Prevention

Spit in a frog's mouth, eat a bee: A history of contraception since antiquity

31 October 2018
1146
AIDS.CENTER

People have been thinking about how to avoid unwanted pregnancies since ancient times. The methods used by our ancestors may now seem ridiculous, but who could say that today's techniques won't look dubious in the eyes of our descendants? AIDS.CENTER talks about ancient methods of contraception and their evolution.

The most ancient methods

The women of Ancient Egypt, before engaging in sexual contact, would apply a balm made from crocodile faeces to their genitals. They believed that this substance killed spermatozoa. It is also known that Egyptian women used to take baths or make compresses out of spider webs after sexual intercourse.

Egyptians are said to be the inventors of tampons. Two types of tampons which were inserted deep into the vagina were used as form of contraception. The first one was made of cotton with the addition of crocodile excrement and honey; the other contained honey and an acacia infusion. Egyptian women were certain that the stickiness of the honey would hinder the fertilization process. We know about these recipes thanks to the Petrie Medical Papyrus, also known as the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus. Scientists date this "document" to around 1850 BC. Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus consists of three pages of medical text dedicated to gynaecology. Diagnoses of 17 diseases afflicting women are listed in the Papyrus, along with 17 symptoms of pregnancy, recipes for conception, contraception, and methods for treating hysteria. Besides this, the documents contain lists of priests, temple equipment, and several literary texts.

Indian women also preferred tampons. Theirs, however, were made of excrement from elephants rather than crocodiles. An alternative was a balm made of rock salt with the addition of vegetable oil. The balm was applied inside vagina immediately before sexual intercourse.

Indian male yogi used a technique called "Vajroli Mudra". This technique enabled them to prevent semen from leaving their body. By using a special massage technique, Indians were also able to move the womb to prevent spermatozoa from entering.

Arab women would insert tampons infused with earwax and the excrement of hoofed animals into the vagina. Sometimes other ingredients were also added, such as cabbage. Aside from this, Arab women would use balm-infused tampons. But these magic recipes have not made it through to modern times.

Women in Ancient China would inject a mixture of oil and mercury into vagina. They used tampons as well, which were known as "kong-fu" and also contained mercury. Though this was not the only method of contraception in Ancient China. Ancient Chinese women were more sophisticated than others when it came to contraception: they used not only external, but also orally ingested methods of contraception; they prepared special mixtures that were imbibed instead of tea before engaging in sexual contact. The ingredients included cedar resin and pomegranate.

African women would use freshly cut grass wrapped in pieces of cloth. Japanese geishas used bamboo paper. Even in the Middle Ages, European women continued making tampons out of cotton wool or paper with vinegar.

Washing out the vagina was another popular method of contraception in antiquity. Different infusions were used for this purpose. Native North American women made potions out of redwood and lemons. An elixir made of lavender, aloe vera, juniper, and pineapple was popular among the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Women in Rome would also take infusions. Interestingly, it was recommended that the infusion should be made out of not just any willow and cottonwood bark, but specifically plants collected in the temple grove of Proserpina. Proserpina was the goddess of the underworld. Maia and Inca women took yam extracts. Women in Greece chewed carrot seeds.

Illustration by: Nikita Ikonnikov

"Women in Rome would also take infusions. Interestingly, it was recommended that the infusion be made out of plants collected in the temple grove of Proserpina."

The ancient physician Soranus of Ephesus (138 BC – 98 BC) recommended that, one month after sex, a woman jump up and down exactly 7 times, no more, no less. The healer also recommended that woman should "breathe" with her vagina immediately after having sex. The breathing exercises helped to push out all unwanted elements by way of muscular activity. The ancient physician also recommended using vaginal suppositories made of pomegranate and ginger.

Extended nursing of a baby, which could continue for several years, was a popular method of contraception among African women. The process, however, often led to infertility, due to the mother's organism becoming exhausted. That, in turn, led to the womb constricting to almost half its natural size.

In order to avoid unwanted pregnancies, women would brew a variety of infusions: in America it was burdock tea and a ginger infusion; in Europe — juniper oil; and Europeans in the North made infusions using ribwort and a finely ground plant known as shepherd's purse. Women believed that the herbs would prevent them from wanting to have sex with men.

"The ancient physician Soranus of Ephesus recommended that, one month after having sex, a woman jump up and down exactly 7 times, no more, no less."

Mexican shamans recommended eating bees after having sex, or seeking a frog and spitting in its mouth, which were effective methods of contraception in their opinion.

In Kievan Rus', women went to the wise elder women, who would give them potions that resulted in miscarriage. The elixir usually contained nettle, burdock, juniper, pea, and other ingredients. The healers also recommended eating bees. They believed that bee venom halted pregnancy. There was another alternative. It involved mixing horse manure, honey, and herbs, spreading the mixture over a cloth and inserting the cloth into vagina. However, this method wasn't popular due to the complicated recipe.

In the Middle Ages, people believed pregnancy to be possible only when the woman has an orgasm at the same time as her partner. Many sages at that time insisted that pregnancy could only happen during menstruation. They even recommended that women make love exclusively outside of that period.

Illustration by: Nikita Ikonnikov

The condom

According to myth, the first inventor of the condom was the wife of King Minos. She needed to protect herself, since the king's semen contained snakes and scorpions that posed a threat to her life. Pasiphaë created an antecedent of the condom out of a goat's bladder.

