Abortion and Birth Control in Ancient Ireland
Updated: Jan 26
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.
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.
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.
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!), but 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.
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 practice. 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.
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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