Silphium, the ancient contraceptive herb driven to extinction
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 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.
Featured image: A Roman love scene. Mosaic found in Centocelle (1 st century AD). ( Wikimedia)
- Author not listed. The plant Silphium silphium . Sylphium Life Sciences. http://www.sylphium.com/html/plant_silphium.php
- Herodotus, transl. Aubrey de Selincourt, Penguin, Harmondsworth, p. 295
- Cecil Adams. Did the ancient Romans use a natural herb for birth control? The Straight Dope: Fighting Ignorance since 1973. October 13, 2006. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2676/did-the-ancient-romans-use-a-natural-herb-for-birth-control
- Hogan, C. Michael (2007). "Knossos fieldnotes" . Modern Antiquarian. http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/10854/knossos.html#fieldnotes