The Aphrodisiacs that Spiced Up Sex Lives in the Ancient World
Sex is a primal urge humans share with animals. In the ancient world, human fertility had implications for safety and prosperity. However, as the search for birth control methods went hand in hand with the search for aphrodisiacs, the need for sex obviously went beyond mere biology and reproduction. Humans devised several means to titillate their libido through the ages: stimulation of the sexual organs themselves, baths and massages, and erotic literature being some of these.
However, the quest for substances that, once ingested, are supposed to have the power to ignite sexual passion, increase pleasure in the sexual act, address erectile dysfunction and enhance semen production has occupied humans throughout history. Since ancient times, a distinction has often been made between substances that were alleged to improve fertility (quantity of seed) and those that only stimulated the sex drive (inclination to venery). Some authorities held that the latter could only be attained by achieving the former.
The Connection Between Food and Sex
The association between food and sex is itself elemental – after all, they both involve satiating the appetite. The profound interconnection between the very act of eating, in fact, and sexual desire has come to be recognized by neurologists, anthropologists, physicians, as well as psychiatrists in modern times. Various kinds of foods have been held to have almost magical biochemical effects on sexual appetite and virility through the ages.
Since food was scarce and undernourishment affected both male and female sexuality, certain foods were sought after to help keep the body in working order. Some items and foods gained their reputation as aphrodisiacs due to their resemblance to human genitalia- carrots, asparagus, figs and artichokes, for example and, more bizarrely, rhinoceros horn. The vanilla pod, with its resemblance to the vaginal canal, was endowed with aphrodisiacal qualities as well.
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Bulbous foods such as eggs, beets, and fennel were also thought to have sexual power. This association between the appearance of certain foods and their function can be attributed to the ancient concept of ‘doctrine of signatures’ . According to this doctrine, which endowed many plants with attributes they did not possess, some resemblance should exist between a disease and its curative agent.
In ancient history some people thought carrots and artichokes were aphrodisiacs due to their appearance. ( Public Domain )
Ancient Aphrodisiacs - Belonging to Aphrodite
According to the Oxford Dictionary, an aphrodisiac is “a food or drug that is said to give people a strong desire to have sex”. The word entered the English lexicon in the early 18th century from the Greek aphrodisiakos which itself comes from aphrodiosis, or belonging to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The Greek poet Hesiod tells us the name Aphrodite itself derives from the word aphros or sea foam, as she was supposed to have risen from the sea.
The story goes that his wife Gaia (Earth) and children were fed up with Uranus (Heaven) because he was a bad husband and worse father. So, Gaia charged her youngest son Cronus with getting rid of his father. Disgusted with Uranus, not only did Cronus throw Uranus out of heaven, but he also cut off his genitals before doing so. The blood from the genitals fell into the sea causing foam, and from this foam was born the beautiful Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, passion and reproduction. In Roman mythology, Venus is the counterpart of Aphrodite.
From the goddesses of love and passion to love and passion itself; apart from worshipping the goddesses, what did the Greeks and Romans rely on to stoke sexual passion?
‘The Birth of Venus’ by Sandro Botticelli. ( Public Domain )
Hot Greek and Roman Foods
According to Albert Ellis and Albert Abarbanel in volume 1 of their Encyclopaedia of Sexual Behaviour , the Greeks wrote extensively on the subject of aphrodisiacs. In Latin too there are numerous allusions to foods that were supposed to be sexual stimulants.
- Aristotle, for example, believed in the stimulating powers of saffron and used it to spice up his food and his sex life.
- Artichokes were thought by the Greeks to ensure the birth of a son. Greek mythology also says that when Zeus was rejected by a beautiful woman, he turned her into an artichoke, prickly on the outside and soft on the inside.
- Hippocrates, the father of medicine, advocated consumption of lentils to men to keep the fire going in old age.
- Plutarch, the philosopher historian, was a great votary of beans and ate copious amounts of fasolada, a soup made of white beans, which incidentally has ended up being Greece’s national dish.
- Greeks were great believers also in the powers of mushrooms and truffles to excite the senses with their musky odor.
- Onions held an appeal for both Greeks and Romans as a sexual stimulant. Homer ate lots of garlic daily to maintain his sexual prowess.
