Contraceptives are needed to avoid unwanted pregnancy, as well as to protect yourself and your partner from STIs. Throughout history, people have come up with a variety of ways to achieve these goals. Some methods have been proven effective by modern researchers. Others, while effective, could be seriously detrimental to health. Still others did not work at all, because they were based, for example, on a belief in magic. We understand exactly how people were protected in antiquity.

Ancient world

Illustration: Anastasiconostas / Burning hut

Protected people already in antiquity. It was the duty of women in most civilizations to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Therefore, many contraceptives were used specifically by women. Men, on the other hand, used barrier contraceptives to protect themselves from disease.

Natural methods of contraception

The existence of a connection between pregnancy and male sperm was vaguely known in ancient times. Therefore, one of the earliest methods of contraception was interrupted sexual intercourse. People also practiced anal sex to avoid unwanted pregnancies. For example, this was done in Ancient Greece.

It was also believed that a long period of breastfeeding helps prevent a new pregnancy. There is evidence that women in ancient Egypt did this. The effectiveness of this method has not been confirmed: although there is indeed no ovulation during lactation for some time, modern studies show that the risk of becoming pregnant during this period is quite high.

Already in ancient times, women tracked their menstrual cycle to avoid pregnancy. However, in different civilizations, ideas about the phases of the menstrual cycle varied. For example, in ancient India, it was believed that conception occurs precisely during menstruation, because menstrual blood was considered an analogue of male sperm. But according to the ideas of the ancient Jews, a woman was more likely to become pregnant a week after menstruation. In ancient Greece, women also monitored their cycles to avoid pregnancy. At the same time, the Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus believed that the most successful time for conception was before and after menstruation.

Today it is already known what phases the menstrual cycle consists of and that conception occurs during the period of ovulation. However, it is also known that pregnancy can occur even during menstruation. Therefore, the “calendar method” is not considered a reliable method of contraception.

Barrier Methods

The ancient Egyptians were among the first to use barrier contraceptives – the prototypes of modern condoms. Around 1000 B.C. e. During sexual intercourse, men put special “covers” made of linen on the penis. It was assumed that they could prevent sexually transmitted diseases. For example, diseases resembling gonorrhea and syphilis.

The Romans were interested in the use of contraceptives for public health. So, barrier contraceptives were supposed to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. For example, an illness that is described as resembling syphilis. To do this, they used special shells for the penis from the bladders or intestines of animals, more often sheep or goats.

In ancient China, barrier contraception was developed. Silk was used to make special “covers” for the penis, which were lubricated with oil. They were used primarily to protect against genital infections.

The ancient Jukas tribe of New Guinea developed barrier contraceptives that were different from those used by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. These products were not designed to protect men from infections, but to help women avoid unplanned pregnancies. In fact, these were the first prototypes of female condoms: a “cup” made of a plant that was placed in the vagina before intercourse and prevented sperm from entering the uterus.

Today, there are also female barrier contraceptives , which are safe and effective, but less popular than the “regular” male condoms.

Oral contraceptives

Medicinal wines were a popular method of contraception in ancient Greece. These drinks contained various plants such as acacia, hellebore, pennyroyal. It was believed that they have a contraceptive effect.

A popular contraceptive in the same region was the silphium plant. This plant has long since died out, but it used to grow in the city of Cyrene, in what is now Libya, and was a popular export product. Women crushed silphium flowers, mixed with water and drank so as not to become pregnant. However, the ancient Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus believed that this decoction was not so much a contraceptive as a means for abortion – sylphium could cause a miscarriage.

Another plant for preventing unwanted pregnancy was Queen Anne’s lace, or wild carrot. Hippocrates wrote that wild carrot seeds were a contraceptive and that they also caused miscarriage. Modern research shows that the seeds of this plant actually block the production of progesterone, a hormone that is needed to prepare a woman’s body for pregnancy. Queen Anne’s lace is still used today as a traditional medicine. For example, in some states of India, women eat its seeds to prevent conception.

