Blood stains on vellum, ink stains of lunacy

As a countdown to the 8th of March and International Women’s Day, I am inspired to take up some of my favourite thinkers. On my walk today, while listening to a podcast featuring the indomitable Germaine Greer, she recounted some amusing anecdote about playing basketball while menstruating in her youth and breaking her tooth, Greer is known to have said “We’re afraid of ambiguous states, a woman issuing blood is at a boundary.” It reminded me of a very striking scene from a movie I had watched years ago, depicting a menstrual rag, a scene between the philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria and her student Orestes. I remember being disturbed then as I still am, for I can’t reconcile Hypatia’s own ideas about menses with her erudite philosophy. It’s as if she had to deny an aspect of her womanhood to feel equal in the world of men at the time.

Agora is one of my favourite movies on women ( qualifies I suppose, since I watched it thrice), a Spanish-English biopic, that stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, who is a mathematician, philosopher and astronomer in late 4th-century Roman Egypt, who investigates the flaws of the geocentric Ptolemaic system and the heliocentric model that challenges it (although this is historically incorrect).

The director and writer, Alejandro Amenábar took liberties in the plot which depicts the siege of the Library at the Serapeum, (daughter library that housed scrolls from the Library of Alexandria), but the movie did get the authenticity near perfect, in the set. Overall, it has a fine star cast with Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella as her slave Davus and Oscar Isaac as her student, Orestes. For all it’s historical inaccuracies, the movie struck me as an artistic depiction of a woman passionate about her science, protective about the scrolls and tragic in her assault (which is real) by a mob resulting in her death. The part that still holds true like it did then is exactly how Greer alluded to menstruation being an ambiguous state. Hypatia appears to grapple with this as well. So I wrote a poem on it.

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And still you look for the minds of men / in candlelight, in precious scrolls of vellum / no hint of the bleeding unborn calf shed for knowledge / softened now, inscribed in letters that lay prophecies of the future / tablets to scroll through the effusions of poets //

He looked for his muse in you, a grand devotion / define love, you ask Orestes / or maybe some other / in a rag you hand him, the effluent of cyclical lunacy/ where lies beauty in a blood moon you say as your heart breaks / for he suffers shame in your imperfection / shouldn’t he know, you wonder, now that he bleeds in ink //

Transcendence lay inscribed in the silence of papyrus / vellum stained in the logic of men / the Serapeum an escape from vermillion emotions / to ponder the science of those afraid of hue / you saw it as your righteous burden / finding succour in the ink stains of logical minds //

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I think we have a long way to go, in that a conversation on menstruation is difficult even today.

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