In the fantasy genre, you sometimes run across some unusual methods of preventing pregnancy. Maybe the characters "know the right herbs", or maybe they have a magic pendant, or maybe humans and elves can't breed, or maybe they're sterile for some reason that only exists in that particular world. It doesn't usually matter what the method is, but it's not the contraception that would be found a modern-day, real-life setting.
Many authors don't bother with it - the characters have sex and the plot continues apace. Nothing new there - authors of many genres want their characters to have sex, but don't want pregnancy to be part of the plot. But some of them feel a need to explain why the one did not lead to the other. Perhaps they think that their characters will look careless if they are not clearly stated to have used contraception. Perhaps they think that they will look careless if they don't tell their readers that "yes, I did think of that, thank you." Maybe the sex happens often enough that otherwise someone would pretty much have to get pregnant just out of random chance. Whatever the cause, they decide to specifically mention the steps taken by their characters to avoid an unwanted pregnancy, rather than just leave it unsaid.
But in fantasy, there are limited options, since modern types of contraception will generally seem out of place. (Some of them are actually Older Than They Think, although weren't necessarily common.) The answer? Just plain make something up, or else dig up something that's real but relatively unknown. Or for that matter, fictionalize a real method - the ones that find their way into fantasy works are sometimes safer, sanitized versions of how it really works. It rarely matters what - the point is, the characters can entertain themselves as frequently as necessary without the writer having to worry about biological cause and effect getting in the way of the story.
If a fantasy setting has Eternal Sexual Freedom and the writer bothers to explain why, this is probably the most common excuse. The particular method may be Applied Phlebotinum. In settings where it exists, it can often be one of the Women's Mysteries.
Some methods, especially the herbal ones with a grounding in historical fact, are more likely to be Fantasy Abortifacients than Fantasy Contraceptives, though authors tend to ignore the distinction. Sadly, most of the specifics have been lost with rise of modern medicine so their effectiveness is only speculative.
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In Tam Lin, after Janet finds she is pregnant, she picks some roses — or an herb — and Tam shows up, furious:
Till up then started young Tam Lin, Says Lady, thou pu's nae mae. Why pu's thou the rose, Janet, Amang the groves sae green, And a' to kill the bonie babe That we gat us between?
In some variants, she's advised to do it, and in one, her brother means it to hurt her; Truth in Television, many herbal abortificents can kill the woman, too.
Then out it speaks her brither dear, He meant to do her harm: "There is an herb in Charter wood Will twine you an the bairn."
Subverted in at least one fic. Ginny states that the reason she's pregnant again (she has as many children as Molly) is because she will rather raise all the children god gives her than using these contraception potions which taste awful.
And subverted in another fic, where they discover that since both Harry and Ginny were Parseltongues (she got it from her experience in Chamber of Secrets), they are both extremely fertile and no amount of spells or potions will keep them from conceiving. The only thing that works? Muggle condoms. And even THAT'S not foolproof, they do break once.
It's suggested the latter is actually a capability of all dragons.
In The Witcher, Witchers are sterile as a result of all the deliberate mutations they undergo - which is damned convenient given how frequently Geralt ends up in bed with somebody (and said sterile sometimes leads to them). They're also immune to disease. Helps a lot.
It is implied a big part of magicians' incomes stem from production of aphrodisiacs, birth control, and magical cosmetics.
Speaking of magicians: they are all infertile in the setting, too, as one of the side-effects of heavy magic use. Which is Played for Drama with Yennefer, who desperately wants a child but has long passed the point of no return where mages become utterly barren (and her lover is Geralt, see above). It is one of the reasons she will go to suicidal lengths for Ciri, Geralt's (and hers) ward and surrogate daughter.
Jean Auel's Clan Of The Cave Bear has the herbal method. Which realistically reduces the chance of pregnancy rather than eliminates it. Only one of three women who take it doesn't get pregnant eventually and that woman had only miscarriages/stillbirths prior to the herbs.
In Steven Brust's Dragaera, it is stated that essentially, some kind of magic exists by which women (or at least Drageran ones) can determine exactly when they want to be pregnant. The only illegitimate children come from marriages where one partner is sterile, and the term "bastard" is a lot more insulting for Dragaerans than for humans. This helps enforce the Fantastic Caste System, since while short-term relationships between members of different Houses are not unknown, they almost never produce offspring and are illegal, and when they do they are shunned and houseless.
