SACRED ASPECT OF MENSTRUATION*

“Holy places are dark places… Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
– C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Menstruation, through history, has been taken both as sinful and evil, and purifying and sacred. To me, it has always been interesting to observe this conflict, and honestly, I could hardly relate with the overall discussion that the reason behind its being taken as evil is due to the patriarchal approach to the phenomenon. Thus, I decided to dive deep into the past through the cultures of Mesopotamia (Sumer) and Ancient Egypt and tried to bring up a few stories that would enlighten especially the reason why menstrual blood was (and is now) seen as dirty, or evil. To make it clear, I would like to state that I find myself close to those two cultures psychically and emotionally, and thus, although it would still be very interesting to talk also about for instance the Greco-Roman, Indian, or Meso-American cultures’ approach to the topic, I have focused on the lands that are nearby my homeland.

Back to the Lands of the Goddesses
Mesopotamia was one of the oldest cradles of civilization, which saw the dawn of civilization around 12,000 BCE. Between 3,500 BCE and 2,000 BCE, the region saw the emergence of two important civilizations: Sumerian and Akkadian. But it was during the reign of the Amorite Dynasty from Babylonia between 2,000 BCE and 1,600 BCE that the Mesopotamian civilization was transformed into the Babylonian Civilization and reached its zenith. Similarly, ancient Egypt saw the dawn of civilization around 10,000 BCE in the proximity of the river Nile. The Egyptian civilization reached its zenith during the pharaonic period, which started around 3,200 BCE, when Upper and Lower Egypt were unified, and lasted until the region was occupied by Alexander III of Macedon in 332 BCE. 

We know that “women in ancient Egypt could own and sell property, including money, land, goods, servants etc., they could sign contracts and conclude legal agreements, as well as they could adopt children, initiate divorce, remarry, free the slaves; they were also entitled to sue at law.”[1] Also in Mesopotamia, woman was crowned with being a manifestation of the Goddess, particularly of Inanna, which I will be discussing later. But, instead of going further into the politics around the female culture, I would like to step into the realm of the unconscious as soon as possible.

As I mentioned at the beginning, menstruation have been seen as both evil and good through history. It brought something “unknown”, something even dark and mysterious, to human. Even in our modern world, women who go through some kind of a dark period just before the bleeding starts call it “PMS” (premenstrual syndrome), and it seems to bring some “unusual” material or energy as to say, and those women are called “lunatics”, or even neurotic sometimes if she loses herself and gets aggressive during that time. Although this uneasiness might be due to the physiological issues underneath (like an imbalance in hormones, or inflammation due to many reasons such as illnesses, bad diet habits, etc.), and thus the psychology of the person might change rapidly due to also the hormonal change during the month, I believe that it also carries some mysterious power which unearths the repressed or uncovers some contents of the unconscious psyche. However, if one can let herself feel her body thoroughly during this time of the month, if she does not ignore but listens to and embraces what is happening in her body, she comes to feel that something is really “different” than usual. But it seems that this unusual time is not taken fully as “good” in a woman’s life, but instead, it is generally taken as “uneasy”, “dirty” or “crazy”, and it seems that there is some truth in that.

The point of view that the menstruation brings unwanted or negative moods, or that it is a time of impurity is a very curious topic to dive in. And when one starts to explore different cultures, one can find many interesting points of views and also rituals around menstruation, particularly the initiation rituals. To me it is obvious that, for a woman, particularly her first menstruation symbolizes a very important threshold in her life. It is like a gate that she is expected to step in to come to her real being, the womanhood.  

If I turn back to the Mesopotamian culture…

Mesopotamians associated blood with both life, vulnerability and creation, which we can see in Babylonian creation myths like those in the Atra-hasis Epic speaking about how the flesh and blood of a slain god served as vital components. In Egypt, menstruation was associated with the Nile Flood, one of the most important symbols in Egyptian theology, and was perceived as a ‘symbol of renewal and fertility’, despite also being a ‘dangerous time’[2]. Menstruation had both ‘miasma’ (impurity) and sacred of “purifying” elements to the Egyptian. The Egyptian term hsmn, which has been used to refer to menstruation, has been often translated as ‘purification’. In fact, hsmn has been used for natron, the principle purificatory agent.[3] Also, ‘bwt’ was an Egyptian term ‘designating both the evil and the interdiction against it’. Frandsen explains further that the inclusion of bwtin the cult monographs indicates that for the Egyptians, ‘evil was a necessary element of all creation’[4].Bwt was in the center of Egyptian cosmology, and its violation was an affront to nature and to the cosmos itself, and menstruating women were inevitable parts of many such lists of bwt. Sridhar says, “Egyptian had no word for sin in the Christian sense of the term. …It denotes both the evil itself and the sin committed when doing – or merely having contact with – something classified as bwt.”[5] In fact, it seems that bwt was taken as the opposite of Maat, which was the harmony, the world order for the Egyptian. So, we can say that menstruation was taken as a purification process and so that, through it the evil or impurity was removed from the woman’s body.

