Ancient Methods of Contraception – Even Tutankhamun Wore Protection

Ancient Methods of Contraception – Even Tutankhamun Wore Protection

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In today’s society, there are various forms of contraceptives available on the market. Others, such as condoms, have a much longer history behind them. The ancients too had access to contraceptives, though some of these may seem rather bizarre to a modern observer.

Condom with Latin manual from 1813 Lund University Historical Museum . ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )


One of the oldest methods of contraception (if one were to exclude behavioural methods, e.g. abstinence, coitus interruptus, non-penetrative sex, etc.) is the use of condoms. According to some, the earliest depiction of a condom can be found on a 13000 year old cave painting in the Grotte des Combarrelles, France. It may be said, however, that this interpretation is wholly dependent on the interpretation of the person viewing the cave painting. The earliest surviving condoms come from a much later age. Some ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Tutankhamun, for instance, had condoms (which were made of cloth) as part of their grave goods.

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Tutankhamun’s condom, identified via DNA residue. ( Image: )


It is believed that the condoms of the ancient Egyptians did not serve a contraceptive purpose, but were used with the goal of preventing tropical diseases. Nevertheless, contraceptives did exist in ancient Egypt. The Kahun Medical Papyrus (known also as the Gynaecological Papyrus), which has been dated to around 1825 BC, recommends the use of a mixture of crocodile dung and some other (now unknown) ingredients as a contraceptive. This mixture would then be formed into a pessary, and inserted into the woman’s vagina. It has been claimed that in India and the Middle East, this was replaced with elephant excrement. According to one hypothesis, the dung of crocodiles is alkaline in nature, thus acting as a spermicide. A counter-hypothesis, however, claims that the increase in the pH value within the vagina is beneficial for sperm, thus making pregnancy more likely.

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Ancient silver coin from Cyrene depicting a stalk of Silphium ( Public Domain )

Ancient pessaries may also be made using ingredients that are less revolting. One, for instance, involved a piece of cotton or plant fibre soaked in a paste of unripe acacia fruit, honey and ground dates, and inserted into the vagina. Alternatively, wool soaked in silphium juice may also be used as a pessary. This was a plant widely used in the ancient Mediterranean, and was found on the shores of Cyrenaica (which is modern day Libya). It has been speculated that as a result of over-harvesting, this plant went extinct.

A Toxic Method

Whilst such ancient pessaries probably did not have negative side effects on the health of their users, the same cannot be said of other contraceptive methods. For instance, in ancient China, for example, liquid mercury was drunk by women in order to prevent pregnancy. As this metal causes miscarriage, it would have been effective as a contraceptive. On the other hand, mercury is extremely toxic, and its ingestion may seriously harm the internal organs, causing kidney and lung failure, damaging the brain, and ultimately causing death.

Mercury in liquid form, which was used in ancient China as a method of contraception. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Bizarre Beliefs

Other methods of contraception were downright bizarre. In Europe during the Middle Ages, for example, it was believed that pregnancy could be ‘warded off’ with the use of magical amulets. These were in the form of weasels’ testicles, which were worn on a woman’s thigh, or the foot of a weasel, which was hung around the woman’s neck. In North America, on the other hand, the testicles of beavers were dried, and soaked in a strong alcohol. The resulting beverage was drunk in order to prevent pregnancies.

Finally, some methods of contraception involved physically expelling the man’s semen after sexual relations. An ancient Greek physician by the name of Soranus, for example, advised women to sneeze hard in order to expel the semen from their bodies. Another method prescribed by Soranus was for the woman to jump backwards seven times. As one might guess, these methods were probably not entirely successful. Still, he was a highly respected doctor during his time.

    History of condoms

    The history of condoms goes back at least several centuries, and perhaps beyond. For most of their history, condoms have been used both as a method of birth control, and as a protective measure against sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms have been made from a variety of materials prior to the 19th century, chemically treated linen and animal tissue (intestine or bladder) are the best documented varieties. Rubber condoms gained popularity in the mid-19th century, and in the early 20th century major advances were made in manufacturing techniques. Prior to the introduction of the combined oral contraceptive pill, condoms were the most popular birth control method in the Western world. In the second half of the 20th century, the low cost of condoms contributed to their importance in family planning programs throughout the developing world. Condoms have also become increasingly important in efforts to fight the AIDS pandemic. The oldest condoms ever excavated were found in a cesspit located in the grounds of Dudley Castle and were made from animal membrane. The condoms dated back to as early as 1642. [1]

    10 Very, Very Weird Methods of Contraception

    Today, scientific advancement has made birth control methods more effective and safe than ever. In ancient Greece, couples sought to limit family size through bizarre beliefs and pseudoscience. One popular method was having the female partner sneeze and drink something cold after having sex, I am not sure how this was supposed to work but rest assured this is not an effective method of contraception. Another method involved a woman attempting to block her cervix with a block of wood, this one doesn’t sound very pleasurable. One surprisingly effective method the Greeks used was consuming large amounts of dates and pomegranates before and after sex. Modern studies have actually shown that dates and pomegranates do in fact decrease fertility, but I recommend consulting your physician on some more modern and less nonsensical forms of protection.