Tea made from tansy (a flowering herb) pops up in a number of works, such as A Song of Ice and Fire and The Night Angel Trilogy, although this induces abortions rather than prevents pregnancy in the first place. Although it can sound like the authors invented it, this one is actually based on real life - people used tansy in the Middle Ages and still do in some places.
A Song of Ice and Fire uses tansy tea relatively realistically: as an abortificant, not contraceptive. It is used in one character's backstory to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. ("Unwanted" in the sense of politically inconvenient to the mother's family; she herself very much wanted to keep the baby.) The trope is played straighter with "moon tea," which includes tansy as just one of its ingredients and appears to work as a relatively safe and effective Plan B contraceptive with few (if any) side effects.
Kushiel's Legacy has divinely-sourced contraception. The women of Terre d'Ange will not get pregnant until they pray to Eisheth and light a candle specifically asking her to open their wombs.
The Liavek books have a special herb, commonly called Worrynot.
The "humans and elves can't breed" version shows up in the Known Space books by Larry Niven, where "rishathra", sex between different humanoid species, is common, and on the Ringworld serves as a diplomatic tool. STD Immunity also applies.
In the Tortall Universe women can and do buy magic charms that they can remove if they change their minds. Alanna got one as soon as her period started. Keladry waited a bit longer, and her mother helped her find a mage who sells them. There's a mention in the Beka Cooper books of a dog having the same mark that makes the charms work carved into her collar as a sort of temporary spaying.
In the Circle Universe an herb called droughtwort can be used to induce temporarily sterility in men.
And in the Tawny Man trilogy, Jinna can manufacture magical charms, including one which prevents pregnancy when set next to the bed. Also, the minstrel Starling feels free to sleep around because she's supposedly infertile... however, after years of marriage she finally manages to get pregnant to her husband, after which she goes respectable.
There are some references in the novels and side materials about Nanny Ogg both serving as a midwife, and providing aid to girls who are pregnant but don't want to be. As she is shown to be a competent herbalist, it's apparent that an abortifacient is implied. Several other witches have been shown or mentioned trading in aphrodisiacs and contraceptives, allowing people to "sow their wild oats while ensuring crop failure, if you know what I mean...". Nanny's cheerful attitude towards sex mean that she is most commonly associated with this sort of business, but in her first appearance even Granny Weatherwax set up a shop dealing such potions while in Ankh-Morpork.
Pennyroyal is mentioned several times, It is a genuine abortifacient, though not a particularly safe one as it can cause haemorrhaging.
Regular contraception also exists, however; it is stated several times that without Mr Sonky, and the rubber product named after him, Ankh-Morpork's housing shortage would be even worse.
Terry Pratchett is actually quite proud that he could include a condom factory in Anhk-Morpork, because it grounds the city and its culture firmly in reality. You could never get away with that in Middle Earth.
In the novel Never Let Me Go, the main characters cannot reproduce because they are clones. This is actually kind of a plot point when one of Kathy's teachers walks in on her holding and rocking a pillow as if it were a baby and listening to the song from whence the book gets its title, she thinks that Kathy is sad because she cannot have children.
In the setting, there are two different herbal compounds available for female Heralds (and presumably anyone else). Moonflower is a combination contraceptive/period regulating drug that appears to be at least as reliable as the modern birth control pill. Should you slip up, though, there's at least one herbal abortifacent readily available.
Gryphons, meanwhile, have to go through several steps before doing the deed in order to become fertile. As a created species, this was set up deliberately - they only get kids if they really want them. Risk-free sex at all other times is a bonus.
In the Sword of Truth series, Shota gives Richard and Kahlan a pendant that's meant to keep them from conceiving as a wedding gift, because she believes that their child will become a monster. Of course, in the next book it turns out the thing failed because of the Chimes, so Kahlan, who also believes her child will be a monster (as male Confessors all turn out to be), considers an abortifacient before deciding to keep it...and then is beaten nearly to death, losing the baby anyway. The pendant isn't mentioned much later, though the two do go back to an active sex life once she recovers.
Glen Cook's Garrett, P.I. novels mention a kind of amulet, worn on a woman's wrist, that prevents contraception and STDs. This turns out to be notably plot-relevant in a few of the books. On one occasion, the lack of an amulet is what the viewpoint character notices, because it was very relevant to the situation he and his client were in. Also relevant to the plot, as her already being pregnant helped set a crime in motion.
