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24 November 2008

Aphrodisiacs, then and now

Does absinthe make the heart grow fonder?

I can hear the groans at my feeble pun, but couldn’t resist. In actual fact, alcoholic beverages -- taken in moderation -- are the only aphrodisiac that generally work, at least when taken in moderation. Unfortunately, most people don't quit while they're ahead (leading to some forgettable encounters for many of us, I'm sure). Even Shakespeare acknowledged that alcohol, to paraphrase Macbeth, increases the desire but takes away the performance."

Fetch me that flower,
the herb I show'd thee once;
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.

--Oberon, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Almost any edible (and some marginally edible) thing has been considered an aphrodisiac at some point in history. And in most eras, the medical or scientific philosophy of the day was used to shore up these beliefs. In ancient Rome, a physician named Galen believed that any "warm and moist" food could be an effective stimulant, provided it also produced "wind" -- in other words, flatulence. Personally, I'm not sure the rewards would be worth the obvious down side. Nevertheless, up through the eighteenth century, Galen's theory held sway, which made asparagus, mustard, anise, nettles and sweet peas popular aphrodisiacs for centuries.

The word aphrodisiac comes to us from Aphrodite, goddess of sexuality and romantic love. According to legend, Aphrodite considered sparrows sacred, and the ancient Greeks thought sparrows were especially lustful (in much the same way some Americans view rabbits). Because of the association with Aphrodite, Europeans were inclined to eat sparrows, particularly their brains, as aphrodisiacs.

Because sexual function was key to reproduction, even the church got involved in the discussion of aphrodisiacs. The thirteenth century monk St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that an aphrodisiac had to produce "vital spirit" and be nutritious. In Aquinas's writings, the heartiest food -- meat -- was an aphrodisiac. Aquinas also believed that drinking wine produced the "vital spirit," a belief that persists to this day (and as noted above, has some basis in science).

Cleopatra was said (by her detractors) to have brought her lovers to their knees by the use of potions and perfumes. Today, we use the term aphrodisiac to refer to anything that inspires lust; we don't think of an aphrodisiac as a cure for sexual dysfunction or impotence. But in Galen's time, there was no distinction between lack of desire and lack of ability. Galen believed that anything capable of producing "wind" could also inflate the penis.

Of course there were also folk tales not rooted in the "sound science" of physicians like Galen. Mandrake root, which is forked and said to resemble the apex of a woman's thighs, was eaten as a cure for female infertility. One ancient aphrodisiac we recognize today is oysters, which may have come to be known as an aphrodisiac only because of their resemblance to female genitals. Few old medical texts list oysters as an aphrodisiac, although literary references are legion.

Another well known aphrodisiac is Spanish fly, used famously by Robin Schone in her breakout novel The Lady's Tutor. Among other things, the chemicals in Spanish fly irritate genital membranes, which many consider arousing. Now for the inevitable down side -- Spanish fly can cause kidney failure and gastrointestinal bleeding. Most of the historical aphrodisiacs are merely disgusting, but Spanish fly can be deadly. Based on the scenario described Schone's book, I think the heroine was in serious danger of having taken a fatal dose.

Many other reputed aphrodisiacs were equally deadly. In the Renaissance, nightshade and foxglove -- both highly poisonous -- were rubbed on a sleeping man's eyelids to make him amorous upon waking. Most of these deadly aphrodisiacs weren't ingested, probably because a dead lover was not the goal of using an aphrodisiac.

Despite all these efforts to stir the passions artificially, there is no real substitute for good old-fashioned hormones. As Ovid says in The Art of Love, after giving an exhaustive list of aphrodisiacs:
Prescribe no more my muse, nor medicines give
Beauty and youth need no provocative.

Regardless of their ages, the heroes and heroines of romance, of course, need no artificial stimulants. But I'm curious if you've seen the occasional aphrodisiac in fiction, or if there are reports of historical figures using them.

9 Comments:

Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

I have read at least one book in which the heroine is fed an aphrodisiac. Sorry I can't remember the title but I do recall it was not an erotica. In this case, the innocent heroine was overcome with curiosity about cyprian society and sneaked into one of their masked balls. The hero, of course, recognized her and "saved" her, only to scratch her itch.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Titillating post, Doreen! Great references to Shakespeare, too. And apart from his characters, off the bat I can't think of literary characters making use of aphrodisiacs. But I think it's a great device! I don't know what today's Spanish Fly is made from, but many may years ago I was induced to try it by someone who was very curious about aphrodisiacs. Regardless of the fact that we didn't need them anyway, it didn't seem to change anything.

Another popular aphrodisiac in the 70s and 80s was amyl nitrate (it came in small glass bottles under brand names like Bolt and Rush -- don't ask). You took a big whiff out of the bottle and it would shoot straight to your head and make you really passionate for the next 30 seconds or so. As the effect was so brief, I can't imagine what the stuff was really expected to do.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Funny you should mention amyl nitrate. There's a huge article in the Daily Mail of London about a woman who is a "professional mistress" who Gordon Ramsay alledgedly is having an affair with. Apparently she bought bottles of Rush and another aphrodisiac before she met with Gordon recently.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

She'll need to inhale an awful lot of it to remain turned on, and not just to get past his potty mouth. I'll have to check out that article! Who knew they were still selling that stuff. I thought head shops were a quaint relic of our hedonistic and experimental past.

I think that one needs to have a healthy heart to inhale amyl nitrate because the rush literally causes one's heart to beat very, very fast, so I expect it has the potential of being fatal if someone has a heart condition.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Doreen. I have a rather vague reference in "Beneath a Silent Moon" to two secondary characters trying something (with the implcations being that it didn't work very well).

2:02 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Kit and Mary in The Slightest Provocation eat opium in their wild youth. Which did have an aphrodisiac effect -- but during that particular wild youth, anything would have worked. The hidden aphrodisiac in that book, though (at least in my cultural imagination) is the apple they share as children.

And in my novella "A House East of Regent Street," Miss Myles serves Jack oysters and mussels and bread and butter... the butter another cultural reference. Profane rather than sacred this time -- to "Last Tango in Paris."

While as for Spanish fly, I learned from Francine du Plessix Gray's wonderful biography At Home With the Marquis de Sade that the wings, I believe, of Spanish flies were used in creating the aphrodisiac -- Spanish flies, or (according to Gray) "Mediterranean insects."

5:37 PM  
Blogger Marian said...

I read in a Time magazine article on aphrodisiacs that eating an apple soaked in the sweat of your lover's armpit was supposed to be a turn-on. I like apples, but... ew.

The article closed by quoting Henry Kissinger, who said, "Power is the greatest aphrodisiac." Which has a lot of truth to it.

I have a scene in a manuscript where the heroine (a professional courtesan) admits to the hero that she's been forced to take aphrodisiacs in the past which have left her sterile. It's a fantasy, though; I don't know of any aphrodisiacs IRL which have that effect.

3:03 AM  
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3:50 AM  
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7:44 PM  

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