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Ah periods, menstruation, the ol’ monthly curse, on the rag, the crimson sea, strawberry week (Germany I LOVE your energy with that one), and apparently ‘the arrival of Matthew Perry’ (can any Japanese speakers verify that for me?? Because I’m using it from now on). No matter what you call it, periods are a bloody nightmare (sorry!), that will affect around half the earth’s population for the majority of months in their lives. Crazy right? What a cool, unifying, horrible experience. I’m gonna start off by letting you all know this was the hardest post I’ve researched yet. Not because just reading about menstruation makes me want to cry (although if that’s you, I get it mate), but because scholars seem to avoid talking about it. There’s just a big old hole in the record. It seemed like every academic was up for discussing what men thought about periods, but not the actual lived experience of ancient people who had periods. Just like reproductive politics today, it seemed like the people who were listened to about periods, weren’t actually the ones who had them (American government, I’m looking at you here). But don’t worry, I’m too stubborn to give up in the face of little academic research! After a lot of searching, here we have it. A post about menstruation and what menstruators had to do every month. Speaking of, a cheeky heads up, some men have periods, some women don’t, and non-binary people may or may not! Periods are about parts, not gender. Because of this, you’ll find gender neutral language through the rest of this post. Confused? Drop me a message and I’ll clear it up for you! But anyway, back to the history!! Are you ready? Let’s dive in.

First stop in the whirlwind tour of ancient periods is the city of Ur. This Sumerian city (now in modern day Iraq) is thought to have originated almost six thousand years ago, in around 3800 BCE, but because of the really dry climate, and the fact that they wrote on mud brick, artifacts have actually survived really well. We know that Ur had a major textile industry, and used wool to make garments, headbands, saddle cloths, and something scholars have described as “menstruating bandages”. In multiple tablets, we find references to these strips of cloth, or bandages, which were used as a form of early period pad/sanitary towel. These definitely didn’t come with the cheeky adhesive wings of modern day sanitary pads – but we actually don’t really know how they did work. There are a few theories floating about – that they were styled in a big old loincloth, or even that they were attached with leather (I’m just gonna take a stand and say that’s not it mate), but it’s a bit of a mystery other than that. That’s a theme you’re going to hear cropping up a lot in this post by the way – we have a lot of unanswered questions, from a combination of lack of evidence surrounding anything that rich ancient men didn’t experience, but also the interests of modern day scholarship, which seem to have continued the apathy of their ancient forefathers. Soon however, life for the ancient Mesopotamian menstruator advanced beyond just a blood bandage as the medically proficient Babylonians entered the scene, bringing with them a whole lot of alternative options.

Early Babylonian medical texts show some of the first references to the use of tampons, both for medical insertion of drugs, and for use during menstruation. Records show that Cannabis (azallu) was specifically prescribed for period pain, but also note its usefulness to combat low mood, a common symptom of menstruation. What’s really interesting is one particular tablet, which refers to the use of saffron for periods, which has been medically proved to reduce PMS! That’s pretty awesome right? Other than combating period pain, we also see a development in the options available for menstruators. The widespread availability of wool made it a prime candidate for menstrual hygiene, and evidence suggests that both sanitary pads and tampons were in common use (and we’re still at like 2000 BCE by the way!). Records are pretty fragmentary and tough to accurately decipher, but some people think that linen bandages were also on the menstrual market, as well as wool tampons IMPREGNATED WITH PAINKILLING DRUGS. Incredible!!! It’s like Daye CBD tampons, but like 4000 years old. I genuinely can’t even explain how amazing I find that.

Honestly the rest of ancient historical tampons kind of pales in comparison to the drug filled varieties of Mesopotamia, but we’re gonna keep rolling on! Next stop on the tour – East Asia. While I’ve tried hard to focus only on the lived experiences of the period-having people, I’m going to make a single exception just because of how hilarious I find this. See in ancient China, (like Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Levant), menstrual blood was considered to be polluting, and even evil. Considering this, sources discuss how the most humiliating, biggest offence possible, was for a man to be hit by what’s called a Yuejing Dai – a cloth used during periods. That’s right. We have sources literally explaining the horror of a guy getting a used sanitary pad chucked at him. Honestly I would die for that image. Over in ancient Japan however, tampons were the go-to menstrual product, made of tightly rolled paper. These rolls of paper were held in place with bandages – but sources note that they needed to be changed at least 10 times a day, so probably not best for a heavy flow!

