The taboos sometimes surrounding a woman’s period today are nothing new, in fact, negative attitudes towards them can be found all throughout history. The lack of medical understanding surrounding a woman’s menstrual cycle and their hormones has often made periods the perfect subject of folklore and a target for misinformation.
Here are our favourite shocking historical myths that societies around the world once believed in without any scientific backing:
Greek tragedies 😴
In ancient Greece, it was believed that a woman’s flesh had sponge-like properties which allowed them to absorb fluid from food and drink. Periods were understood as a means for women to release this material before it built up and made them ill.
Ancient Greek physician Galen declared this fluid build-up to be the result of a woman’s laziness (how rude). Periods were therefore seen as a punishment for women not doing any hard labour. (1)
Natural disasters 🌅
Ancient Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny The Elder, wrote that the “monthly flux of women” would wither crops and seeds, kill bee hives and cause fruit to fall from trees. (2) He also wrote of the importance for women on their periods to not walk before sunrise, as this was believed to kill animals in the vicinity.
Medieval mania 🐸
A medieval medical text titled “On Treatments for Women”, instructed women on their period to sit on wild rocket cooked in wine to help cure the pain. Burning a toad and wearing the ashes near your vagina was also suggested to ease pain (3). This makes us very thankful for modern medicine!
Periods were seen as a pretty evil thing during the medieval times, so the logic went that the more periods you had in your lifetime, the more evil you were (obviously). Those who had lots of periods were thought to have a venomous poison within them, and could kill children with just one glare. (4)
On the plus side, they also believed the first period of a virgin could cure the plague (pretty useful if you ask me). (5)
Nineteenth-century narratives 🔬
Throughout the 1800s, eager early scientists started barking up some bizarre trees when it came to women and their cycles. Unsurprisingly, scientists during this time were usually male, and their ‘scientific findings’ often encompassed an ingrained sexism. For example, Dr. King, a reputable American physician at the time, believed a woman’s natural state was to be pregnant, and therefore periods were “a departure from nature”. (6)
Another misconception of the time was that women couldn’t work because it was believed that they were unable to function properly on their period, and would therefore go insane. (7) This theory became part of the argument at this time that women should not be allowed to go to work and girls should not go to school.
Old wives tales 🧙♀️
We love a good urban myth to spice things up. Throughout history, across many cultures, folklores have arisen which demonise periods, their evil effects and the witchery involved. Myths range from women on their period wilting flowers, curdling butter and turning wine to vinegar, to bearing monstrous babies if they were conceived while the woman was menstruating. (8)
Another folklore believed mixing your period blood into a man’s meal would make him fall in love with you… a bit gross but also handy if it worked.
Camping gone wrong 🐻
In 1967, two female campers in the Glacier National Park, US, were attacked and killed by grizzly bears. (9) Having never had an incident like this before, the National Park Service blamed the attack on the “odours” of one of the female hiker’s menstruations attracting the bears. The National Park Service then published guide books in 1981 advising menstruating women to “stay out of bear country”. However studies have never found any links between periods and attracting bears, and the bears were actually most likely attracted to their leftover food. No need to worry next time you’re camping!