1. Education

Herbal Contraception in Ancient Times

By March 29, 2014

Follow me on:

Again, a correspondent has asked about an herb that appears on ancient coins from the Libyan coast. I'm resurrecting a blog that originally appeared in August 2003 and was repeated in October 2011.

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 " [www.islam-online.net/English/Science/2003/08/article02.shtml 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



April 4, 2014 at 2:36 am
(1) Gary says:

Interesting history. I heard that young women in Jamaica still use herbal contraceptives. Mostly the “morning after” variety. And the Smartweed (Polygonum hydropiper) grows quite abundantly in North America, and works as a fertility regulator.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.