Menstruation in Mythical Storytelling
Storytelling as an art has existed for millennia. From the Mahabharata to the Illiad, classics passed down orally still breathe in contemporary times, as is new life breathed into it, with re-adaptations and perspectives changing with their author’s differing visions. Myths were the first to create a generation of heroes for people to learn from, as the best stories were preserved by writers, poets, musicians, and artists. While the stories speak of morals, heroes, villains, and the choice differentiating them from their tropes, the female experience often gets overshadowed by the dominance of patriarchal narratives. Myths also evolve as the stories expand as the readers come of age. With greater depth, readers are re-introduced to the same characters and a visibly renewed reflection. The female characters are explored through the male gaze and hint at the exact problem this society faces. When it comes to menstruation, our opinions are chiefly governed by attitudes that have reflected the age-old purity-pollution concept (Montgomery, 1974).
Reading the Mahabharata for the first time as a teenage girl meant a curious delve into the female gaze often missing from the narrative. As one of the central characters of the epic, Draupadi was treated like the male gaze believed to be correct. As a bleeding Draupadi, unbeknownst of her fate, or that she was traded away by her husband, Yudishthir, lay resting in her room, she was conforming to societal taboos. One of the main restrictions on menstruators is that their bodies are considered impure and unclean (Chawla, 1994). However, when complaints rose of dragging a menstruating woman, a wife, in public, the general opinion stated that Draupadi forfeited her morality and chastity upon marrying five men. The question then arises whether norms of conformity to rules around menstruation apply to a greater extent to a particular section of menstruators. The Indian context then puts more emphasis on the so-called upper castes, who want to “protect their women” from society, in particular from men, especially those from the so-called lower castes, which led to women being sheltered at home, with severe restrictions on their movement and activities (Chakravarti, 1993).
A world and continents away, Medusa, in Greek mythology and subsequent literature, has been reinterpreted often as a symbol of sensuality, governing the female gaze, and thus been attributed to matriarchal origins. But, the male gaze attributes to her in a psychoanalytic perspective, a genital-castrated, terribly horrifying image. Freud represented Medusa as the frightening woman who repels people due to her “gross castration” (Bowers, 1990). As a Serpent-Goddess in ancient civilisations, Medusa embodied divine feminine wisdom, with the serpents often being associated with symbols of fertility, power, healing, rebirth, and immortality. According to many primitive communities, to gaze directly at her meant turning into stone, as they believed that her blood had magic since it also represented menstrual blood. People from these communities believed that if a menstruating woman looked at a man, he would turn to stone. However, other myths point to the wariness “mere mortals” faced to gazing directly at a deity (Bowers, 1990).
Similarly, according to Ancient Greek literature, Thor, the Norse God, attained immortality after he bathed in the Timur river, which was referred to as a river of menstrual blood. Menstrual blood leading to immortality can also be observed in Taoism, wherein the red-coloured Yin Juice was said to provide the drinker with immortality. Amongst Ancient Egyptians, too, drinking the blood of Iris was told to give the drinker enlightenment (Nawal, 2015). Superstitions in Ancient Greek literature can also be observed while reading the works of Aristotle, in particular, “On Dreams”, where he writes about the effect menstrual blood and menstruators can have on mirrors. According to Aristotle, if someone who menstruates looks at a mirror, the mirror would accumulate a reddish stain, almost cloud-like in texture. The mirror, here, is a metaphor for the eye that perceives objects.
Again, Aristotle writes that removing the stain depends on the age of the mirror and the day of the menstruator’s cycle. The older the mirror, the longer it would take to remove the stain. Additionally, gazing at the mirror at the beginning or end of the cycle would lead to a lighter stain, as opposed to the middle of the cycle, which would cause a darker, heavier stain (Sprague, 1985). Myths and stories from past civilisations are ripe about menstruation in both limits of the pure and the pollutant debate. For example, in Greek myths, Ambrosia - a red wine, with almost magical properties, granting cures and immortality, was given by Hera to other Gods through her daughter, Hebe. From stories in Ancient Egypt reflecting on menstrual blood as a cure to sagging body parts, Medieval Europeans believing that it cured Leprosy, to the Ancient Roman belief that it destroyed crops and soured wine. With Pliny claiming that menstrual blood even controlled the weather, the myths surrounding menstruation have been bizarre indeed (Nawal, 2015).
Gender binaries dominated the context, and these myths took away the agency of menstruators or the fact that it was a bodily process. As the gendered vision narrowed down to women as menstruators, the women linked with menstruation were considered unapologetic and fearful. According to many myths, Athene presented two phials of Medusa's blood to Asclepius, the healer. The blood that had been drawn from Medusa’s right side was able to destroy the mortal man, while the blood drawn from her left side could help him raise the dead. Medusa has represented the trope of how menstruators apparently behave in folklore, a cultural emblem for menstruation. However, in Medusa’s gaze, we also find staunch defiance to succumb to societal expectations (Nawal, 2015). The credit, nonetheless, is also because, while Greek mythology did accord women a comparatively passive status, as opposed to the men, their women still were granted women an amount or capacity of understanding, which is often lost in translation (Lefkovitz, 1985).
In the reinterpretation of Draupadi in The Palace of Illusions (2008), written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, we find Draupadi humanised as Panchali. In this story, she counters Dushasan’s argument of her leaving behind her modesty when she married five men by stating that while men make declarations of chaste or unchaste women, rarely have scriptures delineated men the same way. She questions whether it was impossible for men to sin (Divakaruni, 2008). In this narrative, with the story centred around Draupadi, her emotions reflect her betrayal and anger at being commodified and objectified. She is driven to the extent where she turns her back on societal dictates, lashing out and vowing vengeance. Menstruation is visibly portrayed as a vulnerability, or rather, as a process that makes menstruators more prone to vulnerabilities. Draupadi then plays an essential role in establishing this myth in the way menstruators are represented.
It is important to remember that the purpose of myths is to educate their readers regarding the world, social functions and taboos by providing role models on which to base their behaviours by analysing what is expected of them (Chawla, 1994). However, they pose the risk of overrunning stereotypes that may potentially contribute, in this case, to gendered repercussions and the dominance of patriarchal taboos. In this sphere, reinterpretations play an essential role. Especially through diverse and feminist spectrums to establish a more responsible outlook towards society, while realising that it in no way takes away from the preexistent culture or threatens it but aims to protect the society from stereotypes, gender-based violence, toxicities, and consequently, contributes to a more holistic environment.
Bowers, S. R. (1990). Medusa and the Female Gaze. NWSA Journal, 2(2), 217–235. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4316018
Chakravarti, U. (1993). Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State. Economic and Political Weekly, 28(14), 579–585. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4399556
Chawla, J. (1994). Mythic Origins of Menstrual Taboo in Rig Veda. Economic and Political Weekly, 29(43), 2817–2827. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4401940
Divakaruni, C. B. (2008).The Palace Of Illusions. Picador India.
Lefkowitz, M. R. (1985). Women in Greek Myth. The American Scholar, 54(2), 207–219. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41211188
Montgomery, R. E. (1974). A Cross-Cultural Study of Menstruation, Menstrual Taboos, and Related Social Variables. Ethos, 2(2), 137–170. http://www.jstor.org/stable/639905
Nawal, M. (2015). Hera’s Exiled Daughters. Swarajya Magazine. https://swarajyamag.com/magazine/heras-exiled-daughters
Sprague, R. K. (1985). Aristotle on Red Mirrors (“On Dreams” II 459b24-460a23). Phronesis, 30(3), 323–325. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182237