 14, no. 2, 1999, pp. 420–421, 426.

77  Horace L. Hodes, ‘Introduction to the presentation of the John Howland medal and award of the American Pediatric Society to Dr Bela Schick’, AMA American Journal of Diseases of Children, vol. 89. no. 2, 1955, pp. 248–249. See also Rita M. Montgomery, ‘A cross-cultural study of menstruation, menstrual taboos, and related social variables’, Ethos, vol. 2, no. 2, 1974, p. 144; Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb, ‘A critical appraisal of theories of menstrual symbolism’, in Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlied (eds) Blood Magic: the Anthropology of Menstruation, University of California Press, Berkeley 1988, p. 20; and Delaney et al (1988), p. 12.

78  Ashley-Montagu (1940), p. 214.

79  David L. Macht and Dorothy S. Lubin, ‘A phyto-pharmacological study of menstrual toxin’, Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, vol. 22, no. 5, 1923, p. 414.

80  Macht and Lubin (1923), pp. 418–419, 427–430.

81  Macht and Lubin (1923), pp. 421–426. Macht and Lubin also found evidence of toxicity in breast milk from menstruating women who were understandably difficult to find. See p. 430–431. It has long been observed by women, myself included, that babies may suffer gastrointestinal discomfort for a day or so. This has been confirmed by V. R. Pickles. See Vernon R. Pickles, ‘Prostaglandins and dysmenorrhoea: historical survey’, Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologia Scandanavia, vol. 58, no. S87, 1979, p. 7.

82  Buckley and Gottlieb (1988), in Buckley and Gottlieb (eds), pp. 34–35.

83  William Freeman and Joseph M. Looney with the technical assistance of Rose R. Small, ‘Studies on the phytotoxic index: II. menstrual toxin (“Menotoxin”) from the Worcester State Hospital and the Memorial Foundation for Neuro-Endocrine Research Worcester, Massachusetts’, Journal of Pharmacological and Experimental Therapeutics, vol. 52, no. 2, 1934, pp. 179–183.

84  Ashley-Montagu (1940), p. 217.

85  Helen Evans Reid, ‘The brass-ring sign’, Lancet, vol. 303, issue 7864, 18 May 1974, p. 988.

86  Geoffrey Davis, ‘“Menstrual toxin” and human fertility’, Lancet, vol. 303, issue 7867, 8 June 1974, p. 1192.

87  V. R. Pickles, ‘“Menstrual toxin” again’, Lancet, vol. 303, issue 7869, 22 June 1974, pp. 1292–1293.

88  J. A. Bryant, D.G. Heathcote, V. R. Pickles, ‘The search for ‘“menotoxin’”, The Lancet, vol. 309, issue 18014, 2 April 1977, p. 753. See also Buckley and Gottlieb (1988), in Buckley and Gottlieb (eds), pp. 19–20 and their criticism of Schick et al’s theory, which is based on cultural practice unrelated to the argument constructed.

89  Nelson Soucasaux, ‘Menstrual toxin: an old name for a real thing?’ 2001.

First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

   by Sally Dammery