Contraception in History, Part III. Silphium and the Origin of Love (or at least the heart-shape)

Silphium was a type of giant fennel that grew in Cyrenaica (present-day Libya) between the sixth century BCE and the first century CE.  It was so central to the economy of Cyrene that most of their coins had images of the plant or its seeds. It was delicious to eat, smelled wonderful, and could treat everything from sore throats and indigestion to snake bites and epilepsy. It was its other uses, however, that made its name and caused its eventual extinction.

What did it do?

Silphium was known throughout the Mediterranean as a highly effective contraceptive and abortifacient. It was regarded as “worth its weight in silver,” and was believed to be a gift of the gods. The Egyptians and the Knossos Minoans had a special glyph for it. Even Catullus, my favorite of all of the classical perverts, alluded to it in his naughty, naughty poems.

Pausanius’ Description of Greece leaves little doubt as to what it was used for in his story of Dioscuri meeting Phormion’s maiden daughter: "By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium upon it."

Given the fact that the plant looked more or less like a big modern-day fennel, it probably wasn’t there for decorative purposes.

Women were commonly advised to mix the juice from a small amount of silphium (about the size of a chickpea) with water to "regulate their menstrual cycles". “Silphium water” was also effective when applied to wool and used as a pessary. Its effectiveness was unquestioned and may even help to explain the exceptionally low birth rates in Ancient Rome. (The other explanation? Lead poisoning. See previous post, Contraception in History, Part I)

Unfortunately, Silphium was a very temperamental plant and its growth was restricted to a narrow coastal area only about one hundred miles long. That doesn’t sound like so much when you consider that this plant provided contraception to much of the ancient world. It was farmed to extinction within six hundred years.

Although Pliny the Elder reported the plant extinct by the first century CE, we have not been able to positively identify it, so it is impossible to know for certain whether this is truly the case, and we will therefore never be able to find out whether it was really as effective as it was believed to be. Related plants have been used for similar purposes over the years with mixed results. At the time, Asafoetida was used as a poor substitute for Silphium, but these days it has been consigned to the spice rack.

Heart-shaped birth control

Many explanations have been given for the origins of the heart symbol over the years. Actual human hearts are not remotely heart-shaped, and as for the upside-down heart shape of a woman’s arse? Please. One more likely explanation is that it comes from the image of the Silphium seed that was etched onto coins and known by sight throughout the Mediterranean world. It there was a plant you could eat that provided effective contraception without otherwise killing you, you’d want to know what it looked like, too.

And what does it look like? A heart:

Coin depicting a silphium seed
Upside-down arse, indeed!


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