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May 2015

Menopause in the Ancient World

in News Headlines /

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The ancient world is where we can find the origin of the word menopause. To give a brief summary from the article “Origin of the World Menopause, ” the ancient Greek roots of the term menopause are: “men” + “pauein.” The word “men” means month which is closely related to word for moon “mene” because the months were measured by the moon. The word “pauein” means to cause to cease or stop. So the Greek term pauein from which the word “pause” is derived actually does mean to stop rather than pause. But there is more to this story than menopause having Greek roots.

Even before the age of hormone therapy and menopause supplements, there was an awareness of menopause in the ancient Greek world. There is not a lot of literature on this issue probably because fewer women lived to the age of menopause, non-fertile women were probably not as inspiring to ancient Greek men, menopause not being considered disease, and the general disinterest in women. However, there is a little bit known about the Ancient Greek views.

While the average age of death in ancient Greece is not known, based on skeletal analysis 50% of women died by the age of about 34. Seeing as the average age of menopause is 51 years old, we can surmise that menopause not as many women went through menopause back in those times. In contrast to modern times, the life expectancy of women was less than those of men.

There was a general belief that the female body was inferior to the male body which reflected attitudes that women are inferior to men (go figure why women did not live as long). In most every society fertility is highly valued. Thus a fertile woman was more valued than a non-fertile one, but less valued than a male. So under these conditions it is no surprise that menopause was not a huge topic of conversation in Ancient Greek times. However, we do know a little.

Aristotle reports in the History of Animals 585b that women stopped menstruating around age 40 and some were fertile up to age 50. This is a surprising accurate assessment of menopause although today we have the average closer to 50. Neither Aristotle nor Hippocrates suggest reasons for why women go through menopause. However, they suggest women do longer have enough sustenance to sustain menstruation. Additionally menopausal women were seen to become drier or colder. This is ironic given today that women are said to go through hot flashes and night sweats- making them both wetter and colder in a sense (albeit the Greeks were right in the sense that vaginal dryness is an issue). Overall, the Greeks did not know or appreciate menopause the way it is today, but it is interesting to know their views.

Interestingly enough, the ancient Greeks did not see menopause as an abnormal condition or disease. Today while some may argue it is, the FDA for example would argue that menopause is a natural condition just like the Greeks would.

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