Bad History, menstruation

The history of tampons – in ancient Greece?

Did ancient Greek women use tampons? It’s clear that women today are curious as to what women in the past did when they were menstruating. I did my PhD on ancient Greek menstruation and I also feel I’m on a crusade to clear up some of the ‘creative’ (actually, just plain wrong) statements about Hippocrates that are out there on the WWW. Recently I’ve come across a statement that seems to originate in the marketing for Tampax but which has been picked up without any critical analysis by a lot of other sites. The original source seems to be the claim on the Tampax site that “The Greek physician Hippocrates, writing in the fifth century B.C., described another type of tampon, which was made of lint wrapped around lightweight wood” .

Leaving aside the ‘did Hippocrates write anything in the Hippocratic corpus?’ question, can we really find anything like that in ancient Greek medicine? Variations on other internet sites that seem to derive from the Tampax claim include “as described in the writings of Hippocrates, a tampon used pieces of wood, wrapped [sic] fiber” and, with a cheerful disregard for the whole Greece/Rome thing, “Apparently Hippocrates documented that Roman women used wooden sticks wrapped with lint.”. I like that ‘apparently’. Someone else has realised that there is an important question about how we are supposed to know this: what’s the evidence?

The wonderful Museum of Menstruation site, which makes a real effort to identify its sources and to engage with historians working on the topic, is much more cautious, talking about ancient usage of “tampons for contraception, which possibly means that women also used material as tampons to control menstruation.” Note that ‘possibly’. Just because you insert things into the vagina for one purpose doesn’t mean you do it for another; although at least, as the founder of the Museum of Menstruation, Harry Finley, pointed out when we had a chat about this, it shows that there is no sort of taboo attached to such insertion.

Tampons up the nose?

So what about the ancient Greek medical texts that came to be known as the ‘Hippocratic corpus’? In the Hippocratic treatises Joints and Instruments of Reduction, when the nose is fractured, the physician is told to roll up lint in a rag or in thin Carthaginian leather (chosen because it is so soft) and insert this into the nose. The ancient Greek word used here is motos. This, as here, can mean lint for dressing wounds, but in its entry for motos the indispensable ancient Greek-English dictionary by Liddell, Scott and Jones (known cheerfully to classicists as ‘LSJ’) also gives ‘tent, tampon’. Is this where the imaginary ‘Hippocratic tampon’ comes from?

Now, in a medical context, a tent is not somewhere you spend the night during an outdoor vacation, but an expansible plug of soft material for opening up an orifice. In medical English, tampons also have a rather different meaning to that which we now assume. Before Tampax came on the scene, there were tampons, but not as we know them. A tampon was simply a plug of some sort, used to stop bleeding, and inserted into a wound or, if menstrual flow seemed excessive, into the vagina. The word comes from the verb ‘to tamp’ meaning to stop up a hole, or to push down – you can ‘tamp’ tobacco into the bowl of a pipe before smoking it. But when Tampax came on the scene as a commercial product, the word was shifted more narrowly towards menstruation, so today’s near-exclusive application of the word to menstrual products is the result of the invention of Tampax.

Does the motos feature in the Hipppocratic treatises on women’s bodies? Yes, but not in the context of a way of absorbing normal menstrual flow. In Diseases of Women 1 (Littré 8.138.12) it means some soothing lint applied to the mouth of the womb and in book 2 of the same treatise (Littré 8.332.18) there are three motoi of increasing size inserted into the mouth of the womb because the neck of the womb is hard and closed so the menstrual blood can’t get out. In his 2018 translations of these texts for the Loeb Classical Library, Paul Potter used the word ‘pessary’. Similarly, although different words are used, when a remedy needs to be inserted into the vagina – for example, beetles to irritate the womb and bring on a delayed menstrual period – it is wrapped up in wool first. But none of these uses concerns management of normal menstrual flow.

The pig-pen?

There is one other isolated reference worth mentioning. This comes not from the ancient Greek medical texts but from the fifth-century BC comic playwright Aristophanes (Lysistrata 1073) who refers once to men looking like they are wearing a ‘pig-pen’ (choirokomeion) round their thighs. One of the ancient words for the female external genitalia is choiros – piggy – used for the genitals of a young girl, or – if depilated – of an older woman. So is the joke here about wearing something around your piggy that looks quite bulky – such as a home-made menstrual pad? The word choiros itself has an interesting masculine/feminine dimension, in that if it is used in the masculine it means ‘female genitalia’ but in the feminine, it’s ‘pig’! In fact, when the men who look like they are wearing pig-pens open their cloaks, what they are hiding under there are their erect penises.

If anyone would have made a choiros joke like this, it would be Aristophanes. He was well aware of the entertainment value of the word. Another of his plays, Acharnians, has an extended joke about a poor man who is trying to sell his daughters as ‘piggies’.  And in support of my suggestion, I can cite LSJ, not a dictionary to make daring assumptions. It gives as the meaning of choirokomeion – on this occasion only – ‘bandage used by females’. So is this what men called a menstrual pad, or what women called it? In any case, if we follow this line of reasoning, it could be further evidence that menstrual management in ancient Greece was by home-made pads of rags, rather than tampons.

For more on Aristophanes, try James Robson, Aristophanes: an Introduction (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2009) and watch the free online series ‘The Birth of Comedy’ that starts here.

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