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Untouchability

Menstrual TaboosMenstruation And Civilization

In general, however, the greater social inequalities and restrictions that accompany the rise of civilization brought with them an increase in negative attitudes toward women and their bodies and a greater attention to controlling female agency and reproductive powers. This can be seen in many of the great religions of the world and in the cultural traditions of the West. Among the ancient Greeks, for example, Pliny wrote that menstrual blood could "[turn] new wine sour," render crops barren, dull the "gleam of ivory," drive dogs mad, and even cause "very tiny creatures" such as ants to turn away in disgust from a grain of corn that had suffered contact with the offending woman. But what was an affliction—a curse—could also constitute a sacred gift or what the Romans called sacra; enclosed within male boundaries, woman were graced as well as burdened by the cyclical days of blood they had to bear.

The great religions that developed with the rise of civilization tended to further these ideas in religious texts and doctrines, especially when it came to delineating rules of sacred and ritual cleanliness and pollution. Zoroastrianism placed purity as one of the most important tenets in the upholding of the faith, with those deemed impure—including women during their menses but also priests with bleeding sores—prohibited from entering the fire temple. In Hinduism, where rules of untouchability could be vast and complex, bleeding women were expected to avoid worship, cooking, and members of their own family through restrictions that were precisely proscribed; according to the Vendidad (16.4), a woman in her menses "should keep fifteen paces from fire, fifteen from water … and three paces from a holy man." Visiting a consecrated holy place during menses was highly contaminating and therefore forbidden, as were women's involvement in ritualistic worship practices in general. Such a stigma was explained in part by the Bhagavata Purana, which described the menstrual cycle as constituting a partial karmic reaction to Indra's inadvertent killing of a brahmana; according to the text, after Indra killed the brahmana, he proceeded to negotiate with four groups who agreed to absorb one-quarter of the karmic reaction in exchange for a blessing. Women received the blessing of engaging in sex during pregnancy without endangering the embryo in exchange for accepting the monthly menstrual cycle.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the biblical Book of Leviticus was the most central and influential text in postulating rules having to do with cleanliness and uncleanness or what the anthropologist Mary Douglas called purity and danger. Leviticus stated that while menstruating, a woman would be considered unclean for seven days and anyone who touched her would also be unclean. The taboo continued to be recognized by Orthodox Jews, who relegated bleeding women to their own secluded sphere or enjoined them to abstain from sexual intercourse for seven days, followed by immersion in the mikveh, or ritual bath. Such isolation accorded with what was thought to be women's special burdens—or Eve's multiplying sorrows—as the prophet Micah enjoined them to "Be in pain, and labour to bring forth, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail" (Mic. 4:10). Such rites were also, however, continuous with other treatments in the Old Testament concerning the mundane and symbolic use of blood, which was seen as life-giving as well as defiling and all-important in the preparation of food or the act of sacrifice.

In the New Testament, Jesus encounters and cures a "woman with issue" who has been menstruating continuously for twelve years when she touches the hem of his garment—not his body—and is told, "Thy faith hath made thee whole" (Matt. 9:20–22). But Levitican notions of cleanliness and uncleanness, isolation and contamination, continued to pervade the early Christian world in such debates as the acceptability of menstruating women entering churches or receiving communion. In early Syrian Christian texts as well as the writing of Origen, women undergoing menses were prohibited, like their Jewish counterparts, from entering church or "mixing" reproductive blood with the sacrificial blood at the altar; it would therefore become a notable development when Pope Gregory I (590–604) informed Augustine, the monk and bishop of Canterbury, that menstruating women should not be forbidden from entering church or receiving communion, though "if [she] out of a sense of deep reverence does not presume to receive communion, she must be praised" (Bede, 1:27). Despite such leniency, penitential texts as well as a later archibishop of Canterbury, Theodore, chose to uphold the prohibition, which continued well into the Middle Ages.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Two-envelope paradox to VenusUntouchability - Menstrual Taboos - Menstrual Taboos In Tribal And Band Societies, Menstruation And Civilization, Medical Variations And Modern Interpretations