The Assassins of Tamurin: Makina Seval's right-hand sorceress Nilang provides her Amazon Brigade, including the heroine, with potions, salves, and herbs to prevent pregnancy. No details about the "preparations" are described for us.
In The Wheel of Time, it is mentioned that heartleaf tea works as a contraceptive. Inverted in that Elayne doesn't drink it when she should have and gets pregnant.
The Inda universe takes the concept a step further. Women don't drink an herbal potion to prevent pregnancy; they won't get pregnant unless they drink it in advance. It's one of many little peculiarities of everyday life caused by the magic latent to the world. Of course, this, combined with the magically-induced nonexistence of STDs, leads to lots and lots of loving.
In Tad Williams' The War of the Flowers, the main character Theo is pulled into the realm of The Fair Folk and eventually has an romantic encounter with a girl named Poppy. Before they have sex, she tells him that girls in that world learn a magical charm (essentially a minor spell) to prevent pregnancy once they hit puberty.
In Graceling Katsa is easily able to secure unspecified plants that serve as both birth control and an abortifacient. In the companion novel, the eponymous Fire is given birth control plants by her father, who also offers her herbs that will leave her permanently barren.
Typically, the "advanced" human species in Olaf Stapledon's novels have a very high level of control over their bodies, and one consequence is that they won't conceive unless they actually want to.
In Dune the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood have developed their Prana-Bindu nerve control to such a degree that they can choose when to get pregnant and what gender of child to conceive. It makes their work of breeding the Kwisatz Haderach possible but doesn't make much room for love.
In many of Vonda N. McIntyre's novels, everyone learns to control their fertility (among other things) by way of a process similar to biofeedback. In Dreamsnake, the treatment that renders healers immune to poisons and diseases also sterilizes them; however, it's stated that if they did conceive, the baby wouldn't be viable. As a result, they don't take chances, and learn "biocontrol" anyway.
In the Void Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton contraceptives are mentioned a few times; outside the void it is implied that one of the features of bionics is a built-in contraceptive and inside the void a concoction is ingested by the males to make them temporarily infertile.
In a What Do You Mean, It's for Kids? example: the Green Sky Trilogy makes a point of this. A common, parasitic shrub that grows in the tops of the city-trees has a contraceptive effect, and wafers made from the shrub are freely available among the Kindar. In fact, the Ol-Zhaan social elite and those between 13-25 are required to take them, ostensibly so they can concentrate on their social responsibilities (apprenticeships for ordinary Kindar, administrative tasks for Ol-Zhaan). More sinisterly, making sure the Ol-Zhaan cannot have families keeps them from passing on potentially dangerous knowledge and keeps them isolated from ordinary Kindar. The fact that contraceptive herbs do not grow underground is part of the reason for the Erdlings' food shortages, as they are simply too many and the food sources too few. As a result, sex is one of the few things the Kindar are much more open about than Erdlings.
The Case of the Toxic Spelldump by Harry Turtledove had the main character commenting on various forms of contraceptives in the MagitekUrban Fantasy world of his, including the traditional (involving Crocodile dung), before saying his was a jar with a rooster's cock and a few other things stuffed under his bed. His girlfriend has a different method.
In the Black Jewels trilogy, there are several references to a "contraceptive brew".
Notably, this being a 'verse in which women are the dominant gender, it's males who take the contraceptive brews. The only healing brews we see women drinking are general healing tonics and those designed to ease menstrual discomfort.
In Rene Barjavel's The Ice People (La Nuit des Temps) the people of the highly advanced ancient civilization all wear keys — actually rings with a pyramid-shaped setting. The key is used as both a debit card and an ID card, and is also an infallible contraceptive. People speak of taking off their keys when they want to have children.
In the Chronicles of the Kencyrath books, it's mentioned offhand that Highborn women can control their fertility. However, the social structure frequently puts them in social situations where they must voluntarily give up this control to fulfil a contract. Kendar women can do the same, but not with a Highborn lover, which is a common source of problems.
In Elizabeth McCoy's Herb-Witch Duology there is widely available Dry Tea, made using the blood of maidens (the term being much stricter than a technical lack of intercourse). And, unlike many versions, there are variants for men and women. This is specifically a preventative, though there are different potions to cause abortion.