    In case you would prefer to use an ancient Greek method of contraception, here are some recommended instructions from the physician Soranus: “hold her breath, draw her body back a little so the semen cannot penetrate into the uteri, then immediately get up and sit down with bent knees, and this position provoke sneezes”.

    Ancient Methods of Contraception – Even Tutankhamun Wore Protection - History

    Bronze pessary. A pessary in this context is a way of blocking the cervix. The gap allows a rod to be placed into the cervix to hold the pessary in place. While it could remain in place during intercourse, such intercourse could be painful.

    Image: Science Museum, London / Creative Commons via Wellcome Images>

    Editor's note: Mashable does not recommend using outdated forms of birth control, like some of the methods featured in this article. Consult your doctor about effective birth control regimens.

    Contraception, birth control, family planning — it's nothing new.

    Ancient Egyptians used a mixture acacia leaves, honey and lint as a block inside the vagina to keep out unwanted sperm. In Ancient Greece, so popular was the plant silphium (a.k.a. Laserwort) as a contraceptive that it became extinct in Greece.

    Some of the devices shown here are pessaries, which are tools for blocking the cervix. This type of tool is also an ancient method - some cultures have also used oiled paper shaped into a cone, or even half of a lemon.

    Although it wasn’t until the 1900s that the condom was widely used, Italian adventurer Casanova writes of using a lambskin condom in the 1700s. In the Victorian period, promoting birth control or distributing literature was illegal.

    But in the 1920s, British activist Marie Stopes broke through this societal barrier, presenting birth control as a medical rather than moral function. Stopes opened a pioneering birth control clinic, which gave advice to mothers and, specifically, showed how to use a cervical cap.

    In 1937, an American survey showed overwhelming support — more than 71% — for contraception. Yet it remained illegal to advertise the growing number of clinics for birth control.

    By the late 1950s, chemical researchers had developed a potential contraceptive pill, and in 1960 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its use. Still, it wasn’t until 1965 that contraceptive pills could be used by married women in every American state, and not by unmarried women in all states until 1972.

    Featured on the 1967 cover of TIME, the pill was a revolutionary moment in medicine and the growing women's liberation movement.

    An engraving of Jean-Jacques Casanova (1725 - 1798) (left), an italian seducer and adventurer, here blowing up a condom.

    Image: Rue des Archives/Collection PVDE/Getty

    This type of gold wishbone stem pessary is an intra-cervical device (IUC). These tools came into use as a contraceptive towards the end of the 1800s. The flat end of the stem pessary sat against the vaginal wall with a stem protruding into the uterus through the cervix. An IUC works after conception. It stops a newly fertilised embryo implanting and growing in the lining of the uterus. IUCs were mostly surpassed by the intrauterine device (IUD). An IUD sits entirely within the uterus, reducing the risk of bacterial transfer between the cervix and uterus. This can lead to infection and sterility.

    Image: Science Museum, London / Creative Commons via Wellcome Images>

    Contraceptive sponge. Sponges were widely used as contraception in the early 1900s. This contraceptive sponge is made of rubber, and such sponges - essentially a cervical blockage - were one of a range of contraceptives promoted by the Society for Constructive Birth Control, the organisation was founded by Dr. Marie Stopes (1880-1958). This sponge is in its original aluminium box and was manufactured in Britain by Elarco.

    Image: Science Museum / Creative Commons via Wellcome Images>

    This condom is made of animal gut membrane, known as caecal. Caecal condoms were effective against pregnancy because animal membrane is porous to viruses. They do not reliably protect against sexually transmitted infections such as AIDS. This example was made by chemists John Bell and Croyden Limited.

    Image: Science Museum, London/Creative Commons via Wellcome Images>

    The "Prorace" brand of contraceptives was developed by Dr. Marie Stopes (1880-1958). They were distributed by the Mother's Clinic, which opened in London in 1921. These contraceptive pessaries contain spermicides to kill sperm. They were used alone or with other contraceptives, such as the cap or diaphragm. The pessaries were manufactured by John Bell and Croyden Limited of London. The trademarked "Prorace" related to Stopes' belief in eugenics. This widely held theory in the early 1900s argued selective breeding could remove "undesirables" from society.

    Image: Science Museum, London / Creative Commons via Wellcome Images>

    Image: Creative Commons via Wellcome Images>

    Rubber vault cap. Contraceptive caps are also called cervical, vault or diaphragm caps. They are barrier contraceptives. Contraceptive caps sit over the cervix. They act as a barrier to sperm entering the uterus. This "Racial" brand of cervical cap was modified by Dr. Marie Stopes (1880-1958). The trademark "Racial" related to Stopes' belief in eugenics.

    Image: Creative Commons via Wellcome Images>

    Stem pessaries were intrauterine devices (IUDs). They consisted of a rubber, metal or glass stem attached to a cup or button to hold the stem upright and prevent it becoming lost in the uterus. This example is made of glass. Smaller plastic or copper IUDs are still used today.

    Image: Science Museum, London/Creative Commons via Wellcome Images>

    This aluminium stem pessary was made by German company Rauch. The stem held the tool in place.

    Image: Creative Commons via Wellcome Images>

    Stem pessaries are intrauterine devices (IUDs). They were a common gynecological treatment in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were also used as a contraceptive. This early intrauterine stem pessary consists of catgut loop and bone. The stem held the larger block in place.

