Pleasure vs. Procreation: Egyptian Women Take Control of Their Sexuality

Kahun Gynecological Papyrus ca. 1850 B.C.E | Courtesy of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

Winner of the Fall 2017 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Gender Studies”

Best Overall Research

For most of modern memory, the predominant belief was that sex was for procreation, and that pleasure was a sin.1 As a result, members of modern society tend to assume that contraception is a fairly recent practice. Yet, contrary to popular belief, many ancient societies believed in sex for pleasure. For instance, some of the earliest medical writings show contraception played a role in Egyptian society.2 Some question the efficacy of the contraceptive techniques as another method of suggesting that sex for pleasure was not historically possible. But there is little doubt that the reason for the Egyptians’ seeking effective contraception was to permit sex without the concern of procreation, hence sex solely for pleasure. Indeed, sources like the Kahun Papyrus show us that our ancient and pre-modern ancestors knew a good deal about reproduction and effective contraception—proving that Egyptian women had more control over their sexuality in ancient times than many woman have enjoyed since the rise of modern religions.3

The main source of historical evidence that contributes to this debate between contraception and infant mortality, and between magic and medicine, is the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus.4 The Kahun Papyrus was discovered by Petrie Flinders in 1889 in a small village called El-Lahun, one-hundred kilometers south-west of Cairo. It dates to 1850 B.C.E., and is the earliest record of ancient Egyptian medical practices. The papyrus is entirely gynecological in nature and is written in hieratic script, not hieroglyphs. It did not become legible until 1806 after the discovery of the Rosetta stone.5  It is divided into thirty-four sections, each dealing with a specific problem relating to gynecological disease, fertility, contraception, and pregnancy. Three of these fragments are prescriptions that relate specifically to preventing conception, all of which involve vaginal suppositories.6 When Flinders found the papyrus, it was badly damaged with small fragments of text missing.7 These missing fragments keep the debate alive as to how exactly some of these remedies were used.

However, despite the long-held belief among scholars that the relative stability of ancient populations was linked to a high infant mortality rate, there is significant evidence that shows that that was not the case.8 The Kahun Papyrus shows us that Egyptian medical practices were based in fact and knowledge, with only a sprinkling of the supernatural. In his book, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to Renaissance, John Riddle, a leading expert of ancient pharmacology, makes the argument that population stability was not linked to high infant mortality rates. Instead, Riddle asserts that population control was due to the use of herbal contraceptives by women.9 The ancient world held much more knowledge of contraceptives than previously thought.10

Hieroglyph of a swnw, a person skilled in the art of healing|sciencedirect.com

The main treatments detailed in the papyrus were founded in Egyptians’ knowledge and observations of herbs, plants, minerals, and the effects these items in nature had on animals. The Egyptians noticed that when animals ate certain plants they failed to reproduce. They carried this observation over into their reproductive techniques. Ingredients listed in the contraceptive techniques include acacia gum, sour milk, crocodile dung, fiber, and honey.11 These ingredients were mixed into a pessary and inserted into the vagina by a swnw, or person who was skilled in the art of healing. The pessary would work to block the sperm from reaching a woman’s fallopian tubes and finding an egg to fertilize. When the method using sour milk was tested, the results showed that the enhancement of the acidic environment of the vagina with the introduction of sour milk establishes an effective spermicide, thus proving that the Egyptians did use medicinal techniques that were based on fact, not simply on fiction.12

The existence of contraceptive treatments reflected within the Kahun Papyrus combined with their demonstrated effectiveness leads to the extrapolation that population control was both a desired and achievable outcome for ancient Egyptians. If John Riddle’s theory that the Egyptians actively prevented pregnancy is correct—and the evidence suggests that it is—then we can conclude that sex was not only for reproduction, but for enjoyment.13 In her book Sexual Deviance and Society, Meredith G. F Worthen asserts that sexual imagery from more than 5,000 years ago has been credited to ancient Egyptian cultures. Although we may see these depictions as pornography, to ancient Egyptians they were just a part of sexual life.14 This could lead to the belief that ancient Egyptians were not exactly modest when it came to sexuality and sexual pleasure. To freely express their sexuality, effective contraceptives were a necessity.

Man holding the Bible|stress.lovetoknow.com

Overall, the evidence directs us to the fact that Egyptians held knowledge about contraceptives and used them to prevent pregnancy. So why is the modern belief that contraceptives are a new invention, rather than several millennia old? The answer lies in the rise of Christianity. Before Christianity found its foothold as a highly influential religion, early humans often equated sexual and religious experiences. Christian hostility to sexuality built steadily in the early centuries of the religion. This hostility produced a new attitude of denunciation of women’s sexuality. Early Christians promoted the narrative that Jesus was not born from normal sexual activity, but from a virgin through immaculate conception. Once the religion gained traction, sexual misbehavior was not only seen as a danger to proper human values, but as an offense to God himself. The prevailing belief was that sex was only allowed in marriage and for reproduction. Christian missionaries eventually held enough influence over governments that they pushed them to add new secular penalties to violations of sexual regulations. Secular laws began to target the use of contraception or any other act preventing birth, in some cases the penalty for these acts was death. Over time, Christianity succeeded in chiseling away at “open” sexuality.15 Though modern society has begun to shed this belief, we still see vestiges of it linger in the way sexuality among woman is described. Women who enjoy sex face negative rebukes across the world. These hostile ideologies explain some scholars’ reluctance to accept the fact that ancient Egyptian women enjoyed sex and actively and effectively engaged in it without the outcome of pregnancy.