In a twist, the Deverry series, herbal preventatives aren't specifically referred to, although herbal abortifacients are a few times. The character Jill's problem with conceiving is presented as something much more basic: lots and lots of exercise,note a problem noted with women athletes in activity-heavy sports and a questionable level of nutrition at times.
Sholan women in the Sholan Alliance Series can control their own fertility naturally, at least until some of the Leska pairs are exposed to the genetically altered ni'uzu virus.
The second Girl Genius novel, Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess, mentions a weed-like plant created by an unknown female spark which acts as an effective contraceptive when brewed in a tea. Few women in Europa go without their morning 'Maiden's Cup'.
Live Action Television
Farscape gives Peacekeeper women the ability to hold an embryo in stasis for up to seven cycles (years). This way they can "recreate" as much as they want (encouraged by the Powers That Be to relieve tension) and pregnancy and birth (aided by Express Delivery) can be rescheduled to more convenient times.
Also, the "contraceptive shield" Velorek installed in Moya to prevent Crais from impregnating her with a gunship hybrid. Nice Job Breaking It, D'Argo.
There's a Swedish folk song called Uti vår hage där växa blå bär (really a matter of Lyrical Dissonance here) that is a really sweet high strung choral thing about meeting your beloved on the meadows. The refrain is basically reciting a bunch of flowers. It got famous during the nationalist movement in the late 1800s, when learned men would collect all kinds of stories, music and songs from the lowly peasants. Most of the songs were deemed unsuitable for the fine music salons of Stockholm, but this one was an instant hit. Little did the learned men and their ladies know, that the flowers mentioned were those used as abortifacients or contraceptives...
Out in our meadow the blueberries grow/ If you want me for anything that's where I'll be. Come roses or sage, come lovely mint, come balm./ Pretty little flowers ask you to dance/ If you want I'll make a wreath for you./ I'll put it in your hair/ Sun goes down, but hope rises.
An article on hedge wizards in Dragon magazine #163 had a list of minor herbal and alchemical potions available from hedge wizards. One of these was 'maidenweed', a potion that prevents pregnancy in females who drink it. The effect lasts for a month.
A similar herb is included in the Ravenloft supplement Gazetteer IV, where it's listed alongside various poisons used in Borca. Justified, in that Borca was created to meet the needs of a Black Widow darklord, so its native plant life naturally fulfills all her toxicological needs.
Contraceptive herbs (such as nararoot, which is effectively maidenweed) are hidden away in the mundane equipment list in the 3.0/3.5e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book.
The Book of Erotic Fantasy provides a few more possibilities, from spells to 'sheaths' and even birth screens.
In a Living Campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 called Living Arcanis, priestesses of Larissa (the Divine Harlot) had spells for pregnancy, disease, sexual prowess, etc. Mind you, this was the goddess of the 67 acts of debauchery, one of which (maybe more) involved the undead.
In Exalted, there is a potion called Maiden Tea that renders someone who drinks a dose infertile for a month (if female) or a week (if male). It's moderately expensive and therefore not available to most people - but most player characters in Exalted don't have any problem making the big bucks.
There's also a Merit in the Player's Guide that allows one complete control of one's own fertility.
Werewolf: The Forsaken has a magical Rite that will render a werewolf sterile for one month. It's often used on female werewolves during risky times, as the fetus isn't protected by the shapeshifting process. The fiction section dealing with the Rite involves a pregnant werewolf forced to deal with a mage who wants to claim a werewolf fetus for magical power; she takes a humongous risk to shift and tears the mage to pieces, crying all the while.
Ars Magica provides several spells for preventing or terminating pregnancies, although since no self-respecting Hermetic mage would be caught dead without taking regular doses of a Longevity Treatment that renders them permanently sterile, they don't come up as often as they might.
The Dark Eye has a contraceptive herb that is considered sacred to the goddess of beauty, love and wine, which tends to be 100% effective. Witches can also learn to strike somebody barren, while this is traditionally used as a curse, some more enterprising witches have found an alternate market for this effect.
Fable II provides the player with condoms made from animal intestine, which may sound like something they made up but is actually historical.
The Witcher video game makes the same point about a Witcher being sterile as exists in the books. And as in the books, the protagonist can get plenty of use out of it.
In Mass Effect, it's implied that asari matings only bear fruit if the 'mother' asari wants to become pregnant as their reproduction is really closer to modified parthogenesis than anything else.