    Image: Science Museum, London / Creative Commons via Wellcome Images>

    German gynaecologist Ernst Grafenberg devised this intrauterine device (IUD) and was a popular contraceptive. Early examples were made of silkworm gut and silver wire. An IUD works after conception by stopping a newly fertilised embryo implanting and growing in the lining of the uterus. Inserted into the uterus by a physician, it could be left in place for several years.

    Image: Creative Commons via Wellcome Images>

    Image: Argent Archer/SSPL/Getty Images

    Oral contraceptive pills being manufactured at a factory in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England.

    In Hot Water

    Soranus, a 2nd century Greek gynecologist really missed the mark. He told women to jump backward seven times after sex and drink the water blacksmiths used to cool their metal. Did he not learn anything about metal poisoning from ancient China? Then again, even as recently as World War I, some women volunteered to work with lead in factories in hopes of becoming sterile.


    What help was there for ancient Egyptians when they were still alive? Herodotus, writing during the fifth century BC, stated that the Egyptians had doctors who specialised in particular areas of the body, and indeed Egyptian physicians appear to have been famed in other parts of the ancient world.

    . a certain class of texts - called magical-medical texts - gives us some indication of the doctors' treatments.

    Ancient Egypt is justly famed for its literary output, and a certain class of texts - called magical-medical texts - gives us some indication of the doctors' treatments. As the name implies, the treatments involve elements of religious incantations, and medications concocted from a variety of substances so noxious as to drive away the demons that the Egyptians believed had brought the illness to the sufferer.

    Dung from various animals, fat from cats, fly droppings and even cooked mice are just a small selection of the range of remedies.

    We have no direct information about treatment for diseases such as tuberculosis, polio or arthritis but no doubt, to judge from the variety of recipes in medical texts, any medication would involve fairly revolting ingredients. Dung from various animals, fat from cats, fly droppings and even cooked mice are just a small selection of the range of remedies the Egyptian doctor could recommend as treatment.

    Perhaps the most informative medical text from ancient Egypt is that called the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. Named after its modern owner, the document describes 48 cases of injury to the face, head, neck and upper spine. In each case a prognosis is given and, if this is favourable, suitable treatment is recommended.

    The wise ancient Egyptian physician knew when a patient was beyond help.

    One case, number 11, describes the management of a broken nose, and the treatment, involving rolls of lint within the nostrils and external bandaging, can hardly be bettered even by modern doctors. As might be expected, no treatment is recommended for patients deemed fatally injured. The wise ancient Egyptian physician knew when a patient was beyond help.

    The mysterious case of Tutankhamun’s ‘warrior armor’

    © Amr Dalsh / Reuters

    A few days ago, the realm of archaeology and history was caught up in a hullabaloo over King Tut’s leather-made warrior armor. The story boiled down to a 3,000-year old tunic-like garment that was originally discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s and is currently housed inside in the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Recently, researchers analyzed the remnants of the leather cuirass by using a technique called reflectance transformation imaging (RTI). The merging of the various images revealed some hidden features of the armor, namely how it was actually worn by a person, as opposed to an ornamental piece. In essence, by leaning on the assessment, many recent media reports are painting a picture of a young warrior pharaoh, instead of a sickly teenager with Kohler disease (a rare bone disorder of the foot) – as was theorized by a 2010 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, concerning the actual health status of Tutankhamun.

    But the question still remains – was Tutankhamun a warrior-king? Well, according to Lucy-Anne Skinner, a doctoral student at the University of Northampton and The British Museum, who took part in the assessment, the hypothesis of Tutankhamun being a warrior is just one possibility. By that degree of deduction, another possibility can just as easily be put forth – the armor was worn by a different person. But one factor, according to Skinner, is almost certain – the armor was used for protection during the ancient times, as opposed to it being interred as a ‘showcase’ funerary object.

    The conclusion was reached by examining the RTI image that showed signs of abrasions found on the edges of the armor’s leather scales. Simply put, the researchers have noted that these marks were probably caused during the ancient times, contrary to the possibility of the abrasions being caused by the damage to the armor when it was originally discovered. This is because the marks are specifically found along the edges. As Skinner clarified – “If the abrasion had occurred after excavation, I would expect it to be found all over the scales, not just the edge.”

    Remnants of the warrior armor. Credit: Blink Films

    Furthermore, the researchers also studied the original photograph of the warrior armor after it was found in the 1920s. They deciphered how the leather was a bit stretched and had a torn seam, both of which suggests the wear-and-tear of the panoply before it was even discovered. Interestingly enough, murals on the tomb of Tutankhamun depict the teenage pharaoh wearing his armor and riding into the battle on a chariot, along with scenes of him hunting wild animals.

    But taking the route of history, such portrayals can be deceiving. For example, even ancient Egyptians records are sketchy when it came to the foreign policy of the realm’s most celebrated king – Ramesses II (or Ramses), concerning the Libyan tribes (who were attested as the Libu or R’bw in Egyptian). So while there are generalized accounts of how Ramses ‘conquered and crushed’ many of these nomads, some of them were possibly propaganda measures or records that juxtaposed (or confused) the feats of the renowned pharaoh with that of his predecessor (and his father) Seti I.

