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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Birth Control in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian women may have lacked our modern technology, but they got creative when it came to birth control and pregnancy tests.

One popular ancient contraceptive involved soaking cotton in a paste of various ingredients: acacia bark, dates, and honey were popular. This mixture was then inserted into the vagina. The theory goes that it would either act as a physical barrier to conception or possibly alter the pH level to make it lethal to sperm.

Of course, if a woman was really determined, she could resort to a method preserved from the 1850BC Kahun Medical Papyrus. The text instructs women to mix crocodile dung into a vaginal suppository. I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure that mixture could be quite pungent effective.

Perhaps our Egyptian lady suspects her crocodile dung birth control failed? If a woman believed she was pregnant and wanted to know the baby's gender, she would plant barley and emmer wheat seeds. Then she would water them with her urine. If the seeds sprouted, she was pregnant. If only the wheat grew she would bear a girl, but if the barley sprouted she could expect a boy. I don't know anyone who's tried this, but I've read a few sources that say it's somewhat accurate. If anyone wants to try it, let me know.

I'm perfectly happy being on the dark on whether the crocodile dung works.

21 comments:

Mason Canyon said...

Such interesting bits of history. I'm with you on not knowing about the crocodile dung. :)

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

Melissa said...

This is so fascinating. I love history and learning more about ancient history

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Oh I'm so glad I'm a 20th-21st century woman. Yeah.

Amalia T. said...

Ha!

That watering the seeds with urine business is... something. At least it isn't as invasive as crocodile dung...

Josin L. McQuein said...

Perhaps the "pungent" part was the point. It's difficult to get pregnant if the other half of the required genetic contribution is repulsed. (The Egyptian version of "Honey, I have a headache," perhaps?)

As for the peeing on seeds -- 1, I now have the strangest image of someone getting congratulations because his wife was seen "watering the garden", 2, I'd take mentions of success with a healthy dose of skepticism. Urine's high in salt and other unpleasant for plant things, so unless there was actual water involved, getting anything to grow would be unusual.

J. L. Jackson said...

I love learning about Ancient Egypt. Not sure I will try the methods, but it's good to know.

Anne Gallagher said...

In researching birth control for the Regency period, their favorite method was vinegar soaked cloth. Or cotton I suppose. I'm assuming it was to act like a douche. But the smell, ewww, what's worse, crocodile dung or vinegar?

Susan R. Mills said...

I'm so glad I live now and not then! Yeah, I'm with you on being in the dark about whether the crocodile dung works.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

Wild but fascinating! It's the research details like this that make historical fiction so incredibly interesting.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Oh, girl . . . See, this is why we love you so much! :-)

Bethany Mattingly said...

That's so interesting....croc dung, see we just don't come up with brilliant ideas like that anymore. :)

Tere Kirkland said...

LOL, I've heard of the crocodile dung. But there's also a theory that there were plants, like what is shown on the Lakonia Cup in Paris, that might have had contraceptive qualities, too. Probably silphium, a relative of asafoetida, which smells about as bad as crocodile dung. ;)

It was a luxury item (used to treat all kinds of maladies and to flavor food) that only the richest people in the Aegean world could afford.

Great post! Mine was a little historical today, too.

Carolyn Abiad said...

Crocodile dung? Ugh! I have heard from herbalists that the urine thing works, though. Heck...we pee on a stick to find out these days! :)

K. Marie Criddle said...

Whoooa, my stomach was clenched the entire time I read this. Crazy! However, when I was pregnant, my friend told me to pee into a jar of Drano to discern the sex. Bubbles = boy! Steam = girl.

I opted to wait for the ultrasound.

Awesome post!

Natalie said...

Fascinating. And gross. But mostly fascinating.

Renee Yancy said...

What I want to know is how they got close enough to the crocodile to get the dung!

Hatshepsut / Kelly Silver said...

I've read several accounts with trails that show some validity to the sprouting of the barley/wheat seeds to confirm pregnancy. The genders thing didn't seem to hold water thought. (bwhahaaha..haha.ahhaha...ahem.)

Michelle McLean said...

LOL and this is why I love history so much :D Crocodile dung, huh? Probably something you only had to use once....it'd keep anyone away from you for days and I can't imagine it's very healthy to put the dung of any animal in such a delicate spot...probably led to all kinds of wonderful maladies guaranteed to keep those with pregnancy inducing tendencies at bay.

Lynda Young said...

I found this oddly amusing. I'm so glad I was born in 'modern' times. ;)

VR Barkowski said...

How can anyone not be fascinated by stuff? I love history (except for military details). Maybe it was the bacteria in the croc. dung that did the trick?

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