WARNING: This article will mention from time to time the common names of plants used as contraceptives and abortificants. These medicines can be very dangerous and are cited for historical information only. Modern chemical and barrier contraceptives are far more effective and much safer. If you need any advice on how to avoid or end pregnancy PLEASE consult a qualified doctor or birth control clinic. If for any reason you wish to find out more about natural birth contro with a view to using itl, please consult a trained herbalist, preferrably one who has a recognised qualification in conventional medicine. Any attempt to treat yourself is likely to have very serious consequences.
No matter what happens between now and November 2008, one of the most contentious issues in the U.S. Presidential election is likely to be pro-choice versus pro-life, legislation on abortion and contraception in other words. This is one of the traditional battlefields of the religious and the humanist world views and as usual when these two sides clash the debate will be between the reason and logic of the pro-choice camp and the pro -life groups' obsession with the myths and superstitious of a few bronze age tribes of tent dwelling, ignorant, illiterate goat farmers. (I never said this article was going to be unbiased.)
Those on the pro - life side of the debate will try to impose on our modern society the mores and values of a primitive bronze age tribe of semi nomadic tent-dwellers and cite the usual bits of misogynistic bigotry from their holy books; how to stone to death your bride if you find on the wedding night she is not a virgin, how God will smite you if you eat shrimps, wear cotton guzzies with a wool sweater or if you plant onions between your bean rows to keep slugs off the bean plants. Oh yes, these religious beliefs are all grounded in irrefuatble logic.
On the other hand the rationalists (pro choice) will argue the medical and historic facts and be accused of not bringing anything new to the debate, just the "same old stuff." This is pretty rich coming from a group whose only debating postition, that God created the world in seven days, 6000ish years ago and since then nothing has changed except the fashions. The God Squad will claim their case is supported by an allegedly sacred text that is now known to be no more than a mish mash of myths, fairy stories and superstitions gathered from a number of early civilisations.
Just to make my position clear as some people always seem to be confused as to which side of the fence I am actually on, I was once taken to task for referring to The Bible as The Big Black Book of Evil Lies. I have since carried out further research and changed my view. There is only one passage in The Bible that is not true. It starts at "In the Beginning" and ends at "Amen."
Really the argument of the "pro-life" rests on the premise that abortion and contraception are modern evils that challenge the will of God. This is simply not true, contraceptive and abortificant herbal preparations are among the oldest medicines known to humanity, several thousand years older than The God Of Abraham who is a comparitive newcomer in the pantheon. Thus we can see it is not birth control that is the modern evil leading us to defy the will of God, but that God is the modern evil that causes some people to defy the will of nature.
When The Mother Knew Best
How far back does birth control go? Certainly as far as the mesolithic (middle stone age) era. Were this evidence only from archaeological work there would be room for doubt, but the presence of the same or similar herbs in finds around the world and its correlation with the folklore of various native tribes in Africa, North and South America, Asia, India, Australasia and all over Europe prove beyond reasonable doubt there was a common pool of knowledge in the area of healing and prevention.
One of the first questions the history of birth control raises is "why?" Surely those primitive cave dwellers needed all new people they could make in order to strengthen the tribe?
In a way they did, but they were smarter than we usually give them credit for. Life was tough for the hunter-gatherers and early farmers, they were surprisingly adept at preserving and storing food but even so in the winter fresh food that was full of nutrients was scarce. A baby born in the first quarter after the winter solstice stood little chance of getting through to the following summer. Furthermore the mother's energy was depleted by trying to feed it so that if she fell pregnant again quickly she was not likely to survive the pregnancy.
The tribal healers were every bit as sharp as modern scientists in their observational ability and they noticed that women who ate certain foods regularly did not fall pregnant as readily as others.
Thus it became know that eating or drinking an infusion made from the leaves of Tansy, plants of the ribes genre, any plant from a very broad family thay provides numerous foods and flavourings, certain seeds, (Lady Anne's Lace for example) and roots including ginger would also reduce the incidence of pregnancy.
The plants had to be gathered at the right time, prepared in a certain way and given in controlled doses if they were to be effective without being dangerous. The collection of such data and further studies in using willowbark, cannabis, feverfew, mint and garlic for pain relief and treatment of various ailments laid the foundation for medical science.
Hot on the heels of that development came another bit of ancient logic that shows up proponents of the patriarchal male God as a bunch of power crazy, cack brained half wits. This can be summed up in two words, Mother Worship.
