To most people, the phrase birth control doesn’t evoke mental images of herbs, sneezing, or crocodile excrement. But women and men in ancient cultures used a variety of unusual methods to prevent pregnancy, with differing levels of success (and hygiene). Here are nine forms of birth control used in the ancient world, from Greece to China.
1. ACACIA AND HONEY
Starting around the 16th century BCE, Egyptian and Mesopotamian women enlisted the help of acacia (a type of tree) in their contraception efforts. Women mixed unripe acacia fruit with honey and ground dates. They soaked a piece of cotton or other plant fiber in the paste and inserted it in their vagina, like a tampon. This method of birth control was more effective than you might think: Acacia gum ferments into lactic acid, which can act as a spermicide.
Ancient Minoans, Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks loved silphium. They used this fennel-like plant to ease bloated stomachs, season their food, perfume their bodies, and prevent pregnancy. For six centuries, women drank the plant’s heart-shaped seeds as some form of juice once a month for a natural contraceptive. Women also put wool soaked in the plant’s juice into their vaginas to prevent pregnancy. Silphium (also called laserwort) was valuable and important to the ancient Mediterranean trading economy, and Cyrenians put an image of a silphium seed on their currency.
Scholars don’t know how silphium worked or how effective it was as a contraceptive—one 1985 study found that the extract of a likely relative of silphium prevented rat pregnancies when administered orally, and yet the same dosages were ineffective in hamsters—but the contraceptive plant may have contributed to Rome’s low birth rate. Ancient farmers were unable to cultivate silphium—it only grew near Cyrene, in present-day North Africa—and the plant went extinct between the 1st and 2nd centuries CE.
Soranus, a Greek gynecologist who treated women in ancient Rome, wrote that as a man ejaculates, his female partner “must hold her breath and draw herself away a little, so that the seed may not be hurled too deep into the cavity of the uterus. And getting up immediately and squatting down, she should induce sneezing and carefully wipe the vagina all round.” Although Soranus doesn’t go into too much detail about how to induce sneezing, his suggestion was essentially meant to expel the semen from the woman’s body.
4. LIQUID LEAD AND MERCURY
To reduce their fertility, ancient Chinese women (usually prostitutes or the concubines of the emperor or members of his ruling party) drank lead, mercury, and arsenic, and possibly all three mixed together. Despite the potential for serious side effects, from kidney failure to brain damage to death, these women aimed to drink enough of these dangerous substances to be unable to conceive, but not enough to get poisoned. Some ancient Greek women also got in on the liquid lead trend, to the detriment of their health.
5. CROCODILE EXCREMENT
Ancient Egyptian women (circa 1800 BCE) used an unusual ingredient—crocodile excrement—to prevent pregnancy. After mixing the reptile’s feces with fermented dough, women would sprinkle the concoction on their vulvas or inside their vaginas to block sperm from reaching their uteri. Other ancient peoples in India and the Middle East used elephant feces for a similar form of birth control. Putting aside for the moment the unsanitary nature of inserting animal feces inside one's body, it's unknown how effective this would have been. Some researchers think that the alkaline nature of the feces could have killed the sperm, while others say that by increasing the naturally acidic vagina’s pH it was actually making pregnancy more likely, as greater alkalinity is beneficial for sperm. Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to find people willing to test either hypothesis out.
6. OLIVE OIL
According to Soranus, Greek and Roman women who didn't want to conceive should smear an ointment of old olive oil on the orifice of the uterus (i.e. the cervix). Soranus was fairly lax about the recipe to make this primitive spermicide, suggesting that women could use olive oil, honey, cedar resin, or balsam tree juice, with or without white lead. He most likely learned about this olive oil contraceptive method from Aristotle, who also advocated that women put olive oil or cedar oil in their vaginas to slow the sperms' motility.
7. GHEE AND SALT
Women used whatever ingredients were readily available to them, so ancient Indian women in the 1st century CE inserted cotton dipped in a blend of ghee (clarified butter), honey, and/or tree seeds into their vaginas. They also used rock salt as a spermicide, which sounds excruciatingly uncomfortable, but the women most likely ground the salt into small, less sharp pieces.
8. JUNIPER BERRIES
Born in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the 1st century CE, Pedanius Dioscorides was a physician who wrote about the medicinal use of herbs. In De Materia Medica, he suggested that men and women crush juniper berries and smear them on their genitals. Although the contraceptive strength of juniper berries is up for debate, the berries may interfere with conception by decreasing the likelihood of implantation.
To try one of Soranus’s contraceptive methods, get your hands on a pomegranate. According to the Greek gynecologist, women should grind the inside of a fresh pomegranate peel, add water, and apply it to their vagina. To make this contraceptive method more complex, Soranus offers alternative pomegranate recipes, such as two parts pomegranate peel to one part oak gall (a large growth on a tree caused by a certain type of insect) and equal parts pomegranate peel with rose oil and gum. After inserting the pomegranate internally, women “should always follow with a drink of honey water.” Sounds like a plan, Soranus.