Saturday, November 05, 2011

Article: Herbal Contraception in Ancient Times

Herbal Contraception in Ancient Times

A correspondent asked me to write about this herb that appears on ancient coins from the Libyan coast, but I'd done so before, so I've resurrected a blog that originally appeared in August 2003.

Did you know there was an ancient herb that was so effective a contraceptive and morning after remedy that it became extinct?

Greek Silver Tetradrachm of Kyrene (Kyrenaika) c. 390-380
Greek Silver Tetradrachm of Kyrene (Kyrenaika) c. 390-380
CC Flickr User Ancient Art
The smelly herb asafoetida (note the "fetid" in that name) of Indian cuisine is thought to be a close relative, according to John Riddle.

The article "Herbal Contraception in Ancient Times," by David W. Tschanz and recommended by "Academic Presentations on The Roman Empire," shows a coin with a picture of the contraceptive herb.

The herb is silphium. On the Libyan coast, the city of Cyrene grew popular growing this herb. The botanist Theophrastus wrote about the herb, while physicians, Soranus (a gynecologist) described the monthly birth control pill-like effect as well as its use the morning after, and Dioscorides recommended silphium, again, as both contraceptive and abortifacient. By the first century A.D., the elder Pliny tells us this plant that only grew in a small area was almost extinct. Its demise was complete by the next century.

  • "Herbal Contraception in Ancient Times " [ no longer available online.] See instead:
  • "The Silphium Motif Adorning Ancient Libyan Coinage: Marketing a Medicinal Plant"
    Henry Koerper and A. L. Kolls
    Economic Botany
    Vol. 53, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1999), pp. 133-143


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