As late as the 20th century, Jewish women of the Manhattan Lower East Side attempted to abort by sitting over a pot of steam (or hot stewed onions) (London.) Surgical methods for removal of a fetus hardly ever appear in medical texts, in fact, readers are warned against using sharp-edged objects to separate the womb and uterus (Houston) Herbal methods seemed much more popular. "Wool that absorbed sperm, poisons that fumigated the uterus, potions, and other methods were used to prevent conception" (Catholic.com) "A standard method of inducing abortion (ancient and modern)," according to Kathleen London, "is the abortifacient or potion. Abortifacients are part of a folk culture of herbal medicine handed down among women for thousands of years." One ancient recipe calls for a paste to be made from mashed ants, foam from camel's mouths, and tail hairs of blacktail deer dissolved in bear fat (London). Abortifacients can cause abortion before the middle of the second trimester (Houston.) Pomegranate may be taken as a post-coital contraceptive, a sort of 'morning after pill.' Pennyroyal contains pulegone, a substance that terminates pregnancies in both humans and animals (IslamOnline.) Some abortifacient herbs are emmenagogues, or menstruation producing herbs, like Mercury plant. Some drugs recommended for oral intake are squirting cucumber, black hellebore, pellitory, and panax balm (Houston.)
Throughout my research, in almost every source, Silphium is mentioned. John Tatman, author of Silphium: Ancient Wonder Drug? Reports that silphium could be used to treat leprosy, restore hair, cleanse retained afterbirth from the womb, and cure head colds. It was used as an antidote for poisons, seasoning for food, and in perfumes. It was so important that it actually appears on the coins of the country of Kyrenaika (now Libya) (Tatman). It was only harvested in the town of Cyrene as it did not take well to transplantation or cultivation. Those factors also caused Sliphium to become extinct around the second century CE. However, from around 370 BCE to the second century, it made the people rich and the city famous. (IslamOnline) Silphium was a plant that functioned both as an abortifacient and contraceptive. Something that really amazed me is the way Silphium was used like modern birth control shots. The roman physician Soranus wrote that women should drink the juice from an amount of silphium about the size of a chickpea, with water, once a month since "it not only prevents conception but also destroys anything existing." (IslamOnline) Silphium was a very popular drug, and in accordance with the laws of supply and demand, it was also a very expensive drug. Not everyone could afford it. There were other substitutes though, like Asafoetida. Asafoetida was considered less effective, but it was cheaper and more abundant (IslamOnline)
Other forms of contraception offered by Soranus included smearing the mouth of the uterus with ointments like olive oil, honey, cedar resin, juice of balsam tree, While lead, and salve with myrtle oil gums and resins were believed to act as spermicides (Houston.) According to Soranus, there are dangers associated with such herbal methods, or side effects. Ulceration may form from the use of herbal birth control. He also admits that methods used to control conception also destroy all that is already living within. They may cause damage to the stomach, nausea, and congestion of the head.
There is no evidence supporting abstinence as a method of birth control with in the Roman community, and was probably never taken seriously there. (Houston) However this is a cultural condition and not medical technology and we should not make the same assumption about the Hebrew culture.
Dioscorides also includes a brief section on male contraception. (This almost seems more forward thinking than modern times.) He recommends the drug periklymenon, which when ingested for 37 days, will cause a man to become "barren." I am not sure what type of ineffectualness "barren" implies, weather it be impotence or sterility is hard to say. He also suggests that certain ointments, when applied to the tip of the penis will prevent conception, like a spermicide. To help organize the herbs used in ancient times I have included two tables from the "Ancient Roman Technology Handbook. (RTH)" Both are from ancient pharmacist and physician Dioscorides.
Root Medicines in Bk. 3, Ch. 1-7 Dioscorides
Birth Control Use In Dioscorides
agaricon provokes menstration(abortifacient)
ra none, but helps suffering in the womb
kentaureion makron abortifacient
k. mikron abortifacient
Herb Roots in Bk. 4, Ch. 18-23 Dioscorides
Action Antifertility Use
bind weed emmenagogue oral
barrenwort contraceptive oral
gladiola emmenagogue vaginal suppository
burreed unspecified oral
stinking iris unspecifed oral
alkanet abortifacient vaginal suppository
pepper abortifacient oral
soapwart kills embryo oral
Greek cyclamen abortifacient oral
cyclamen purges afterbirth oral
lords-and -ladies abortifacient oral
Often, in ancient times a pessary was used as a birth control method. A pessary is a vaginal suppository used to kill sperm and/or block their entry into the cervix. The RTH describes vaginal suppositories as very popular but not very effective, while Kathleen London states "the pessary was the most effective contraceptive device used in ancient times." Pessary ingredients included a base made of a dung of some kind, honey, and natural sodium carbonate (table salt), which together, form a gum that melts at body temperature and forms an impenetrable covering of the cervix. Sometimes a solid object was used to block the cervix. This method was most popular in pre-industrial societies. In Africa, women used plugs of chopped grass or cloth. Wool was used in Islamic and Greek cultures. The sea sponge used by Ancient Jews was considered the most effective contraceptive in use until the development of the diaphragm. The sponge was wrapped in silk with a string attached (London.) The string being attached seems very modern to me because I associate it with tampons.
On to issue three: How Do We Know if These Methods Worked?
This is certainly an important and valid question. Might all of this just have been folklore, speculation or just plain medical malpractice? The plant claimed as most effective was silphium, which is now inconveniently extinct. In a modern experiment crude extracts of silphium's cousin Asafoetida were tested in rats. "It showed that it inhibited implantation of fertilized ova at rates up to 50 percent. Extracts of Asafotida's close relatives were nearly 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy when taken with in three days of mating" (IslamOnline.)
