Childbirth is dangerous. The Western world often forgets this. The advances made in medicine and mothercraft to improve the mortality rates of both mother and babies have been remarkable but are now taken for granted. So too the use of effective forms of contraception. Many forget that the development of the ‘Pill’ only occurred in the 1960s. And it can be argued that the introduction of oral contraceptives gave impetus to the feminist movement as women were at last given the opportunity to plan their pregnancies as well as their careers.
Women of the ancient world did not have access to such sophisticated medicine, instead they relied on more humble forms of contraception. I was absorbed when researching the methods that were used in classical Greece, Rome and Etruria when writing my novel, The Wedding Shroud.
My protagonist is a young, innocent Roman girl who is married to an Etruscan man to seal a truce between two warring cities. Caecilia discovers her husband’s society offers independence, education and sexual freedom to women. Such freedoms, however, do not excuse her from the duty of bearing children. In her quest to delay this destiny she learns that there are two plants that can offer her a chance to avoid falling with child: pomegranate and silphium.
Pomegranates were associated with the myth of Persephone and the vegetation cycle. Persephone was the child of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. When Hades, God of the Underworld, abducted her daughter, Demeter was so grief stricken she left the earth barren. Zeus intervened and demanded Hades release Persephone. Hades grudgingly agreed but before the maiden left his realm she ate part of a pomegranate, the fruit of the underworld. As a result Persephone was bound to return to her husband for one third of the year. And so, during those months of winter, Demeter refused anything to grow.
Ancient physicians such as Hippocrates, Soranus and Dioscorides prescribed the seeds and rind of the pomegranate to prevent conception but details of the preparation or the quantities used are unknown. There is mention of the fruit being eaten while some sources state that the seed pulp was used on pessaries. It is uncertain, though, whether this was for contraceptive or abortive purposes. Strangely enough, in the Etruscan wedding ceremony the bride holds a pomegranate as a symbol of fecundity. It is ironic that the same image could also signify the potential for a woman to prevent pregnancy.
Although the efficacy of pomegranates is inconclusive (there is mention of studies showing reduced fertility in rats and guinea pigs after ingesting the fruit) there is another plant that may have been more effective - silphium.
Silphium was a member of the giant fennel family. The plant was rare, growing in the dry climate of northern Africa (modern Libya). The pungent resin from silphium's stems and roots was known as laserpicium and was used as an additive which gave food a rich distinctive taste. It was also used to treat coughs, sore throats and fevers. More importantly it was used as a contraceptive.
The crop became the main commodity of Cyrene, a city colonized by the Greeks in C7th BCE. The wealth brought from exporting silphium to the rest of the ancient world led Cyrene to recognize its importance by stamping its coins with an image of the plant. One coin even depicted a woman touching the plant and pointing to her womb.
Silphium must have been relatively effective because it became extinct presumably because demand outstripped supply. Another member of the fennel family, asafoetida, was then cultivated although it was less effective. ( It was also cheaper.) This plant has survived and gives Worcestershire sauce its characteristic flavour.
Soranus recommended women use about a chick pea’s size of silphium juice dissolved in water once a month. It is clear that he also considered it had abortive effects, as did Dioscorides.
Modern testing of asafoetida and other plants from its genus has established they have notable anti-fertility effects.
There was a veritable pharmacopia of other plants used by women of the ancient world too: wild carrot, rue and penny royal to name a few. Cedar resin plugs were another method.
The effectiveness of all these natural remedies were far from effective as can be evidenced by the fact that the average life expectancy of women of the iron age was approximately 27-30 years of age. The mortality rate was high due to both maternal and infant deaths in childbirth. And we cannot forget, either, the barbarous act of killing girl children.
The image is that of Persephone holding a pomegranate as painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (12 May 1828 – 9 April 1882) who founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.
For more information on fertility control in the ancient world, I recommend reading John M Riddle’s Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West.