Abortion and Birth Control in Ancient Ireland

To listen to the way people talk, you’d think abortion and birth control were a modern phenomenon. Not so. As  John M. Riddle, J. Worth Estes and Josiah C. Russell say in their paper, ‘Birth Control in the Ancient World’, it’s been going on ‘ever since Eve’. And believe it or not, it was big business.

Silphion, known in later times by its Latin name, Sylphium, was grown in the seventh century BC  by Greek colonists who founded the city of Cyrene in what we know today as Libya. Silphium was a member of the genus Ferula, commonly known as the giant fennel.


#Abortion and #BirthControl in ancient #Ireland. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com


It was so effective as a contraceptive and abortive agent, that it was featured on coins, in plays (Aristophanes in The Knights), in poetry (the Roman poet, Catullus), and in medical and botanical literature (Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, and Greek botanist Theophrastus).

By the fifth century BC, the demand for Sylphium was so high that prices had risen to exorbitant amounts and made the farmers and merchants of Cyrene very wealthy. Supply could not keep up with demand, however, and by the fourth century AD, the plant became extinct due to over-harvesting.


Ferula_tingitana By Ruben0568 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=40425833

Ferula tingitana, a variant of wild fennel, related to the now extinct silphium. Courtesy of Wikimedia, hover for attribution.


The idea that women of the past might have been able to control their own reproductive cycle is something modernity has ignored until fairly recently. New studies and experiments indicate that many ancient herbal remedies contained chemical compounds which we know today to be effective.

For example, tests were conducted on mice in the 1970s and 1980s using another plant which in antiquity was used for effective birth control. The seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace, which is wild carrot, prevented foetal implantation when administered to rodents during the first few days of pregnancy.

These are tiny animals, and you might not think the same seeds would act in a similar way in human beings. Hippocrates, however, recommended the seeds for preventing and aborting pregnancy, and women in the Appalachian Mountains, and also in India were reported to ingest the seeds following intercourse to prevent pregnancy, a practice going back two thousand years.

It seems that chemical compounds in Queen Anne’s Lace block the production of the female hormone progesterone, which is responsible for preparing the uterus for the development of the fertilised ovum.


By i_am_jim - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58316726

The very pretty Wild carrot, also known as Queen Anne’s Lace. Hover for attribution.


Other plants used as contraceptives or abortifacients in the ancient world include pennyroyal, artemisia, myrrh and rue. In the first century AD, a physician named Galen also recommended willow, date-palm and pomegranate.

In ancient Ireland, wild carrot was a native plant which would have been readily available to women. Pennyroyal, a type of mint, also grew freely in Ireland, but is now a protected species in decline. Artemisia, of the daisy family, was also native to Ireland in the form of mugwort. Willow also grows wild in Ireland (particularly in my garden!), and although it is associated with the compounds and properties of aspirin, I can find no reference to its having an abortofacient effect, though perhaps this is now lost knowledge.

In any case, what this shows is that there was sufficient natural resources and herbal lore to indicate that the use of oral contraceptives and abortofacient herbs was probably not unknown in ancient and early Ireland. This really interesting article on abortion in Ireland in the twentieth century, when it was still illegal, shows that traditional practices were still being carried out until fairly recently.


By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60068525

Coin showing Magas as Ptolemaic governor c. 300-282 or 275BC, reverse showing the silphium plant. Wikimedia, hover for attribution.


All of this is of particular interest in light of Ireland’s history of female and reproductive rights, and the recent referendum on a woman’s right to take control of her own fertility. It also highlights the double standard of religious values which persecuted women who became pregnant outside of marriage, and those within their marriages who attempted to practice birth control. The children of such origins were equally punished and certainly not cared for.

But all of this is now widely known. What happened before the evolution of Catholic values in Ireland, and  during the early Medieval period?

Well, we can’t be certain as we have no written records for pre-historic Ireland, and most of what we know subsequently comes from the writings of monks. Early texts are quite fascinating, though, as they come from a time when Ireland was still not wholly Christian, and the values and views they seem to express do not quite resemble Christian values as we know them today.

For example, when I was reading the Life of St Brigid for a history assignment, I was astonished to find that one of the miracles she performed was an abortion. My experience of the Christian view of abortion is such that it favoured the life of the unborn child over the mother, and yet here I was reading that this was not the case; not only did the saint remove the pregnancy, but the author listed the act among her miracles. This says a lot about early attitudes to pregnancy, abortion and religion.

