Silphium: A plant Contraceptive

I’ve been working on a book about plants used for contraceptives. In the research journey I learned about Silphium, an extinct plant that was a wildly poplar contraceptive.

The story goes like this: during the time Alexandra the Great, he was born 356BC, on his yearly visit to the Delphi Oracle a Greek king was advised to send his people across the Mediterranean sea and set up a settlement on the arid land that rises from the glistening waters of the inland sea. The Oracle told the King that city state established in this place would become the wealthiest and most powerful in all the empire. The King was not keen on the unpredictable journey across the sea and decided to stay home. Then draught destroyed crops. Trees died. People were restless and hungry. Again the King supplicated the Oracle and again she prophesied a rich and powerful city state across the Mediterranean. The King randomly picked citizens to cross the sea and establish a new city state.

After crossing the Mediterranean the Greeks discovered dry, dusty hills where the wind had a hot, dusty breath and their crops shrivelled before they had a chance to set down roots. The previous tribal ruler of area suggested the Greeks move a little bit in land where they would discovered a fertile valley where plenty of rain fell to nourish healthy crops. The Greeks moved in land and found a lush valley. The Oracle was right, they became very wealthy and powerful in this place. Their wealth and power did not come from the crops they grew there, but a plant that they found covering those hill sides, silphion. Silphion, a suspected member of the Apiaceae family, produced an oozing, odourous resin. When a women, took once a month, a chickpea size resins ball of silphion with a cup of hot water and she would not conceive. And if by chance she had conceived, her womb would be purged according to Pliny the Elder.

Silphion is a tall hollow stemmed plant with  thick black roots and leaves like celery. Its flowers were typical of a large apical umbels like angelica or Queen Anne’s lace. Theophrastus, the Greek father of botany, likened silphion to fennel. He described it as a giant fennel plant. Today, on the hill side where silphion was once plentiful two giant fennels grow. One is called giant fennel and the other is Tangier fennel. Like many other plant in the Apiaceae family, such angelica and cow parsnip, silphion had heart shaped seeds. The medicine people of the time, sited silphion’s  heart shaped seeds as a sign of its effectiveness as an contraceptive or in other words, sex without responsibility.

Silphion, to the Greeks was more than a contraceptive. It was a preferred cough remedy and they also used it relive growths on the anus. I have no idea what these growths were, but apparently silphion was a sure cure. Silphion’s ordorous resin was also a choice seasoning called laser in local cuisine.

The Greeks, understanding the value of the plant, tried culverting it in different location of their empire. It turned out to be impossible to grow, unless it planted itself. The only place silphion was willing to grow was in the Cyrene valley the Greeks had colonized. To preserve the plant the Greeks enforced strict laws about how it was harvested. As excitement of silphion’s contraceptive powers spread the demand for the plant increased. The Cyrene Greeks managed the plant well, understanding scarcity drove up prices. They quickly were became very rich and powerful. As a tribute to the plant, they placed its image on their coins. One coin depicted the use of the plant. On the face of the coin sat a women with silphion at her feet and her hand over her uterus.

Then along came the conquering Romans. When they occupied Cyrene valley, they renamed silphion silphium and ignored the foraging laws the Greeks had laid down. The Romans harvested the plant without foresight. Six hundred and eighty kilograms of silphium resin was shipped to Rome where Julius Caesar greedily secreted it away in his cache of most value treasures. After a 100 years of Roman occupation silphium was extinct. Pliny the Elder wrote in that the last stalk found of “One of the Most Precious Gifts of Nature to Man” was plucked and given to the Emperor Nero. Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD.

As there were fewer and fewer silphium plants to be found in the lush Cyrene valley, it appeared in the herb and spice markets with more and more adulterants. Everything from juniper berries, mustard, pepper and rubber was mixed with resin to make the rare medicine go a little bit further. The most commonly used adulterant was asafoetida, a strong smelling herb from Central Asia and India. Today, asofoestida gives Wercestershire sauce it unique odour.

After silphium disappeared forever, Benedictian monks in France in the early part of 800c spent years transcribing the works of Ancient Greek physicians like Dioscoride and Soranus. When they came to silphium, they substituted asofoestida in its place.

Interesting asofoestide in 1963 was found to be a very effective contraceptive in humans.

Today’s research shows silphium’s cousin Fennel has contraceptive properties. It contains a volatile oil called ferujol which is also found in Queen Anne’s Lace. It is suggested that it ferujol impedes implantation of the ovum.

 

 

The Story of The Brave Herbalist and the Den of Snakes

Enjoy this old story of initiation from The Weaving: Plants, Planets and People.


