Ancient History & Civilisation

A flower, a curse, a bitumen remover

Until the later centuries B.C., many cultures around the Mediterranean used a lunar year, as women’s bodies do, roughly correlating to the phases of the moon. The Romans had a special name for calculating time: they called it mensuration, which meant “knowledge of the female menses.”

Women of that era probably welcomed their period, since it meant they had made it through another month without getting pregnant. Childbirth, while often longed for, was a high-risk, high-mortality activity.

Males usually respected and often feared female menses. From a feminine point of view in ancient times, “the curse” could have been a blessing. It might have represented a face-saving, welcome way to ward off unwanted sexual advances from husbands and lovers. If you were a slave, menstruating would have been especially useful to discourage your owner.

Occasionally women lost their periods for reasons other than pregnancy. Just as today’s endurance-sport athletes (and anorexics) sometimes stop menstruating, so too did long-ago females. Then, however, it was largely due to the lack of high-quality food rather than to dieting. The cycle of menstrual fertility needs a certain level of stored body fat to function. Low-status girls and women in cultures from Egypt to Greece to Rome to Assyria got less to eat.

In Leviticus, the Bible referred to menstrual blood as the flower that comes before the fruit of the womb, meaning a child. But in Genesis 31, Rachel was able to steal the figurines of her father’s household gods by putting them under a camel saddle, then sitting on it while telling Dad, “I really feel crappy, it’s that time of the month.” In the Talmud, men were warned not to approach menstruating women; if one walked between two males, one of the men would die.

Persians also joined the “avoid them like poison” club; Persian women were ordered not to speak to men or even sit in water during menstruation. The Greeks had a similar phobia. The sixth-century poet Hesiod warned that men should never wash in water that women had already used—just in case a drop of menstrual blood had somehow found its way there. Greeks altogether avoided discussing the mechanics of monthly periods. The earliest known mention of the menstrual cycle was in a play by the out-to-shock Aristophanes, who called the cloth that women used as pads “a pigpen.”

Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder produced a whole laundry list of menstrual myths and taboos: gals on the rag could turn wine sour, dull knives, and chase bees away from the hive. Aristotle had this to add: “If a women who is menstruating looks into a mirror, the mirror’s surface becomes bloody-dark, like a cloud.” Another firmly held belief of the day: Romans with a death wish were encouraged to have sex with a menstruating woman during an eclipse. Sickness and death would inevitably follow.


Roman and Jewish men were terrified of menstrual periods. They did recognize one practical use for that monthly flow, however—its supposed ability to extract bitumen from the Dead Sea.

There was, however, one invaluable service that the monthly effluvia from females could provide. In the Dead Sea, which in the first century A.D. was known as Asphalt Lake, large chunks of the solidified petroleum product called bitumen routinely floated to the surface. The tarry substance was used to waterproof wood, caulk boats, and even embalm bodies, but extricating it from the lake was a chore.

In one of his books, the Jewish-Roman author known to us as Josephus revealed the secret. “When they have filled the boats with bitumen, it is no easy task to detach their cargo, which owing to its tenacious and glutinous character, clings to the boat—until it is loosened by the monthly secretions of women, to which it alone yields.”

Besides its practical application as a bitumen remover, menstrual flow had another purpose, according to a widely held notion of the time. When on occasion menstruation stopped, the blood appeared to remain in a woman’s womb and, over a matter of months, “coagulate” into a baby!

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