Birth Control and ancient times
patrick at corona
Mon Jun 19 22:32:31 EST 1995
On 20 Jun 1995, Camilla Cracchiolo wrote:
> Interesting article on this subject in this month's Scientific American.
> Contrary to the view that women have to be coerced not to have kids, the
> prime determiner of fertility rates seems to be how well the economy they
> live in is doing. Hard times means postponing marriage and childbearing
> in the Third World as well as here.
> Women in places like Egypt and India are not stupid cows just waiting for
> us great Americans/Europeans to come along and tell them what to do, you
> know. They use many of the same criteria to determine whether to have a
They also tend to have their own methods of artificial birth control that
is not simply some form of "natural" birth control in the kellermeyer sense.
Might I direct those interested to the March/April 1994 issue of Archaeology
in which many methods of natural birth control are examined, many of
which date back to Greco-Roman times or even before...and many of them
STILL in use and useful even to modern American women:
To paraphrase my quotes and substances named -
"From writings of Soranus, 2 A.D., antiquity's foremost writer on
gynecology we have, '...old olive oil; honey; cedar resin, or juice of
balsam tree, alone or together with white lead; a salve of myrtle oil and
white lead; moist alum; galbanum (a gum resin from the genus Ferula, or
giant fennel); or, before intercourse vaginal suppositories that have the
power to contract or condense the entry to the uterus.
According to Soranus, 'Such of these things are as styptic
[astringent], clogging, and cooling cause the orifice of the uterus to
shut before the time of coitus and do not let the seed pass beyond its
The gums and resins may have had a mild astringent effect and, as such,
acted as spermicides. In antiquity, cedar oil and galbanum have an
antifertility effect. Olive oil and wool were seen as lubricants and
devices to block the cervix mechanically."
(The resins have the most promise after some pharmacological
examination, but there is much more of even greater use and effectivness
as both means to prevent conception, but to also induce abortion/miscarriage)
"Soranus recommended four oral contraceptives but warned, 'These
things not only prevent conception but also destroy any already
The prescription is as follows:
"To some peple it seems advisable once a month to drink Cyrenaic
juice (or sap) of the size of a chick-pea in two cups of water so as to
induce menstruation. Or, of opopanax, Cyrenaic juice, and seeds of rue,
up to two obols (about 1/3 ounce), mold round with wax and give to
swallow; then follow with a drink of weak wine [diluted] or let it be
drunk in weak wine. [Or] the seeds of leukoion [a plant of the mustard
family] and myrtle, three obols (1 ounce) each; of myrrh, a drachma (2
ounces); of white pepper, two seedpods; give to drink with wine for three
days. [Or] rocket seed, one obol (again, 1/3 ounce); cow parsnip,
one-half obol; drink with oxymel [a vinegar-honey mixture].'
In evaluating Soranus's four recipes, the first obstacle is determining
the meaning of 'Cyrenaic juice' in the first two prescriptions.
References from classical writers, especially Pliny the Elder and
Isidore, Bishop of Seville (A.D. 602-636), show that Cyrenaic juice was
derived from the now extinct silphium plant."
(interesting enough, this plant was driven to extinction in ancient times
due to over collection FOR BIRTH CONTROL PURPOSES in the
"Low doses of ferujol, a substance that occurs in the genus Ferula,
to which silphium belonged, has been nearly 100 percent successful in
preventing pregnancy in female rats for up to three days after coitus.
One species, Ferula moschata (Reinsch), is employed in folk medicine in
Central Asia to abort. Because plants of the same family, especially
closely related species, tend to have similar chemistries, we can be
reasonably sure that Cyrenaic juice was a contraceptive and an
Besides Cyrenaic juice, the second prescription mentions opopanax,
an odorous gum resin that is closely related to Ferula. Like other giant
fennels, opopanax was regarded as a contraceptive, but one inferior to
silphium. The third plant in this prescription, rue, contains a compound
similar to pilocarpine, which has induced abortions in horses. Rue is a
traditional abortifacient among the Hispanic people in New Mexico and has
been used as a tea for abortion purposes throughout Latin America.
There is some evidence that the contents of the third prescription
might have been effective, but confirmatory evidence is lacking. It
contains leukoinos, either of two plants belonging to the mustard
family. Both plants are known in modern Indian medicine as
abortifacients and emmenagogues, which provoke menstruation regardless of
whether a fertilized egg is present and implantation has occurred...
Neither rocket nor cow parsnip has been evaluated as a contraceptive."
(One nifty plant with birth control properties and abortion-inducing
"Queen Ann's Lace, or wild carrot, common to N. America, where it has been
used in rural communities to prevent pregnancy."
(On a walk in the woods just last summer, I paid attention specifically
to the abundance of Queen Ann's Lace...it is EVERYWHERE.)
"...A small number of women in Watauaga County, N. Carolina, in the
Appalachian Mountains, drink a glass of water containing a teaspoonful of
Queen Ann's Lace seeds immediately after intercourse to prevent
pregnancy. And women living in rural areas of Rajasthan, India, chew dry
seeds of Queen Ann's Lace to reduce ferility. Both practices were known
to women 2000 years ago."
(I took a chomp of a couple of the seeds...a little bitter but that's
about it - no ill effects and besides, women from ancient times knew it
brought them no harm...I'm a guy, but hell, I only tasted a couple for
the sake of knowledge)
"Other plants used in classical times as contraceptives or
abortifacients included pennyroyal, artemisia, myrrh, and rue..."
(As to pennyroyal, I know of one couple who used it in a weak tea, drank
several times a day for several days, to induce abortion in private. It
worked and the woman is fine, thank you. Too much is toxic, however, so
caution must be the watchword).
So women of America, no matter what abortion laws might be now or any
time in the future, you have a private, impossible to regulate or control
means of controlling whether or not you carry a pregnancy to term as you
will: pennyroyal, Queen Ann's Lace, rue.
As for Queen Ann's Lace, "Hippocrates, among others, declared that such
seeds, when taken orally, both prevent and terminate pregnancy. In a
test conducted in 1976, doses of 80 to 120 milligrams of seeds from Queen
Ann's Lace given orally to mice on the fourth to sixth day of pregnancy
prevented fetal growth. Other experiments on rodents reported in 1984
and 1987 suggest that the seeds inhibit both fetal and ovarian growth and
disrupt the reproductive cycle."
The closing of the article is especially good (READING THIS KELLEMEYER?!):
"In any case, we can now be reasonably certain that many women in
antiquity knew what only a few women know today. Many twentieth-century
historians still assume that these women relied solely on magic,
superstition, and ineffectual folklore to limit their reproductive
capacities. They are wrong. Women in antiquity had significant control
over their reproductive lives. The evidence is there in the documents,
where it has been all along."
Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. There is much to recommend this
article, particularly to women who want absolute control over their
reproductive lives in a manner similar to their ancient sisters now lost
to the mists of time. There are more plants named, along with the
history involved, both social and folkloric.
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