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Photograph of historian Helen King

Photograph by Ralph Shephard

Reading time: 5 min

What was it like to get your period in ancient Greece?

A Q&A with historian Helen King

Were the first tampons made of wood? Have periods changed over history? Where does the phrase “on the rag” come from?

If you’ve ever wondered about a question like this, Helen King has probably studied it. King is a historian specialising in medical history, and a recently retired Professor of Classical Studies. She wrote her PhD dissertation about menstruation in classical Greece, has authored several books, and has a blog called Mistaking Histories. I asked her to share a few of the things she’s learned.

Were periods different historically, compared to how they are today?

It's certainly possible that women had fewer periods and lighter bleeding, just because their diet was not as good as it is now. But, weirdly, the expectation was that they would bleed heavily and regularly, and if they didn't, then remedies needed to be used to “bring out the blood.”

This goes back to a belief found in the 5th/4th century BCE Hippocratic texts, that women's flesh is more like a sponge than men's flesh, so it absorbs more fluid from what is eaten and drunk, and then that fluid builds up all month. If it doesn't come out, women will become ill, as the blood could rot or could go somewhere in the body and put pressure on vital organs.

Aristotle mentions menstruation as being like the flow of blood from a sacrificed animal. That is now read as pretty odd—it doesn't sound much fun being like a sacrificed animal—but we could give that a positive spin and say, sacrifice is very important in keeping up communication between humans and gods, so isn't it great that our bodies do this thing?

How did people deal with period blood?

For much of the past, we just don't know. Perhaps, if their families could afford it, women just didn't leave the house, but that was hardly an option for all women. Sara Read has looked at this for early modern Europe and concluded that most just bled on their clothes. In later historical periods we know that rags were put between the legs (hence “on the rag”) and washed and dried for reuse.

There was one really weird suggestion from the great 19th century German ancient historian Theodore Mommsen, that the word rhakoi—rags—in the lists of clothing women in ancient Athens dedicated to the goddess Artemis, meant “menstrual rags.” He was very disturbed by this possibility, not least in terms of just where they were kept after dedication!

Most people, though, think this word is just a comment on the condition of the clothing previously dedicated—it has become “ragged.” In a medieval medical text, “On Treatments for Women” part of what Monica Green has called the “Trotula ensemble” of medieval texts on the female body, women with “bloody flux at the same time as the menses” are told to sit on wild rocket [arugula] cooked in wine, with a linen cloth put between them and the rocket. This is not a normal period, it's a treatment, but it perhaps suggests that this linen cloth was part of normal menstrual practice too. I discussed this more on my blog.

Do you think it would be practical to use some of these period products today?

Yes, definitely. Reusable pads are a great idea but they require a different attitude to menstrual blood. Seeing it as somehow “waste” and needing to be hidden and disposed of “hygienically” doesn't go with the idea of washing out your pads and hanging them up to dry! The other problem is that it depends on how heavy your periods are. I’m not convinced reusable pads are the answer for very heavy bleeding, especially if you are travelling.

What do we need to keep in mind when examining historical information about menstruation?

We need to remember that the sources are male, and women may have had their own ways of making sense of things. Even early women writers, like Jane Sharp in the 17th century, were working within a model of the body that derived from Greek and Roman writers and was not really open to challenge.

What are some common myths about historical periods? Can you give us the facts?

The biggest myth out there is the “ancient tampons” myth, that the ancient Greeks wrapped wool round a bit of wood and inserted that. Ouch. I've written about that on Mistaking Histories. There's no evidence from the ancient world about this and the myth seems to originate—surprise, surprise—from a tampon-marketing website.

A close contender for biggest myth about menstruation more generally is the theory of menotoxin—[the idea that women emit] a toxic substance when menstruating. It would explain all those customs around the world by which women don't make jam while they are menstruating because it won't set properly, shouldn't bake bread because it won't rise, shouldn't preserve meat because it will not keep... or shouldn't have a perm put in their hair because it won't take! As that last suggestion implies, this has a surprisingly long history!

Follow Helen King on Twitter.

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