Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung

7994a-cleopatra_-_john_william_waterhouse2b1888

Cleopatra. John William Waterhouse, 1888.

Ancient Egypt was a remarkably advanced society. They had one of the first known written languages, the earliest form of paper, a 365-day calendar, toothpaste, and breath mints. Egyptians even invented eye makeup as far back as 4000 BC by combining soot and galena to create kohl. It was worn by both men and women for status as well to protect the wearer from the evil eye.

Preferring small families, they also invented enough different methods of contraception that you’d be forgiven for wondering if someone in a TARDIS gifted them with the secrets of the universe (or at least a modern health textbook).

For those who were really serious about avoiding pregnancy, hieroglyphs from the second century CE recommend castration for either gender. Surgeries such as the ovariotomy (the removal of the ovaries) were also available, if mercifully rare.

Most people depended on much less invasive forms of contraception. One of the most common was spermicide administered in a sort of tampon made of linen and soaked in acidic oils. Some minerals found in the water also had spermicidal properties when mixed with sour milk, which had the added benefit of making the vagina more acidic to make conception less likely.

Pessaries blocking the entrance to the cervix altogether could be made from the sap of the acacia tree, another natural substance with proven spermicidal properties. The modern equivalent of this would be using a diaphragm with nonoxynol-9. For a back-up method, certain plant extracts could be eaten to alter hormonal balance and inhibit ovulation, much like the birth control pills used today.

For the more adventurous woman, a medical papyrus from 1850 BCE assures us that: “Crocodile dung mixed with honey and placed in the vagina of a woman prevents contraception…”

I can only assume that this one worked by putting all parties off of sex altogether.

Unfortunately, the Egyptians had not yet invented statistics to help us to quantify the success rate of these methods, but in the event that they failed, the recipes for herbal abortificients were passed down from generation to generation.

If all of this isn’t mind-blowing enough, the Egyptians even had the first urine-based pregnancy test. Women were told to pee on some barley and emmer every day and if they grew, she was pregnant. Amazingly enough, modern tests have actually confirmed that this was a fairly accurate way to detect pregnancy.

Sadly, this kind of pregnancy test fell into disuse and the next one was not introduced until 1929.

Condoms even existed, but they were more for show than contraception. Many have been found in the tombs of aristocrats for use in the next world. Fully prepared for one crazy party, they were entombed with sheaths made of animal skin dyed bright colors and trimmed in fur.

Also strap-ons made of mother of pearl. You know, just in case.

 Jessica Cale
Advertisements

Ancient Birth Control: Silphium and the Origin of the Heart Shape

Cyrene_and_Cattle_-_Edward_Calvert

Cyrene and the Cattle, Edward Calvert. Beloved of Apollo, Cyrene was the mythological namesake of Cyrene in Libya.

Silphium was a type of giant fennel that grew in Cyrenaica (present-day Libya) between the sixth century BCE and the first century CE. It was so central to the economy of Cyrene that most of their coins had images of the plant or its seeds. It was delicious, smelled wonderful, and could treat everything from sore throats and indigestion to snake bites and epilepsy. It was its other uses, however, that made it famous and caused its eventual extinction.

Silphium was known throughout the Mediterranean as a highly effective contraceptive and abortifacient. It was regarded as “worth its weight in silver,” and was believed to be a gift of Apollo. The Egyptians and the Knossos Minoans had a special glyph for it. Even Catullus, my favorite of all of the classical perverts, alluded to it in his naughty, naughty poems:

You ask, Lesbia, how many kisses might
You give to satisfy me and beyond.
Greater than the number of African sands that
Lie in silphum-bearing Cyrene between the
Sacred sepulcher of ancient Battus
And the oracle of agitated Jove,
Or than the many stars that, when night
Is still, see the secret loves of men.
It is enough and beyond to love-stricken
Catullus for you to kiss so many kisses
Which neither busybodies can count,
Nor can evil tongues curse. (Catullus 7)

Apollo_Kitharoidos_BM_1380

Apollo Kitharoidos from Cyrene. Silphium was thought to be a gift from Apollo. You’re welcome.

Pausanius’ Description of Greece leaves little doubt as to what it was used for in his story of Dioscuri meeting Phormion’s daughter:

“By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium upon it.”

Given the fact that the plant looked more or less like a big modern-day fennel, it probably wasn’t there for decorative purposes.

Women were commonly advised to mix the juice from a small amount of silphium with water to “regulate their menstrual cycles”. Silphium water was also effective when applied to wool and used as a pessary. Its effectiveness was unquestioned and may even help to explain the exceptionally low birth rates in Ancient Rome. (The other explanation? Lead poisoning. See Contraception in History, Part I)

Unfortunately, silphium was a very temperamental plant and could only really grow on one narrow coastal area about a hundred miles long. That doesn’t sound like so much when you consider that this plant provided contraception to much of the ancient world. It was thought to be farmed to extinction within six hundred years.

Although Pliny the Elder reported the plant extinct by the first century CE, we have not been able to positively identify it, so it is impossible to know for certain whether this is truly the case or if it was as effective as it was believed to be. Related plants have been used for similar purposes over the years with mixed results. Asafoetida was once used as a poor substitute, but these days it has been consigned to the spice rack.

Silphium

Ancient coin from Cyrene depicting a silphium seed

Many explanations have been given for the origins of the heart symbol over the years. Actual human hearts are not particularly heart-shaped, and as for the upside-down heart shape of a woman’s arse? Please. One more likely explanation is that it comes from the image of the silphium seed that was etched onto coins and known by sight throughout the Mediterranean world. If there was a plant you could eat that provided effective contraception without otherwise killing you, you’d want to know what it looked like, too.