Although it's not really an issue in-game (with one major exception for female characters in a romance with Alistair), Grey Wardens in Dragon Age: Origins are apparently sterile (or practically sterile). The darkspawn taint apparently has an impact on the character's vigor; Morrigan in particular mentions some rather lurid tales about the Grey Wardens' fabled endurance.
Word Of God states that Grey Wardens can conceive with a normal person (though the chances of success are notably reduced) and produce completely healthy offspring, but a pair of Wardens together is all but sterile.
The prequel novel Dragon Age: The Calling has the newly-recruited Duncan being approached by a young female mage who wants to test out the rumors of the Grey Wardens' endurance. In the same novel, a female Grey Warden conceives a child from King Maric who is named Alistair.
Dragon Age II doesn't really address the issue, though Hawke is a normal human and only one of the love interests (Anders) is a Grey Warden. Though Sebastian has taken a vow of chastity and Isabela is implied to be infertile.
Wynne mentions that mages seldom have babies by accident because "there are ways to prevent it". However, considering that Wynne herself had an "oops" baby once, their contraception methods aren't 100% effective. (Fans like to speculate on how, exactly, this works. Some note that there's actually a spell called "Barrier"...)
A Modest Destiny has one character consider taking herbs to force an abortion. Yet another step on the slippery slope into Darker and Edgier that is the works of Sean Howard.
In Dominic Deegan, a "Protection Scroll" is put to use in a flashback where Luna loses her virginity. The asshole who took it doesn't want to use it, but she insists (and Dominic, viewing it via postcognition, cheers - and nearly punches out the person implanting his false teeth in the process).
They're also mentioned when Gregory loses his, and when Dominic and Luna finally sleep together. Apparently they're fairly common.
However, it seems Dominic didn't need to worry about getting anyone pregnant; he's sterile.
Kit N Kay Boodle has "boinkberries", which are the world's most effective contraceptive and best performance-enhancing stimulant (going by the fact that everyone in the comic has sex dozens of times a day).
In Errant Story, any woman who knows the contraception spell can cast it by using her finger to draw the correct symbol on her lower abdomen and waiting at least five minutes. It has to be the right symbol, though; Meji's mother found out what happens when she was drunk and drew the wrong one.
Women in The Mansion of E consume a plant called stiflebloom which prevents pregnancies for a month.
Silphium, a plant commonly used as an oral contraceptive in Ancient Greece and Rome. So commonly used in fact that its now believed to be extinct. Its seeds are speculated as a possible origin for the ♥ symbol.
Before the advent of legal abortions, certain herbs were used to make nostrums to "induce powerful menstruation and return the woman to her natural rhythm" (nudge nudge, wink wink). They include such things like pennyroyal, rosemary, black cohosh, tansy, etc. Effectiveness is very hit-and-miss and overdoses can be fatal.
Similarly, various recipes for contraceptives were found in ancient Egyptian texts; and while the efficiency of some of those is questionable (drinks made of celery base and beer), there are some which were probably effective as they contained effective spermicides such as acacia gum (which is still used in modern birth control pills). In fact, the oldest known document refering to birth control is the Kuhn gynaecological papyrus (around 1850 BC).
The Egyptians also had reasonably effective "barrier" contraceptives and reasonably effective spermicides, although in both cases part of the contraceptive value may have been from the squick factor. A cervical cap made from crocodile dung and full-wax honey would be a good barrier and the honey is going to be a good spermicide by dehydrating sperm and reducing motility... but may have dampened everyones spirits as well.
Ditto the early condoms, used from at least the high mediaeval period- literally a sausage-skin (yes, a pig's gut, but hey, lots of people eat them) with one end sewn up. They were intended to be washed and re-used. They'd probably have been far more successful if they hadn't been, well, you work it out.
The real Cassanova also talks about using a lemon-skin like a cervical diaphram. As the above examples, it works in theory- lemon juice is certainly a pretty good spermicide- but it's also very irritating on sensitive areas; worse, even modern diaphrams, which are fitted to the user, take some trial-and-error to fit properly (they also have quite a high failure rate, not because they fail when used correctly but they're not the most convenient of methods)- a far less flexible lemon peel randomly chosen for an individual would have been very awkward.
Another pre-industrial contraception was the contraceptive sponge- a plug of natural sponge on a string. (These still exist today, in modernised form.) Like modern sponges, they would have been soaked in the nearest thing available to spermicide- usually vinegar, maybe with tansy or pennyroyal. They would have been... well, better than nothing.