“Man has always had a desire to heal and control fertility.”16 This truth does not apply only in modern times as many think; the Kahun Papyrus shows that this desire goes all the way back to at least 1825 B.C.E. Yes, the Egyptians’ medical practices were influenced by religion, but we cannot discount their effective techniques simply because they imbibed those practices with the supernatural. Joshua Mark says that “most people would balk at the idea of visiting a doctor and having incantations muttered over them.”17 Yet, we have long had, and still have, very similar rituals in modern Christian society. Doctors will sometimes use their medical knowledge to treat patients, while also praying for or with them. The Kahun Papyrus can be evaluated the same way. We, as a society are reluctant to accept the fact that women are sexual beings, but the historical evidence proves that women have sought control over their sexual experiences since ancient times. That desire is not new to modern society. Steeped in religion though it may be, the papyrus proves our ancient ancestors developed effective techniques for contraception so they would be free to pursue their sexual desires without the fear of procreation.

  1. Peter N. Stearns, Sexuality in World History (Madison, NY: Routledge, 2009), 47.
  2.  Gary B. Ferngren, “Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West,” The New England Journal of Medicine 341, (1997): 1398.
  3. John Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 67.
  4. Stephen Quirke, Manuscript for the health of mother and child (London: University of London, 2002), 1-3.
  5. Chinmoy K. Bose, “The el-Lahun gynecological papyrus,” Hekton International: A Journal of Medical Humanities 9, no.2 (2016), http://hekint.org/the-el-lahun-gynecological-papyrus/.
  6. John Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 66.
  7. Chinmoy K. Bose, “The el-Lahun gynecological papyrus,” Hekton International: A Journal of Medical Humanities 9, no.2 (2016), http://hekint.org/the-el-lahun-gynecological-papyrus/.
  8. Gary B. Ferngren, “Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West,” The New England Journal of Medicine 341, (1997): 1398.
  9. Gary B. Ferngren, “Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West,” The New England Journal of Medicine 341, (1997): 1398.
  10. Ronit Haimov-Kochman, Arye Hurwitz, Yael Sciaky-Tamir, “Reproduction concepts and practices in ancient Egypt mirrored by modern medicine,” European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 123, no. 1 (2005): 3-8.
  11. Lesley Smith, “The Kahun Gaynaecological Papyrus: ancient Egyptian medicine,” Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care 37, no.1 (2010): 54–55.
  12. Ronit Haimov-Kochman, Arye Hurwitz, Yael Sciaky-Tamir, “Reproduction concepts and practices in ancient Egypt mirrored by modern medicine,” European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 123, no. 1 (2005): 4-5.
  13. John Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 70.
  14. Meredith G. F. Worthen, Sexual Deviance and Society: A sociological examination (New York: Routledge, 2016), 140.
  15. Peter N. Stearns, Sexuality In World History (Madison, NY: Routledge, 2009), 43-48.
  16. Lesley Smith, “The Kahun Gaynaecological Papyrus: ancient Egyptian medicine,” Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care 37, no.1 (2010): 54–55.
  17. Ancient History Encyclopedia, February 2017, s.v “Ancient Egyptian Medical Texts,” Joshua J. Mark.

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118 Responses

  1. This article is fascinating because it breaks with that idea that contraceptives are from the modern era, this article shows that an old civilization like the one in ancient egypt had already established that research and where using it for their own sake, The argument the author makes in the article regarding how christianity portras pleasure as a sin, is still something you see everyday in modern era therefore the point she makes as to ancient egyptians having more control over their sexual desires as people do know seems to be a good debatable argument while adding to the article a good research on this ancient egypt practices.

  2. Mariah,

    I want to say the research you did for this article was very good. You showed that not only did women have brains, but they also knew what they wanted. Its sad to see that even in ancient times that men thought they controlled women and women outsmarted them. It is truly amazing how women find away to use contraception to their advantage to use men for their pleasure instead of the other way around. I find it so interesting that, until Christianity came along that women using anything to protect them from getting pregnant were looked at as sinners. I mean in today’s times that’s basically the opposite what you hear from the right wing Christians about the vaccine when they say its their body their choice, but yet they dont want to support women’s right to choose.

    Again well done!

  3. I really enjoyed this article and the information it had! I had never considered that there was any attempts at contraceptives in the early history, mostly because I didn’t believe they understood the reproductive systems. Yet it makes sense because it had to start somewhere. Although I find the methods a little strange and how they even thought to try those methods!

  4. I have always thought that the concept of contraception came about much more recently, but to read that it has been going on for centuries was so interesting! This article did a great job of including the process of the contraception that women in Ancient Egypt used, as well as including the evolution of stigma and views on women’s sexuality throughout the years. I’m now curious about whether their form of contraception had other effects on them, and if similar practices are used today.

  5. This is a topic that usually is not discussed when we consider the lifestyles of the ancients. I enjoyed how you used the existence of contraceptives in ancient Egypt and used that as evidence to how the women of Egypt had more sexual freedoms then the women that would be born after the advent of Christianity and Islam. I believe that this was a very interesting connection, and that your article did a great job at explaining your argument.

  6. This was a very eye catching article and I’m so happy to have stumbled across it! I had no idea there were Egyptian practices to prevent pregnancy so effectively. I knew of herbs being used, but the use of various ingredients being mixed and inserted seems a bit odd to me, however it was truly effective for them! Really interesting and well researched article!

  7. This article was fascinating to me; the topic covered always being something that I was personally interested in. I had known that the use of contraception in ancient times was something fairly common, but I had never really looked into what exactly had been used to prevent pregnancy. I also agree that the rise of Christianity is what caused the shift into believing that contraceptives were a modern invention.

  8. This article was really well done and was fascinating to read. The sources used were all well picked and did a good job of supporting the argument made by the author, and the level of research shows that time and effort was put into this article. Ancient Egypt is a topic that seems to always be discussed, but rarely do people cover more personal aspects such as this, and the author of this article did a good job bringing attention to the use of contraception in the ancient world.

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