Silphium - the ancient contraceptive herb

Silphium, the ancient contraceptive herb driven to extinction

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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.


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

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


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

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.

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