However it has to be said that hagiography cannot be read as truthful, unbiased historical fact. We don’t know that St Brigid was a real historical person, and we don’t know for sure if she, or anyone, carried out this abortion or any of the other miracles she is credited with.

What we do know is that at the time Cogitosus wrote his Life of St Brigid in the seventh century, there was a huge battle for supremacy going on between the Church of St Brigid in Kildare and the Church of St Patrick in Armagh, and propaganda texts were produced on both sides supporting their relative causes. These Lives, then, were political, motivated by the prospect of power and wealth.

Compare Brigid’s act of pity and compassion with that of St Patrick when he discovers the pregnancy of a nun named Lupait; in his Tripartite Life, written between the ninth and twelfth centuries, he is recorded as having ordered his chariot to be driven over her body three times as she prostrated herself before him seeking his forgiveness.

It seems he honoured her request to forgive the father, though, and only had her killed after she had given birth… her son, Aidán, went on to become the saint of Inis Lothain. It’s a peculiar trait of Patrick’s that in so many of the stories he seems to react with such violence, or violence happens around him.

Brigid was not the only saint in Ireland to have carried out abortions;  Ciarán of Saigir, Áed mac Bricc, and Cainnech of Aghaboe also performed such miracles.

When a beautiful princess named Bruinnech renounced her privilege and became a nun, she was abducted and raped by a chieftain named Dímma. Ciarán went to rescue her, but she confessed to him that she was with child. His response was to press down on her womb with the sign of the cross and the foetus was expelled from her body. There is no indication if this is what she wished for.

Maeve B. Callan claims in her journal article that ‘Bruinnech’s body was the battlefield for a war waged between religious and secular male authority. Dimma showed that he had no respect for Ciarán’s protective custody of a consecrated virgin, and she subsequently seems little more than the site of one man’s effacement of another’s virility’. In either case, she completely lacks agency, although at least she is allowed to retain her name and identity, an honour many women in Medieval literature are not permitted.

Áed caused a nun’s pregnancy to completely and instantly disappear by blessing her womb after she had confessed; Cainneach performed a similar service when a pregnant woman confessed to him her ‘secret fornication’ and asked for his blessing. Neither woman is mentioned by name, nor are we told if they had any choice in the matter of abortion, or their feelings after. Only the recipient of Brigid’s abortion spoke of her gratitude, but again, she has no name.


NB. I do not write this post in support of birth control or abortion, although I do support a woman’s right to control her own fertility and sexuality. This is not intended as a comment on contemporary politics or religion, but of setting the matter straight. There is a history of the use of contraceptives  and abortion reaching far back into antiquity. It is not a modern problem. We are no more evil or morally reprehensible now than we were then. Perhaps less so. Christianity does not hold the moral high ground on the issue of abortion; in fact, as we can see by their own religious writings, they actively carried out abortions when it suited them,  or claimed to, even calling them miracles. In fact, their history of the treatment of women and children, particularly in Ireland, is appalling, and stands for itself.


Refs.

Callan, Maeve B. Of Vanishing Fetuses and Maidens Made-Again: Abortion, Restored Virginity, and Similar Scenarios in Medieval Irish Hagiography and Penitentials, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 21, No. 2, APPROACHES TO CHILDBIRTH IN THE MIDDLE AGES (MAY 2012), pp. 282-296.
Riddle John M. and Estes J. Worth, Oral Contraceptives in Ancient and Medieval Times, American Scientist, Vol. 80, No. 3 (May-June 1992), pp. 226-233.
Riddle John M., Estes J. Worth and Russell Josiah C., Ever Since Eve… Birth Control in the Ancient World, Archaeology, Vol. 47, No. 2 (March/April 1994), pp. 29-35.
Cogitosus, The Life of Brigid.
The Tripartite Life of Patrick.
Bitel, Lisa M. 1996, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland, Cornell University Press.


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53 Comments on “Abortion and Birth Control in Ancient Ireland

  1. I suspected some of what you disclose, afterall there had to be abortion desire even if it was only the few. But historic evidence written documented evidence , unbelievable but believable at the same time. Brigid’s part is an extraordinary revelation if not myth and legend. The research and work you put into this post is also admired from across that unbalanced grey sea.

