This topic comes up pretty frequently, so I’m going to make a post about it that hopefully covers everything in the best ways possible:
Boeotian vase painting with Artemis
Long story short, it’s actually been concluded that —while unusual for the Mediterranean in ancient times— the ancient Hellenes didn’t appear to consider menstruation as a producer of miasma, in and of itself
. In fact, there are very few mentions of menstruation at all, outside of medical texts — one of which even suggests sex during menstruation to aid erratic periods
(and while this may have nothing to do with irregular periods, many doctors now suggest that sexual intercourse, or at least masturbation during a woman’s period may relieve cramping). In fact, some regions even had a girl’s coming-of-age rites to include sacrificing her first menstrual towels to Artemis.
Now, that said, some women have incredibly painful periods, and that painful cramping, headache, nausea, etc…. It’s a popular argument that this physical ailment, in and of itself is “miasma”, because of the idea that “our minds are not fully engaged in worship”; Dver explains quite succinctly that miasma is not about our “feels”, it’s about what is regarded as ritual and spiritual pollution to a certain god or gods. So, basically, the uterus performing its regular function? Even if it’s painful for you? Not likely miasma. And as others have noted, unwashed hands, on their own, are not miasmic, but disrespectful to approach Ta Theoi with — so I figure women who are experiencing an especially “heavy flow” day may not wish to approach the altar or shrine on account of it simply being “less than fresh”, not because of the (apparently false) notion that “menstruation = miasma”.
That aside, ancient Hellas is, as I said, rather unusual for the ancient world, especially the Mediterranean regions, in that there is virtually nothing suggesting that menstruation (and thus all fertile-bodied females, inherently speaking) as being somehow “unclean”, spiritually or otherwise — or at least no more so than any other day-to-day thing that can cause physical uncleanliness. Pretty much everything we know about women’s menstrual culture of ancient Hellas is in medical writings, bits about the cultic rites of Artemis and menarche, and the occasional interpretation of a vase-painting as depicting menstrual dress.
As for it being “miasma” in that it’s “contact with blood” — well, it’s mostly a mix of placental tissues and and uterine and cervical mucuses, and thus not technically blood — the average menstrual cycle contains maybe a teaspoon of blood from torn capillary veins (as the endometrial tissues slough off); I furthermore have it on good authority from women who’ve actually tasted menstrual fluid as well as actual blood that “blood tastes metallic, menses does not”, so if you have the ability to try it out yourself and wish to test their assurance that “menses ≠ blood”, then by all means, do so — or you can just do what I do, as a non-menstruating human, and take the word of doctors who ought to know these things.
And basically, I’ve had paper-cuts that produced more blood than the average woman’s period. My solution for a paper-cut before ritual? Rinse it in salt-water (my mother was a nurse and says it can actually be helpful, so even pre-polytheism, I’ve always done this), say a prayer to Asklepios, slap a bandage on it, and forget about it. My suggestion for menstruating women? Take a relaxing bath in some bath salts (this can also help relieve cramping) and then change your pad / tampon / cup / towel / whatever before ritual, offer a prayer to Hygaea and Rhea (as menstrual blood seems sacred to Rhea), and forget about it (well, until you need to change your stuff, obviously). The act of menstruation itself is not miasma, the menstrual fluid itself has about as much a taint of “miasma” as a paper-cut — the ancient Hellenes didn’t see menstruation as spiritual uncleanliness, and I see no reason to change this model just because a dozen centuries of Judeo-Christian influence have women running around screaming “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!” more-scarier than Diamanda Galas once a month.
As for “contact with blood”, in and of itself being miasmic, well, as Dver had noted, that’s not really as open-and-shut as a lot of people on the Internet want to make it out to be. Animal blood is not miasma, or the temple priests would not have sacrificed all those animals on the temple grounds. The blood of war was not on the same level as a murder, and I’ll have to look again, but I recall some offerings to Ares including swords and spears still holding the blood of enemies. Sannion has also cited sources on certain Dionysian rites that hold purification for the ritual to be washed in blood. Sannion also has explained some thorough guidelines for miasma abstention time. In general, it seems one’s own blood (especially to those who want to hold to the erroneous belief that “menstrual fluid = blood”) was not a source of miasma. So that papercut? Put a bandage on it. Your stitches from a surgery? Well, I guess as soon as you’re up and about, just make sure your dressings are clean. Your menstrual period? Pop in a tampon, slap on a pad, stick in a cup, or do whatever else you do (we’re assuming you’re not freebleeding; that’s probably not appropriate for those who choose to employ the recon method), take a muscle relaxer if you feel it necessary, and go on with your practise, because it’s not a source of miasma.
If a woman still wishes to abstain from ritual during your period, well, that’s her prerogative, I suppose (and I’m just a guy who doesn’t bleed down there, so feel free to not listen to me all you like), but it’s not spiritually necessary in Hellenismos, even staunch recons, for menstruating women to abstain from anything in their practises.
(ETA on 27 July 2014)
Cos this has been recently referenced in places, I figured I’d take advantage of this opportunity to inform people reading this for the first time that I’m raising funds for my upcoming move back to the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area
I’m also giving away Heathen goddess prayer cards.