The Curious Contraceptive Methods of Ancient Egypt
Regardless of civilization or epoch, a pregnancy has always been the ultimate expression of love between a man and a woman. In addition to having offspring, couples ensured the continuity of customs through the next generation; which has allowed a culture to be forged.
In the same way that their parents did, the children would take care of them and guide them once they reached old age. However, since not all couples could have babies, they adopted other orphaned children to protect the family structure and their path into old age.
The first fertility treatments
Unlike other civilizations in Ancient Egypt infertility was seen as a disease and not a pestilent curse. And thanks to that mentality, they were allowed to investigate and thus create the first medical studies. Although the sterile condition was only attributed to the woman, at no time was she undervalued; she was treated with the deserved respect.
In this way the first treatments supported by intuitive medicine, spells and rituals to fight against the evils in reproduction would begin to be practiced.
Thanks to observation, the beginnings of gynecology arose in Ancient Egypt; and with it they sowed the foundations of pregnancy tests as well as contraception.
The discovery was in the urine, through which they had noticed the presence of a hormone that betrayed whether a woman was pregnant or not.
They could also know the sex of the baby through this method. They kept it in a container to which they threw two types of seeds: barley and wheat; depending on whether one or the other sprouted, it would be a boy or a girl.
This knowledge was gathered in different documents known as papyri, which were written by the sages, after the repetition of medical patterns. From that moment on, the first studies on sexuality and reproduction arose. Egyptologists found and deciphered some such as: “Papiro Kahoun” (1,900 BC) and the Papiro Ebers, (discovered in 1,800 BC during the nineteenth century).
As today, there were also different scenarios in which a birth could imply an endless number of blessings for some; or a series of catastrophic misfortunes – among which the mother and the child could lose their lives during pregnancy – and not counting the numerous social complications caused by extramarital relationships.
“In Egypt there were various types of pregnancy tests such as the exploration of the female body -observing the change in skin colour, breast swelling, etc.- which verified pregnancy to a certain extent,” wrote Clara Ramos Bullón in her book “Brief History of Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt: Customs, Culture, Traditions.
The “Berlin Papyrus” are the first documentation that includes the first pregnancy tests, the oldest paediatric treatise, as well as the peculiar contraceptive methods.
However, for whatever reasons, not all women were willing to receive maternity, and they would seek in every way to avoid this state. Among the strangest preventive methods he highlighted: the use of tampons bathed in honey, the insertion of crocodile faeces in the vagina or also a pasty mass that resulted from crushing acacia spines, because it apparently contained gum arabic, which acted as a powerful spermicide.
Clara Ramos Bullón gathers these curious facts in her work, where she also relates: “The period of lactation, which could be prolonged for a period of three years, reduced the possibility of a new pregnancy”.
The path to life between conception and birth was never oblivious to danger, both to the mother and to the unborn.
Miscarriages were one of the greatest fears of pregnant women; in addition to losing the baby they were exposed to death by uncontrollable hemorrhages. For this reason amulets were hung and entrusted to certain deities such as: Isis (protector of the mother and the unborn), and Taweret (goddess of fertility).
The importance of offspring
Today, many older people are victims of abandonment and others are cared for by carers. However, in Ancient Egypt as in other civilizations, the elderly were a fundamental pillar for the family and society.
For the Egyptians one of the most important rites, and that gave some sense to the inevitable death was the “maat” -a funeral ritual-; and that they had to carry out their descendants.
In this way, subsequent generations allowed not only the elders to inherit their wisdom from humanity, but the customs that created collective identities to continue to live through the centuries.