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    • Oooh… Ellen! That very last phrase has captured my attention… ‘that unbalanced grey sea’, I like that! I know, it’s not a subject people want to think about, but in the past, where violence and death was more routinely a part of people’s daily existence, abortion was maybe not thought of in quite the same way as we do today. That does not make it ok, but I think we as women have to accept that sometimes there are unwanted pregnancies for all kind of reasons, and where there are unwanted pregnancies there will also be abortion. It’s still the same today. Glad you appreicated the post. xxx

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  2. This is an incredible post ~ I had no idea. No idea. Incredible: “By the fifth century BC, the demand for Sylphium was so high that prices had risen to exorbitant amounts and made the farmers and merchants of Cyrene very wealthy” Incredible research, as is always the case with your work, and then a history I had never pondered but of course is rich and important. Beautiful, Ali, wishing you well.

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  3. Youre article is balanced fair and interesting, some of the comments really annoy me no end. Abortion is a very complex issue, there are no easy answer. At a certain stage of pregnancy one is dealing with a feeling living beiing. Its just plain murdrer at that stage to be blunt. In my opinion one must ask onesself can they deal with the results of ones actions against a defensless being. And if you can, thats fine. But i wont dress up blood and gore in a nice frilly pink bow for anyone. of course there are cases for abortion without doubt, i would not dispute that. But i do know first hand about blood and gore and its never pleasant…bear that in mind.

    Anyway, i do like your article,, its informative and very good….and the comments are..interesting to say the least. A big hang up on the catholic church by a lot of people for some reason. why do you care if you are not a practicimg catholic? Im not,,and to,be blunt care what they think. But they should bear in mind none of the three abrahamic mainstream faiths really support abortion for their followers., and the man or husband has the final say within some of these faiths regarding abortion. Its frowned on by all three main stream abrahamic faiths.

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  4. Oh, you know, I can be a windbag sometimes. Sorry I mentioned the typo. Your blog does much better than mine because it provides a service. Good on you and keep at it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t be sorry! I appreciate you telling me, I hadn’t even noticed. These things are important. And I know you told me from a good place, so don’t worry… I just need to access the post from my laptop to edit it, hate doing that from my phone. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Ali. Still glad I checked it out with you… BTW, on “spiritual without religion,” I thought I’d say just a word about the Lutheran church I go to. Yes it is political, with an Oregon synod and such for structure, but so far — this is just me — I’ve observed the pastor and the assembly to be very much individuals in their own right. It isn’t like we’re yoked to some terrible eater of souls. Pastor himself is a huge Beatles fan, and even listens to Led Zeppelin. Yesterday morning I gifted him my copy of _Rush in Rio_, a DVD of the prog band’s big 2002 concert in Brazil. He chuckled at it, but gladly accepted it and took it home. And get this: the church allowed me to play my Fender copy bass with our house musician and Pastor on guitar for a couple of hymns two months ago. My sponsor told me, without yet asking his wife, that she didn’t approve of rock ‘n’ roll axes in church. Well, the following week, when I talked to his wife myself, she smiled broadly, shook my hand, and told me it’d been awesome… Just one more word, from John Stuart Mill: society is no more than the individuals composing it… I’m only saying this a little in self-defense. Thanks so much for being open-minded, my friend 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh no… I’m sorry you felt the need for self defence here! I don’t judge anyone for their religious beliefs if its made consciously and rationally. I don’t like brainwashing though, and I see that a lot. I have personally never felt called to any religion. I know they do good works too, but they are often a source of conflict where they rub up against alternate beliefs, and I don’t like that. I do try to be open minded, but I’m only human. Your church sounds fun though. 😊

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          • Overall, my church is a source of support for my sobriety. They all care very much about my recovery, even if my own personal notions jar a bit with their traditional ones sometimes. The assembly lets me tag along while I stabilize and figure out where I’m going… Take care until next time 😉

            Liked by 1 person

  5. You should send your article to Pope Francis, Ali and he may take a look at abortion and birth control in the Catholic community before he becomes too old to take on such a challenging task. I don’t know why Popes and priests are against abortion. For a 1000 years they were permitted to marry and for the next 1000 years abortion wasn’t necessary because it was just done with other men and boys.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He’s here next week, Colin. And I’m sure he’ll have something to say about our recent referendum. Yes its a bit of a u-turn. For most of history they didnt care two hoots about women and children, in fact treated them abysmally. Its probably more to do with power and control rather than religious belief.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Why don’t you try to meet up with him, Ali. I believe he’s a really nice man. He’s a lot braver coming to your (adopted) country than the Orange people who have their Twelfth marches everywhere but Drogheda in the country where the man from Holland won a fight against his father in law. And he’s a lot nicer than our cardinal George Pell. How about it, Ali. Would you be interested in meeting him?

