Did Eternity Obsessed Ancient Egyptians Know How to Prevent Pregnancy?
It is hard to believe that the Ancient Egyptians, a culture completely infatuated with the preservation of life after death, would be concerned with the prevention of pregnancy. But they were one of the first ancient cultures to successfully employ birth control methods.
Ancient Egyptians’ Attitude Toward Life
Modern-day excavations of Egyptian burial chambers reveal that these people devoted an enormous amount of attention to preparing for the afterlife. They were so meticulous about preparing the body for burial that it would seem that they valued death more than life itself.
As morbid as the Egyptians seem based on their burial practices, this complex society valued all aspects of life. Egyptian poetry captures the essence of the attitude that Egyptians held about life.
The laws of Ma’at, or the 42 Negative Confessions, also provide insight into Egyptians’ attitude toward life. One confession that expresses the importance of life is translated as:
An illustrated papyrus roll, that depicts the Goddess Ma’at (CC BY- NC-ND 2.0)
While there seems to be a high value placed on the lives of women and men in Egyptian society, they may have been laxer when it came to unborn children. Unlike later monotheistic societies which held strong opinions against preventing pregnancies, this polytheistic culture encouraged the prevention of gestation and even developed some of the first forms of contraceptives.
Women in Egyptian society seemed to have more control over their bodies than most women throughout the ages. The ability to choose whether to have children or not was something women in this culture could do freely without religious repercussions or interference from the government.
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Fertility of Earth, Fertility of Women
The Nile River was a primary source of sustenance in the ancient world, and the Egyptians venerated it for its life-giving silt that brought fertility to this otherwise dry land. It was also a major source of trading and a hotbed of a variety of flora and fauna.
The Nile brought with it a variety of fish that the Egyptians relied on as a source of protein. Most importantly, the river itself was essential for use in growing crops for use as food and clothing such as wheat, flax, and papyrus.
Although the Nile was crucial for sustaining life in ancient Egypt, its flooding was very unpredictable. Egyptians were not victims to these volatile inundations; however. They applied science to their agriculture and developed what is known as the Nilometer, which recorded flood levels that determined how farmers would sow and harvest crops and how much they needed to pay in taxes.
The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat, John Reinhard Weguelin, 1886 (Public Domain)
With such knowledge of how to control the Nile, it should come as no surprise that the Egyptians could also predict the fertility of women accurately using a natural pregnancy test. The Egyptians’ method of pregnancy testing was quite rudimentary compared to modern standards; but, it was still effective in determining whether a woman was pregnant.
Archaeologists believed that Egyptian women would place barley and wheat in a jar, urinate on it and seal the jar for about three days. If after three days, there was no growth, it was safe to conclude that a woman was not pregnant. If there was growth, then a woman was likely pregnant. Increased estrogen levels were what caused the seeds to sprout.
Three days is certainly longer than the 3-5 minute it takes for modern chemical tests to predict pregnancy, but this method proved to be an effective way to determine pregnancy.
The pullout method is probably one of the first forms of birth control in ancient Egypt and most likely predates the Egyptians. However, this primitive method of birth control wasn’t the only method available to Egyptian people.
It is believed that men used a crude form of condoms made from animal skins to prevent pregnancy. Women had at their disposal a contraceptive similar to a ring or an IUD that they used before sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy.
This contraceptive was made of crocodile dung, honey, and sodium carbonate. These three ingredients were mixed to form a paste. This paste was highly acidic and acted as a spermicidal that prevented sperm from fertilizing the egg.
An alternative method to inserting this paste was for women to boil water full of medicines and squat over the boiling water. The steam along with the medicines acted as a spermicidal also to prevent pregnancy.
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Other forms of birth control used in the ancient world included acacia gum, dates, honey, and an unspecified plant which was used not only for birth control but also for abortion. According to the Ebers Papyrus, a medical document dating from around 1550 – 1500 BC, this concoction was known to stop pregnancy in the first, second, or third trimester.
The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BC) from Ancient Egypt (CC BY SA 3.0)
Just how often did Egyptians prevent pregnancy? It is hard to say. But one thing for sure is that in spite of Egyptians being very “pro-life,” there were times when “pro-choice” made sense to them and this was an acceptable practice in society. Families had some ability to control if and when they had children.
Life for the Egyptian was sacred but it seems that life for them didn’t begin until a woman gave birth. It is at this time that Egyptians upheld the belief that the body was a vessel of the gods to be preserved until it reached the afterlife. Archaeological finds reveal that life was a choice of the woman prior to birth, making Egyptians one of the first societies to practice not only birth control but also population control effectively.
Top Image: Egyptian Fellah woman with her child, Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, 1872 (CC BY 3.0)
By ML Childs