Here, what Mircea Eliade says about menstruation would bring an interesting side to our discussion I think: “It was said by the rabbis that menstruation was the result of Eve’s relations with the serpent in the Garden of Eden.”[6] Although it looks like that Eve was sinful, and bleeding was her curse, I feel that it can be taken also as the initiation of woman by the Devil, the dark aspect of God, to the mysteries of Life. It is another interesting thing what Don Juan says about the Yumas that the young girls in Yumas would seek for the Shahmaran for entering adulthood.[7] Shahmaran was taken, just like Asclepius, as the creatress of medicine. She was a medicine woman with the body of a snake. She symbolizes the magical powers and the healing aspect of the feminine. I believe that seeking for the Shahmaran, or the snake, could be the indication for stepping into a transformational process of a lifetime. And here I guess I do not need to highlight how evil has always been associated with snake. It was the symbol of both good and evil, though, just like menstrual blood itself.

Also, it feels to me that blood, particularly the menstrual blood, was believed to have supernatural effects on woman, or maybe we should say that a woman who bleeds would have supernatural powers. I would say this magical power is what we call “mana”, and it definitely brings creative energies to a woman. And Dr. Jung would explain this better than me, saying that “the creative mana, the power of healing and fertility, the ‘extraordinarily potent’ [has] equivalents in mythology and in dreams [such as] the bull, the ass, the pomegranate, the yoni, the he-goat, the lightning, the horse’s hoof, the dance, the magical cohabitation in the furrow, and the menstrual fluid, to mention only a few. That which underlies all the analogies is an archetypal image whose character is hard to define, but whose nearest psychological equivalent is perhaps the primitive mana-symbol.”[8]

From immemorial times, creative mana has been felt as numinous, and as mysterium tremendum as Rudolf Otto would call. Thus, also menstruation brings that kind of an effect on human I feel. The woman who bleeds feels Nature as herself. Blood itself becomes reality for her and thus, she embodies Her fully. During menstruation, she is Nature itself, and she carries Her mana. And I believe that through initiation rituals of first menstruation, this knowledge was meant to be given to the young girl: A woman would be embodying Nature through her body during her lifetime and this would be not only through menstruation, but also through conception, giving birth and menopause. This cycle of life (birth, death, rebirth) should be understood by woman thoroughly and through that, she would not only herself get individuated (become psychically whole), but also, she could give life to the archetypal realm, and so that, the whole community could individuate. And so, the archetypes (here especially the Mother) could individuate themselves through being embodied fully by the young woman. Because of this reason maybe, the rituals were essential. Eliade says that “the education thus given is general, but its essence is religious; it con­sists in a revelation of the sacrality of women. The girl is ritually prepared to assume her specific mode of being, that is, to become a creatress, and at the same time is taught her responsibilities in society and in the cosmos, responsibilities which, among primitives, are always religious in nature.”[9] Thus, one can say that menstruation meant not only a biological process of the body, but something more than that for the primitive: “periodical purification, fecundity, curative and magical powers.”[10] And it also seems that menstruation made it possible to connect a woman with a higher truth, and besides that, with the Great Mother and the creative process of life and death.

BLOOD & “THE GREAT MOTHER” MYTHS

Mesopotamia: Inanna and Ishtar
Inanna and Ishtar were taken as one deity but worshipped by two different names. While Inanna was a Sumerian goddess and was widely worshipped among Sumerians, Ishtar became a later counterpart of Inanna, who was prominently worshipped in the Akkadian and Babylonian Empires until the spread of Christianity around 1st-5th AD, which resulted in the decline and eventual extinction of the Inanna cult. 