        Liked by 1 person

        • No thanks, Colin, I’m staying well clear. Besides, just think of the crowds… and there’ll be no parking, and ugh… I’ll be running in the opposite direction! 😄

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          • No worries, Ali. It was just a thought. My uncle was able to meet the last Pope when he (my uncle) converted to Catholicism. So it is possible.Perhaps you could put a sign on your roof for him to see as he flies over on his way to Knock.

            Liked by 1 person

        • He is not that nice i believe, apparemtly he lost the head with some cardinals a few years back…’screaming i’ll take their caps or hats’ or words to that effect…it was printed in an italian language nrwspaper whos name escapes me at the moment. Main stream media did not pick up on it strangely. Perhaps its fake news…but i think there is more to old red scoks than being just man.

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          • Well he may be Pope but that doesn’t mean he’s saintly! 😁 I doubt he got to the top by being gentle and kind. No one ever does. Being Pope is more about power than religion, seems to me.

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            • Indeed, i agree. I believe beneath that kind gentle old facade something.else lurks its a case of not judging a book by its cover! Lol…and at times we all do.

              Liked by 1 person

          • I wish the Pope would take the hat off his number three in the Vatican – Aussie Cardinal George Pell – who a lot of people would like to see behind bars. Cardinal Pell has pleaded not guilty to sexual offences against children in the late 1990s when he was Archbishop of Melbourne. He is also accused of sexual offences in Ballarat in the 1970s when he was a priest and will stand trial later this year.

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            • Well I don’t know the details of this, but if he did, I imagine there would be a huge outcry for all the rest to likewise be dealt with, and I suspect it would prove to be such an enormous issue that confidence and trust in the institution as a whole would be totally undermined. Best brush it all under the carpet, as they’ve always done.

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  6. I have heard of pennyroyal being used and believe that it is a woman’s right to have control over her body. These herbs, of course, would have been used in secrecy away from the prying eyes of the male-dominated church.

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  7. Very interesting, Ali. I’m send this to my husband who is an OB/GYN. It’s clear the Church is hypocritical about this – and I have no doubt it’s because it is a patriarchy. Wonder how the world would be if women had led the church….

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi Noelle. That’s something I have pondered, too. 😊 Although it has to be said, judging by some of the women we’ve had in power, they can be much worse than men, maybe because they try to beat men at their own game, rather than being true to their sex, and that is probably down to women being judged against male qualities, which are still preferred in our patriarchal society, even though we have more equality now than ever before. What did your husband think about those herbs being used in such a capacity? I didn’t know that was his career.

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    • I love thst book, Kate! Its a long time since I read it, but it had a huge impact on me when I was younger. Are you enjoying it?

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      • Very much enjoying it (getting towards the end). Have always been much more spiritually minded than religious without really spending too much thought as to why. The book tells a very thought provoking tale which makes a lot of sense to me 😊

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes it does, and I’m like you, spiritual without religion, it definitely is a movement. I think a lot of people are getting fed up with the harm religion does, whilst still wishing to live a good and meaningful life.

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  8. Very interesting account of abortion and birth control practices in ancient Ireland. Be it in historical, contemporary or any context, I am in total agreement with women’s right to fertility control. In point of fact, it ought to be part of her fundamental right circumscribed by the right to life of a fully formed foetus as a matter of ethics and morality. I do not want to comment on diktats of organised religions as they are largely patriarchally tilted power centres trying to exercise control over people administering decrees and doctrines scripted by men. It feels nice to connect with you, Ali, after a long while. Wishing you well…🤗

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Raj, it’s lovely to connect with you too. I’m not so active in the blogging community lately, trying to get some balance, but as you are aware I’m sure, balance is the hardest thing to achieve in any sphere of life! I agree with your comment completely, which you expressed so well, thank you. I hope all is well with you. 😊

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  9. Thank you for posting this, Ali. Very timely. I was looking for the names of plants medieval women would have used to prevent conception or to abort. I think your article points up the non-moral aspect of abortion. What is nowadays held up as a cornerstone of Christian morality, the one ‘sin’ where there can be no compromise, was regarded more of a way of a man controlling whose baby a woman carried. Patrick was just a violent misogynist so we’ll leave his opinions out of it, though I’m sure his ideas were applauded by other violent misogynists (then and now).

