A Thing More Monstrous Than Flux


By Jeffrey Fiskin

Published April 11, 2003, issue of April 11, 2003.
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Moses and Aaron, bent with wandering, walk from the Tent of Meeting.

Aaron: This one is trouble.

Moses: You’re a worrier. You thought the commandment on adultery would be trouble.

Aaron: No. That one people could simply ignore. This one is trouble. Trust me.

M: Don’t be silly. Men and women don’t want relations at that time of month anyway.

A: That has not been my experience.

M: Really?

A: Believe me on this one, Mr. Goody Two Shoes. It presents no problem for men. As for the ladies, it actually makes some of them downright —

Moses waves off Aaron’s conclusion.

M: Even so, a little distance is a good thing. Nobody gets bored.

A: You’re missing the point. Prohibitions can be ignored. That isn’t the problem.

M: Then what is?

A: The implication that blood from a woman’s body is impure while urine and …

Moses raises a cautionary finger.

A: … other common effluents that are, shall we say, not spic-and-span are neglected.

M: But that’s it. They’re common to us all. This, in contrast, is a medical matter. As it is written: “Such is the ritual… concerning her who is in menstrual infirmity….”

A: Why an infirmity? Why impure?

M: Aaron, ritual impurity. We’re not savages. We know the blood itself is fresh, clean. But ritually it’s different. We’re hardly alone in considering this monthly event an affliction. As Pliny says: “But to come againe to women, hardly can there be found a thing more monstrous than is that fluxe and course of theirs.” Likewise, among the Déné and other American tribes, hardly any other being was the object of so much dread as a menstruating woman. And the Wakelbura tribe of Australia regards the menstrual period with such dread they forbid the women coming into the encampment by the same path as the men on pain of death. We just keep everybody apart for a week, as it is said, “She shall remain in her impurity seven days; whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. Anything she lies on in her impurity shall be unclean; and anything she sits on shall be unclean.” And again, “When she becomes clean of her discharge, she shall count off seven days, and after that she shall be clean.”

A: Moses, there is no safety in numbers on this issue. You still have to answer how it is that a common monthly occurrence which affects half the population and which all survive is perceived as monstrous, an affliction, a sickness?

M: Because of what happens.

A: What happens?

M: Fraser, in “The Golden Bough,” reports that “Peasants of the Lebanon think that the shadows of menstruous women cause flowers to wither and trees to perish, and arrest the movements of serpents; if one of them mounts a horse, the animal might die or at least be disabled for a long time.” Pliny is, of course, eloquent. “If during the time of their sicknesse they approach a vessel of wine, it will soure; if they touch corn, it will wither; if they doe but passe by, grasses, hearbes and young buds will burne away to nothing; looking glasses, the cleare brightnesse therof turneth into dimnesse, upon their very sight.” He goes on.

A: He certainly does.

M: Not just Pliny. In parts of Europe even into the 20th century, people believed that if a woman in her courses touched beer, wine, vinegar or milk, it would go bad; if she made jam, it wouldn’t keep; if she mounted a mare, it would miscarry; if she climbed a cherry tree, it would die. In every place and time, men with the best will in the world have noted certain difficulties with menstruating women.

A: When the feminists hear about this, you’ll have a public-relations disaster on your hands.

M: You don’t understand. It is a sign of deepest respect.

A: Good luck.

M: Really! The menstrual blood is no different than any other manifestation of the sacred. It’s all about power.

A: Exactly. Men have it. Women want it.

M: No. Power as energy. Neither good nor bad on its own, but only according to how it’s used. Rituals are simply a way of controlling tremendous power. As holy men and holy objects are set apart because of their power, so are women. The intention is to preserve the life of both the woman and the community. Isolation is the most common solution. In this way, her precious yet dangerous life force is manifest but remains hidden. As the I Ching says, “She veils her light yet still it shines.”

A: Eh, you’re probably right. My wife is impossible two weeks out of every four.

Jeffrey Fiskin is a writer who lives in Hollywood with his children and his wife, who is utterly delightful four weeks out of every four.

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