Despite the Catholic Church banning birth control and advocating for sex only as a means of contraception, people have been using various birth control methods throughout history. That includes long before Christianity became the West’s most dominant religion.
But in ancient Greece or Egypt, or medieval Europe, it wasn’t a case of popping to the local drugstore or Planned Parenthood and calling it a day. They had to get inventive. And some of them certainly got very inventive, coming up with some truly weird birth control methods they were convinced worked at preventing an unwanted pregnancy.
7. Ancient birth control methods: Crocodile dung
This ancient Egyptian birth control method dates all the way back to 1850 B.C. and is a smelly one.
In 1889, an entire millennium after it was first written, the so-called Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus was rediscovered. This papyrus is one of the largest manuscripts we have from ancient Egypt, and speaks extensively about medical issues and ancient birth control methods.
One part of the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus in particular caused a stir. Its language has led people to believe that the ancient Egyptians were actually shoving an infusion of crocodile dung and sour milk up their vaginas as an ancient birth control method. And… they might have been. The papyrus is unclear. There’s also a chance they burnt it or something similar. But either way, crocodile dung was involved, and that alone is cause enough for alarm.
6. Ancient birth control methods: Silphium
Ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and Romans were big believers in using various herbs and flowers as contraceptives. But one in particular, Silphium, was seen as a magic cure-all that could fix “growths of the anus”, work as an aphrodisiac, and was also the most effective of the ancient birth control methods. What a trifecta.
The heart-shaped plant has mysteriously vanished today, with the last recorded instance of one as far back as 54-68 A.D. Luckily you could just eat silphium, rather than insert it anywhere. However, soaking wool in silphium juice and inserting it into your vagina was also a viable alternative, as recommended by gynecologists in ancient Rome.
The weirdest part is, it sounds like it actually worked.
5. Ancient birth control methods: Cedar oil, lead, and frankincense
When the Ancient Greeks weren’t ingesting various plants or shoving them up their private parts, some also advocated for the use of cedar oil, lead, frankincense and olive oil as a contraceptive method. In particular, the famed academic, and philosopher, Aristotle.
Aristotle believed that the smoothness of oil or lead inside the vagina would cause the man’s seed to simply… slip off, and help prevent conception. In other words, there was nothing for the sperm to stick to. While Aristotle is still pretty revered today, some of his methods have unsurprisingly fallen out of favor since ancient times.
4. Ancient birth control methods: Mercury
Overall the ancient Chinese invented some pretty amazing things, but they went a step further with one of their ancient birth control methods. In and around approximately 900 B.C. women in China were advised to swallow a concoction of mercury as contraception.
As in, the super toxic liquid metal, mercury. Unsurprisingly, it did a whole lot more than just stop the woman from getting pregnant. Over time it could lead to complete sterility, organ damage, and even affect the brain.
3. Medieval birth control methods: Weasel testicles
There were already some pretty strange sexual beliefs in medieval Europe as a whole. And unsurprisingly for a land ruled by the Catholic Church, they weren’t exactly quick to recommend contraception to the masses during the Middle Ages.
Despite this, physicians weren’t totally opposed to offering some medieval birth control methods they believed were effective. It wasn’t all about putting things up your vagina for a change either.
The most common method recommended was coitus interruptus, also known as the withdrawal method. A choice that many still make today (although not necessarily a recommended one).
But one of the most popular and weirder contraceptive recommendations was to take the testicles of a weasel and hang them around your thighs while having sex. However, this did run the risk of testicle confusion… which would have ended badly for everyone involved.
2. Early modern birth control methods: Casanova lemons
Giacomo Casanova famously made a name for himself in the 18th century by shagging his way across the continent. Understandably, a man with such a rollicking sex life was concerned about how many progeny may one day appear and demand their own fair share of his non-existent wealth. And so, he encouraged his partners to use medieval and early modern birth control methods wherever possible.
One of which is now famously known as ‘Casanova’s lemons.’ It involved, quite simply, cutting a lemon in half, partly squeezing it, and then placing the pieces in a woman’s vagina to prevent pregnancy. Like a historical cervical cap.
Despite the name Casanova’s lemons and the man’s own assertion that he had invented this himself, (and everything else to do with sex, apparently), similar versions had been used for centuries worldwide.
Accounts of what happens when the lemon juice of Casanova’s lemons starts to drip are few and far between, however. Probably because they were too busy screaming and frantically washing out their private parts.
1. Medieval birth control methods: Tar
Finally, one for the gents for a change. As usual throughout history, women have been the ones who have had to endure the out-there suggestions and the sometimes severe consequences. However, at least Islamic scientists were considering things from both angles. Alongside the usual recommendations of healthy vaginal inserts like bamboo, cabbage seeds, or fruit leaves, Persian scientist Ali ibn Abbas also recommended tar.
Specifically, coating a man’s penis with tar before sex to act as a natural condom. Because who wouldn’t want to have sex with someone covered in a strong-smelling, sticky, black goo.