The Etymology of 'Menstruation'
Taking a step into the origin story of the word menstruation, we immediately see that there is a lack of documentation on women’s periods during ancient times. This could’ve been due to the relatively higher number of male scribes who shied away from the topic or due to the significant taboo that surrounded periods during ancient times.
Whichever reason it was, we have now been left with spotted records of the history of menstruation such as the myths they believed about it but no records of what they called the phenomenon.
What we do know is that the word menstruation wasn’t just thought of randomly. The word is actually derived from the Latin word ‘mensis’ meaning month, which in turn is derived from the Greek word ‘mene’ meaning moon.
From this, we can conclude a little about the thought process of the people back then. They might have noticed the monthly yet unexplained appearance of blood and hence coined a term for this phenomenon from a word that meant monthly.
What about the word ‘mene’ (moon)? Did that have any significance?
It is interesting to note, that there was, in fact, a popular notion that the moon had a role to play in a woman’s menstrual cycle. It probably arose due to the extremely similar time periods of the two cycles- lunar cycle (29.5 days) and menstrual cycle (28 days).
When people started observing periods in women, they were unable to come up with an explanation for them. With no knowledge of the internal workings of the female human body, they must’ve been very confused. And perhaps, on noticing the monthly nature of both the moon and menstruation, they inferred that the moon had a significant role to play in this phenomenon.
The idea of menstruation being in synchrony with the moon became one of the most tenacious ideas central to the myths and rituals of traditional communities across the world. It was so ideal that men would worry that the universe might descend into chaos if women’s periods weren’t carefully monitored and synchronised.
Even modern thinkers like Charles Darwin believed that this idea served as important evolutionary evidence. He asserted that our ancestors must have lived on the seashore and needed to synchronise with the tides (but this was quickly disproved as it would have implied that all menstruators from around the world would have period cycles of the same length and beginning at the same time).
Aristotle held the opinion that menstruation tended to coincide with the waning of the moon. He rationalised this notion by saying that the moon’s waxing and waning cause temperatures on the Earth to rise and fall respectively and he believed that a woman lost her blood during the coldest part of the month. Interestingly, although he admitted that some women didn’t conform to this pattern, he classified them as exceptions to this rule rather than a challenge to his assumption.
Keeping with the lunar association concept, in Mayan mythology, it was believed that menstruation originated when the Moon goddess was cursed by her father to bleed 'evil blood' as a punishment for disobeying him.
Thus, we can see that when the term menstruation was coined, it wasn’t to signify the vaginal bleeding a woman underwent every month but to mainly emphasise the belief that the moon must have had a role to play in this phenomenon.
Was this the only theory that the people came up with to explain menstruation?
There are pieces of evidence in the form of writings and drawings of how people used their imagination to try to explain menstruation. Some popular theories were divine intervention, witchcraft and even a curse of God. It was also widely believed that a woman needed to bleed to cool her emotional, hysterical nature.
In his texts, Hippocrates wrote that a woman’s flesh was more like a sponge than a man’s. Hence, a woman absorbed more fluid from what was eaten and drunk, which would build up all month and be released in the form of blood.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that it was finally discovered that periods were actually linked to ovulation. So clearly the term menstruation emerged even before we had a chance to form a biological understanding of the phenomenon. It was officially coined in 1686, mainly due to strong assumptions of the menstrual cycle being in synchrony with the lunar cycle and despite the many other theories that surfaced over several centuries in the past, this theory had a worldwide significance.
It was so popular that we can now see why the word menstruation is etymologically related to the English word “moon”. With the word’s fascinating stories and bits of quirky history behind it, it’s nice to know that over the last 300 years - despite our scientifically-oriented world - the word ‘menstruation’ has remained unaltered and is still in use today.
Written by Sanjana Gandhi
Graphics by Anashwara Mandalay