Africans used purses made out of crocodile leather as means of contraception. There were special "covers" in Egypt as well. Images found on frescoes are proof of this. Arabian condoms were made from the intestines of domestic animals. In China, silk was used for this purpose, while turtle shells were used in Japan. Something made of domestic animal intestines and reminiscent of a condom is also mentioned in the annals of Ancient Rome. Any mention of this method of contraception disappeared from manuscripts from the time of 476 AD (when the Western Roman Empire fell) up to the 15th century. Reportedly, this is related to the predominance of Christianity over that time, which considered contraception to be a sin.

However, a syphilis epidemic broke out at the end of the 15th century. The infection was presumably brought over by Columbus and his ship's crew from their voyage. Regarding this, in his treatise "On the French Disease," the doctor Gabriele Falloppio described in detail a linen cover capable of protecting its wearers from the "sickness of the aborigines". The doctor tested his "invention" on patients, none of whom contracted the disease while using it. Falloppio insisted that using this device is essential to protecting oneself from the disease.

Use of the condom became even more widespread in England in the 17th century. King Charles II didn't want the number of challengers to his throne to increase. A doctor by the name of Condom helped him to find the solution. Dr. Condom studied available historical data and created a cap made out of sheep intestine. The caps appealed to the nobles, and they became widely used among English high society.

A rubber condom first appeared only in the 19th century. It was a reusable device. After use, it was meant to be washed and dipped in a special liquid. These condoms were not very reliable. But the rubber manufacturing industry continued to develop new products, and the first latex condoms appeared at the end of the 19th century.

"Arabian condoms were made from the intestines of domestic animals. In China, silk was used for this purpose, while turtle shells were used in Japan."

In many countries campaigns against condoms took place at the end of the 20th century. Using a condom was considered to be something immoral and unnatural. For example, laws forbidding condoms from being sold or advertised were adopted in 30 states in America. In Ireland, condoms were prohibited up until 1970.

Condoms became a widespread method of contraception in1982, when it was discovered that HIV is transmitted sexually. It is since then that they have been sold in shops and supermarkets.

In 1990, a female condom called the Femidom was invented.

Nikita Ikonnikov

Spermicides

In 1841, the Swiss zoologist Kölliker discovered a sensational fact: he proved that spermatozoa are not parasites, but sex cells. He started experimenting, trying to influence spermatozoa with chemical substances and studying the effects of spermicides (spermatozoa-killing substances).

The discovery of spermicides was very important for the improvement and development of contraception. Their inventor was a German pharmacist by the name of Merz. The first spermicide contained glycerine, and boric and lactic acids. By 1920, more than 100 different spermicide recipes had been created. Later on, scientists invented spermicidal powders, tablets, and vaginal suppositories. At the end of the century, spermicide-saturated sponges appeared. The first sponge was produced in the USA in 1970. It was called "Today".

Intrauterine contraception

The first mentions of intrauterine contraception can be dated back to 4,000 years ago. It is presumed that the Arabs were the inventors of this type of contraception. They would insert a stone into a camel's womb in order to prevent pregnancy. Cervical caps were mentioned in the manuscripts of Casanova in 1700. A piece of lemon was the antecedent of the caps mentioned in his diaries. It was meant to be inserted into the vagina after sexual intercourse.

"The Arabs would insert a stone into a camel's womb to prevent pregnancy."

A more expanded scientific explanation appeared in the 20th century. The first cervical cap was invented in 1908 and the first vaginal ring was designed in 1934. German scientists studied the applications of intrauterine means of contraception. In 1909, the German gynaecologist Richter came up with the idea of placing a ring made of two threads inside. In 1929, he successfully trialled the ring. It later came to be named after him. In 1933, all experiments in this field were suspended in Germany, as the political party NSDAP came to power at that time and were opposed contraception in general.

Research was resumed after WWII. In 1952, the Japanese scientist Ishihama published an article about the successful use of intrauterine rings. Since then, this type of contraception has become one of the most widely used.

Hormonal contraceptives

The first person to describe this type of contraception in written form was the Greek military doctor Dioscorides, who lived in the 1st century BC. He believed that taking mandrake root would help to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

Intensive experiments were begun in the 20th century by the Austrian doctor Haberlandt, who suggested the use of female hormones as contraceptives.

In 1952, the scientist Pincus introduced the use of progesterone, a hormone affecting the menstrual cycle. Based on his suggestions, the first contraceptive tablets appeared two years later. They were not perfect, of course. Just one pill contained the same amount of hormones that modern women take over 365 days. In 1960, contraceptive pills were approved for usage.

Sterilization

We could call Australian aborigines the pioneers in the field of surgical contraception. They knew how to amputate a woman's cervix with stone tools, rendering her infertile. Aborigines possessed techniques of male sterilization as well. Special instruments were used to make cuts on the genitals, hindering the spermatozoa process.

At the beginning of last century, sterilization was openly used for no good end. For example, in Canada, criminals were sterilized, the procedure being performed against their will. Outside of Canada, this "event" also took place in 30 American states. Forced sterilization was also practiced in Nazi Germany. "Inferior" people were subjected to the operation.

In 2002, the International Criminal Court held that forced sterilization is a crime against humanity. Russian citizens are only allowed to get sterilized if they are over 35 years of age, or have two or more children, or if there are medical grounds.

Modern times

There are many methods of contraception nowadays: barrier, chemical, and natural. The latter refers to the calendar method and interrupted sexual intercourse. Barrier methods of contraception include condoms, femidoms, diaphragms, and cervical caps. Hormonal means of contraception include subdermal implants, hormonal (contraceptive) patches, intrauterine systems Mirena, mini-pills, and post-coital contraception.

Such variety has only been made possible with the inventions and discoveries that took place over the previous centuries and millennia.

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