Historical demographic studies indicate that in the first five centruies AD - a period of few wars or major epidemics, the population of the Roman Empire declined, while at the same time life expectancy increased. Attempts to attribute the decline to infanticide have not been supported by skeletal evidence, which shows less children born per woman. The Greek historian Ploybius, speaking of what was happening in the cities, said families were limiting their size to one or two children. - from IslamOnline
Kathleen London offers this insight:
Although many of the methods practiced by the ancient world were in fact believed to be 'magic' and related to superstition, may have been proven by modern science to have been effective, as with the pomegranate. Hippocratic writers refer to the use of pomegranate for birth control; however, its origin lies within the Greek mythological story of Persophone and the attempts to keep this virgin goddess from being fertile. Modern research, however, seems to indicate that the pomegranate is in fact an effective plant in preventative birth control. Nonetheless, literary texts and medical texts provide the bulk of what we know concerning contraception and abortion in classical antiquity.
So if all these methods are effective why aren't we still using them in modern society? Some scholars suggest that medical care for women by women and medical care for women by men were two different realms. "Medical care for women passed out of the hands of mid-wives and into the hands of male doctors, most of whom did not respect a woman's right to terminate (or prevent) a pregnancy" (London.) Herbal birth control was in the hands of women. It remained outside male-administered medicine, was passed on by word of mouth, and was used mainly by those without access to professional medicine. From the Renaissance on, physicians distrusted folk medicine, or flat out ridiculed it. These negative attitudes permeated Western society (IslamOnline.)
Issue four: No, Really! This Does Have Something to do with the Bible!
Something, but not much. The Bible is a religious text, so medicine, especially that for women is not discussed much. One very important passage is the story of the bitter waters from Numbers 5. In it a woman is accused of adultery by her husband and is ordered to participate in a ceremony where she will drink "the bitter water that causeth the curse." According to Jon L. Berquist, author of Controlling Corporeality, this water is supposed to make her uterus rot out and cause her infertility if she is guilty. If she is not guilty she will be able to conceive again. This odd text treats cases of jealously within a household.
The priests are authorized in these cases to concoct a medical potion and to administer it as an abortifient. This medicine may in some cases cause the woman to abort any fetus she carries….Thus the priestly code allows that the fetus may or may not abort; the law interprets this as proof of the woman's guilt or innocence. In any case the potion makes the woman violently ill. (Berquist 176-177.)
I was intrigued as to why they called it the "bitter" waters. I assumed it was because the souls of those involved were bitter. In my research I came across a book called Herbs of the Bible by James A. Duke, Ph.D. In this book he lists eight herbs as being abortive, or contraceptive. The first being Bay Laurel, which in Biblical times was a symbol of wealth and wickedness. "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree" Psalm 37:35. Chicory, in recent research, as been found to exhibit contraceptive activity if ingested orally one to ten days after sex. Chicory is also one of the bitter (BITTER!) herbs of Passover. Watercress is also a bitter herb of Passover which induces menstruation and interferes with the implantation of an ovum. Sodom Apple was another abortive herb mentioned. It has thorns. "In the Bible, thorns, briers or briars, and thistles tear at the body and clothes as sin tears at the soul. This herb seems to do damage to boundaries, just as an adulteress woman does damage to boundaries of her community. This seems also then to be a good candidate in the potion for the bitter waters. Why then, doesn't the Bible include the actual ingredients of the bitter waters? Well, you wouldn't want every woman running around getting abortions or preventing pregnancy when heirs are so important in Hebrew tradition. Having more hands to work increase wealth and fulfills God's wish for humankind in Genesis 1:28 to "be fruitful and multiply." Plus the potions that actually work are heavily guarded formulas that are protected by their creator to create a profitable monopoly.
John Riddle, author of Contraception and Abortion form the Ancient World to the Renaissance offers an incident specific to Judaica.
"In Judaic scripture, the Talmud, Tosefta, and Midrash, abortions and 'root potions' for sterility are frequently enough mentioned that we can assume the practices must have been widespread and, to some degree, acceptable. What the 'root potions' were is left unspecified. The Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth records: 'A man is commanded concerning the duty of propagation but not a woman.' (Riddle 19)
Riddle also provides the rabbinic interpretations of this as meaning women are not the sexual aggressors and must suffer pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing. Because of these burdens, God excuses them form the command to be fruitful.
In conclusion, it seems that women did have access to at least simi-reliable birth control methods, and that there is at least one incident where it is alluded to in the Bible. Most of my research is based on Roman, Egyptian, and Greek texts, but as the Hebrews were an ever-migrating people and their land was usually occupied by others so it seems likely that they would certainly know about standard contraceptive technologies.
Berquist, Jon. Controlling Corporeality; The Body and the Household in Ancient Israel. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002
The Bible. King James Version. Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan.
Catholic.com. Birth Control http://www.catholic.com/library/Birth_Control.asp
Diamant, Anita. The Red Tent; New York: Picador, 1997
Duke, James A. Herbs of the Bible 2000 Years of Plant Medicine. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1999
Houston, George W. Roman Technology Handbook. http://www.unc.edu/courses/rometech/public/frames/art_set.html
London, Kathleen. The History of Birth Control. http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1982/6/82.06.03.x.html
Riddle, John. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance; Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,1992
Tatman, John. Silphium: Ancient Wonder Drug? http://ancient-coins.com/articles/silphium/silphiun2.html
Tschanz, David. Herbal Contraception in Ancient Times. IslamOnline.net http://www.islam-online.net/english/science/2003/08/article02.shtml