Birth Control and ancient times

Patrick O'Neil 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 
opening.' ....
  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)

   To continue:

    "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 
ancient/classical world)


    "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
properties is:) 

"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 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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