“A long time ago, a young girl went into Starodubsk, an old Oak forest, searching for mushrooms to fill her basket. As she wandered, a strange looking root caught her attention. Curious, she crept closer to the root and as she bent to get a better look, she saw the strange root was a nest of snakes. Horrified, she stepped backwards and fell into a hole. It was the hole where the snakes lived.

It was dark in the hole and hissing sounds filled the dank air. Around her ankles the girl could feel the snakes slither as their forked tongues tasted her skin. The girl froze in terror. Just as she was about to collapse in a faint, from deep inside the darkness of the hole a shimmering glow appeared. As the glow brightened and came nearer, the girl could see it was an undulating light, like the light of afull Moon on a still lake. The glow was the golden-horned Queen of Snakes.

The Queen of the Snakes comforted the girl and led her and the snakes to a luminous stone in the centre of the hole. The snakes licked the stone, and their hunger was satisfied. Seeing this, the girl licked the stone as well and her fear disappeared.
For the long, cold winter, the girl, under the protection of the Queen, lived as the snakes lived deep down in the dark hole with the luminous stone that fed and satisfied them all.

When the days grew longer and the earth began to warm, the snakes prepared to return to the surface of the world. Knowing the girl would need their help to climb from the hole, the snakes interlaced their bodies forming a ladder for her.
As the girl said her goodbyes and turned to climb the ladder, the Queen of the Snakes blessed her with the gift of understanding the language of plants. Knowing the plants’ language empowered the girl with the gift of plant medicine.


“However,” The Queen warned, “Never speak the name Chernobyl or you will lose the gift forever.” Chernobyl by another name is Mugwort. In Ukrainian Chernobyl means ‘the dark one’.

The girl carried her gift from the Queen of the Snakes for a very long time. She cared for the plants. The plants in turn cared for her. She healed many people and her many people and her fame as an herbalist spread far and wide until one day as she walked along a footpath a man asked her, “What is the name of this plant?”

“Oh,” she said, “Chernobyl.” And her gift vanished.

Old Ukrainian women say this is how Mugwort acquired its other name, Zabytko, “Herb of Forgetfulness.”

Excerpt From: Abrah Arneson. “The Weaving—Plants, Planets, and People: An Exploration Through Time.” available on Amazon or ask your favourite bookstore to order it.

 

Bear – A Poem

Bear

One

I feel you move through darkness –

a painful shadow.

The darkness of a forest – bare trees, moonless,

twigs snapping. I know you are there. Groaning,

alone in your heavy, tired body. Hunger

keeps you awake.

 

On my knees,

my finger traces your track, sticky in mud. I know-

where you have been.

 

I long to bury my face in your musky scent, know

the rhythm of your wild heart,

feed your hunger.

 

A twig snaps. Leaves rustle.

I feel you move through the darkness.

 

Two

The question is the gift. The hardpart of the journey is asking the REAL question. The question that leads to the deepest, most intolerable pain of your being. The question that is like a finger wiggling in a wound. Poke, poke, poke.

Someone once told me it this question that brings us to another birth. She said that the spiritual quest is the burning dark question.  It is seeking the question that tears, rips, shatters, explodes. Then mends with the unknown – the unknowable. The gift is the most terrible question you have ever dared asked in the light of day.

 

Three

You dig. Feeding on bitter roots

– the awful taste of medicine.

Dirt covers your tongue. You rip apart

rotting logs. Lapping up stinging ants,

grubs, beetles. All things known

for living on the dead.

Four

It is said that when you dream of corpses and graveyards, (dreams that you leave behind in the dark and prefer not tell or write in your journal) the spiritual light within your soul will soon grow brighter. The more disgusting the corpse, putrid with decomposition, the greater the realization will be.

Five

Perhaps –

it is not me tracking you?

Maybe –

you are waiting. Waiting

for the moment when

I let go. Accept

my fate, lay down

in the cold damp leaves and

let you

find me.

 

Perhaps –

I am pretending.

The longing a dramatic play.

A distraction.

The knowing concealed

by a sleight of hand.

Six

She waited a long time –

to be found. No one came.

She dried up and

blew away like a leaf.

 

It took his keen sense of smell

to know her

as he dug up roots.

First, he uncovered her finger,

then her hand, breast, face.

 

He understood, how the light

blurred her vision. (Her eyes still

tender with darkness.) Because

he had slept long and dreamt deep

through cold winter after cold winter.

He knew only hunger

could wake her.

 

His heat, his hunger quickened her heart,

turning her blue flesh pink again.

Seven

He told me, “To awaken means to eat when you are hungry?”

“Is it ever satisfied?” I asked.

 

He knows her.