Though Inanna/Ishtar was mostly associated with love and war, she was also associated with the moon and menstruation, and with the planet Venus[11]and sexuality. The Sumerians were people who celebrated Inanna at the new moon by holding a parade for her, and who reveled in sacred blood: they sprinkled drops of blood when they walked in procession to her, and they poured the red liquid of blood on to the dais where she would stand, or seat herself.[12]

Sandra Bart Heimann points out that Inanna ‘represents women’s blood power, menstruation, especially the first maiden’s menses’[13]. She further writes that being the moon-goddess, Inanna ‘appears and disappears’, and how this disappearance is a reference to the ‘menstruation seclusion’ of both the women and the goddess. In one text, Inanna leaves the battlefield and retires to her temple house for menstruation seclusion but is then persuaded to return. Her disappearance as planet and dark moon is menstrual seclusion. Thus, Inanna’s association with new moon and blood reveal her as goddess of menstruation.

Egypt: Isis, Hathor, Sekhmet & Bastet

Isis was the daughter of Nut and Geb, and she was taken as the goddess of rebirth and renewal due to her interaction with her brother and husband Osiris’ rebirth. Thus, she was also associated with magic and Nature, and Mother. She was the protector of the mothers, and just like Artemis of Greece and Inanna/Ishtar of the Sumerians, she helped the pregnant women to give birth easily. And she was not only associated with the pregnancy, but also with the initiation of the young girls into womanhood.

The “knot of Isis”, or the “blood of Isis” was used as talisman, and its color came from blood. The Spell 156 of the Book of the Dead says: ‘You have your blood, O Isis; you have your power, O Isis; you have your magic, O Isis.’[14] Sridhar adds in her book: “In addition to blood, the amulet’s red color could represent fire and Sun – and the living, regenerative properties of Isis: the flame, the radiant Solar Goddess and the Lady of rebirth.”[15]

Isis was also known as “the Cow of Heaven”, and thus she was associated by Horus, and Sekhmet and Bastet, which were twin sisters and carried the opposite powers. They were the two aspects of Hathor, and Isis. Even, one can say that they all (as three) symbolized the three stages of a woman through life, like the three goddesses of Greece: Persephone (Kore), Demeter and Hekate. So, it seems to me that Sekhmet and Bastet were the duality of the same goddess, thus, carrying the opposites of Nature: Sekhmet as being the solar and Bastet as being the lunar aspect. While Sekhmet was associated more with light and Sun, Bastet, being the dark moon, was associated with the blood of battlefield, darkness and death. Here I think that we meet with the dual aspect of the feminine, and thus of woman, and also of menstrual blood, which carries the essence of womanhood. While Sekhmet brings the good aspect, Bastet brings the evil and thus, death and dark. So, it seems that we have come to a point where we can uncover the mystery of the evil side of the menstrual blood, or the feminine. But I wonder what this “dark” aspect of menstruation and the initiation by bleeding can bring to a woman…

“Returning to the Womb” 

“Most of us no longer bleed with the cycles of the moon, since we are constantly exposed to artificial light. As well, we are all becoming increasingly disconnected from our intrinsic circadian rhythms, which affect appetite, the secretion of hormones, body temperature, alertness, and sleep timing. We are living in a time of darkness deprivation. … In order to heal, we need to remember how to value the night. We need to honor that this darkness is intelligent and necessary for our survival. … We need to remember that all true creativity springs from the darkness.”[16]

Darkness is where light is formed; conscious comes to life from unconscious. We, as Jungians, say that through individuation, which brings periodical and frequent journeys into the darkness, the unconscious, we grow the plants of the consciousness. In myths and fairytales, we see how important it is to face the evil aspects like stepmother, snakes, sea monsters, ocean, etc. It seems that human is to face with the dark side of the psyche through his/her life, again and again, and many times.

