The birth control method: Dried crocodile dung. Yes, seriously.
As we’ll quickly establish in this article, ancient civilizations used what was around them for contraception. In Ancient Egypt, crocodile dung was common, and women used them as pessaries; think of it as sort of an IUD, but much more disgusting. Women would often wrap the dung in honey before, ahem, inserting it.
So, did it work? Probably, in a limited sense. Setting aside the obvious risks of bacterial infections, reptile droppings are slightly alkaline, so they could alter a woman’s pH enough to act as a mild spermicide.
However, we should note that modern spermicides aren’t especially effective, so crocodile dung probably didn’t provide anything close to perfect protection from pregnancy. It wouldn’t provide any protection from most sexually transmitted infections.
For some reason, scientists haven’t really tested this one out—we can’t imagine why.
The birth control method: Weasel testicles and black cat bones.
According to medieval folklore, you could avoid pregnancy by tying a weasel’s testicles around your neck (hopefully after the weasel had been disconnected from them). You could also carry the bones of a black cat, wear an amulet with the earwax of a mule, or hang a mule’s uterus in your home.
The last two actually make some kind of sense, as mules (the offspring of a donkey and horse) are unable to produce viable offspring. As for the other “remedies,” they came from a place of total ignorance.
So, did they work? Yes, actually, all of these methods were 100 percent effective. Weasel’s testicles are still widely recommended by leading gynecologists.
Actually, no, sorry; none of these methods worked, as they didn’t actually do anything to inhibit insemination or implantation. We can only assume that thousands of weasels, mules, and black cats died in vain.
The birth control method: Honey, linen flax, and date paste.
This one dates back to 1550 B.C. Women would soak linen flax or cotton in date paste, then cover it in honey. The device acted as a very basic diaphragm. Since some of these ingredients were fairly expensive, women would often re-use the same device.
In fact, some archaeological evidence suggests that women were buried with these diaphragms, likely to prevent pregnancy in the afterlife. After all, nobody wants a ghost baby.
So, did it work? It was probably better than nothing. The date paste would be slightly spermicidal, while the cotton or linen flax would prevent insemination. The honey could also reduce sperm mobility.
Once again, we’d really doubt that this method was especially effective, and the risks of infection would have been extremely high, particularly if the device was re-used over and over again. Plus, untreated cotton and linen flax wouldn’t have been very comfortable for either partner.
The birth control method: Ginger or pomegranate.
If you want great birth control, you’d better ask a gynecologist, and Soranus of Ephesus was one of the most respected physicians living in Greece around the 10th century B.C. He recommended rubbing ginger or pomegranate around the genitals.
Ginger, of course, is a mild irritant, and pomegranate juice is quite acidic. Both substances probably acted as spermicides. Incidentally, the Ancient Greeks believed that the woman merely acted as an incubator for the “seed” of the child, as they didn’t know about eggs, so they were working with limited information.
So, did it work? Probably not. Soranus recommended rubbing the chemicals on the outside of the genitals, where they wouldn’t be especially effective, and neither substance is a truly effective spermicide.
However, they might have worked in a sense: These treatments likely caused burning, itching, and other irritation, which might have compelled lovers to avoid sex altogether.
The birth control method: Lemons.
Believe it or not, many cultures used parts of lemons to prevent conception.
The Talmud describes using sponges dipped in lemon juice to kill sperm, while Casanova, the world-famous lover, allegedly used lemon peel as a sort of contraceptive barrier. The peel was placed near the woman’s cervix, where it would prevent impregnation.
Medieval peoples probably used other citrus fruits, too, since it’s not hard to make the logical connection between lemons and grapefruit, for instance, but lemons were fairly common. Oh, and they have a higher acidity than most other fruits, so they were also probably the most effective option.
So, did it work? Remarkably, yes. While lemons couldn’t possibly compare to modern contraceptives, they were apparently effective at soaking up sperm, and the fruit’s natural acidity would act as a functional spermicide. However, we doubt that the juice was anything close to an aphrodisiac.
The birth control method: A plant called laserwort (also known as silphion).
Harvested in the African city of Cyrene, laserwort was used throughout Libya, Rome, and Greece for its purported medicinal properties. According to Hippocrates of Kos, one of the founders of modern medicine, the plant caused menstruation and could be used as a sort of proto-Plan B contraceptive. However, it was also commonly used for sore throats, fevers, warts, and much more.
So, did it work?
Apparently, yes. Modern scientists believe that it had estrogenic properties, which might have been strong enough to terminate early-stage pregnancies or disrupt a woman’s cycle and prevent egg implantation.
It was also delicious, apparently, and was frequently used as a condiment (given that this article is about contraceptives, be sure to read that last word carefully.)
Alas, laserwort was a little too useful for its own good. The plant was harvested to extinction. Oh, and one more interesting note: its seed pod may have been the inspiration for the modern heart symbol. Ancient Greek coins frequently pictured the stalk of laserwort on the front and the seed pod—a heart—on the back.
The birth control method: Mercury.
In Ancient China, women drank hot mercury to prevent conception. Sometimes, the mercury was part of a potion with arsenic, strychnine, and other poisons.
Obviously, this could eventually lead to mercury poisoning, which is characterized by numbness, muscle weakness, and brain damage. Still, what’s a little brain damage between lovers?
Mercury was actually a common medication through the 20th century. The element has antimicrobial properties, so it was used as a topical treatment for scrapes and burns. People also drank it to treat everything from dental issues to cancer, and mercury was found in eye drops, laxatives, and nasal spray. Today, physicians occasionally use medicines with mercury, although safer alternatives are much more common.
So, did it work? Well, probably, but the risk was certainly greater than the potential reward. We’re not sure whether it was palatable, but we can’t imagine that anyone was looking forward to a hot, steaming mug of mercury after sex.
The birth control method: Animal intestines. In Japan and China, animal intestines were fashioned into rudimentary condoms. The practice eventually spread through parts of Europe, proving once again that people will do just about anything to enjoy safe sex.
We should note that these condoms were quite disgusting by modern standards; they were likely quite rough, and because animal intestine was expensive, they were commonly reused after being soaked in raw milk. They could also rot and break, and infections were common.
While we’re on the subject, some cultures made condoms out of animal horns and bones, so the animal intestine people didn’t have it that bad.
So, did it work? Provided that the condom didn’t break, yes, for the most part. People were pretty good at making condoms, since the process was quite similar to sausage stuffing (go ahead and make your own joke here).
In fact, some modern condom manufacturers still offer animal intestine condoms for people who are allergic to latex, although these new products are obviously much more reliable than their medieval counterparts.