Throughout many years people tried to find ways to control fertility and prevent pregnancies. Even though in the earliest times people had little or no idea how women became pregnant, there were many mechanisms and various birth control methods used in many ancient cultures to avoid pregnancies.
Many of these methods had nothing to do with sexual intercourse or the act of conceiving a baby and, obviously, had little if any effect on birth control. Such methods were dances, amulets and rituals. Some methods, however, even if they were used without any knowledge about how to get pregnant, were ancient modifications of modern methods of birth control used even today.
In the times when pregnancy was believed to be controlled by spirits, the moon or the sun, rituals, myths, dances and amulets were popular means to control fertility. Those were the times when pregnancy and childbirth were dangerous to women’s lives. The death rate during childbirth or after it was high, and women tried to avoid pregnancy especially when they had already many children. The birth control methods were passed on from woman to woman quietly. It is known that in cultures where the moon was believed to be the power of conception, women tended to sleep out of the reach of moonlight in order to avoid pregnancy. In some other cultures throwing corn kernels, apples, or nails into a well or springing at a magical hour was believed to help a woman to stay un-pregnant for a month. Another ritual that was thought to help prevent unwanted pregnancy was walking over graves of dead female ancestors.
Birth control in Ancient Rome
Ancient Roman women put a leather pouch filled with cat’s liver on their left foot during sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy. Some women believed that spitting three times into a frog’s mouth was a good method of birth control. European women thought that they could prevent pregnancy by turning backwards a wheel of a mill at midnight. And in many cultures women constantly wore various necklaces and amulets, which were supposed to have the power of controlling the act of conception.
Birth control in Ancient Greece
Some time later natural family planning techniques came into the minds of ancient women. The rhythm method, known and used by some women even nowadays, was introduced by a Greek gynecologist Soranus in the second century CE. He suggested that women should avoid sex during the days when ovulation occurred because he thought they were then most fertile. However, he was absolutely wrong assuming that ovulation occurred during the days of menstrual bleeding. In addition to the rhythm method, Soranus advised women to hold the breath and draw their bodies back during sex in order to stop the sperm from entering a woman’s body. He also suggested a woman to jump backwards seven times after sexual intercourse or sit down on bent knees to cause sneezing. These methods had no scientific basis and thus were not effective in birth control .
Another method, with the knowledge of ovulation and its effect on conception was continuous breast-feeding until a child was three years old. Somehow women knew that breast-feeding had to prevent ovulation and therefore they were not able to conceive.
The only method that had then and still has now a hundred percent efficiency in birth control was abstinence . Therefore many women had joined the monasteries and became nuns. For other women complete abstinence was not possible on a long-term basis but some religions and ethical groups had periods when sex was prohibited, such as during Lent or different religious or ethical holidays. However, these had no effect on birth control.
Birth control in Ancient Egypt
One of the oldest methods, that had something to do with the knowledge of how women became pregnant, was used in Egypt around 1500 BC. It is thought to be the oldest contraceptive. Suppositories made out of crocodile dung or honey, were used by women. It was believed that the sticky substance could stop the white fluid from a man entering a woman’s body. This probably only discouraged a man from having sexual intercourse with a woman who used these suppositories.
Birth control methods
The history of suppositories in birth control is large and modern science has approved the efficiency in birth control of some of them. For example, women used to grind acacia tree bark, dates and honey together and apply such a paste on the vulva before sexual intercourse. Since acacia tree bark has some lactic acid that is used even in modern spermicides, such suppositories had some scientific basis in preventing unwanted pregnancy.
The oldest modification of an intrauterine device (IUD) used today was suggested by Hippocrates who thought that inserting different objects into the uterus could make pregnancy impossible. Additionally, Arab camel drivers placed stones into the uterus of their female camels in order to prevent pregnancy in them. However, the founder of a modern IUD was German gynecologist Grafenberg, who developed the first IUD in 1920. Unlike in today used IUDs he took silkworm and silver wire, which was soiled into a ring, to produce the very first IUD.
The history of female pessaries reaches even the second century BCE. Even though pessaries are used in modern times as well, ancient pessaries were produced from rather different materials than they are now. Ancient pessaries were produced out of elephant dung, seaweed, and leaves. Also women used to put different substances like sea sponges or soft wool. You can only imagine how painful sex must have been those days. W. J. Rendel was a man who developed the first modern pessary and introduced it into the market in 1800s. It was made out of quinine or cacao butter and like the modern ones had to be inserted into the vagina before sexual intercourse.
There were various oral substances that ancient women in different cultures used to take to prevent pregnancies. Some of the substances not only prevented pregnancy but were also unhealthy or even lethal. Chinese women drank mercury whereas Indian women took carrot seeds and women in Eastern Canada made tea out of beaver testicles and drank it to avoid pregnancy. Even in older times poisonous substances including mercury, arsenic and strychnine were used as a form of oral contraceptives. However, it took a lot of time and effort until a modern oral contraceptive – the birth control pill – came onto the market.
Men also used different methods in order to prevent pregnancy in their female partners from occurring. The oldest method of birth control known is coitus interruptus, which means that a man pulls his penis out of the vagina before ejaculation. Although it is used by some even nowadays, coitus interruptus is, however, a poorly effective method of birth control since a small amount of fluid released prior to ejaculation contains some sperm. Another form of male birth control was squeezing the base of the penis so that a man does not ejaculate. This is called coitus reservatus. Although neither coitus interruptus nor coitus reservatus could be efficient enough in birth control.
Men also used cruel methods to prevent conception. This includes a so called sub-incision. In some tribes they used to cut a small hole in the male urethra at the base of the penis, so that semen discharges through the hole instead of entering the vagina during ejaculation. A man had to put a finger on the hole when urinating as well as when he wanted to make his female partner pregnant.
Condoms , still present today, were first produced in 1562. However, they were very different from those used today. Firstly, condoms were made out of animal intestines, goat bladders or blowfish intestines. Secondly, they were used many times washing them after each use. Condoms even those days were used to protect not only against pregnancy but also against venereal diseases. Latex rubber condoms were first produced in 1840s and have been used and efficient ever since.
Modern-day birth control
Medical progress and modern technologies have made a lot of differences in sexual lives of men and women. Women have a lot of birth control methods they can choose these days in order to protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Scientists are about to introduce a new method of contraception for men – the male birth control pill. However, there are a lot of people in the world today, who still use various old birth control methods to avoid unexpected pregnancies. How far have we really come from ancient times?