Question: I’ve heard you are not allowed to worship Aset when you have your menses. Is this true?
A: The taboo is against all blood in the shrine, not just menstruating women. The animals that were sacrificed in ancient Kemet were slaughtered in a slaughter area and then the meat was brought to the gods in the inner sanctum. Notice that the meat was offered to the deity and not the blood (1). Given this and the fact that the priests did their best to be clean, it is speculated that blood was taboo within the temple complex during the rites to the gods.
There are ancient purity texts with menstruating women added to the list as taboo to keep away from the open statues in temples. But this does not appear on all of them so this may have been a practice that depended on the local and the deities of that town (2). Also, much of these guidelines are from the later periods so some content may be suspect of foreign influence. It is interesting to note that ancient Hellenic practices did not include a blood or menstruation taboo so this would add more credence to this being a Kemetic practice.
Hsmn is the ancient Egyptian word for menstruation and it also can mean “purification”; this may be a euphemism where the ancient Egyptians thought that the process of menses was a form of bodily purification (3). In spells, the menstrual blood flow is compared to the overflowing Nile flood and the linen tampons were compared to a temple of the goddess Tayet or a dam (4). The tomb was thought to be the womb of the sky goddess where the dead were reborn into the afterlife. Since menstruation was thought of as the absence of fertility and is essentially “dead”, then in order to preserve the cosmic balance, menstruating women were not allowed near the tombs or the cult areas of the gods during their menstruation (5). It is inappropriate to bring the dead blood into contact with the deities and ancestors in their sacred spaces.
Because of this, many priests do not do formal ritual when they are menstruating. But this does not mean that they can not worship their gods. They can give offerings and light candles or incense, but not within the formal structure of the rite. They can also do a number of other things which we think are mundane that when dedicated to a deity could be acts of worship.
Some non-priest Kemetics do perform ritual during their menses and repurify the shrine after their menses are over. There are others that look to what the rite is doing and modify the rite to respect the menstrual taboo while still honoring the gods.
Kiya Nicoll has come up with a way to do this. The ritual itself is lighting candles and incense and pouring libations. Lighting candles and incense are universal practices in almost every religion and can be done at any time. The pouring out of libations (and in one version Wepwawet is called to Open the Way) is connecting the worlds together. During menses, a woman could do the purification rite, light the candles and incense and skip the pouring of libations.
The reason for this is that blood flowing outside the body has its own energy and this can attract harmful unseen forces which you don’t want in your shrine space. Another reason is that leaking blood is a leakage of life-force.
Also, the menses blood is a waste product, and just as you would not urinate or go to the bathroom in shrine, you wouldn’t bring the discarded waste from your uterine lining into shrine either. The fourth reason is this is not about us. This is about what the gods have asked of us and they have asked not to be honored in a formal, priestly ritual officiated by menstruating women or someone who is bleeding.
There are some exceptions to this. Medical conditions that cause bleeding (not just of menses) to happen chronically would require the person to be as clean as possible in order to do ritual. If you come to an event and you have your menstruation, the only thing you would be barred from doing is officiating the ritual or touching the opened icons.
Aset tends to be stricter about purity guidelines than other deities may be in personal worship. I’d ask Her before performing ritual to Her during your period.
1) Sauneron, Serge. Priests in Ancient Egypt, (Cornell University Press, 2000), 159-160. Gertie Englund. “Offerings”, in Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion. Ed. By Donald Redford, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 284.
2) Frandsen, Paul John. “Taboo,” in Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion. Ed. By Donald Redford, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 349-351. Frandsen, Paul John. “The Menstrual ‘Taboo’ in Ancient Egypt,” in The Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 66, no. 2, (Univ. of Copenhagen, 2007), 88-89. Blackman, Aylward M. Gods, Priests and Men. (New York: Kegan Paul International, 1998), 17-18. Wilforg, Terry, G. “Menstrual Syncrony and the Place of Women in Ancient Egypt,” in Gold of Praise: Studies in Ancient Egypt in Honor of Edward Wente. (Michigan: University of Michigan, 1999), 422 and 431.
3) Frandsen, Paul John. “The Menstrual ‘Taboo’ in Ancient Egypt,” in The Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 66, no. 2, (Univ. of Copenhagen, 2007), 84.
4) Frandsen, Paul John. “The Menstrual ‘Taboo’ in Ancient Egypt,” in The Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 66, no. 2, (Univ. of Copenhagen, 2007), 86.
5) Frandsen, Paul John. “The Menstrual ‘Taboo’ in Ancient Egypt,” in The Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 66, no. 2, (Univ. of Copenhagen, 2007), 101-103.