In my last post I wrote about the book Women’s Medicine: A Cross-Cultural Study of Indigenous Fertility Regulation, and specifically, what traditional approaches Afghan women take to enhance fertility. The chapter on Afghan medicine by Pamela E. Hunte also looks at contraception and abortion, which women may seek to limit their family size, in situations of poverty, and to preserve mothers’ health.
I mentioned last time that traditional Afghan medicine, which draws primarily from Greek but also from Ayurvedic medicine, is based on humoral qualities; that heat and cool are basic bodily states which influence what the body can and cannot do. “Heat” is believed to be necessary for pregnancy, with more heat for a male child and less for a female. Conversely, “coolness” is believed to prevent pregnancy. Women take herbs, eat foods, and practice techniques to cool the body down and take the reproductive organs “out of alignment.” Cooling foods include buttermilk and yoghurt, and sometimes after a birth a woman will drink large quantities of cold water. Hunte writes “The comparison is made with the overwatering of a field: when it receives too much water, it will not become green for a long time” (62).
One of the main herbs used in contraception is plantain (plantago major), which grows abundantly throughout Massachusetts. I used plantain in a tincture just this morning to keep a sinus infection at bay after suffering from recent allergies, and plantain is one of the best herbs for skin irritations such as bites, stings, and poison ivy (just chew it up and smear it on!). I haven’t yet found a reference to plantain as a woman’s herb, but Shakespeare did enigmatically leave us with this line from act III scene ii of Troilus and Cressida, “As true as steel, as Plantage (plantain) to the moon…” Moon herbs typically refer to women’s herbs, so, who knows? Locally referred to as zub or bartang, plantain is dried and ground, then boiled and consumed as a tea, either during lactation, during menstruation, or right after birth. Other herbs used are the mallows (Malva rotundifolia), a family of herbs including marshmallow. Again, not an herb I’ve seen associated with fertility, but it’s fascinating to see how plants are used in similar and different ways by different cultures. Marshmallow is mucilaginous and great for teas in the winter when one has a cough or cold. Afghan women insert the herb intravaginally, or apply cooked leaves to the abdomen to “make the womb cold.” One last herb used is acacia (Acacia nilotica) and this one is readily used by other cultures (including our own). While Afghan women use the seeds and blossoms, ancient Egyptians used to insert acacia tips, or ground acacia mixed with dates, as pessaries (vaginal suppositories). Body heat ferments the acacia, breaking the gum Arabic down into lactic lactic, which is used today in spermicides.
Another technique practiced by dais, traditional birth attendants, is the “turning of the navel.” During this procedure the dai firmly massages a woman’s abdomen, then applies a drinking glass or something similar to the area, rotating it with pressure. This is believed to set the reproductive organs out of alignment and thereby prevent conception.
Traditional Afghan abortifacients include the intravaginal insertion of copper sulphate, hashish, and quinine, and use of herbs such as catnip, wormwood, mints and mallows, which are the same herbs mentioned for use as fertility enhancers, though dose, timing, and the condition of the individual can produce different effects. Also, the author notes that attempted abortion, depending on the method and the dai’s level of skill, often results in death.
Now that I’ve found this book I’ve caught the ethnobotany bug, and I’m going to be looking for more indigenous fertility regulation practices from around the world and will share them here.