Let me open by saying this is emphatically not a politically motivated dig at any modern or historical culture. I recognize that it can be difficult to answer a question about cultural values, let alone the possible causes of said values, while keeping up good standards of scholarship. If this question needs editing to better fit site rules please advise how in the comments before voting to close.

A emphasis on the dangers of religious pollution is a recognizable part of many ancient and medieval cultures, but it would appear some much more than others. The first three societies that come to my own mind are ancient Greece, classical and medieval Japan, and the medieval Islamic world. All of these cultures, deservedly or not, also have a strong reputation for controlling the movement, social interactions, and sexuality of at least upper class women.

Religious and sexual purity are not the same thing, but the two are often closely linked in our own time. It seems fairly intuitive to me that societies which put greater emphasis on avoiding spiritual pollution might also be more likely to exercise tight control over women. (But I am of course not implying the former is required for the latter.) I was wondering if speaking in terms of social history or anthropology, there's anything meaningful to be said about a relationship between these two values? Alternatively, feel free to offer counterexamples or evidence that I'm seeing something that's not really there.


Pollution, as best I can define it: The idea that immoral, unclean, or ritualistically improper actions can spiritually defile an individual or community and that this necessitates some proscribed cleansing action, presumably to avoid further contamination or spiritual peril. Pretty much every major religion and culture I'm aware of incorporates the notion to some extent

For an emphasis on the dangers of religious pollution to be "recognizable" within a culture, it should exhibit an occupation with such themes in its art and religious culture that is noticeably (or at least, very plausibly) greater than other comparable societies that are near it in time or space.


Ancient Greece and spiritual pollution has been covered on this site before. In particular "[Greek] mythology abounds in instances of extreme pollutions such as incest, parricide, and cannibalism." I've also read from multiple sources that ancient Greeks had a low opinion of women, strictly limited their property and rights. "Throughout antiquity most Greek women had few or no civil rights and many enjoyed little freedom of choice or mobility."

Classical Japan has been noticeably preoccupied with their own concept of religious pollution going back to the time when the capital would be moved on the death of the emperor. I would characterize gender relations in medieval Japan as complex, but upper class women in particular have faced drastic limits in mobility, legal rights, and education. Interestingly, the linked article attributes this primarily to Buddhism imported from China. Depending on the continuity of local ideas about pollution this might actually constitute very good evidence against the proposed relationship.

The Medieval Islamic World is has extensive and scrupulous rules regarding cleanliness and purification. That said, after considering both the vast diversity and political relevancy of women in the Islamic world, I frankly decided it was imprudent of me to use it as an example without reading much, much more. If more knowledgeable people then me want to discuss it in an answer, whether as evidence for or against the possible relationship, then by all means.

Other possible societies to draw upon might include medieval Europe, India, and (as per the comments) the ancient Judaic world.

  • It might also be a useful approach to consider historical developments within a particular society. Taking the Chinese example, if Chinese culture showed a greater religious occupation with religious/spiritual notions of purity around the time footbinding took off, that might be taken for evidence. If such developments were consistently unconnected it might be evidence against.
    – Random
    Feb 6, 2018 at 1:02
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    Just a comment, but you don't mention traditional Judaism, where menstruating women were considered unclean, women were only allowed in the outer court of the Great Temple, and (even now in the traditional branch) cannot remarry without a get from her husband - amongst other disabilities.
    – TheHonRose
    Feb 6, 2018 at 14:19
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    @Era The reason I said that is in Shintoism, pollution are easily cleansed with ritual purification. Whereas my impression with Confucianism is that moral impurity is a more or less permanent stain on one's soul. On reflection, I'm not sure to what extent Confucianism qualifies as having religious pollution. But actually, I would suggest it's not an emphasis on pollution per se, but rather what kind of things held to cause pollution, that correlates with treatment of women.
    – Semaphore
    Feb 6, 2018 at 16:48
  • @Semaphore: That's a distinction I can definitely appreciate, and it could make the core of a very good answer if you have time and inclination. Thanks either way.
    – Random
    Feb 6, 2018 at 17:02
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    @Era It's an interesting question, but I fear it may be too broad for me to handle, since I would expect an answer to compare multiple cultures in order to determine whether there's a trend. One difficulty I see is trying to determine what counts as being concerned with religious pollution. Do you have examples of cultures that are not concerned, other than China?
    – Semaphore
    Feb 6, 2018 at 19:03

2 Answers 2


The anthropologist Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger (1966) is a foundational text on pollution and taboos which won't lay your question to rest—and neither will this answer—but does present a model of pollution taboos consistent with the hypothesis that cultures with strongly held beliefs regarding purity are likely to find more reason to police the bodies and behaviour of women. At the risk of oversimplifying and leaning too much on this one aging but still-seminal book:

Before germ theory defined 'dirt' as that which is infectious, dirt was "matter out of place."1

[Dirt] implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity.2

In cultures with strong taboos, this 'system' is a thick worldview in which dirt symbolically implicates other fears and desires:

Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins. We should expect the orifices of the body to symbolise its specially vulnerable points. Matter issuing from them is marginal stuff of the most obvious kind. Spittle, blood, milk, urine, faeces or tears by simply issuing forth have traversed the boundary of the body. So also have bodily parings, skin, nail, hair clippings and sweat. The mistake is to treat bodily margins in isolation from all other margins.3

So the physical realities of menstruation, childbirth, and breastfeeding render women's bodies more marginal (lined with margins) than men's, and thus more likely to be sites of boundary trangression. (Recall too that until very recently and still outside the rich world, high rates of infant mortality mean that childbirth is much chancier to begin with, inviting the investment of ritual significance.)