- Aristotle advised Alexander not to allow his soldiers to drink mint tea before going into battle because it could distract their minds into other channels.
- Bay leaf, with its mildly narcotic properties when drunk as an infusion, was also considered an aphrodisiac by the Greeks.
- Seafood and shellfish (particularly oysters) were consumed as aphrodisiacs by the Greeks, in part because of their connection to the “seafoam born” Aphrodite.
According to Part VI of the Cambridge World History of Food , first century BC Greek physician Heracleids of Tarentum wrote about the aphrodisiacal, in particular semen inducing, qualities of certain foods, “Bulbs, snails, eggs and the like are supposed to produce semen, not because they are filling, but because their very nature in the first instance has powers related in kind to semen.”
Grapes were indispensable to a Roman orgy, the very act of people peeling them and feeding them to one another had an erotic aspect. So too was the wine fermented from grapes, the alcohol in it acting as a relaxant. An inscription on a wine cup from the eighth century BC made the connection between drinking and sexual desire: “Whoever drinks from this wine cup, beautifully crowned Aphrodite’s desire will seize him immediately.”
‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture. ( Public Domain )
Pliny the Elder claimed that mandrake root increased potency because it looks like female genitals. Romans also consumed the semen of younger men in the belief that this would transfer youthful virility to them. The Roman physician Galen, who was considered an expert on aphrodisiacs, recommended warm and moist foods like cooked oysters, carrots, and peas.
But the king of aphrodisiacs for the Greeks as well as Romans was satyrion. Many wild claims have been recorded in Greek and Roman accounts regarding the effects of the plant. Unfortunately, it has not been identified precisely in modern times, although it is believed to be similar to the wild orchid. The philosopher Theophratus claimed that ingestion of the stimulant was once responsible for as many as 70 successive sexual acts! A Roman author suggested it was enough to rub it on the soles of the feet to produce sexual arousal while another asserted that just holding a part of the plant in the hand would do the trick! The most common way of using it, however, was to add the pounded roots to wine.
Cleopatra’s Secret Sex Stimulants
One of the most famous seduction stories from antiquity is when Cleopatra and Marc Antony were dining together at yet another opulent banquet spread. Marc Antony wondered how Cleopatra could afford to entertain so lavishly every night. Cleopatra replied that she was rich enough to spend on one night’s entertainment what others did on buying a country estate. When the banquet and entertainment the following night, although sumptuous, wasn’t nearly as costly, Antony joked about it. Cleopatra ordered a glass of wine be brought to her and dropped her pearl earring—the largest pearl in the world at the time—into it and after dissolving it, drank it down.
Both wine and vinegar were believed by the ancient Egyptians to have aphrodisiacal qualities and Cleopatra, while showing off her wealth to her lover, was at the same time prepping herself for what was to follow. The thing to note here is that while in much of the ancient world, aphrodisiacs were directed towards male virility, in Egypt aphrodisiacs targeting female desire also seem to have found traction—at least as far as queens as powerful as Cleopatra were concerned.
Cleopatra's Banquet. By Gerard de Lairesse. ( Public Domain ) Note that Cleopatra is holding her pearl earring.
Cleopatra at any event would have to rank as the most well-known seductress of antiquity, captivating both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony with her charms as well as countless less powerful men. And pearls were not the only weapons in her arsenal. With her legendary sexual appetite, she allegedly used a host of aphrodisiacs, including perfumes and opiates, to entice her many lovers.
She soaked in cardamom-infused baths and used cinnamon oil for their seductive appetizing appeal. Her bedroom was carpeted with rose petals with their heady fragrance. Betraying her Greek heritage, basil with its revitalizing properties was an indispensable ingredient in the fare served at her table. Legend has it that she smeared her private parts with a mixture of honey and crushed almonds that drove her lovers wild. Egyptian male aphrodisiacs were, however, nowhere near as appetizing as Cleopatra’s perfumes and potions, a crocodile heart mixture smeared on the penis being one of them.