    Similarly, the most famous military encounter during Ramses’ lifetime arguably relates to the Battle of Kadesh, fought between the ancient Egyptians and Hittites (of Anatolia). And while two Egyptian sources – the Poem of Pentaur and Bulletin proclaimed a resounding Egyptian victory, modern assessment has suggested how the conflict rather ended in a draw, thus leading to what is considered as the world’s first known official peace treaty. In other words, Ramses, like many of his contemporaries, was prone to exaggerating his military achievements, with the propaganda playing its practical part in bolstering the centralized control of the Egyptian state by the ruling class.

    Furthermore, as we discussed in one of our articles on the subject of the Ancient Egyptian Army, the Pharaoh was perceived as a figurehead with divine connections –

    Much like the modern office of the American president, the Pharaoh of the Ancient Egyptian realm was considered as the head of the state as well as the supreme commander of the armed forces. But unlike his modern-day counterpart, the Pharaoh also boasted absolute control over his kingdom’s resources and the administrative sector. Such an incredible scope of wielding unmitigated power was complemented by the Pharaoh’s association with divine entities, and as such various Ancient Egyptian inscriptions and iconography (especially from 18th and 19th dynasties period) depict Pharaohs in the style of the sun-god. Some of these portrayals even project the Pharaohs as incarnations of the god of war and valor Montu (falcon-god) or as personifications of Egypt itself.

    So it should not come as a surprise when such rulers are depicted in a favorable light inside their monuments and tombs, which could have varied from their real appearances and actual achievements. As for the mystery of the warrior-armor of Tutankhamun, the researchers are looking forth to gain more insights by analyzing the potential crafting process of the tunic-like cuirass. As Skinner said –

    The ancient methods used for making this type of leather are not really well understood. Materials will invariably change chemically and physically after being buried for thousands of years, so there are a lot of complicated scientific processes involved in finding these things out.

    And lastly, in case you are interested, controversially enough, in 2014, King Tut went through what can be termed as virtual autopsy, with a bevy of CT scans, genetic analysis, and over 2,000 digital scans. The resulting reconstruction was not kind to the physical attributes of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh, with emerging details like a prominent overbite, slightly malformed hips, and even a club foot – as showcased below.

    The Asiatic War of Tutankhamun

    Akhenaten died soon after his attack on Kadesh, but the question of what to do about the area of Kadesh did not go away. The Hittite counterattack into the Egyptian territory of Amki breached the Egyptian-Hittite treaty of the time, but was probably no more than a retaliatory raid as far as the sources indicate, Suppiluliuma did not follow with a major Hittite offensive. Major events in Syria-Palestine for most of the reign of Tutankhamun remain unknown, since Tutankhamun’s abandonment of Akhet-aten brought the Amarna archive to an immediate halt wherever Tutankhamun’s diplomatic correspondence was stored-Thebes or more likely Memphis-the record lies as yet undiscovered. No Egyptian or Hittite historical texts unequivocally record any battles in Syria-Palestine prior to the final year of Tutankhamun’s reign, but at about the time of the death of Tutankhamun, another Egyptian campaign was launched against Kadesh details do not survive, but the timing of the Egyptian attack might have been intended to coincide with a Mittani counteroffensive. The renewed attacks of the weakened but still existent state of Mittani precipitated the Second Syrian War, also known as the Six-Year Hurrian War, which culminated in the defeat of Carchemish and the complete destruction of the Mittanian state. Tutankhamun’s strike on Kadesh triggered a Hittite counterattack on Amki, the same reaction Akhenaten’s attack on Kadesh had elicited. Both Akhenaten and Tutankhamun probably sought to force some conclusion to the Kadesh problem, for with the last vestige of the Hurrian state expunged, Hatti might decide to use Kadesh and the corridor east of Amurru.

    The images of Tutankhamun’s Asiatic campaign are fragmentary and provide few details about the location of the battle or the tactics involved. Despite these problems, the lively carvings indicate that a chariot battle and an assault on fortifications were elements of the campaign. In one scene, an Asiatic warrior, with a typical bobbed hairstyle and kilt, is transfixed by the spear of an Egyptian charioteer. The ancient artist heightened the drama of the combat by showing the dead Asiatic draped across the legs of Egyptian chariot horses. Another block from this same tableau depicts an Asiatic tangled in the reins of his own chariot. In addition to the chariot battle, Tutankhamun’s reliefs also depict an attack against fortifications. On one block, an Egyptian soldier armed with a spear, his shield slung across his back, ascends a ladder propped against a crenellated wall. The figure of a bearded Asiatic falling headlong from the fortress suggests the success of the Egyptian assault.

    Two blocks from battle scenes of Tutankhamun’s Asiatic campaign. (top) A charioteer, with the horse’s reins tied behind his back, spears an Asiatic enemy, whose body falls across the legs of the horses. The shield-bearer wears a heart. shaped sporran and stands in front of a full quiver of arrows. After Johnson, Asiatic Battle Scene, 156, no. 10. (bottom) A soldier, armed with a spear and a shield, climbs a ladder resting against the battlements of an Asiatic stronghold, while an enemy defender falls to the ground. After Johnson, Asiatic Barrie Scene, 157. no. 12.

