Silphium - the ancient contraceptive herb

Silphium, the ancient contraceptive herb driven to extinction

(Read the article on one page)

Other than the possibility that the rampant use of an artificial contraceptive and abortifacient by Roman pagans may have contributed to the early Christian idea that in any way blocking conception is a most evil thing, silphium has impacted our society in another unusual way.

You may have heard that the common heart symbol, which is shaped nothing like an actual heart, is actually a representation of either the stylized shape of the female buttocks, or pubic mound, or is a medieval depiction of various flowering plants, such as fig leaves, ivy, or water-lilies.  However, the use of the familiar double-tear shaped heart symbol first appears in the historical record on the currency of Cyrene.  The undeniable shape, which is believed by most to be a reproduction of the visual appearance of the silphium seed, has some people wondering if the origin of the modern symbol for romance and love is in fact quite a bit older than the Middle Ages.

Ancient silver coin from Cyrene

Ancient silver coin from Cyrene depicting a heart-shaped seed/fruit of silphium ( Wikipedia)

Certainly the connection between silphium and sex is apparent, though it’s not exactly a complimentary connection.  However, a number of contemporary writings, namely Pausanias’ Description of Greece and a love poem from Catullus to his wife Lesbia (Catullus 7) draw a deliberate and unmistakable correlation between laserpicium and romance.  It may be that the medicinal properties of the plant were regarded as a means to treat madness or love-sickness.

Unfortunately for those who might support that line of reasoning, there is no known connection between that use of the symbol and the modern use, therefore most symbolists deny that the concept originated with a contraceptive.  Though that would be some world-class irony.

Martin J. Clemens  blogs on his own website (, as well as Mysterious Universe and The Daily Grail.

Featured image: A Roman love scene. Mosaic found in Centocelle (1 st century AD). ( Wikimedia)

By Martin Clemens


  1. Author not listed. The plant Silphium silphium . Sylphium Life Sciences.
  2. Herodotus, transl. Aubrey de Selincourt, Penguin, Harmondsworth, p. 295
  3. Cecil Adams. Did the ancient Romans use a natural herb for birth control? The Straight Dope: Fighting Ignorance since 1973.  October 13, 2006.
  4. Hogan, C. Michael (2007). "Knossos fieldnotes" . Modern Antiquarian.


Tsurugi's picture

The Catholic edict against contraceptives has its roots in laws and traditions of the Old Testament Hebrews, I'm fairly certain. It is not/was not a reactionary edict, it was a continuation of an ancient tradition.

What a fascinating article. I'd never heard of the plant before reading this, and I'd never heard of harvesting a plant to extinction either. Is that really possible? I mean, normally if a plant is in such high demand, people start cultivating their own rather than go hunting for wild ones all the time. How did this happen?

The possibility that the "valentine" heart symbol has its origins in the seed of a contraceptive herb seems highly plausible to me.
It's also totally hilarious.
"Dat heart don't stand fo luv, babeh, it stand fo lust!

You mention ancient "abortions". How did that work, exactly?

Apologies for not responding sooner, I didn't see your comment until now.

Information about the abortifacient properties of the plant are sparse, but as I understand it, a compound, the main ingredient of which was silphium, was actually inserted into the womb, wherein whatever chemical element the plant possessed did its work.

I couldn't speak to its effectiveness in that regard, but I have seen accounts of recipes for the contraception that called for applying a poultice of the herb to the outside of the vagina, and I can't imagine how that might have worked. I can only assume it was misattributed and should have been called an abortifacient method rather than contraceptive recipe.

On the issue of the Catholic contraception edict, yes, that's correct, though my point was simply that the rampant use of this plant in the previous era could have contributed to the public view that contraceptives are evil, which was reinforced by doctrine. Or vice versa. T'was just a thought.

celery or asparagus....
look at the top, or the leaves on the sides of the plant

angieblackmon's picture

So in a way for as long as people may have wanted to control the birth process, that’s what they’ve been trying to do.

love, light and blessings


Abuegila Salem's picture

I think he was a plant silphium not entirely extinct, I'm here in Cyrene see some forms of plant has a very close,, and i make some research to prove it, I think it mutated slightly in shape

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

King Leonidas by David Baldo
Mythologically descended from the hero Herakles, the Agiad dynasty of ancient Sparta reigned alongside the Eurypontids almost since the beginning of the city-state. When war was on the borders of their land, and that of their neighboring city-states, it was to the current Heraklean descendent that those city-states turned.

Human Origins

Silhouettes (Public Domain) in front of blood cells (Public Domain) and a gene.
Most people who have the Rh blood type are Rh-positive. There are also instances, however, where people are Rh-Negative. Health problems may occur for the unborn child of a mother with Rh-Negative blood when the baby is Rh-Positive.

Ancient Technology

Mammoth in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria (Canada). The display is from 1979, and the fur is musk ox hair.
In Sivershchina, close to the village of Mizyn in Ukraine is one of the oldest and most unique settlements of humans – and it was discovered in a parking lot. The now well-known archaeological site, known plainly as the Mizyn parking lot, dates back 18-20 thousand years.

Ancient Places

The highly-decorated tomb is built in a distinctive ‘L’ shape
A mysterious ancient tomb with “unusual and rare” wall paintings has been discovered in Egypt. Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Enany told BBC reporters the discovery of a 4,400-year-old tomb found during excavation work in Giza’s western cemetery “likely belonged to Hetpet, a priestess to Hathor, the goddess of fertility, who assisted women in childbirth.”

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article