the humble little condom


Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2007 Aine Collier
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-556-6

Chapter One

papyrus, serpents, and loincloths


Long before boy-pharaoh King Tut came to the throne, a prehistoric artist chronicled a man and a woman having sex-with his penis covered. The twelve-thousand-year-old cave art found in France's Grotte des Combarelles has no caption explaining just what the couple had inmind, but since their discovery in the late nineteenth century, archaeologists and historians have debated as to whether the "fecund" caveman and cavewoman were actually practicing safe sex.

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Sexuality in ancient Egypt was open, untainted by guilt. Even the Egyptian gods were positively promiscuous, earthy enough to copulate with abandon, their lives filled with tales of adultery, incest, homosexuality, masturbation, and necrophilia. The Egyptians were sex obsessed and that obsession was often displayed in phallic worship: one of their creation stories has Chaos, their god of creation, masturbating, the act that produced all of the other gods in the Egyptian pantheon. Then there is the strange little god Bes, usually depicted as a dwarf who alternatively looked after childbirth and procreation-along with his other duties-and had a phallus that reached all the way to the ground. Bes's importance grew to such an extreme that rooms where the inhabitants were most likely to have sex were dubbed "Bes chambers."

With all this love, and given the fact that Egyptians preferred small families, these technologically advanced people developed a number of methods to prevent too many or inconvenient pregnancies. Hieroglyphs from the second century CE recommended both male and female castration to prevent conception. Surgeries like the ovariotomy, the removal of the ovaries, were mentioned in medical papyri as a radical attempt to control fertility, but most methods were far less intrusive and were used only by women. Probably the most common was the tampon, a wadded-up linen strip, treated with spermicidal acidic oils or herbs. There were also herbal concoctions recommended in case the other precautions failed: recipes for drinks that would cause a woman to abort, a common practice that sparked no moral debates, were shared from generation to generation.

Various medical papyri also describe devices and recipes for making pessaries, which are a sort of female condom that prevents semen from going all the way in, but does not actually trap it. Closer still to the male version, there was the halved, hollowed-out pomegranate shell, which served as a barrier. But what did the men use?


Their exact origins are unknown, but early penis sheaths undoubtedly developed out of the clothing styles favored by Egyptian men. Pharaohs and gentlemen of the upper ranks in Egyptian society wore short skirts, which were designed to project far out in front, emphasizing the wearer's anatomy with a triangular pleat, but it was the laboring classes who unintentionally designed the modern condom.

Worn for protection against sunburn, sand, and bug bites, working men's loincloths and girdles were little more than penis sacks, held on by a strip of cloth or a leather thong and tied around the waist. These were especially comfortable because they gave the workers freedom of movement as they fished, worked on their boats, and did laundry along the shore of the Nile. But by the Twelfth Dynasty (1350-1200 BCE) of the Middle Kingdom, there were written descriptions of men who were not common laborers wearing what were many years later dubbed glans condoms, small sheaths that covered only the top of the penis. These were made from oiled animal intestines or bladders, materials that remain popular even today. The fact that they were so small and made of such fine fabric meant they would not have been intended as a garment, or to be worn for an extended period. The tiny bit of fabric would not have stood up to long-term wear and tear, sweat and sun, so even though the chronicler who described them did not come out and say just what the point of the diminutive garment was, the glans sheath would surely have been worn while having sex.

Even better examples are actual artifacts found in the tombs of aristocrats. These have yielded stashes of form-fitting penis sheaths made from soft animal skins and decorated with fur, some dyed in bright colors. Judging by what they packed, the men must have been deeply concerned about their sex lives in the Netherworld; along with their fancy condoms, they were also careful to include a supply of strap-on penises made from fine tortoise shell and mother of pearl. Some of these tools were carefully stored away for the journey, while others were already attached to the mummies.


Ancient rumor has it that some pharaohs put on papyrus condoms before having sex with women they did not want to impregnate. Placing a paper condom (although these were made from only the most refined papyrus) over the royal member certainly illustrates the willingness of a powerful man to diminish his pleasure because of concern about sowing the royal seed in the wrong field. That has been a concern for many powerful men in history.

