Editor’s note: This article is a historical overview, and the information provided is not intended for self-treatment. The herbs discussed may be toxic. Please do not try them yourself.
A 2,500-year-old Cyrenian coin bears a puzzling image. A regal woman sits on a chair, touching a plant with one hand. Her other hand points to her genitals. To the uninitiated, the meaning of the picture might range from the unfathomable to the slightly kinky. To the ancient peoples who circulated this coin in their daily commerce, the images were crystal clear. The plant, called silphion by the Greeks and silphium by the Romans, was one of the most valuable in the ancient world; it was an herbal morning-after pill, readily available to our ancestors a hundred generations ago.
Myths, legends, hearsay, and ancient texts are not the only evidence that people were regulating births in the ancient world. Historical demographic studies indicate that during the first five centuries a.d.—a period of few wars or major epidemics—the population of the Roman Empire declined, while at the same time life expectancy increased. Attempts to attribute the decline to infanticide have not been supported by skeletal evidence, which shows fewer children being born to each woman.
Were the herbal contraceptives and early term abortifacients responsible? For centuries historians paid little attention to ancient accounts of plants possessing birth-control properties, referring to them as “ineffectual potions.” Modern laboratory analyses, however, suggest that the plants used in these potions were effective and that ancient women probably had more control over their reproductive lives than previously thought.
Silphium, which is now extinct, cannot be tested. But experiments using crude extracts of a widely used substitute and silphium relative asafoetida, showed that it inhibited implantation of fertilized ova in rats at rates of up to 50 percent. Extracts of asafoetida’s close relatives were nearly 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy when given within three days of mating.
Studies on other historically cited contraceptive herbs have produced similar results. In 1986, research showed that compounds in Queen Anne’s lace blocked the production of progesterone, which is necessary to prepare the uterus for a fertilized ovum. According to historian John M. Riddle in his book Eve’s Herbs (Harvard University, 1997), women in both rural North Carolina and Rajasthan, India, use the seeds to prevent pregnancy.
Pennyroyal contains a toxic substance, pulegone, that terminates pregnancies in both humans and animals.
If these herbal remedies did work and women of the classical era did indeed have effective contraceptive methods, why, then, did the knowledge fade away?
Riddle suggests two primary factors. One was the change of medicine from something that virtually anyone could practice to the special province of men with formal training. Because the use of herbal birth-control agents was probably in the hands of women, it remained outside the canon of male-administered medicine, passed on by word of mouth and used mainly by those without access to the costlier professional physicians. The second factor was that, from the Renaissance on, physicians distrusted folk medicine and usually treated it with disdain and ridicule. These negative attitudes about traditional medicine, herbal or otherwise, eventually pervaded Western society, and the loss of folk knowledge about herbal contraception was almost complete.
Regardless of what happened to break the learning chain and why, the evidence is clear on one point—women in antiquity had significant control over their reproductive lives—apparently with little interference from religious or political authorities.
Herb: Silphium, possibly a member of the genus Ferula, commonly known as giant fennel.
Where in the world? Libya (Cyrenaicia); now extinct. In the seventh century b.c., Greek colonists established the city of Cyrene on the northeast Libyan coast. Shortly after their arrival, wrote the Greek botanist Theophrastus, they discovered silphium—the plant that would make them rich and the city famous.
How it was used: The pungent sap from silphium’s stems and roots was used in cough syrups and as a food additive. Of far greater importance was its value as a birth-control agent. Medical authorities were universal in their praise for silphium’s value as a contraceptive. The Roman physician Soranus, antiquity’s foremost gynecologist, wrote that women should drink the juice from an amount of silphium about the size of a chick pea, with water, once a month, for “it not only prevents conception but also destroys anything existing.”
Interesting to note: Within a few centuries the supply of silphium was nearly gone. The plant grew only in a band about 125 miles long and 30 miles wide on the Libyan mountainsides facing the Mediterranean Sea. Attempts to cultivate silphium in Greece and Syria failed, and by the first century a.d., Pliny the Elder reported in Natural History that silphium was worth more than its weight in silver and that “only a single stalk had been found in Cyrene within our memory.” By the second century it was extinct.
Herb: Asafoetida, also a member of the Ferula species.
Where in the world? Native to almost the entire Levant and inland to the Nafud desert and the Euphrates river.
How it was used: Used similarly to silphium. It was widely used (though considered less effective) because it was cheaper and more abundant.
Interesting to note: Asafoetida gives Worcestershire sauce its distinctive aroma.
Herb: Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot).
Where in the world? India, the Middle East, and North America.
How it was used: Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recommended the seeds of Queen Anne’s lace, taken orally, to prevent and terminate pregnancy.
Interesting to note: The seeds are actually the fruit of the plant. In modern day, women in India chew the dry seeds and rural North Carolinian women are known to swallow a teaspoonful of seeds with a glass of water.
Where in the world? Europe and North America.
How it was used: Hippocrates also mentions the value of pennyroyal as a birth-control agent but cautions that it is toxic and has to be taken in precisely calculated amounts.
Interesting to note: In Aristophanes’ 421 b.c. comedy, The Peace, Hermes provides Trigaius with a female companion. Trigaius wonders if the woman might become pregnant. “Not if you add a dose of pennyroyal,” advises Hermes. Caution: At least three modern-day deaths have occurred from pennroyal’s use. Even small amounts of the essential oil may cause serious liver damage.
Where in the world? All of Europe, including the eastern Mediterranean regions to the Himalayas.
How it was used: Galen, the foremost physician in the Roman world, and Dioscorides recommended pomegranate for birth control. The seeds were typically used as a pessary (vaginal suppository), though one contemporary medical text documents oral use of pomegranate seed as a postcoital contraceptive.
Interesting to note: The best-known literary reference to the pomegranate’s contraceptive power is the Greek myth of Persephone in Hades. Persephone had eaten six pomegranate kernels while in the underworld, and for six months, during the fall and winter, the land was infertile.
David W. Tschanz lives in Saudi Arabia, where he works as an epidemiologist. He holds master’s degrees in epidemiology and history and writes frequently about the history of medicine as well as historical and contemporary ethnobotany.
By David W. Tschanz
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