By Doulgas's account, it is the perception of danger which generates taboos which (symbolically) address that danger; and critically to your question, the fears exercised are contingent on the circumstances of the culture in question:

There is no reason to assume any primacy for the individual’s attitude to his own bodily and emotional experience, any more than for his cultural and social experience. This is the clue which explains the unevenness with which different aspects of the body are treated in the rituals of the world. In some, menstrual pollution is feared as a lethal danger; in others not at all […]. […]

Each culture has its own special risks and problems. To which particular bodily margins its beliefs attribute power depends on what situation the body is mirroring. It seems that our deepest fears and desires take expression with a kind of witty aptness. To understand bodily pollution we should try to argue back from the known dangers of society to the known selection of bodily themes and try to recognise what appositeness is there.4

For instance, in the way promiscuity is regarded within the frame of the Hindu caste system:

Since place in the hierarchy of purity is biologically transmitted, sexual behaviour is important for preserving the purity of caste. For this reason, in higher castes, boundary pollution focusses particularly on sexuality. The caste membership of an individual is determined by his mother, for though she may have married into a higher caste, her children take their caste from her. Therefore women are the gates of entry to the caste. Female purity is carefully guarded and a woman who is known to have had sexual intercourse with a man of lower caste is brutally punished. Male sexual purity does not carry this responsibility. Hence male promiscuity is a lighter matter.5

Sadly, there are of course many causes of misogyny and the disenfranchisement and control of women besides notions of purity (if causation even runs that way at all); and there are causes for pollution taboos besides the symbolic/metonymic implication of remote or closely related fears and desires. Corpses, for instance, don't just transgress a metaphysical boundary between life and death, but also stink—because we've evolved to recognise their smell as disgusting, because they're infectious. So while there certainly is a relationship between pollution taboos and patriarchy, it's very messy and contingent, as you seem to have suspected.

It seems reasonable to guess that the relationship between pollution taboos and patriarchy will be stronger and more straightforward the more you narrow the scope of the taboos under consideration to those which address margins associated with women but not men in society, such as menstruation taboos.

Finally, the contingency of taboos on the unique set of dangers perceived by a culture might go some way towards explaining, to speak to one of your examples, why even in ancient Greece, across which a roughly consistent pantheon was worshipped, Spartan women enjoyed considerably more rights than their counterparts in democratic Athens—despite the Spartans' famous superstitiousness/religious probity.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge, 2002 [1966].

  1. p44
  2. p44
  3. p150
  4. p150
  5. p155

In the earliest Sumerian literature, women are clearly described as property of their husbands. There was hardly a sense of cleanliness or pollution, though. Sumerian literature was often vulgar.

Something that comes to mind is the various Dionysian nature religions. They represent a very old form of worship. Participants partook in intoxication, food, music, and sex. In Roman times, women were the leaders of these cults. It can hardly be said that they controlled their women. Throughout medieval times, a lot of Christian peasants didn't take marriage seriously. I would say that the increased emphasis on monogamy by commoners came with the introduction of money and economical restraints on households. Another way to put it, is that it became neccesary to ensure the survival of offspring.

One reason for asceticism and piety was the desire to obtain exclusivity by its adherents.

  • 3
    I upvoted, but after reflecting on it this answer doesn't really answer the question. Re the sumerians, I explicitly said that I wasn't asking whether strong belief in pollution and control of women require each other, but whether the former was likely to lead to the latter. Re the Romans, the example I used was the Greeks. The Romans certainly had an idea of pollution, but I have not read anything indicating it was a defining religious value. The medieval Europeans are a better example (certainly, Chaucer exhibits small concern for marital fidelity) but not enough to constitute a full answer.
    – Random
    Feb 6, 2018 at 2:56
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    By the time you get to such an established central religion, you probably have gender roles and marriage too. I'd say thats the only connection.
    – John Dee
    Feb 6, 2018 at 3:20
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    Strong notions of pollution can exist without a centralized or structured religion, and "gender roles and marriage" aren't equivalent to control on the level of physical confinement, lack of property rights or divorce, harsh legal penalties for adultery etc. It may well be there is no connection, but respectfully, and for the stated reasons this answer does little to show it.
    – Random
    Feb 6, 2018 at 4:01

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