Women in China could drink liquid lead and mercury as an oral contraceptive. These dangerous substances caused serious side effects: they could lead to infertility, kidney failure, and even death.


For birth control, according to the Egyptian papyri of 1550 BC. e., women used honey, leaves or juice of acacia flowers. Modern researchers have found that these ingredients have a spermicidal effect, that is, they are able to destroy spermatozoa. With this mixture, women wiped the vagina before intercourse. Another specific remedy was crocodile droppings. His women were also placed in the vagina. Nothing is known about its contraceptive properties today.

In ancient Greece, women placed woolen tampons soaked in vinegar, olive oil, or cedar resin in their vagina during sexual intercourse. These ingredients changed the normal level of acidity in the vagina, so the sperm got into an unfavorable environment. So a partial spermicidal effect was achieved.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle advised women who want to avoid pregnancy to anoint their genitals with cedar oil, white lead, or incense. Such funds could cause allergies or burns in women.

Middle Ages

Illustration: Anastasiconostas / Burning hut

In medieval Europe, control over people’s private lives was in the hands of the church. The purpose of marriage, according to the church, was to have children. And although sex was considered a sin only outside of marriage, the pleasure of sexual intercourse, even for spouses , was sinful. Attempts to avoid conceptionwere regarded by the church as immoral and condemned in every possible way.

Despite the postulates of the clergy, people still continued to use contraceptives of varying degrees of effectiveness. For example, women still placed wool soaked in vinegar in their vaginas to cause sperm death, or drank various herbal teas to avoid pregnancy. In the same period , “contraceptive charms” were used, which were made from beaver testicles, mule earwax, black cat bones, or any other animal that was believed to provide magical protection. Members of the nobility may have used condoms made from the intestines or bladder of sheep or goats.

In 1484, a bull was issued – a medieval papal law – by Pope Innocent VIII, which proclaimed the need to destroy heresy and witchcraft in the Rhineland. This document officially acknowledged the existence of witches. The bull determined which women were considered witches . And among them were midwives and healers who helped other women to protect themselves or get rid of unwanted pregnancies. They became less likely to provide their services, afraid of being accused of witchcraft. At that time, contraceptive methods did not receive much development.

QUOTE: “… they mercilessly torment both internal and external terrible pains of men, women and domestic animals, which they prevent men from producing, and women from conceiving children and depriving husbands and wives of the ability to fulfill their conjugal duty …”

Bull of Pope Innocent VIII

In the 15th century, the first outbreak of syphilis occurred in Europe, which became a real epidemic and claimed almost five million lives. In the 16th century, the Italian physician and Renaissance anatomist Gabriele Fallopio described syphilis, which he otherwise called the “French disease”, since, according to one theory, an epidemic began in this country. He pointed out that syphilis is transmitted through sex and that during intercourse it is necessary to apply a protective “sheath” covering the glans penis. He even conducted an experiment with the participation of men, as a result of which it became clear that the “shell” protects against genital lesions.

new time

Illustration: Anastasiconostas / Burning hut

With the development of science and medicine, the need for barrier contraceptives became obvious, and condoms themselves began to be made more accessible. For example, during the English Civil War in 1642, the soldiers of the troops of King Charles I began to become infected with syphilis en masse because they used the services of sex workers. Syphilis was the cause of increased mortality of soldiers. Then large batches of condoms were sent to the army, which were made from the intestines of cattle.

In the middle of the 19th century, the American inventor Charles Goodyear discovered a method for the production of rubber based on rubber. This made it possible to produce a thin, strong and elastic material. By 1860, condoms were mass-produced from it, and not from animal organs. In the early 20th century, condoms began to be made from latex.

In the mid-20s, the first intrauterine device appeared, and in the late 50s, the first oral hormonal contraceptives. So women have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want to conceive a child or not. Gradually, methods of dealing with unwanted pregnancy became more effective and safer for both sexes.

Cover, illustrations: Anastasiconostas / Burning hut

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