    The Asiatic War scenes of Tutankhamun portray two different types of enemies, suggesting that the Egyptians fought a coalition of forces from throughout Syria-Palestine. The southern, Canaanite type have a short beard, a bobbed hairstyle tied with a fillet, and wear kilts. The northern Syrian or Mitannian type have short hair, a long beard, and wear long cloaks. The Tutankhamun battle scenes also provide a small but significant bit of information about the chariots of the “boy-king’s” enemies. A poorly preserved block from the Tutankhamun Asiatic battle scene appears to depict a three-man crew in an Asiatic chariot. The Asiatics against whom Tutankhamun fights are depicted as standard Canaanite types, not as Hittites, The Syro-Palestinians, as they appear in scenes of foreign tribute in the tomb of the vizier Rekhmire, in the heraldic image of Asiatic combat on the chariot of Thutmose IV, and the Hittites in the later war tableaux of Seti I, routinely appear with chariots virtually identical to those of the ancient Egyptians, and like the Egyptians, the Asiatics appear to have assigned two men to a chariot.

    The image of three Asiatic men in a chariot from the Tutankhamun monument recalls the later three-man chariots of the Hittites in the scenes of the Battle of Kadesh under Ramesses II. At Karnak, when Seti I depicted his encounter with the Hittites, he shows the Hittites fighting and dying with chariots manned by two men, similar to the Egyptian chariots. When Seti’s successor Ramesses II depicts the chariotry swarms of his own Hittite enemies, those Hittite chariots have three-man crews. Were it not for the Tutankhamun block, one might suggest that the Hittites simply adopted a new style of chariot, perhaps as a result of their loss to the forces of Seti I. The Tutankhamun scene reveals that some sort of experimentation with a different type of chariot crew, and almost certainly with a different sort of chariot, was already occurring during the reign of Tutankhamun.

    Why would the Syro-Palestinian enemies of Tutankhamun or the Hittite opponents of Ramesses II add an extra man to the chariot crew? The added weight forced the Hittites to make their vehicles heavier, sacrificing both speed and maneuverability. The Hittite chariotry that attacked Ramesses II also appear to have shifted away from the use of chariots to carry archers instead, the Hittite chariot crews consist of a driver, a shield-bearer, and a warrior armed with a spear or a lance, both weapons with ranges much shorter than that of the composite bow. While the Egyptian chariot was still suited for high-speed engagement as a platform for mounted archers, the makers of the Hittite chariots had sacrificed the potential for abrupt turns at speed, and seem uninterested in the vehicle’s properties of maneuver. The Hittite chariot warriors of the Kadesh battle scenes appear to have become mounted infantry, the chariot transforming into a type of battle taxi the apparent three-man chariot in the Tutankhamun battle scene suggests that experimentation with the chariot as battle taxi could well go back at least as far as the Amarna Period. The impetus for this apparent shift in chariot tactics, from mobile archery platform to battle taxi, remains to be explored.

    The inscriptions accompanying the scenes of the Battle of Kadesh indicate that the Hittites secured soldiers from throughout their empire, including the western marches. From the western edge of the Hittite realm may have come the chief impetus for the three-man chariot. The groups who harassed the western borders of Hatti fought as massed infantry, appear as the Ahhiyawa in the Hittite record, and are one of the groups the Egyptians included among the Sea Peoples. The chariot forces of the day, armed primarily with bows, had difficulty defeating the Ahhiyawa and other Sea People groups who wore armor and wielded close-combat weapons. The placement of Hittite infantry soldiers within the new three-man chariots was probably intended to make the chariotry more effective against the new Sea People foes. Considering the pressures on the Hittites in the west, and taking into account particular facets of the subsequent invasions of Egypt from the west and the north, the three-man chariot from the Tutankhamun battle scene is the swallow that heralds the dawn of the rise of massed infantry.

    Fragments of relief from the mortuary temple of Horemhab contain further images of an Asiatic campaign. Since Horemhab was responsible for the actual military command and Tutankhamun may have even died while the campaign was in progress, Horemhab probably felt no compunction about taking credit for the victory, as he had for the Nubian War he also led for Tutankhamun. Without further evidence, the warfare in Syria-Palestine depicted on the monuments of Horemhab most probably took place entirely during the reign of Tutankhamun.

    Images of the battle on blocks reused from Horemhab’s mortuary temple include the royal chariot (only the names of the horses survive) and Egyptian charioteers shooting arrows and surrounded by slain Asiatic foes. At least two of the Asiatics have only a single hand-the stumps of their right arms indicate that their hands have already been severed to provide an accurate count of the enemy dead. Another block depicting part of the battlements of a city labeled “Fortress which his Majesty captured in the land of Kad[esh]” provides the setting for this Asiatic battle.