Ancient Indian Vajikarna Therapy
The indigenous Indian medicine system of Ayurveda has an entire branch devoted to vajikarna (from vaji or stallion, thus giving men the stamina of a stallion) therapy. Vajikarna aphrodisiacs were mostly herb and plant based. The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, that has gained a reputation as ancient India’s sex manual, devoted an entire chapter to aphrodisiacal foods, again mostly derived from herbs and plants.
They all had the function of increasing sukra or semen production. Thus, they were aimed at making males capable of sustained intercourse as well as enhancing their reproductive capabilities. Ayurveda professed treatment for conditions such as erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, loss of libido and low levels of testosterone among men. Not just this, vajikarna therapy even claimed a bearing on the health of future progeny.
Lovers Embracing, Folio from India, Madhya Pradesh, Malwa, circa 1660. ( Public Domain ) The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana devoted an entire chapter to aphrodisiacal foods.
Milk, honey, nutmeg, saffron, garlic, wild asparagus ( shatvari) and ashwagandha (winter cherry) were some of the most potent foods for men that Ayurveda swore by. For women, methi (fenugreek) was recommended because it was said to both assist in breast enlargement as well as to increase sex drive. A more bizarre prescription comes from the eighth century BC Susruta Samhita that suggests: “Clarified butter should be boiled with eggs or testes of alligators, mice, frogs and sparrows,” and that if a man lubricates the soles of his feet with this mixture, he’d “be able to visit a woman with undiminished vigor as long as he would not touch the ground with his feet.”
Ancient Far Eastern Aphrodisiacs
A Chinese medical text from 2600 BC mentions a potion with 22 ingredients that the emperor drank before “he mounted 1,200 women and achieved immortality”. Traditional Chinese medicine advocated eating the sexual organs of animals to increase virility. Rhinoceros horns were also considered a powerful aphrodisiac. As with Ayurvedic remedies, the reputation of many of these ancient Chinese aphrodisiacs has survived into the present and this has unfortunately contributed to endangering certain species of wild animals.
Emperor Shen-Nung (3500-2600 BC), who was considered the father of Chinese medicine, catalogued over 365 species of medicinal plants, which he personally tasted, in his treatise Shen Nung Benchau Jing . Ginseng was among Shen Nung's contributions to herbal medicine. He documented that he experienced a warm and sexually pleasurable feeling after chewing the root.
He advocated its use as a treatment for erectile dysfunction and to stimulate sexual appetite. The reputation of ginseng as an aphrodisiac is again based on the doctrine of signatures since the adult root has a phallic shape. Yu-jo women, professional sex workers in feudal Japan, supplemented their charms with the aphrodisiacal powers of eels, lotus root, and charred newts.
Wild Korean ginseng root. Ginseng is an ancient aphrodisiac. ( nunawwoofy /Adobe Stock)
Elsewhere in the ancient world, different foods were believed to endow the consumer, generally a male, with potency and virility. The Aztec ruler Montezuma was said to have fortified himself with more than 50 cups of chocolate before visiting his harem, though more scholarly reports attribute the trick to conquistadors. Be that as it may, chocolate still enjoys a prime location as a modern aphrodisiac.
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A substance called ambrien, which came from the guts of sperm whales, was used in Arab folk medicine to treat headaches and improve sexual function. One story has it that the muhtasib of Seville tried to prohibit the sale of truffles anywhere near a mosque, for fear they would corrupt the morals of good Muslims.
For centuries a beetle called cantharsis found in southern Europe has been used as an aphrodisiac after being dried and heated until they turn into a fine powder. Natives of central Africa have long used yohimbine, a supposed aphrodisiac derived from the bark of the yohimbe’ tree.
Some of the foods mentioned here still enjoy a reputation as aphrodisiacs, but modern science has generally debunked their claims. However, what it does recognize is that the belief that something works may actually make it work. As Manuel Vázquez Montalbán wrote in his Immoral Recipes, "No one has ever succeeded at seduction by means of food alone, but there's a long list of those who have seduced by talking about that which was about to be eaten."
The last word on the subject really belongs to the Roman philosopher Seneca who said, "I will show you a philter without potions, without herbs, without any witch's incantation—if you wish to be loved, love."
Top Image: A medieval couple embrace. Source: diter / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
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