Yesterday I received a wonderful e-mail from someone who would like to stay anonymous because of the subject matter of the question they asked me--a question undoubtedly many others are struggling with; many women, especially. That subject matter is the menstrual cycle in relation to active ritual, and if that is reason enough for you to stop reading, read on, because that attitude is exactly why women today are in the bind we are in. The full question goes as follows:

"I have a question - woman to woman - I'm too embarrassed to ask openly on the FB group; which is: What about the monthly week of menstruation and ritual? - Once I realized that menstruation causes miasma, I have not done ritual when on my period, but that is one week out of four! and every month it feels like I'm getting "out of touch" with the Gods. (I don't even touch my shrine when I'm bleeding, which gets me down even more as I then also don't keep Hestia's flame.) What to do? Is there a way of doing ritual respectively a special way of purification? - or is there something like a "ritual substitute"? How do you handle this delicate subject?"

First off, there is no 'delicate' subject; woman to woman and pre-op trans men, we all know that there is absolutely nothing subtle about our periods, is there? Most months it's a battlefield down there, and then I'm not even talking about the pre-menstrual fun of headaches, exhaustion, muscle fatigue and all the other joys. If you're lucky like me, you only deal with some cramping and exhaustion, if you're unlucky... well... I salute you for your bravery in the face of the lining of your uterus tearing away every month. I wish you strength while you suffer through the nausea and vomiting, through the pain that confines you to a bed, with the inability to eat or the craving to overeat. Men, if you think I'm being crude, think of our periods like this: you have seen the movie 'Prometheus', right, where the doctor ends up cutting open her own uterus to fish out this alien squid baby? It's like that but for days on end. Imagine that, if you will. There is nothing cute or fluffy about our periods, and it's not like the commercials at all, and if a woman ever takes your head of for making fun of her pain, you deserve it. With that PSA out of the way, let's get to the point I'm trying to make.

Women in ancient Hellas had periods just like us modern women, although due to improper dieting and hard labour, there is no guarantee it affected women as often then as it does women today. When it did, they would have most likely suffered through the same symptoms as we do. Sadly, we actually have no idea how the ancient Hellenes handled active worship when a woman was on her period. I suspect this comes down to two things: women tended to take a passive role in ritual, and history was written by men who tended (and tend) to get a little uncomfortable around the topic. As such, it was studiously avoided.

The ancient Hellenes had an odd view of blood; for one, they made a very clear distinction between human blood and animal blood, where animal blood was a purifier and human blood a contaminant. To a modern practitioner, 'blood' most likely has a negative connotation to it. Miasma--the lingering aura of uncleanliness in regards to a person or space through which contact is made with the Gods--is a constant concern for the modern practitioner, and judging by the amount of purification rituals and methods we have available from the ancient Hellenes, it was for them as well.

Human blood has connotations of death; bleeding is a human thing, a weakening, an act that brings us closer to death even though we may have only cut our thumbs. We still spill our life's blood. Because the ancient Hellenes studiously avoided talking about menstrual blood and the menstrual cycle of women, this reasoning is exactly why I feel menstruating women were most likely barred from religious rites: especially to the men who dictated these rules, a woman loosing blood would be a terrifying thing; a literal bloodletting and something that brings the woman closer to death and more in tune with her humanity. Miasma are those things that taint us as human while we long to be in the presence of the Gods, and take it from me, very few things make a woman feel more humbly human than suffering through her period.

Next to piety, being ritually clean is one of the most important things to adhere to within Hellenismos. We all incur miasma, every single day of our lives. It is a consequence of living. We breath, make decisions, come in contact with others, and along the way, we become too human--for lack of a better term--to petition the Gods. The divide between the purity and cleanliness of the Theoi and our human mortality and imperfection, keeps us away from Them.

The greatest barrier in understanding miasma and katharmos--the act of getting ritually clean--to me, is our modern frame of mind. On the one hand, we know too much about personal hygiene, about the human body and about science as a whole, on the other hand religion in general has become something separate from life in general. As a result, we colour ancient Hellas with our 'hygiene brush'. Secondly, not everyone has faith, our society does no longer revolve around it, and as a result, we--as modern religious people--struggle for a mind-set of simple, all-encompassing, unquestionable worship. There might be a few remnants of 'Original Sin Thinking' lodged in there as well.

Miasma is not about being physically dirty, although that is a part of it, and katharmos is not about becoming physically clean, although that is a part of it. Men would sometimes come to public rituals fresh off the fields, dirty, sometimes cut up and scraped, in rumpled daily wear. With a washing of the hands, and the sprinkling of the body, they would be considered clean from the daily miasma, although they were almost as physically unclean as they were before their cleansing.

I know I have written about this before, but I can't find it on my blog despite my best efforts; after a lot of research into the workings of miasma, I have come to the conclusion that miasma is linked to distraction. Anything that takes your mind off of the Gods during ritual can be considered miasmic. For example, murder causes miasma (when not committed as part of a war, soldiers were not tainted with miasma for killing their enemies), but only once other people became aware of the fact that you had committed an act of murder. As such, if you were exiled and you travelled to another town where no one knew what you had done, in essence, you were not miamic to the rites and people around you. Men being terrified of women bleeding from their vagina's for a few days a month would undoubtedly have taken their minds off of the ritual at hand, and it would seem logial to me that women were barred from attending ritual because men were uncomfortable.

In ancient Hellas, the kurios was always the male head of household; if menstrual blood indeed caused miasma, the woman could simply not attend when she was having her period. Speaking from my own experience, I am not in a household where this is the case: I am kurios, for all intents and purposes, so how do I solve my monthly problem? Personally, I take extra kathartic steps to avoid miasma, because dropping a week's worth of worship every three weeks is not something I feel comfortable doing. I make sure I shower before my rituals, that I wear clean clothes, and I use tampons so blood does not leave my body during my rites. I spend extra time performing my kathartic rites, and keep my rituals short. If I'm in too much pain or I'm too distracted, I don't perform my rituals, but the danger of that is--for me--really only the first two to three days. Us women know how to get through a whole hell of a lot of pain and still perform well in a society that demands it of us, after all.

What your thoughts on this are depends on who you are and how badly your period affects you. If you practice in a group, it might be something to bring up; perhaps women who have their period can take on a more passive role in the ritual, but can still be allowed to be there to receive kharis? Whatever the case, it's a difficult subject because we have zero concrete examples or evidence from ancient Hellas to go on. This is something we have to figure out for ourselves, but I feel that with the proper preparations, the week of non-practice can at least be shortened to such an extend that you won't have to feel guilty for neglecting the Gods.