Contraception in ancient times.

I should have called this blog ‘anthropology and ancient history’. Sometimes it’s impossible to decide where one ends and the other begins.

So here is the quick list of pre-modern methods to prevent or end a pregnancy...


Rhythm method.


Anal sex/other non procreative sexual behaviour.

Prolonged breatsfeeding, which has probably prevented more pregnancies through human history than any other method of contraception!

Followed by the more complex methods..


The oldest claimed representation of condom use is a painting in the French cave Grotte des Combarrelles, the paintings in this cave are 12,000–15,000 years old.

Early condoms were made from whatever man could get his hands on. The Ancient Romans made condoms from goats’ bladders, the Egyptians went for linen sheaths or animal membranes to protect from tropical diseases, the Japanese had condoms made from leather and tortoiseshell, and the Chinese wrapped oiled silk paper round the penis to prevent infection.

 Cervical plugs

Made of natural sea sponge, pads of cotton or wool, thick oil like gum arabic, even a big gooey lump of opium…

Lactic acid based spermicides

From ancient Egypt. I ‘m not joking. They tried making up some of the odd recipes, and when left to ferment, they produced lactic acid anhydride, still used as a modern spermicide. The best recipe involved acacia bark and honey.

A link to an interesting book on the subject.. Eve’s Herbs. One for the Amazon wish list.


Sylphium seen on the first and last coins.

 A now extinct plant from Kyrenia, used a lot in ancient Rome. It was related to fennel, and was harvested into extinction. Apparently it was VERY effective, and could induce abortions and labour.

Herbal abortifacients and contraceptives


Queen Anne’s Lace, pennyroyal, artemisia and rue.
Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot) seeds. Used to prevent implantation or taken ‘to bring about women’s courses’ (Culpepers Herbal) if a period was late.

Also used  pomegranates, pennyroyal, artemisia (wormwood), wild yam, rue, myrrh and juniper.

You see carefully worded references to contraceptives in Culpeper’s herbal. Usually it will just say something innocuos like’ to bring about womens’s courses’ or  ‘an emmenagogue’ as a kind of code. It seemed they were often used routinely about the time a period was due, or as the first symptoms of pregnancy appears ( I know two days after I’ve concieved). This kind of method wouldn’t have endangered the womans health or caused unduly heavy bleeding, it’s comparable to the morning after pill.

 It has to be remembered that giving birth prior to the modern era was a very risky business, with a mortality rate of about one in sixteen. So contraception saves lives in circumstances like that.

Below is an extract from the Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant book ‘Womens life in ancient Greece and Rome’. Originally written by  Soranus, Rome, 1st cent. A.D.


 A contraceptive differs from an abortive, for the first does not let conception take place, while the latter destroys what has been conceived … And an expulsive some people say is synonymous with an abortive; others, however, say that there is a difference because an expulsive does not mean drugs but shaking and leaping … For this reason they say that Hippocrates, although prohibiting abortives, yet in his book ‘On the Nature of the Child’ employs leaping with the heels to the buttocks for the sake of expulsion.[1]But a controversy has arisen. For one party banishes abortives, citing the testimony of Hippocrates who says: ‘I will give to no one an abortive’; moreover, because it is the specific task of medicine to guard and preserve what has been engendered by nature. The other party prescribes abortives, but with discrimination, that is, they do not prescribe them when a person wishes to destroy the embryo because of adultery or out of consideration for youthful beauty; but only to prevent subsequent danger in parturition if the uterus is small and not capable of accommodating the complete development, or if the uterus at its orifice has knobbly swelling and fissures, or if some similar difficulty is involved. And they say the same about contraceptives as well, and we too agree with them. And since it is safer to prevent conception from taking place than to destroy the foetus, we shall now first discourse upon such prevention. For if it is much more advantageous not to conceive than to destroy the embryo, one must consequently beware of having sexual intercourse at those periods which we said were suitable for conception. And during the sexual act, at the critical moment of coitus when the man is about to discharge the seed, the woman must hold her breath and draw herself away a little, so that the seed may not be hurled too deep into the cavity of the uterus. And getting up immediately and squatting down, she should induce sneezing and carefully wipe the vagina all round; she might even drink something cold. It also aids in preventing conception to smear the orifice of the uterus all over before with old olive oil or honey or cedar resin or juice of the balsam tree, alone or together with white lead; or with a moist cerate containing myrtle oil and white lead; or before the act with moist alum, or with galbanum together with wine; or to put a lock of fine wool into the orifice of the uterus; or, before sexual relations to use vaginal suppositories which have the power to contract and to condense. For such of these things as are styptic, clogging and cooling cause the orifice of the uterus to shut before the time of coitus and do not let the seed pass into its fundus. [Such, however, as are hot] and irritating not only do not allow the seed of the man to remain in the cavity of the uterus, but draw forth as well another fluid from it.

 And we shall make specific mention of some. Pine bark, tanning sumach, equal quantities of each, rub with wine and apply in due measure before coitus after wool has been wrapped around; and after two or three hours she may remove it and have intercourse. Another: Of Cimolian earth, root of panax, equal quantities, rub with water separately and together, and when sticky apply in like manner. Or: Grind the inside of fresh pomegranate peel with water, and apply. Or: Grind two parts of pomegranate peel and one part of oak galls, form small suppositories and insert after the cessation of menstruation. Or: Moist alum, the inside of pomegranate rind, mix with water, and apply with wool. Or: Of unripe oak galls, of the inside of pomegranate peel, of ginger, of each 2 drachms, mould it with wine to the size of vetch peas and dry indoors and give before coitus, to be applied as a vaginal suppository. Or: Grind the flesh of dried figs and apply together with natron. Or: Apply pomegranate peel with an equal amount of gum and an equal amount of oil of roses. Then one should always follow with a drink of honey water. But one should beware of things which are very pungent, because of the ulcerations arising from them. And we use all these things after the end of menstruation …

It seems the abortion debate has been going on a long time.

A lot of the Egyptian medical advice was gleaned from the Ebers Papyrus. It was purchased in Luxor by Edwin Smith in 1862. It is unclear from whom the papyrus was purchased, but it was said to have been found between the legs of a mummy in the Assassif district of the Theben necropolis. It is the oldest known medical text in the world.


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