9 forms of birth control used in ancient times
Before the birth control movement, which was closely tied to the feminist movement, women relied on homemade oral contraceptives made from herbs, spices, or even heavy metals; homemade barrier methods made from animal guts; and various other sperm-blocking ingredients that were placed directly in or on the genitals to prevent pregnancy.
Wondering what kinds of ancient birth control women used in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, or in medieval Europe until the late 1800s? After reading this list, you may feel pretty thankful that you were born into the world of modern birth control.
Honey and acacia
Records dating back to 1850 BC show us that some of the most popular ancient Egyptian birth control methods included the use of honey, acacia fruit, and acacia leaves as natural spermicides. Women would mix honey and acacia fruit and soak lint or cotton in the mixture. They inserted the lint or cotton into their vaginas before having sex, and the combination would kill some sperm before they reached the uterus.
Using probably the least hygienic ingredient used to prevent pregnancy, ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians would mix crocodile dung with other ingredients to form a pessary — a block that was inserted in the vagina.
That isn’t the only record of animal feces being used as ancient contraceptives. In ancient India and the Middle East, people tried elephant feces in a similar way to prevent pregnancy.
Today, we’re not sure whether these ancient birth control methods were effective.
Lead and mercury
Long ago, people freely applied and consumed poisonous substances such as heavy metals that we now know are extremely dangerous.
All across the world, ancient civilizations used heavy metals like mercury, lead, and arsenic to prevent pregnancy. Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Chinese women would drink liquid mercury, liquid lead, or arsenic — or a combination of these — to prevent conception. Unfortunately, these poisonous substances would also lead to kidney and lung failure, as well as brain damage. But they did work as birth control!
In ancient Rome and Greece and the ancient Near East, women used an oral contraceptive called silphium, which was a species of giant fennel. They would also soak cotton or lint in the juice of this herb and insert it into their vaginas to prevent pregnancy.
Silphium seeds eventually became so valuable that they were used as a form of weight-based currency, deemed even more valuable than silver. The plant became extinct in late antiquity.