Perhaps it is odd that though they "designed" the first sheaths, there is no definitive evidence that the average Egyptian man thought of it as an actual birth control device.

Most likely only when a man of consequence was doubtful about his partner's "cleanliness" or was worried about leaving behind evidence of an adulterous relationship was he likely to seek protection. This remained a primary reason for men bothering with condom like coverings for thousands of years. And of course, the blunting of sensation may also have been the culprit. Or perhaps because it was men who were the scribes of history, the papyri and other written discussions of contraception rarely did more than hint at men "taking responsibility."


As with other societies, early and modern, the ancient Greeks are a mixed bag when it comes to sex and sexuality. On the one hand, Greek art catalogs homosexual acts, naked men playing sports with other naked men, and all forms of prostitution. Rape was common, considered the right of men in a show of domination over women: the great god Zeus was the master rapist, disguising himself so that he could ravish both men and women.

Greek women had no choice about marriage partners and were considered property under law: they had little or no say over their own fates. Greek philosophers wrote of the ineptitude of women, and men generally thought all women suffered from penis envy.

Yet there is another, softer side to Greek society, some elements that lend amore sensual sense to what it was to be Greek. The Agora was a place in which people from all backgrounds came together and demonstrated the social and sociable side of daily life. And the Greek world was full of romantic gods and goddesses, bigger-than-life architectural wonders, and a passion for the word: drama, poetry, and comedy are reflective of the Greek spirit, of the people themselves.

In this potent, male-dominated, ugly-beautiful, sexually charged yet sexually ambivalent world, what was the common knowledge regarding contraception? And was the humble condom important?

A sign that the female does not emit the kind of seed that the male emits, and that generation is not due to the mixing of both as some hold, is that often the female conceives without experiencing the pleasure that occurs in intercourse. Aristotle, fourth century BCE In his book Republic II (372 BCE), Socrates described a pastoral paradise where there were only small families "lest they fall into poverty and war." He was concerned that too many mouths to feed could lead to hunger and despair. Hesiod also preached the small-family ethic, but his concern was about keeping the wealth in the family: "Hope for an only son to nourish his father's house, for this is how wealth waxes in the hall."

Among the wealthy and middle classes, the Greek ideal was a boy to carry on the line and a girl to be married off to help create useful family alliances. Greek tradition required that sons inherit, and the always practical Greeks understood the potential damage to the wealth and power of the family if there were too many boys to provide for. But how did they engineer this "perfect" family?

Considering how long it took the modern Western world to scientifically prove just what causes pregnancy, it appears the ancients had some pretty good ideas as to what caused it and how to prevent it ... and some interesting debates while figuring it all out.

Great thinkers like Plato and Aristotle argued that because of women's inferior status, it had to bemen's semen that produced an embryo: "Woman in her conception and generation is but the imitation of the earth and not the earth of the woman." A woman's contribution to the process was her body as the receptacle for the man's seed.

But those who debated this singular theory were challenged by others who were not quite as antiwoman and definitely more logical. They put forth the argument that both men and women had to produce seed because children could look like either parent. Hippocrates was one of a number of medical philosophers who believed both parties produced semen and that conception was a very complex process involving both parents.

Whether they subscribed to Hippocrates' or Aristotle's theories, when physicians and philosophers wrote about birth control they made it clear that that was the woman's responsibility. There were many medical treatises noting recipes for contraceptive herbal concoctions, some to be taken internally, others made into pessaries: Aristotle wrote of witnessing the success of "anointing that part of the womb on which the seed falls with oil of cedar, or with ointment of lead or with frankincense, commingled with olive oil." He even advocated for abortion (phthorion) should devices fail.

Aristotle was not alone: Hippocrates recommended that to end a pregnancy, a woman should jump up repeatedly, her heels touching her bottom. In a Hippocratic medical treatise, along with contraceptive advice (much of it bogus), there are a number of abortificants listed, some of them intended to be used as suppositories, others to be taken orally. And many of the methods advocated by Greek physicians, their recipes and directions, are so similar to the Egyptians' that it is obvious there was a lot of sharing going on across the Aegean.


