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MENSTRUATION AND SUPERSTITION

When we hear about menstrual superstitions in parts of Asia and Africa, girls and women taught to feel that their bodies are tainted, unholy, and unhygienic once a month, we cringe. But until 60, 70 years ago Italians and Italian-Americans had similar weird anti-women prejudices. First of all, in a lot of families a woman was not allowed to enter the kitchen while having her period, could not can vegetables or fruit, make jams or mayo, cure or butcher meat, make cheese or churn butter. None of those things would have worked if she even got close to the table, they believed.

Not too bad, you would think, considering the amount of work women had to do daily when there was no electricity, and no running water in most countryside houses. Unfortunately, they were allowed to do the heavier works like fetch water, wash clothes at the river, scrub floors, gather firewood, carry heavy loads, etc. etc., while suffering from cramps.

It got scarier: like witches from a Grimm’s tale, they could not touch fruit trees or garden plants because the fruits would fall and the plants wilt, they could not go near wineries because wine would turn into vinegar. They were told not to wash and set their hair since it would only hang down like overcooked spaghetti, and not to swim because they would get sick.

The menstruation taboo lasted for thousands of years. According to the Book of Leviticus in the Bible, a woman on her period has the reverse of the Midas touch: everything she touches will turn to filth, including any man.

In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder - a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire - wrote in his Natural History: “It would indeed be a difficult matter to find anything which is productive of more marvelous effects than the menstrual discharge. On the approach of a woman in this state, must will become sour, 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. Her very look, even, will dim the brightness of mirrors, blunt the edge of steel, and take away the polish from ivory. A swarm of bees, if looked upon by her, will die immediately; brass and iron will instantly become rusty, and emit an offensive odor; while dogs which may have tasted of the matter so discharged are seized with madness, and their bite is venomous and incurable.“

Terrible things are told about the monstrous power of menses, whose magic I have already discussed, of which I can repeat the following without embarrassment: if the female force begins to flow in a solar or lunar eclipse the harm will be irremediable, and even if there is no moon, and sexual intercourse is pestiferous or fatal to the man; purple is contaminated by menstruating women, so much the greater is their force. But at other times during the menstrual period, if the women walk naked through a field, worms, beetles, and other pests fall down. Metrodorus of Scepsis says that this was discovered in Cappadocia during an infestation of cantharid beetles, so women walk through the fields with their dresses hiked up above their buttocks.”