Silphium, the ancient contraceptive herb driven to extinction
As an institution of spiritual authority, the Catholic Church wields much influence over the attitudes and beliefs of millions of people around the globe. From scriptural doctrine to less refined codes of behaviour, the Pope, of which there have been 266 over the last 2000 years, holds the power to inform the more than 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, or 2.18 billion Christians globally on the many aspects of Christian faith and behaviour expected by the church hierarchy.
Of course, not everyone agrees with the teachings of the church, and in that regard there are some subjects that are, shall we say, a little sticky in public discourse. In the news of late, Pope Francis – the first ever pope to bear the name Francis, in honour of St. Francis of Assisi – has been making long strides in steering the Catholic faith to a more progressive, forgiving, and moderate position on many issues of social import.
But two areas in which even Pope Francis has yet to take a more liberal view is that of contraception and abortion. These issues, if nothing else, have a tendency to be passionately polarising in public debate and discussion, though abortion is often the leading cause of strife in those conversations. It seems that fewer people are upset, or feel as passionate about the denial of contraception among populations where unchecked procreation and disease are linked so strongly. Or perhaps it’s because the church’s stance on the issue of contraception hasn’t changed much over the years. In fact, Papal condemnation of birth control is one of the church’s longest standing decrees. Famous names in the history of the Catholic Church, such as Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, and Augustine of Hippo, have made strong condemnations of the use of any method that artificially blocks conception.
This wasn’t always the case, however.
While it’s true that the Catholic Church and it’s Fathers have been opposed to the idea of contraception since Saint Peter was given the burden of building Jesus’ church, prior to that, contraception was widely used in Rome. In fact, the Romans may have been responsible for causing the extinction of what some have called the most effective herbal contraceptive ever to exist, through overuse. It didn’t start with the Romans though.
That herb is known as Silphium. It was a plant, possibly related to parsley, or more accurately a type of giant fennel plant cultivated for its resin – known commonly as laser, laserpicium, or lasarpicium - which was used as a culinary additive, a topical ointment or salve, and a medication for several ailments, and most relevant to this discussion, a form of birth control. There isn’t a lot known of it, in fact, it’s relation to the family Apiacaea (celery) is mostly speculation, though most sources will attribute it to the genus Ferula.
Ancient silver coin from Cyrene depicting a stalk of Silphium (Wikipedia)
What we do know of it, is that it was cultivated in the oldest Greek city in North Africa, called Cyrene (now Libya). Legend suggests that the Greek Battus and his men were led to a place called Apollo’s Fountain beyond the fertile grounds of Israsa, for the Libyans said the place had a hole in the sky (likely because the area received an unusual amount of rainfall) [I,ii]. Battus settled there and named the city Cryene in 630 BCE. Silphium became so important to the Cyrenian economy that the plant appeared on almost all of their currency.
The ruins of Cryrene (Shahhat), Libya. (Wikipedia)
The other thing we know for certain, is that it was possibly the most popular and effective herbal contraceptive ever produced. Naysayers, namely the “world smartest man”, Cecil Adams, claims (and somewhat overstates) that the notion of a successful Planned Parenthood program across multiple nations for several centuries is a stretch. [iii]. But any way you slice it, the plant was a staple in the toolkits of physicians and mystics across the Mediterranean for at least 700 years.
The plant first appears in historical records dating from 7th century BCE Egypt, where we know it was part of medicinal recipes for contraception and abortion, as well as remedies for anything from coughs and sore throats, to leprosy treatments and wart remover. In fact, the Egyptians and the Knossos Minoans each developed specific glyphs to represent the plant, which clearly illustrates the importance it enjoyed in these early Mesopotamian cultures. [iv]
It was a versatile commodity too, as nearly every part of the plant was used, from the stalk, to the resin, to the tuber like roots. So versatile and sought-after, in fact, that it was over-cultivated and sold into extinction by the 1st century BCE. Pliny the Elder claims, in his Natural History, that the very last stalk of silphium ever harvested was given to Roman Emperor Nero as an ‘oddity’, which, according to some accounts, he promptly ate. There are those, however, who believe that it isn’t extinct, but merely misidentified. Several candidates from modern botanical sources have been presented variously as either direct examples of silphium, or as modern descendants of the original plant. None, though, are widely thought to be viable candidates.
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 (1st 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