    Other reliefs from Tutankhamun’s Theban memorial chapel show the triumphal return of the Egyptian military by sea. The royal flagship, with dozens of rowers and a large two-level cabin decorated with a frieze of uraeus serpents, also carries an important piece of cargo: an Asiatic captive. This Asiatic appears in a cage hanging from the yardarm of the ship, a secure prison that allows Tutankhamun to display his military success. Unfortunately, no text accompanies this scene, and one can only speculate about the identity of the unfortunate captive. Earlier, Amunhotep III had Abdiashirta, the unruly Amorite leader, brought back to Egypt, and Tutankhamun may have copied this feat with the ruler of Kadesh, which would make the man in the cage Aitakama. In this case, while Akhenaten was not militarily successful, Tutankhamun’s attack on Kadesh would have achieved at least one major objective.

    Block (rom the mortuary temple of Horemhab. An Egyptian chariot team rides into battle against Asiatic foes. While the helmeted charioteer shoots his bow, the shield-bearer holds aloft a round-topped shield. The chariot is equipped with a bow case (the limp flap indicates that it is now empty) and has a six·spoked wheel and hand, hold on the body. Fallen Asiatics and charioteers’ helmets litter the scene. The right portion of the block was recarved at a later date. After Johnson, Asiatic Battle Scene, 170, no. 50.

    Tutankhamun also commemorated the results of the Syro-Palestinian war on the eastern bank at the temple of Karnak. In a relief in the court between the Ninth and Tenth pylons, Tutankhamun presents the spoils of victory to the Theban triad. Stacked before the king are elaborate metal vessels and other products from western Asia. Behind Tutankhamun are Asiatic prisoners, all bound by ropes that the king holds in his hand. The dress and coiffure of the captives indicate their diverse origins-some are from inland Syria-Palestine, while at least one is probably an Aegean islander or nautical type of the eastern Mediterranean. In a parallel scene, Tutankhamun presents tribute from Punt, accompanied by the high chiefs of the Puntites. However, the chiefs of Punt are not bound, but stride freely, presenting the produce of their country. The differences between the representations of the Asiatics and the Puntites demonstrate their contrasting relationships with Egypt. While the inhabitants of Syria-Palestine represent chaotic forces that must be subdued, the Puntites, who inhabited a land far southeast of Egypt, peacefully traded with the Nile Valley. Although some of the Asiatics led bound behind the pharaoh lived closer to Egypt than the distant land of Punt, they were ideologically much farther from the ordered world that was Egypt.

    The tomb that Horemhab commissioned while a general provides further depictions of the results of Tutankhamun’s Asiatic War. Rows of bound Asiatic prisoners appear alongside Nubians and Libyans on the east wall of the second courtyard the only accompanying text speaks of General Horemhab’s victories in all foreign lands: “His reputation is in the [land] of the Hittites(?), after he trave led northward.” The questionable mention of the Hittites in this text finds further support in two images from Horemhab’s tomb that represent the first depictions of Hittites from their Anatolian homeland, otherwise known from the battle reliefs of Seti I. The south wall of that same courtyard contains exquisitely carved reliefs of more Asiatic prisoners the manacles-some of them elaborately carved to resemble rampant lions-and ropes binding the men advertise their status as prisoners of war, and the emotion-filled expressions of the men indicate their reactions to their new status. Horemhab, who is called “one in attendance on his lord upon the battlefield on this day of smiting the Asiatics,” leads these prisoners before the enthroned royal couple, Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun.

    In addition to the scenes of Asiatic prisoners, the tomb of Horemhab also contains images of other foreigners from all corners of the world- Libyans, Nubians, and Asiatics. In these scenes, the different ethnicities are juxtaposed, and none of the foreigners is bound. These two types of scenes reflect two separate historical events. The reliefs of the unbound foreigners allude to a durbarlike event, such as that depicted in two of the tombs at Amarna and in the tomb of Huy, and the incorporation of foreign captives into the Egyptian military. The gathering of foreigners appearing in vivid detail in the tomb of Horemhab may even represent the same northern and southern durbars as appear in the tomb of the viceroy Huy. On the other hand, the scenes of bound Asiatics correspond to a specific military event. Unfortunately, the general lack of toponyms in the tomb prevents a precise determination of the origin of the Asiatic prisoners, but one may reasonably suggest that they were captured during Tutankhamun’s attack on Kadesh.

    4 Religion and Sex

    Greek polytheism was primarily built around practitioners paying homage to various gods through sacrifice and other methods of veneration. Aphrodite, the god of procreation and pleasure, was often appealed to for matters in the bedroom. The origin story of Aphrodite itself is strange. In Greek Myth, she rose from foam that was made in the ocean after Uranus’ genitalia fell into it, her name meaning foam-arisen. Aphroditie’s sexuality and beauty is a primary subject in Greek mythology, committing adultery with many men. She is well known for her role in the Judgement of Paris and starting the Trojan war, showing her volatile personality and vanity.

    One particularly strange episode involving Aphrodite in mythology happened when a man named Glaucus insulted her. She responded by feeding his horses magic water, causing them to turn on him during a chariot race. Glaucus was crushed to death, and his horses proceeded to eat him. Nice.

    Check out the reviews on Amazon or GoodReads to see what people are saying about it. It’s available in book, eBook and audiobook formats, and it’s written with the hope of making you laugh while you learn surprising stuff about why your life is the way it is.