The journey into the Underworld does not only mean being initiated to the unknown psyche, which is the unconscious, but also it means that the one who takes the journey will come back with the energy or the knowledge of the dead. I believe that it is possible that a woman who bleeds also is someone who pays a visit to the Underworld, the land of the dead. Thus, I think, this might be one of the underlying reasons of the origin of this taboo and why it was (and in some cultures it still is) forbidden for a bleeding woman to touch the soil, to enter religious places, to cook or clean, to touch his husband and children, and to participate in some common rituals, etc. A survey shows clearly the still ongoing menstrual taboo within cultures:

Common taboos reported in Nepal
(Credit: Jennifer Rothchild and Priti Shretstha Piya)

So, it seems that there is some strange and powerful thought or experience beyond this fear or irritation about the menstrual blood. To pay a closer look, I will follow other mythical stories…

Going into the Underworld was expressed also through being swallowed by the whale, or a sea monster, or through many other myths and stories. Eliade says that “this is another instance of the symbolism of death by being swallowed into the belly of a monster, a symbolism that plays so great a role in puberty initiations.”[17] I think that this symbolism of being swallowed by the Mother can be seen in the rituals of menstruation where the young woman is taken to the forest, to a hut, and she would stay there for a while. Hut would symbolize the womb of the Mother, and thus, the young girl was supposed to get renewed through bleeding and meeting with the Great Mother, and through embodying Her, just like the uterus would renew its inner wall through bleeding. Menstruation, I believe, is like a mini death to a woman. It is “yin” time, standing still, unmoving, dark. During this time of bleeding, woman’s corpus luteum dissolves, and progesterone dips. One sheds her uterine lining through the menstrual blood. Estrogen rises and then drops, informing the hypothalamus to prepare for a new cycle. One feels tired and silent as the estrogen level drops. It is the time for an inner journey: One falls into the inner world, the Underworld, and is forced to become more introverted, and thus the intuition rises. It is the time to let things go, let things be as they are or to see things as they really are. It is the time to re-connect with whom one really is, to sink into one’s body and soul. It is the time to prepare the body and the soul for the following potential and creative life cycle. It is the time to pay attention to dreams and reflect. The time of bleeding brings profound energy to a woman it seems, and it is kind of a re-gathering with the Great Mother: “…return to the mother signifies return to the chthonian Great Mother. The initiand is born again from the womb of Mother Earth (Terra Mater).”[18]

Apparently, menstruation symbolized -and still it does- both good and evil to humanity not (let’s say “only”) because of the patriarchal biases, but because it symbolized the raw reality of life: birth, death and rebirth. Woman has always been the embodiment of the Goddess, the Great Mother, and because of that, she carried both of Her aspects: creative and destructive.

Didem Çivici  – Copyright ©2021

*This article was originally written in January 2021, as an exam paper for “Fundamentals of Ethnology”, and revised on March 8th, 2021.


[1] Nithin Sridhar – “The Sabarimala Confusion – Menstruation Across Cultures_ A Historical Perspective”

[2] Carolyn Graves-Brown, ‘Dancing for Hathor: Women in Ancient Egypt’, Page 55. 

[3] Paul John Frandsen, ‘The Menstrual ‘taboo’ in Ancient Egypt,’ Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 66, no. 2 (April 2007), p. 82

[4] İbid. p 87.

[5] Nithin Sridhar – “The Sabarimala Confusion – Menstruation Across Cultures_ A Historical Perspective”

[6] Mircea Eliade, “Patterns in Comparative Religion”, p. 166.

[7] Merilyn Tunneshende, “Don Juan and the Art of Sexual Energy: The Rainbow Serpent of the Toltecs”

– p.44

[8] C. G. Jung, “The Practical Use of Dream-Analysis,” The Practice of Psychotherapy, CW 16, par. 340

[9] Mircea Eliade, “Rites and Symbols of Initiation”, p. 42

[10] Mircea Eliade, “Rites and Symbols of Initiation”, p. 47

[11] Nithin Sridhar – “The Sabarimala Confusion – Menstruation Across Cultures_ A Historical Perspective”

[12] Judy Grahn, ‘Ecology of the Erotic in a myth of Inanna’, International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Volume 29, Issue 2, Page 62.

[13] Sandra Bart Heimann, ‘the Biography of Goddess Inanna; Indomitable Queen of heaven, Earth and almost Everything’. 92. ibid. 93. ibid. 

[14] Spell 156, Book of Coming Forth by Day, p. 92. 
Isidora Forrest, ‘What does the Knot of Isis mean?’ p. 93. 

[15] Nithin Sridhar – “The Sabarimala Confusion – Menstruation Across Cultures_ A Historical Perspective”

[16] Sarah Avant Stover, “The Book of She”, p. 101

[17] Mircea Eliade, “The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion”, p. 293, iBook.

[18] Mircea Eliade, “Rites and Symbols of Initiation”, p. 61

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