Ancient Methods of Contraception – Even Tutankhamun Wore Protection
In today’s society, there are various forms of contraceptives available on the market. Some of these, like the combined oral contraceptive pill (often referred to just as ‘the pill’), for instance, are relatively new inventions. Others, such as condoms, have a much longer history behind them. The ancients too had access to contraceptives, though some of these may seem rather bizarre to a modern observer.
One of the oldest methods of contraception (if one were to exclude behavioural methods, e.g. abstinence, coitus interruptus, non-penetrative sex, etc.) is the use of condoms. According to some, the earliest depiction of a condom can be found on a 13000 year old cave painting in the Grotte des Combarrelles, France. It may be said, however, that this interpretation is wholly dependent on the interpretation of the person viewing the cave painting. The earliest surviving condoms come from a much later age. Some ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Tutankhamun, for instance, had condoms (which were made of cloth) as part of their grave goods.
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Tutankhamun’s condom, identified via DNA residue. ( Image: gallivantrix.com )
It is believed that the condoms of the ancient Egyptians did not serve a contraceptive purpose, but were used with the goal of preventing tropical diseases. Nevertheless, contraceptives did exist in ancient Egypt. The Kahun Medical Papyrus (known also as the Gynaecological Papyrus), which has been dated to around 1825 BC, recommends the use of a mixture of crocodile dung and some other (now unknown) ingredients as a contraceptive. This mixture would then be formed into a pessary, and inserted into the woman’s vagina. It has been claimed that in India and the Middle East, this was replaced with elephant excrement. According to one hypothesis, the dung of crocodiles is alkaline in nature, thus acting as a spermicide. A counter-hypothesis, however, claims that the increase in the pH value within the vagina is beneficial for sperm, thus making pregnancy more likely.
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Ancient silver coin from Cyrene depicting a stalk of Silphium ( Public Domain )
Ancient pessaries may also be made using ingredients that are less revolting. One, for instance, involved a piece of cotton or plant fibre soaked in a paste of unripe acacia fruit, honey and ground dates, and inserted into the vagina. Alternatively, wool soaked in silphium juice may also be used as a pessary. This was a plant widely used in the ancient Mediterranean, and was found on the shores of Cyrenaica (which is modern day Libya). It has been speculated that as a result of over-harvesting, this plant went extinct.
A Toxic Method
Whilst such ancient pessaries probably did not have negative side effects on the health of their users, the same cannot be said of other contraceptive methods. For instance, in ancient China, for example, liquid mercury was drunk by women in order to prevent pregnancy. As this metal causes miscarriage, it would have been effective as a contraceptive. On the other hand, mercury is extremely toxic, and its ingestion may seriously harm the internal organs, causing kidney and lung failure, damaging the brain, and ultimately causing death.
Mercury in liquid form, which was used in ancient China as a method of contraception. ( CC BY 3.0 )
Other methods of contraception were downright bizarre. In Europe during the Middle Ages, for example, it was believed that pregnancy could be ‘warded off’ with the use of magical amulets. These were in the form of weasels’ testicles, which were worn on a woman’s thigh, or the foot of a weasel, which was hung around the woman’s neck. In North America, on the other hand, the testicles of beavers were dried, and soaked in a strong alcohol. The resulting beverage was drunk in order to prevent pregnancies.
Finally, some methods of contraception involved physically expelling the man’s semen after sexual relations. An ancient Greek physician by the name of Soranus, for example, advised women to sneeze hard in order to expel the semen from their bodies. Another method prescribed by Soranus was for the woman to jump backwards seven times. As one might guess, these methods were probably not entirely successful. Still, he was a highly respected doctor during his time.