Contraception: Methods of Birth Control Used by Our Ancestors


Discover the creative and sometimes gross methods of contraception used in ancient times. 

From crocodile excrement to modern-day pills and condoms, the evolution of contraception has been a wild ride. There are many debates that continue to rage on the accessibility, effectiveness, and ethical implications of contraceptive methods. But let’s take a journey back in time and explore the strange and sometimes disgusting methods of birth control employed by our ancestors. From sneezing to herbal remedies, it’s clear that our forebears were not lacking in creativity when it came to preventing unwanted pregnancies. This article will delve into the bizarre world of ancient contraception, showcasing the diverse range of methods our ancestors used to stay baby-free.

Contraception in Ancient India

Butea monosperma, Contraception in ancient India
Butea monosperma (palasa). Source: Bishnu Sarangi via pixabay

Centuries ago, long before the dawn of modern medicine, ancient Indian texts like Ayurveda, Garuda Purana, and Bhavaprakasha revealed the natural contraceptive methods that utilized ingredients as basic as honey, palm leaf powder, and the seeds of the palasa tree. These ancient texts provided valuable insights into preventing unwanted pregnancies, ensuring perinatal and infant survival, and promoting healthy sexual lives.

The Ayurvedic scriptures also recommend a regulated sexual life, with abstinence being one of the essential pillars of sustaining life. The ancient Bruhadaranyaka Upanishad even mentions a breathing exercise to prevent conception during coitus.

Moreover, Ayurvedic classics also introduced the concept of the safe period or rhythm method, where one tracks the menstrual cycle to determine the fertile and safe periods for intercourse. According to this method, the first 12–16 days of the menstrual cycle are considered fertile, while the post-ovulation, progesterone-dominant phase is deemed safe. But, it’s important to note that even with meticulous tracking, the fertile period can vary depending on a woman’s reproductive health, and hence, this method doesn’t guarantee 100% contraception.

Contraception in Ancient Egypt

Page 1 and part of page 2 of the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, Contraception in ancient Egypt
Page 1 and part of page 2 of the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Egypt was no stranger to birth control and abortion, with evidence of their use dating back to 1550 BC. The Ebers Papyrus and Kahun Papyrus, both from the 1800s BC, contain some of the earliest documented descriptions of birth control, which included using acacia leaves, honey, and lint as vaginal blockades against sperm. The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus explicitly refers to contraceptive pessaries, including acacia gum, which modern research has confirmed as having spermicidal properties and is still used in contraceptive jellies. Other unusual birth control methods mentioned in the papyrus include gummy substances applied to the cervix, a mixture of honey and sodium carbonate placed in the vagina, and even a pessary made of crocodile dung.

Interestingly, withdrawal, or coitus interruptus, was also referenced in the Book of Genesis as a method of contraception. In the story of Onan and his deceased brother’s wife, Tamar, Onan “spills his seed” (ejaculates) on the ground to avoid fathering a child.

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Contraception in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece contraception
Drawing of Heracleum sphondylium, showing its heart-shaped mericarp. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Silphium, the giant fennel from North Africa, had a long and mysterious history in the ancient world. Rumor has it that it was a highly effective oral contraceptive used by the Greeks and Near Eastern peoples, but it was so rare that it eventually went extinct. Other plants, such as Queen Anne’s lace, pomegranate, and myrrh, were also used for birth control, but most methods were probably ineffective. Coitus interruptus, or withdrawal, was likely the most effective method, but even that was not foolproof. Soranus of Ephesus, a physician who rejected superstition, prescribed common-sense mechanical methods such as vaginal plugs and pessaries.

Contraception during the Medieval Period

Contraception in medieval period

Burning of three alleged witches in Baden, Switzerland (1585), by Johann Jakob Wick. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In medieval Western Europe, birth control was considered a sin by the Catholic Church, but that didn’t stop women from taking matters into their own hands. From inserting lily root and rue into the vagina to practicing infanticide after birth, women of the time used a variety of methods to prevent pregnancy. Historian John M. Riddle has argued that women throughout history have used herbs to control fertility and that this knowledge was shared primarily among women, giving them a level of control over their lives that was previously unrecognized.

The Church’s stance on birth control took a dark turn in the 15th century when Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull that explicitly accused witches of practicing contraception and abortion. The witch hunts that followed were fueled by texts such as the Malleus Maleficarum, which accused witches of everything from infanticide to stealing men’s penises.

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Heyleena is the lead contributor to Mystik Maze, who enjoys sharing her knowledge in various fields including History, Self-development, Wellness, and many more. She doesn't like to limit herself when it comes to sharing information that can empower anyone.

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