Things You Didn’t Know About Ancient Birth Control

By | June 28, 2018

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Birth control didn’t start with The Pill in 1960. In fact, women have sought out ways to control their own fertility since antiquity. Today's generation of women may have missed out of the most effective birth control method ever known, silphium. Silphium was an ancient herb that grew only in one place on Earth. So valued was it as a contraceptive that strict regulations were placed on its harvest and distribution. Guards encircled the silphium field, but cunning thieves still found ways in. Silphium was over-harvested into extinction by the 1st century BC. All we have left is textual evidence that the herb ever existed. Looking at these ancient texts, we can see a picture emerge of this wondrous ancient birth control herb.

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The Land of Silphium

Silphium was found in only one place, growing wild just outside Cyrene, a city in North Africa in what is now Libya, in a valley the Greeks named Apollo's Fountain. The field of silphium was about 125 miles long and only about 35 miles wide. The legends claim that silphium grew after a black rain fell. We begin to see references to silphium in ancient writings in the 7th century BCE. As the plant grew in importance, so did the city of Cyrene. Soon, it was the wealthiest city in the region and a destination for travelers. The silphium boon lasted only 700 years.

A Morning-After Pill?

The sap of the silphium plant was described in the ancient texts as being unusually aromatic. Medical books of the day claim that the silphium sap was a wonder drug that could cure anything from leprosy and tooth decay to warts, coughs, and anal hemorrhoids. In these same books, there are multiple tips about using the sap from the silphium plant to make a pessary that was highly effective at synonyms for birth control such as "bring[ing] forth menstruation" or "purg[ing] the uterus." Silphium allowed the ancients to have a little extramarital fun without the consequence of illegitimate babies.