    Hello! Right, let’s do the caveats first off. The history of periods is a subject exclusively about women’s experience, and I am a man. If this pisses you off, that’s totally fine. But what I will say is that I’m a historian interested in the lives of all 108 billion people who have ever lived, and half of those people were female. For too long women’s history has been relegated to minor sub-interest, and that’s a poor state of affairs.

    So, why blog about the history of periods, and not something else?

    As the Chief Nerd to CBBC’s multi award-winning comedy show Horrible Histories, I spend quite a lot of my time answering people’s questions about daily life in the past (It became so frequent, I decided to write a book about it.)

    Often these queries slip out from mouths that are already contorted by wrinkle-nosed disgust, and I’ll see my interrogator pre-emptively braced for gruesome tales of toilets, unwashed bodies, and rotten teeth festering in diseased gums. For many of us, the past is synonymous with ghastliness, and that’s part of its disgusting allure. But there is a particular question that only gets asked by women, and it’s usually delivered in a hushed, wincing tone: “how did women use to deal with their periods in the past?”

    The fact that this question comes up so often at my public talks suggests to me that this is a subject deserving of wider attention. So, while I’m certainly no expert, I’ve had a go at briefly summarising some of the more obvious elements in the history of menstruation.


    Firstly, it’s worth noting that a regular cycle might not have always been so common. In the pre-Antibiotic Age, when nourishing food could be scarce and workplace Health & Safety didn’t exist, many women were likely to suffer from vitamin deficiency, disease, or bodily exhaustion. As is still the case, such stressors could interrupt the body’s hormonal balance and delay or accelerate the arrival of menses. Aware of this, medical writers dedicated much effort to discussing menstrual abnormalities, and in 1671 a midwife called Jane Sharp noted that periods: “sometimes flow too soon, sometimes too late, they are too many or too few, or are quite stopt that they flow not at all. Sometimes they flow by drops, and again sometimes they overflow sometimes they cause pain, sometimes they are of an evil colour and not according to nature sometimes they are voided not by the womb but some other way sometimes strange things are sent forth from the womb.”

    But despite the dangers of disease and diet, women have always had periods: so how did they cope? Let’s go back to the time of the Greeks and Romans.


    The point often made in online blogs is that, even in the ancient world, women were using what may seem similar to modern hygiene products. The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos, who is known as the Father of Medicine, is widely referenced on the internet as mentioning that small wooden sticks, wrapped with soft lint, might be inserted into the vagina as a primitive tampon. This is a claim that doesn’t stack up, as shown here by Dr Helen King. It’s also been suggested that Egyptian women used a tampon of papyrus fibres, while Roman women perhaps preferred a similar device woven from softer cotton. Frustratingly, these are theories founded in modern supposition rather than good evidence. Not to say it didn’t happen, but we can’t prove it. Thankfully, there’s better proof for the widespread use of absorbent cotton pads that lined a Roman woman’s linen knickers (subligaculum). For more on that, check out this other post by Dr Helen King.

    Such “menstruous rags”, as they are called in the Bible (in 1600s England they were called “clouts”) continued in use for millennia, despite the fact that most Western women wandered about knickerless between the medieval era and the early 1800s, with the only exceptions having been the fashionable ladies of 16 th century Italy. If women really did spend a thousand years going commando, then an alternative method was to suspend such pads between their legs using a belted girdle around the waist. We know, for example, that Queen Elizabeth I of England owned three black silk girdles to keep her linen sanitary towels, or “vallopes of Holland cloth”, held in the right place.


    Queen Lizzie also famously took a bath once a month “whether she needed it or not”, and this was likely at the end of her flow. Such intimate hygiene may now strike us as purely practical, but there was an ancient spiritual significance to such things. In Judaism’s Halakha laws, as soon as a woman begins bleeding she enters into the profane state of Niddah and is not allowed to touch her husband until she has slept on white sheets for a week, to prove the bloodshed is over. Only when the fibres are verifiably unstained can she then wash herself in the sacred Mikvah bath and return to the marital bed. Similarly, Islamic tradition also dictates that a woman must have conducted her post-menstrual ritual ablutions before she can make love to her husband. What’s more, during her period a Muslim woman is not allowed inside a Mosque, and cannot pray or fast during Ramadan.

    Such menstrual ‘impurity’ is also visible in ancient medical beliefs, though in Ancient Egypt period blood could be used positively as a medical ingredient. For example, a cure for sagging breasts was to smear it over the drooping mammaries and thighs, perhaps because the womb was the incubator of new life and so its blood possessed rejuvenating powers? However, the Greek physician Hippocrates – though, himself, a man with many curious medical remedies – instead believed menstruation to be potentially dangerous to a woman’s health.


    During the glorious height of Greek civilisation, about 2,500 years ago, it was widely-believed that periods began when a girl reached 14, but if the process was delayed then the excess blood slowly gathered around her heart, producing symptoms of fever, erratic behaviour, violent swearing, and even suicidal depression (later in the 19th century this became known as hysteria, after the Greek name for womb, hystera). If the girl’s period refused to flow in good time, then Hippocrates had no qualms in bleeding her from the veins, as he had no understanding of the womb’s lining being shed. To him, all blood was the same. Bizarrely, this intervention was thought essential otherwise medical theory suggested her womb would wander aimlessly around her body!