Stone age humans did not worship the way modern religionists do, they had far more practical issues on their minds. The did however see the womb as the cauldron in which new life was made. While being completely comfortable about their own mortality, as one must be if required to face a sabre toothed Tiger with only a pointed stick as a weapon, they did revere the greater life, the collective life of the tribe. The tribe's future was held in the wombs of the womem, the cauldron of new life. Before going on we should be clear what a cauldron is. It is not one of those big, pot-bellied cooking pots we see in children's stories about witches, that's a Dutchy. It is actually a shallow drinking bowl about the same diameter as a human skull. Someone might be thinking, "but isn't the Holy Grail a symbol for the womb?"
Do you know what a grail really is? It is not a chalice as is depicted in Christian art and stories about King Arthur. It is actually a shallow drinking bowl about the same diameter as a human skull.
So the early humans revered the womb and the woman in whose womb the new life grew. And by a scientific but informal process of observation and elimination they worked out that the strongest children were born to the healthiest women at times of the yearly cycle when nourishing food was most abundant. They also understood, though this may seem rather callous to the sentimental, supernatural worhipping mindset of modern religionists, that it was better to save the mother than the child.
Religious celebration in the Neolithic age was not solemn and hypcritical as it is now. Think of it more as an act of celebration, not to the glorification of some imaginary God but a glorification of life itself.
A woman halfway through her childbearting years may have borne two or three more healthy babies, but a winter baby could easily die along with its mother, the pregnancy having depleted her resources so much she could not sustain the child and herself through the lean (lenten) months. Yes lent, the Christian time of fasting, is another theft from the earliest pagans. The pagans of course did not wrap it up in bullshit about sin and atonement, they fasted because there was bugger all left to eat at that time of year.
Birth control then began as a pragmatic course of action for the good of the community, cave, clan, tribe, call it what you will. It was a way of strengthening the group not depleteing it and also it improved the quality of life for women. The tribal healers and the older women passed the knowledge down to daughters and grandaughters through the generations.
There have been many theories about what led to the rapid advance of civilisation from the middle stone age onwards. Anthropologists have estimated the first pre-humans developed between for and five million years ago. The earliest examples of crude stone tools are approximately half a million years old. The beginnings of civilisation, primitive agricultural commnities can be traced to between twenty five and thirty thousand years ago.
Now, in the three thousand five hundred years since the development of metalworking, we fly around the world, send our voices and images through the air, can cure most illnesses and repair broken bodies. Among the reasons for this rush to enlightenment have been psychedelic drugs, visits from alien beings and suggestions that it is all part of a plan engineered by a supernatural being. To the best of my knowledge nobody has yet dared to suggest it may have anything to do with the strengthening of the species through those neolithic women learning to manage their reproductive process.
Somehow the followers of the patriarchal male Gods that succeeded the divine mother lost sight of these pragmatic wisdoms. They revered the male, totally overlooking the fact that a man could, if he got lucky, father a child a day from puberty until his death provided he stayed healthy.
For women the span of child bearing years was much shorter and one child a year was the practical maximum.
Men were actually much more expendible.
Once worship (in the modern sense) of the male God had displaced mother-goddess worship things went downhill for women. They lost status, were reduced to property, chattels; in some societies their status became lower than that of cattle. Worse, when men found that being a prolific father gave them bragging rights, the priests began to denounce birth control, declaring it sinful and an abomination. Then, from about 2000 BC to halfway through the twentieth century, in societies dominated by the religions of the male God, many women found their health broken by serial pregnancies so that they were old at forty and suffered increasing health problems until their (usually premature) death.
Further reading and websites for ancient history:
Tufts University Classics Dept. online archive of ancient texts.
Home of the Internet Classics Archive, the largest online archive of classical literature
Internet Sacred Texts Archive, sacred texts from all over the ancient world
The Hinduism Website
The Ayurveda, Bhagavad Gita, Ayur Veda, Rig Veda, Maharabharata and more
Oregon Biophysical Research Lab
Sister Zeus website - Silphion page
History Books and Research Papers:
The Myth of Eternal Return: Mircea Eliade (trans Willard Trask) Princeton 1994
Illustrated World Religions: Huston Smith
1) The Way Of Aminal Powers
2) Myths of the Primitive Hunter Gatherers
The intellectual Adventure of Early Man: H & H.A. Frankfort, Chicago 1947
The Epic of Gilgamesh (traditional - search for Gilgamesh)
The Zend Avesta (traditionl - search for Avesta)
The Golden Bough: Sir James Frazer
The White Goddess : Robert Graves
The Mythology and Rites of British Druids: Edward Davies
The Republic: Plato
The Virtues of Women: Plutarch
The Heritage of Persia: R.N. Frye.
other books too numerous to list have been referred to in preparing this article.
Click Here to read Bronze Age Birth Control," A Short History Of Abortion and Contraception - Part 2"
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