If life imitates art, then Greek legend is the best place to find evidence that the condom played a role in Greek life. In his second-century (CE) book of mythical tales Metamorphoses, Greek writer Antoninus Liberalis told the story of King Minos. The legend helps illuminate the use of condoms, but leaves the reader wondering just who wore them and why. Some translations of this mighty king's life have it that because of a curse put upon him by his wife-angry about his many infidelities-poor Minos had semen that contained serpents and scorpions. In order to prevent these monsters from killing his sex partners, Minos put on a condom, which captured the offending wildlife-an interesting spin on safe sex.

Other versions have it that it was Minos's partners who wore condoms. One way or the other, the legend tells us that these early people understood the significance of capturing a man's seed, but the origin of the Greek sheath is not quite so dramatic.

Like the Egyptians, Greek laborers wore brief coverings to protect themselves from the elements while working outside and from possible damage while playing in sporting events. Evidence from a number of different dynastic periods has led some archaeologists to believe that there were at least two popular styles of sheaths used by the Greeks: they both bear a strong resemblance to the modern condom.

One of these was made up of a covering for the penis and a "testicle pouch." This double condom had a cord threaded through it that was tied around the wearer's waist. The other sheath was a single covering that did not cover the testicles and was held on by a ribbon. Some of these were quite elaborately dyed with vegetable pigments and were not always very form fitting. And some of them were really long-at least thirteen centimeters!


But when did Greeks use condoms? In his discussion of family size, Plato talked of the "many devices available ... to check propagation." Paros, seventh-century mercenary and poet, wrote, "And, all her lovely body fondling, I also let go with my force, just touching, though her tawny down." References like Paros's are peppered throughout Greek writing and have usually been interpreted to mean the practice of coitus interuptus, but there are those who believe these are subtle references to condom use.

In spite of the somewhat misogynistic-and sometimes confused-philosophers and medical men who dumped responsibility for small families on women, there were men who chose to practice birth control on their own. Herodotus reported that Pisistratus, the sixth-century tyrant of Athens, "did not want to have children by his new wife and so had intercourse with her not according to custom." Again, experts have interpreted this as coitus interuptus, or anal intercourse, but it is very possible that Pisistratus was actually doing what the Egyptian pharaohs had done. He may have used one of those animal intestine condoms to make sure he remained the sole power in Athens.

In a society as sexually charged as that of the Greeks, where concubinage, homosexuality, and elaborate orgies were an accepted part of life, it seems likely that the condom, however surreptitiously, was a quiet addition to the more public birth control methods favored by the Greeks (especially by those men who trusted no one but themselves to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, or chose to explore sex with women of the lower ranks or slaves). In a society that was so promiscuous, it simply made sense. If it was good enough for a Greek king, it was surely good enough for the rest of Greek society.


I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do that? Catullus (second century CE)

When Rome consumed the older and more sophisticated world of the Greeks, Romans inherited a great deal of information about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies and avoid sexually transmitted infections. And, like the Greeks, men called all the shots. Sex in ancient Rome was decidedly one sided: men could get it anytime, anywhere. Exotic sex was easy to find; orgies and group sex were common, as were homosexual encounters. Household slaves and prostitutes provided a handy outlet for bored husbands.

On the other hand, women's role in Roman society was completely scripted: wealthy girls were married to cement family alliances, and poor girls fended for themselves. Sex and love were not synonymous, and sex outside of marriage (for women) was a no-no. Cato's examination of how husbands and wives were treated under law illustrates the differences between the consequences for men versus women if caught committing adultery: "If you take your wife in adultery you may freely kill her without a trial. But if you commit adultery, or if another commits adultery with you, she has no right to raise a finger against you." Men dictated the laws and they benefited from their own handiwork.

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Though much has been made by historians of the importance of family and children to the Romans, it was not a Roman goal to keep wives barefoot and pregnant. They wanted small families. Reminiscent of the Greeks, the ideal was to have no more than one or two children in order to prevent the splitting up of family wealth as a result of too many boys to provide for and too many girls-often married off by twelve-who were worthless except to create or maintain family alliances.


Excerpted from the humble little condomby AINE COLLIER Copyright © 2007 by Aine Collier. Excerpted by permission.
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