The ancient Egyptians are probably mainly remembered for their pyramids, but they were great at periods too! Medical documents from around 1500 BCE refer to the practice of using soft papyrus to fashion tampons. We actually know quite a lot about Egyptian gynecology, including their forms of birth control (keep an eye out for an upcoming post on this!), pregnancy tests, abortions, and more. Surprisingly, in some specialised housing for builders at a site called Deir el-Medina, menstruation actually pops up as a reason for the male workers being absent for work. The sources suggest that when the wife or daughter of a worker had their period, this may have been seen as a reason for their father/husband to stay home with them. For solidarity? To run to the shops for the ancient Egyptian equivalent of chocolate and advil? Who knows! There’s no noted reason for why this was needed, but it’s a really interesting (and pretty unique!) piece of evidence. We’re going to be returning to Egypt during its Roman years in a bit, but first, let’s have a look over in the Mediterranean.

Now the Greeks didn’t believe in human dissections, so a lot of what they thought about periods was just guesswork, with a bit of animal uterus knowledge thrown in for luck. Because periods were largely relegated to a ‘women’s issue’, they didn’t think too hard about actually studying them, they just figured if a body got a period, it was probably because they were badly built, with too much excess liquid that had to come out somewhere! According to the Greeks, a period was just how bodies dealt with too much moisture, but it could also be dealt with by nose bleeds, or breastfeeding – just as long as that liquid was getting out somewhere! Just to really emphasise how little these ‘fathers of medicine’ knew about periods, the Hippocratic school of medicine apparently believed that periods amounted to two kotyls of blood – literally a pint of blood! For anyone who isn’t aware of the actual details of a period, that’s about eight times more than we would consider to be normal. In terms of practical period gear, it seems like most people used tampons, which may have even had a wooden ‘stick’ in the middle, potentially to help with insertion and removal. In terms of pain management, the usual go-to was Henbane. While modern studies of the plant henbane don’t mention its use in combating symptoms of periods, it does have chemicals which act as muscle relaxants, which are actually super useful for cramps. Maybe the ancient Mediterranean had some good insight!

The Romans loved henbane too, using it to combat all their menstrual maladies. In terms of menstrual hygiene, it seems like Romans again kept it pretty close to the Greek tradition, with wool tampons becoming increasingly popular, while wool sanitary pad style bandages were an additional option. How do we know period pads were used? Well from multiple sources, but my LITERAL FAVOURITE is because of a story about the philosopher Hypatia. Living in Roman controlled Egypt, around 400 CE (see, told you we’d be back), Hypatia was a super cool philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, and all round badass lady. Sources suggest as well as being a genius feminist icon, she was also quite a looker, so much so, that one student became obsessed with her. But Hypatia had sworn never to marry – come on guys, her spouse was science!!! Let’s all put ourselves in her sandals, just trying to teach and study, and be a scientific marvel, but some slimy student kept coming up and telling her that he was in love with her. Just on and on and on. All “Hypatia, you’re perfection, I’m so in love with you, you’re so perfect”, while she was trying to focus on triangles or planets or whatever her sciencey brain was up to that moment. Frustrating right? Well apparently Hypatia became so frustrated that she reached up her tunic, got her used period pad, and threw it at her annoying student. !!! She went there!!! Apparently it’s thought to have been all philosophical, relating to her humanity, and the imperfect nature of people, and all that – but also WHAT A POWER MOVE. Now it’s gotta be said, this story comes from an encyclopedia written around 500 years after she died, so this might be completely made up. Still a pretty cool story though right? And evidence that Roman ladies used period pads, regardless of whether they threw them at obnoxious suitors.

A bloody good story hey, and a pretty fitting end to this post. Honestly I wish I had more ancient evidence for all you readers, but sadly this one’s down to the patriarchy again – we just don’t have the records like we have for other aspects of the ancient world. But the fact that tampons and pads have been in use for at least 5000 years will never fail to blow my mind. Let’s just remind ourselves of evidence suggesting ancient painkilling tampons. ANCIENT PAINKILLING TAMPONS. Incredible. Daye has some pretty amazing ancestors hey? But in all seriousness, periods are a really cool part of humanity, with their presence and absence indicating adulthood, pregnancy, fertility and growth. The pain and frustrations of the monthly menses has been experienced by half of humanity, for the entire history of humankind – what a crazy, beautiful thing to unite us? So next time Aunt Flo ruins your favourite underwear with her early arrival, or the red seas leave you swimming in waves of pain, just remember – thousands of years ago, an ancient person cursed their uterus out too.

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1 Comment

Jeanne Reames
Jeanne Reames
Aug 07, 2020

Fascinating stuff. I was just looking at this not long ago for other reasons, trying to figure out if Greeks also used tampon-like items, but all I could find reference to was wool rags (e.g., pads). Where did you find the mention of tampons. (Not to doubt you, mind, but my search was somewhat perfunctory, so looking for the reference.)

Also, I have a thought on the (perhaps obvious) way to hold up a pad. I'm older enough to remember the days of "sanitary belts"--e.g., rubber belts like a girdle with a clip in front and back that the cloth ends of the pad threaded through, so you could tighten it and hold it in place. Obviously, they wouldn't have…

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