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.] 

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Syphilis: Genius, Madness, and The Sickness of Naples

Syphilis. Woodcut series, 1496. The Virgin Mary
and Christ child bless the afflicted.

I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been looking forward to this post. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’m very interested in sex and contraception in history, so the history of venereal diseases is kind of where I live. Syphilis is my favorite. 

Okay, so if you were on the fence, now you’ve probably decided that I’m completely mental. How can someone have a favorite venereal disease? Stick with me here! Syphilis helped to shape the modern world through the measures taken to prevent it (such as the development condoms), and the effects it had on the mental health of influential people, both good and bad. No other venereal disease, as far as I’m aware, has ever been accused (with some justification) of creating genius

So let’s take a look. 

History

The first known case of syphilis was documented by Dr. Pintor in 1493 in Rome. He called it the Morbus Gallicus (The French Disease), and assumed that it had been carried to Italy by the French Army. When the French began to notice it, they called it mal de Naples (the sickness of Naples). Emperor Maximilian officially referred to it as malum franciscum in 1495, (1,3) but soon it was known by an altogether simpler name: 

The Pox. 

It was called this because of the noticeable effects the disease had on the skin of the afflicted, leaving lesions and decaying soft tissues that were sometimes mistaken for leprosy. The name syphilis comes from a Greek legend about a peasant Apollo had punished with poor health and lesions all over his body: the peasant’s name was Syphilus, and he could only be cured (rather chillingly) by Mercury. (1)

Syphilis. Durer, 1496.

The Disease

The first stage was a chancre on or near the genitals, followed by rashes and open sores during the second. The afflicted would experience pain with erection, swelling of the lymph glands, splitting headaches, and other pains throughout the body. At this point, the soft tissues of the nose and palate could begin to rot, and the teeth and hair would loosen and fall out. (3) Lesions and tumors could consume the nasal bones and the tissues of the face until the flesh was literally falling from the bones, sometimes even leaving the brain exposed to open air. (1,3)

If this stage was survived, the disease could lie dormant for up to 30 years, but could still be easily transmitted. If one was lucky enough to make it until the third and final stage of syphilis, they could look forward to madness and paralysis. 

It was seen as primarily a male problem, but no one was safe from it. It was often passed to unsuspecting spouses (and any children conceived) during periods of remission. (2) Often asymptomatic, it could go unnoticed for years, and could be passed on without any sexual contact at all; from parents to children, and from wet nurses to infants. It could even be transmitted through kissing or sharing cups. (1)

It was incredibly contagious and impossible to cure, and some historians estimate that as many as a fifth of the population may have been infected at any one time. (1)

Treatment

Syphilis was treated at the second stage with mercury in every form from enemas, ointments, and pills to steam baths or “sweats” in mercury vapor. This treatment was somewhat successful, although it was known even at the time to cause madness. Less common treatments included confining the afflicted to a sweat room to breathe guaiac vapor, “excising the sores and cauterizing the wounds,” and celibacy aided by the placement of nettles in one’s codpiece. (1)

Syphilis. Woodcut Series, 1496.


Where did it come from?

It is generally believed that Columbus had brought the disease back with him from the Americas. It existed in the Americas before Columbus arrived, and the timing certainly was convenient. Some Renaissance thinkers suspected it had something to do with astrology (see right and above left), while others thought it was derived from leprosy. Francis Bacon believed that it was a result of cannibalism. (1)

Outbursts of Genius and Madness

The tertiary stage of syphilis is well known to cause mental issues including creative genius and paranoid madness. Many of history’s greatest personalities had the disease, such as Cesare Borgia, Casanova, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, and Beau Brummell, but so did larger-than-life figures such as Henry VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ivan the Terrible, and maybe even Hitler. The jury’s out on how much influence the disease has on the creative process, but the manic bursts of divine inspiration it is known to have caused certainly must have had some effect on Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Keats, Manet, Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant, and possibly Oscar Wilde. (2)

Was syphilis at least partially responsible for some of history’s greatest works of art? Maybe. Whichever side we choose in that particular debate, we can at least appreciate the prevalence of syphilis led to the development and popularization of condoms, and that’s no small achievement. 

Syphilis is actually a subject that comes up a couple of times in The Southwark Saga. Sally’s (fictional) friend, Bettie, has it in Tyburn, and so does his crush, the very non-fictional Earl of Rochester. In Virtue’s Lady, Lord Lewes, Jane’s betrothed, has it, and has buried multiple wives and children because of it. No wonder she wants to run away! It’s by no means a huge part of either book, but with one in five people in London being afflicted by it at any one point in time, it would be weird not to mention it.

For a really fantastic article on this subject, be sure to read Sarah Dunant’s piece, Syphilis, sex and fear: How the French disease conquered the world in the Guardian. 

You can also read Gabriello Fallopio’s 1564 treatise against syphilis, De Morbo Gallico (translation: About the French disease) online here.

Sources

1. Catharine Arnold, The Sexual History of London. 
2. Deborah Hayden, The Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis.
3. Liza Picard, Restoration London.

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.