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67 Chapter 3 Menstruation, Procreation, and Abortion in Prewar Rhodes Dedicated to the Dormition of Mary and dating from the eleventh century, Ermia’s church nestles snugly in the spatial and social heart of the village. The tiny limestone basilica is composed of three sections, each crowned by a low dome and each entered through its own door. The door to the central nave was for the exclusive use of men. The one on the right was used by most women. The entrance to the left, known as the atsalos tholos, “the disorderly dome,” was reserved for women who were menstruating or had given birth within the previous forty days (Fig. 4). As in all the religions derived from the Abrahamic tradition—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—menstrual blood and the lochia of the postpartum period were regarded as ritually unclean substances. This quality of uncleanliness, moreover, was not contained by the boundaries of a woman’s body, but radiated like a hazardous aura into her immediate environment as well. Because of this, contact with the disorderly body of an unclean woman could cause all manner of havoc. It could make feta cheese turn yellow , bread fall flat, wine go sour, oil turn rancid. Within the church itself, her touch could defile the sacred objects of Orthodoxy. For this reason, menstruating and postpartum women should not venerate the icons (which involved kissing them), light a candle, or take Holy Communion.1 Kiria Sofia, a wiry Ermiot grandmother of four in her seventies, has been explaining to me why women in general are healthier and have more endurance than men. Their advantage, she tells me, is due to their ability to menstruate . Like most women of her generation, she uses the term taksi, which means “order,” to refer to menstruation.2 Within the local model of health and illness that she is describing, the orderly flow of menstrual blood is appreciated because it regularly eliminates unhealthy impurities, the internal “filth” and “dirt” that naturally accumulate in the human body over the course of each 68 Bodies of Knowledge month. By expelling this dirty blood, women’s bodies are regularly cleansed, refreshed, and renewed. Men, along with women who do not menstruate whether because of age or sickness, lacked this advantage and their health consequently suffered. Thus, in notable contrast to the perspective of Orthodoxy , in which menstruation indexed the essentially disorderly and disruptive nature of women’s bodies, from the humoral perspective, menstruation signified order, health, and well-being. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, these two distinct discourses , one thoroughly secular and mechanical, the other religious and spiritually charged, provided the most influential conceptual frameworks with which women in rural Rhodes made sense of their bodies and negotiated their corporeal practices. Of the two, the tenets and teachings of the Greek Orthodox Church represented the dominant discourse. The Greek Orthodox Church has been intimately identified with, and supported by, the nation-state since its inception in the nineteenth century. It represents a long and valued literate scriptural tradition. Its all-male hierarchy buttresses in multiple ways the androcentric bias that threads through much of Greek culture and society. Without the rituals of Orthodoxy, neither the collective life of the village nor 4. Ermia’s church, dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God (Kimisis tis Theotokou). Menstruation, Procreation, and Abortion in Prewar Rhodes 69 the life course of each individual within it could acquire its proper shape and meaning. Indeed, it was only through these rituals that a person’s full humanity and social identity were gradually achieved over time. When juxtaposed to the palpable presence and authority of the Church, the ethnomedical discourse concerned with women’s bodies and health was, in de Certeau’s sense, “quasi-invisible” (de Certeau 1984). It is perhaps partly for this reason that it has been almost entirely ignored by ethnographers and why Orthodoxy, in contrast, has been privileged as “the ultimate reference point for ‘local’ gender meanings” (Cowan 1996, 65), as well as for local illness beliefs and practices (cf. Machin 1983). Unlike Orthodoxy, Rhodian ethnogynecology lacked a “proper locus” in either space or canonical text. Rather, it was dispersed and embedded in women’s bodily practices and prescriptions (de Certeau 1984). Although associated in intricate ways with the long and respected literate tradition of Galeno-Hippocratic gynecology, as I show in this chapter, by the twentieth century this body of knowledge circulated almost exclusively within the oral lifeworlds of...


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