    Other ancient scholars repeated even stranger beliefs. Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist who died rushed headlong towards Mt. Vesuvius’ famous eruption of 79AD, warned that contact with menstrual blood: “turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens dry up, the fruit falls off tress, steel edges blunt and the gleam of ivory is dulled, bees die in their hives, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.” Such superstitious attitudes clung on through the ages, and reinforced the medieval Church’s suspicion towards women.

    Though it was Adam who tasted the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Catholic doctrine argued Eve was to blame for humanity’s eviction from blissful Eden. In divine retribution, it was said by Hildegard of Bingen that Eve’s female descendants would endure painful childbirth, and therefore the monthly cramps of menstruation. Given Pliny’s dire warnings of bloody peril, coupled with the Church’s institutional misogyny, it’s unsurprising that medieval European women were therefore believed to temporarily possess supernatural powers of evil during their monthly visits from Mother Nature.

    These outlandish scare-stories could be truly bizarre. Not only would beehives allegedly empty, swords rust, and fresh fruit rot in their presence, but nearby men could be cursed with just a glance, and a drop of blood on the penis could allegedly burn the sensitive flesh like it were caustic acid. If a bloke were brave enough, or horny enough, to penetrate a woman during her period then it was claimed the resulting baby would be weak, deformed, and ginger (sorry, redheads…) What’s more, the risk didn’t dampen with age – pre-menopausal women were believed to have stored up a lifetime of excess blood (in line with Hippocrates’ theories) and this meant the poisonous vapours might escape through their eyes and nose, and contaminate – or even kill – babies and animals in their vicinity.


    With a certain amount of shame attached to menstruation as a process, and genuine horror affixed to the blood itself, it’s no surprise that women took pains to mask their cycles from public view. In medieval Europe they carried nosegays of sweet-smelling herbs around their necks and waists, hoping it would neutralise the odour of blood, and they might try to stem a heavy flow with such medicines as powdered toad. However, pain relief was not readily permitted by the Church: God apparently wanted each cramp to be a reminder of Eve’s Original Sin. The fact that nuns – who were often fasting, or on drastically reduced diets – suffered such iron deficiency as to completely suppress their cycle merely highlighted to medieval thinkers how concerted holiness could, at least to their understanding, reverse Eve’s error and bring a woman’s body back into divine grace.


    If an ordinary woman stopped having periods then this was considered bad news: firstly, procreation was an important religious and social duty. Secondly, as dictated by Hippocrates, an infertile wife was also more likely suffer a build-up of maddening blood that might tip her toward fevers, fits and – shock, horror! – manly behaviour. Thankfully, the best advice was simply to have regular sex and eat healthily. If that didn’t work, gentler remedies included potions of herbs and wine, or vaginal pessaries made up of mashed fruits and vegetables. The barber’s knife was wisely the last resort.


    Assuming that women were healthy, it’s possibly quite shocking that not all our female ancestors seemed to have used pads, tampons, cups or other devices to catch the blood. Indeed, many simply bled into their clothes, while others are said to have dripped droplets of blood as they walked, leaving a trail behind them. But, given what we known about Edwardian attitudes to hygiene and decency, it’s perhaps not surprising that it was during this period that more modern solutions began to appear.

    For starters, an elegant Edwardian lady hoping to avoid unsightly staining might well have worn a Menstrual Apron under her skirts – this was a washable linen nappy for the genitals, held in place by a girdle and joined at the rear by a protective rubber skirt. To ensure warmth and decency (if a sudden gust of wind lifted up her skirts) ankle-length knickers were also worn beneath the apparatus, but they would be special open-crotch pantalettes so no blood would stain them. But gradually these cumbersome contraptions were phased out as a new twist on an ancient technology began to emerge.


    The modern sanitary hygiene business properly began when a company called Cellucotton discovered its wood fibre field bandages were being used for non-military purposes during WW1. Field nurses looking after injured soldiers had been stuffing the bandages down their pants during their periods, and found them to be surprisingly effective. Cellucotton got wind of this and decided to market the pads as Kotex, using advertising campaigns that highlighted the comfort and relief given by their reliable product. When Kotex pads flew off the shelves, Cellucotton figured it was onto a winner and changed its name to mirror their miracle product.

    Though we suspect the Ancient Egyptian and Romans were the first to use tampons, it wasn’t until 1929 that an American osteopath called Dr Earle Haas re-invented this product. His ‘applicated tampon’ allowed the user to slide the absorbent diaphragm into her vagina without having to touch her genitals, so it was more hygienic. It was clearly a good idea but, after struggling to market them himself, in 1933 Haas sold the patent to an industrious German immigrant called Gertrude Tendrich who started making the tampons by hand with little more than a sewing machine and an air compressor.

    From those humble beginnings, hunched over a sewing machine while individually crafting each tampon by hand, Tendrich’s company flourished. Today, it accounts for half of all tampon sales worldwide, and was bought by Proctor and Gamble in 1997 for $2 billion. Tampax is now a global brand.

    Check out the online Museum of Menstruation for more images and info. If you want much more detail on menstruation in 16th and 17th centuries, here’s a very readable academic article by Sara Read

    Watch the video: Ancient Methods - New Brvtalism No. 075 10 November 2016