And what does it look like? A heart. (right) 

Upside-down arse, indeed!

Jessica Cale

Sources

Bellows, Alan. The Birth Control of Yesteryear.

Catullus, Poem 7.

Pausanias, Description of Greece.

Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories.

[An earlier version of this appeared on authorjessicacale.com.] 

Contraception in History IV: Minos, Pasiphae, and the Most Metal Euphemism for V.D. Ever

One of the earliest mentions of condoms as we know them dates back to 150 CE to Antoninus Liberalis’ telling of the legend of Minos and Pasiphae. 

Pasiphae and the Minotaur
Minos was the mythological king of Knossos and the son of Zeus and Europa. He is probably best known for the labyrinth he used to feed children to the Minotaur, the lovechild (lovebeast?) his wife had with a particularly good-looking bull. Every nine years he would put fourteen Athenian children into the labyrinth to get lost and eventually eaten by this giant bull-creature until the Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus with the help of Minos’ human daughter, Ariadne. 

His wife, Pasiphae, was the immortal daughter of Helios. As the daughter of the sun god, she had magical powers, and used these to cast a spell on Minos when she discovered he had been unfaithful to her. Instead of just turning him into a frog or a better-looking bull, she cursed him to have serpents and scorpions in his semen. 

(This was in no way an explanation for something nasty he picked up from one of his many, many lovers.**)

The idea was that the serpents and scorpions would kill his other lovers (and they did), but that Pasiphae would be protected because she was immortal. 

She also had a condom made out of a goat’s bladder. 

The goat’s bladder was used as female condom because it was put inside Pasiphae to protect her from the killer scorpions, as opposed to protecting Minos from her. It was used to prevent the spread of infection rather than pregnancy, and condoms would continue to be used mainly to protect men from contracting diseases for centuries.

Pasiphae managed to conceive while using the goat’s bladder as a sort of scorpion-filter, though why anyone would want to have kids with that guy is beyond me. King of Crete or not, he cheated on her, imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus as a thank you for building him a labyrinth, and kept her half-beast son in a weird basement where he fed him live children.

All things considered, I can see why that bull might have seemed like a good idea at the time. 

**That’s exactly what this was.

Contraception in History Part I: Aristotle, Hippocrates, and a Whole Lotta Lead

There’s a common misconception (no pun intended) that contraception didn’t exist in any real capacity before the twentieth century. Previous generations were able to control themselves, were not as sex-mad as we are today, and only ever engaged in the act after (heterosexual!) marriage and for the sake of procreation.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

I have always believed that people haven’t changed at all over the course of human history, and the more I study, the more I believe this to be true. Sure, the way people make sense of their world changes, as does the way they write about it, but people don’t change. This is particularly true when it comes to sex. Our very existence is proof that every generation since the dawn of man has been powerless against it. More than just a biological urge, it’s a desire and an obsession. As long as mankind has understood that sex can lead to pregnancy, we have sought ways to prevent conception.

This is nothing new. You want proof?

firstcondompicture

This twelve-thousand year old cave painting from the Grotte des Combarelles in France is believed to be the first depiction of condom use.

Take that, 1960s!

Being a life-long fan of historical romance, I have always been curious about contraception. Assuming the woman didn’t die having her first or second child, how did she avoid having twenty more? Do they all have syphilis? If not, why not? What does syphilis look like?

Assuming I’m not the only person who has ever wondered this (and I might be…), I’m going to write a series of posts of contraception throughout history. If there’s a particular time, place, or aspect that you’re interested in, please let me know.

For now we’ll start in the Ancient World.

Obviously women are all-powerful, but Hippocrates was among the first to believe that women could prevent conception by banishing sperm on command, as he explains in The Sperm, fifth century BCE: “When a woman has intercourse, if she is not going to conceive, then it is her practice to expel the sperm produced by both partners whenever she wishes to do so.”

You read that right, the sperm produced by both partners. While Aristotle and Plato argued that men’s sperm was responsible for producing embryos and that women were little more than a receptacle for it, Hippocrates understood that conception was a complex process involving both partners. Although he might not have been quite right about conception (or lack thereof) at will, he reasoned that both parties had to be involved because children could look like either parent. So far so logical.

Diseases of Women, a Hippocratic treatise, goes on to recommend a sure fire way of dealing with unintended pregnancies: “Shake her by the armpits and give her to drink…the roots of sweet earth almond.”

There is no evidence that the sweet earth almond, also known as the Cyperus esculenthus is anything other than a tasty, tasty nut. It’s a good source of protein, healthy fats, and Vitamins E and C, so it’ll make your skin look great, but it has no known contraceptive or abortive properties.

If that didn’t work (and all signs point to no), he also advised women to jump up and down repeatedly with her heels touching her butt. It’s worth a shot.

While Aristotle underestimated the woman’s contribution to conception, his contraceptive recommendations sound a little more effective. He advised women to: “anoint that part of the womb on which the seed falls with oil of cedar, or with ointment of lead or with frankincense, commingled with olive oil.”

Ah, yes. Lead.

Lead is one explanation for the shockingly low birthrates in Ancient Rome. The aqueducts were made of lead, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that most of the population was suffering from a degree of lead poisoning (more on that here). Lead poisoning causes infertility in men and women, yes, along with behavioral changes, irritability, convulsions, and permanent damage to the central nervous system.

Sound familiar?

Throughout history, lead has been used in a number of common products from paint to eyeliner and has been a well-documented cause of infertility and madness.

So there you have it. If you can’t find someone to vigorously shake you by the armpits, try lead.*

Tune in next Thursday for more on contraception in history. If you can’t wait, read Aine Collier’s The Humble Little Condom: A History for a fun introduction.

*Do not, for the LOVE OF GOD try lead.