One might think that orally ingested contraceptives are a 20th century invention, but the reality is quite different. Ancient civilizations actually knew which foods to eat in order to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Let us have a look into the history book of ‘birth control cuisine’. One of the first ever known contraceptives was the pomegranate. References to it appear as far back as ancient Greek mythology when the goddess Persephone ate only pomegranates to prevent impregnation from the god of the underworld after he kidnapped her from her mother.
However, ancient Greek women did not rely on pomegranates alone. Their feminine secret, passed down from mother to daughter, was a combination of four plants and fruits – pomegranate, pennyroyal, pine oil and vitex.
The substances contained in these plants caused an early abortion, much like today’s ‘morning-after’ pill. In low concentrations, however, they could actually help the woman get pregnant. Vitex, for example, increases progesterone levels in the body and in Germany it is still prescribed today as a remedy for premenstrual syndrome or endometriosis.
AN EFFECTIVE PROTECTION
In the 7th century BC, a plant called silphium, growing in the region of today’s Libya, was an essential item of trade in most parts of the then-known world. This plant contained terpenoids which were fairly effective phytoestrogens comparable to those contained in soy. It was used to treat female infertility and as a contraceptive as well as an abortive. It was so effective and so popular that it went extinct in the 1st century AD due to excessive use by humans.
Ancient European women were then forced to use other herbs to control the number of their offspring – or who their fathers would be. Wild carrot, nutmeg and mugwort, among others, became known for their abortive effects.
Some manuals from the 13th century advising women on how to use contraceptives were found surprisingly effective by modern research. After the 13th century, however, this knowledge was forbidden and women who knew how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies were burned at the stake as witches.
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