July 27, 2021

Why rules fascinate as much as they frighten

In August 2017, the Nepalese parliament approved a law sanctioning the chaupadi, a Hindu tradition of banning women from their homes during their period. If, on the contrary, other beliefs have attributed to menstrual blood a sacred or miraculous character, all over the world religious traditions continue to associate it with a form of defilement or danger. Taboos, bans, menstrual exile: how did we get there?

Since Antiquity, the power of reproduction symbolized by menstrual blood has fascinated people. To be convinced of this, it suffices to take an interest in the cult of Artemis, demonstrates the journalist Elise Thiébaut in her book This is my blood (La Découverte, 2017), devoted to the history of rules. The goddess of the hunt is also the goddess of childbirth and fertility.

In the sanctuary of Artemis of Brauron, near Athens, archaeologists have discovered traces of curious offerings: rakoi (rakos, singular), tissues intended to collect blood from lochia (postpartum bleeding) or even the first period. Paradox: still in ancient Greece, priestesses who worshiped divinities had to be impubescent or menopausal.

Already the divergence is clear: although it is the principle of life in the womb of women, blood remains associated with violence and death … As for menstrual blood, it itself remains ambiguous: a sign of the possibility of ‘a life, it nevertheless means that this life has not (yet) presented itself. Should we then or not let it approach the sacred?

The myth of impurity

In the matriarchal society of the Huron Indians, in Canada – “discovered” by Europeans in the 17th centurye century – there was no such ambivalence: menstruation, associated with natural purification, was considered sacred. Thus, in the vast majority of civilizations, the menstrual flow attracts as much as it frightens.

In African societies, rules are used as ingredients to simmer miraculous… or evil essences. “In Dakar, Senegal, women running the street canteens that attract the most customers are suspected of putting menstrual blood in their food”, says Gaëlle Lacaze, anthropologist of the body and ethnologist. In Mongolia, being in contact with the rules is a “Quasi-omen of death, […] extremely defiling: this is the reason why the sacred mountains are forbidden to women ”.

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