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Birth Control In Ancient Times

Birth Control In Ancient Times

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Women across history sought methods to control pregnancy. Despite the limited scientific knowledge, they ingeniously discovered and applied various practices to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Ancient records and manuscripts reveal a fascinating array of birth control methods, from herbal concoctions to physical barriers. Among these, Silphium, a plant from the hills near Cyrene, Libya, stands out as a notable example of an oral contraceptive. Its use, based on Pliny’s writings, highlights the innovative approaches to family planning in ancient societies.

Birth control in antiquity

The quest to understand human fertility and control birth rates is as old as civilization itself. In antiquity, methods to prevent pregnancy were grounded in a mixture of folklore, observation, and early scientific inquiry. Despite the limitations of their medical knowledge, ancient societies experimented with a range of techniques to control conception, some of which mirrored practices still in use today.

The ancient Greeks, for instance, employed various methods in their attempts to regulate fertility. Notably, Aristotle, a towering figure in Greek philosophy, suggested the application of Cedar Oil to the womb before intercourse. Although Aristotle’s understanding of conception was rudimentary, his recommendation inadvertently may have had some merit. It’s thought that the oil could have obstructed sperm mobility to a certain extent, although such an outcome would have been inconsistent at best.

In addition to these, another text, On the Nature of Women, attributed to the Hippocratic corpus, advised women against conception by recommending the ingestion of a copper salt solution. Ostensibly, this concoction was believed to prevent pregnancy for a year. However, Soranus of Ephesus, a later medical writer, highlighted the risks associated with such practices, noting their inefficacy and the danger posed by copper’s toxicity.

Ancient Egypt

Egyptian women, pioneering in their approach, utilized an array of materials and knowledge to control fertility, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of their bodies and natural resources.

One of the most intriguing concoctions involved a paste made from honey, sodium carbonate, and, most peculiarly, crocodile dung. This mixture was applied intravaginally, serving both as a spermicide and a physical barrier to sperm. While modern sensibilities might find the use of crocodile dung alarming, it’s believed that the acidic properties of the dung could indeed have created an inhospitable environment for sperm. Additionally, the honey would have acted as a thickening agent, increasing the formulation’s effectiveness as a barrier.

Acacia gum was also used to create a pessary, described as a spermicide in ancient documents; acacia gum was mixed with plant fibers and honey and then inserted into the vagania.

Beyond these more tangible methods, the Ancient Egyptians also delved into the mystical, with spells and amulets playing a role in their contraceptive practices. These charms were believed to protect women from unwanted pregnancy, illustrating a blend of empirical and spiritual strategies for birth control.

Papyrus scrolls from as far back as 1850 BC document recipes for contraceptive agents, highlighting the long-standing importance of fertility control in Egyptian society. These ancient texts not only reveal the ingredients used but also offer insights into the application methods and the societal understanding of reproduction. They stand as a testament to the sophistication and ingenuity of ancient Egyptian medical practices.

It wasn’t just women who were involved in the practice of contraception. Men, too, had their methods, though less is documented about their contributions. The focus on female contraceptives in historical records might reflect the societal structures of the time, where women often bore the responsibility for raising children.

Ancient Greece and Rome

In Ancient Greece, contraception was often intertwined with mythology and natural remedies. The tale of Persephone, Zeus’s daughter, and her accidental consumption of a pomegranate seed in Hades had real-world implications beyond its mythic origins. Dr. Riddle highlighted the use of pomegranate seed as a contraceptive in ancient Greece, supported by 1930s research indicating its fertility-reducing effects in laboratory animals.

The Romans, on the other hand, approached contraception with a blend of practicality and romance. The first-century BC poet Catullus flirtatiously suggested to his lover Lesbia that their kisses could be as numerous as “the grains of sand on Cyrene’s silphium shores,” a light-hearted nod to the contraceptive value attributed to silphium. This plant, deeply intertwined with the Roman economy and society, was reputed for its contraceptive efficacy, illustrating how such methods were embedded in everyday life and even romantic courtship.

However, it was the work of Soranus around 98-138 AD that marked a significant advancement in the understanding of contraception. Rejecting superstitions and amulets as unreliable, Soranus advocated for mechanical methods of contraception, such as vaginal plugs and pessaries made of wool, covered in oily or gummy substances. Despite the potential ineffectiveness of some methods mentioned by historian Himes, Soranus’s rational approach represented a monumental shift towards evidence-based contraceptive techniques.


China’s history with contraception is as old as its dynasties, with the earliest records dating back to 2700 BCE. Ancient Chinese texts mention the use of mercury and lead in concoctions intended to prevent pregnancy, albeit with dangerous side effects.

But, not all of their methods were hazardous. A more benign approach involved the consumption of certain herbs and plant extracts that were believed to have contraceptive properties. One notable method was the use of oil-soaked cotton as a barrier method, a precursor to the modern-day diaphragm. The Chinese were also known to use a plant called “Queen Anne’s Lace” (Daucus carota), which is still recognized for its spermicidal properties.


In India, the approach to contraception was enshrined in both cultural practices and ancient texts. The Kama Sutra, an ancient Indian text commonly associated with sexuality, offers references to contraceptive methods. It speaks of a paste made from honey, ghee, and the powder of palasha (Butea frondosa) flowers, applied externally to achieve contraceptive effects.

Additionally, Ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine in India, includes numerous references to herbal remedies intended to prevent pregnancy or induce temporary sterility. For example, seeds of the long pepper (Pippali) were consumed with clarified butter as a means of contraception.

In both China and India, families often sought to regulate the number of children due to economic reasons or to comply with social norms. Unlike the taboo surrounding birth control in various cultures across history, in ancient China and India, the use of contraceptives was generally accepted, and knowledge about them was openly discussed within communities.

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