    Liked by 4 people

    • I love your comments, Jane, you just don’t hold back! I’m glad my post helped with your research… sounds interesting! We have Himself the Pope in Dublin next week… I will be avoiding the place, it’s bound to be havoc! I think Patrick is staying at home, I doubt they would see eye to eye, and I don’t think he would appreciate being out-staged by anyone, even a pope! 😄

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      • It was helpful. While you’re there, can you answer a question about women joining in games at festivities? I’m sure I read somewhere that both boys and girls would have foot races, and I bet noble women raced their chariot horses, but I can’t find much evidence of it. I’d like it to be true. We’re talking late twelfth century just before the Normans.

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        • Well there is no archaeological evidence of chariots in Ireland, and the road system at that early time does not seem to have been capable of supporting wheeled transport, but there was probably horse racing. Legend says Macha ran against horses, so women running seems a possibility. If women trained as warriors, they must have kept themselves fit by taking part in all the same sports. But I can’t remember ever specifically reading about women and sport… I’m curious now! I’ll see what I can find out. 😊

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          • I thought they decided they probably had wicker chariots which wouldn’t have survived. Yes, I thought of Macha too, and since women trained as warriors they must have done some sports. Whether or not they participated in the festivals is another question.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Well even if the wicker had rotted away, things like the wheels and harnesses and nuts and bolts and trimmings would have survived, but we don’t even have that in Ireland. Lack of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t exist in my view, just that it hasn’t been found yet. But in this case, if it did exist, I suspect we would have found it by now. In England and Europe the evidence is there, there were definitely chariots.

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            • Maybe saved me from writing an anachronism 🙂 What about Cuchulainn and Ferdia though? And wasn’t Macha racing against chariot horses?

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            • I suspect it was a bit of artistic license on the behalf of the scribes. They were well read. They knew from Greek and Roman accounts that Europeans of that era had chariots and probably assumed that all peoples shared the same technology. Also, the Ulster Cycle was written to support Patrick’s claim to the primacy, so adding a detail like the chariots to the old legends could be seen as adding authenticity and excitement to the tales of ancient kings and noble warriors. If I was writing fiction based on the myths I’d keep the chariots (which I have done) but if I was trying to be historically accurate I’d drop them based on the archaeological evidence. Personally, I love the chariots and the idea of Cuchulainn and other warriors balancing on the yoke between the horses shoulders and throwing spears from there! 😍

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            • That’s what I thought I’d do. The story I’ve finished is fantasy, so I’ll keep the chariots. The one I’m writing though is history so I’ll banish the chariots. It’s not as though I was writing a book about Twelfth Century Chariot Maintenance 🙂

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  10. Nicely done. I appreciate the work that went into this post.
    Just one typo I found: “Catallus” = Catullus. Just to avoid confusion.
    I agree that many beliefs and practices we consider original and more informed are actually old hat. “There is no new thing under the sun” (Eccl.). As a 51yo, I sometimes feel frustrated when the young make “new” discoveries in their experiences that we knew about all along. A very common one is their discovery that inner beauty is superior to the outer appearance of beauty. All I have to do is pull out and dust off my copy of Plato’s _Collected Dialogues_ and open it to Republic, Symposium, or pretty much anywhere for the same notion. Nonetheless, the discoveries of the young, however unoriginal and commonplace, remain theirs. I was young once, too, and I remember what it was like to stumble upon “new” things, actually an initiation to this thing we call being human. When I was 20yo especially my senses were opened and deepened to the Shakespearean “Green World” (also after Northrop Frye, Canadian critic), which was the same as the Freudian “unconscious” or “Id.” Other adults twice my age and older could urge me to simply do more reading of literary classics. I met one man in a workplace (my first) who said, “The more you read, the better (at writing) you will be.” I think at this writing that the young and the older both can learn something from each other.
    I think we had this conversation before. Deja vu! Have a great week :heart:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rob! Well I am 51yo too, and am constantly learning things which are new to me, but which I’m sure other people (like you!😊) already know. I think I’m a late developer, but better late than never, I guess. I agree, the older and younger generations can learn a lit from each other, but I think they both regard each other with a degree of suspicion. Thanks for the typo, I’ll get onto it. 😊 Hope all is good with you.

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