Aphrodisiacs: The Myth and Reality of Grecian Love Honey

Aphrodisiac Raymond Cabarles

Unleashing the aroma of scentless anti-matter
We become ravenous beasts
who crave for every salty liquid spurted out from impermeable pores

The scent is like beam that penetrates into the very nucleus of our soul
And destroys the wall which restrained the heat of passion
And we become oblivious of the day to come.

***

From ancient times up to today’s late-night infomercials, we have been a society that hawks snake oil… er… “snake” oil to an ever-desiring audience. These potions of passion, these pommes of pleasure, these wines of wantonness (I could do this all night)- they litter our history, skirting our so-called civility in favor of cravings more base, more riotous. They promise us the bestial consummation of lust, the sudden, overpowering storm of desire.

Aphrodisiacs are named for the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexuality. And over the years, many foods, plants, and concoctions have been offered up as potential aphrodisiacs. These days, the more scientifically minded among us tend to scoff at these ancient “herbal remedies,” in much the same way we do at people who frequent the supplement section of the store. Then again, those of a less-than-scientific bent eat this crap up (literally).

However, are those of us pointing and laughing actually in the right? Or are we just making blanket generalizations without putting any effort into researching what may or may not qualify as an aphrodisiac?

Come, galleons. Seems we have some work to do.

***

Many, many plants, foods, and sundry natural objects have been taken for aphrodisiacs at one point in time or another. Sometimes, it is due to their resemblance to human genitals (phallic-shaped vegetables like asparagus and leeks, vagina-mimicking oysters and figs, as well as plants in the Orchis genus, whose roots bear some resemblance to testicles- in fact, orchis is the Greek word for ‘testicle’). Sometimes, it may be due to their rare or exotic nature (truffles, pomegranates, spices like nutmeg and cinnamon and saffron and vanilla, artichokes, bananas- well, that latter one might also slide into our first category). In other cases, it’s due to the fire and heat the food excites in the mouth and intestines (such as black beans, onions, peppers, and garlic). Then again, we also have the bizarre and the incredibly-to-the-point (tiger penis, crocodile semen, horse hooves, placenta, hippomanes [essentially horse caul], liquamen [a Roman sauce made from rotting fish entrails], the testicular blood of bulls, raw eel, bird’s next soup [literally made from the nests of sea swifts], testicles, deer penis and antler, frog bones, human marrow, menstrual blood, partridge brains).

The mandrake root was a particular favorite throughout the ages, possibly because of its supposed resemblance to a human being:

I know- a far cry from the wailing, infantile plants from Harry Potter. Reality is a bitch, isn't it?

Pythagoras christened the plant with the nickname “man-likeness,’ and the appellation apparently stuck. The Greeks and Romans called mandrake fruit “love-apples,” even going so far as to give Venus, the Roman goddess of love and sexuality (comparable to the Greek Aphrodite), the name Mandragoritis. The Greek physician Dioscorides remarked that the root is supposed to be used in philters or love-potions.

Indeed, in The Odyssey, the island-dwelling goddess, Circe, drops mandrake into the potion she feeds Odysseus’s crew. John Donne ran with the idea of the mandrake resembling a person, writing in his poem Song, “get with child a mandrake root,” capitalizing on that faux-personhood.

In fact, the efficacy of love potions was such a widespread belief in the 15th century that in the British Parliament, it was publicly urged that Lady Grey be charged for bewitching King Edward IV with strange and amorous potions and charms, perhaps similar to the following one found in a medieval “black book” of “venereal pastimes”:

Burdock seeds in a mortar pound them. Add of three-years-old goat the left testicle and from the back hairs of a white whelp one pinch of powder, the hairs to be cut on the first day of the new moon and burned on the seventh day. Infuse all the items in a bottle half filled with brandy. Leave uncorked twenty-one days to receive astral influence. Cook on the twenty-first day until the thick consistency is reached. Add four drops of crocodile semen and pass through a filter. Rub mixture on genitalia and await the results.

This belief held fast for hundreds of years. In the 17th century, texts like John Heyden’s The Holy Guide included detailed instructions on the creation of various love potions:

Fortuna Veneris

Take of pismires or ants (the biggest, having a sourish smell, are the best) two handfuls, spirits of wine one gallon; digeste them in a glasse vessel, close shut, for the space of a month, in which time they will be dissolved into a liquor; then distil them in balneo till ail be dry. Then put the same quantity of ants as before; do this three times, then aromatize the spirit with cinnamon. Note, that upon the spirit will float an oil which must be separated. This spirit (continues the inventor) is of excellent use to stir up the animal spirits insomuch that John Casimire, Palsgrave of the Rhine, and Seyfrie of Collen, general against the Turks, did always drink thereof when they went to fight, to increase magnanimity and courage, which it did even to admiration.

This spirit doth also wonderfully irritate them that are slothful to venery.

Aqua Magnanimitatis

Take of ants or pismires a handful of their eggs two hundred, of millepedes (wood-lice) two hundred, of bees two hundred and fifty; digeste them together, the space of a month, then pour off the clear spirit, and keep it safe. This water or spirit is of the same value as the former.

In the 18th century, women used “angel water,” which was a concoction of orange flower water, rose water, and myrtle water mixed with musk and ambergris, applied to their breasts like a perfume.

And these were always “surefire” methods as well. Just like those modern erectile dysfunction infomercials claim, these potions and foods were guaranteed to make you stand at attention or foam at the cunt (did I just make female arousal sound like genital rabies?). For the Greeks, this was stafylinos, which I’ve gathered was a purplish carrot that grew wild (to find this out, I actually read the first part of an Australian thesis on carrot juice optimization or something… the title of the section I perused was “Historical Origins and Development of Carrots”… the things I do for you, galleons). The Greeks were so fierce in their belief that stafylinos was an aphrodisiac that they actually referred to it as “love potion.”

But the ancients weren’t the only ones obsessed with stimulating arousal. We still feed our women chocolate to get them in the mood. We imbibe alcohol, do dangerous (and less so) drugs, pop penis pills, chase down “herbal remedies”… our list is just as long as theirs.

Errol Flynn applied a bit of cocaine to the tip of his cock as an aphrodisiac. Which he probably needed, seeing as he claims to have slept with women on 13,000 nights of his career as a Hollywood swashbuckler.

And don’t forget about Spanish fly. It all began in the late 19th century, when French doctors were presented with the puzzle of soldiers in North Africa who suffered severe priapism after eating frogs’ legs. When these frogs were dissected, their stomachs were full of meloid beetles. It was later found that these beetles contain cantharidin, a urinary-tract irritant we call Spanish fly. Many men (including the Marquis de Sade) have dosed themselves or their ladies with it.

Of course, Spanish fly is also incredibly poisonous.

“Cantharidin, when taken internally, acts as an inflammatory agent with drastic, irreversible effects on the urogenital system,” said entomologist Thomas Eisner. “This is very toxic stuff. When cantharidin is applied topically, as little as a tenth of a milligram can blister the skin.”

But, while the history of aphrodisiacs is fascinating, we still haven’t answered the big question: do any of them actually work?

***

When we go in search of love potions, we are looking for something that gives us that dizzying, all-consuming rush of need. It is a wildfire out of control in our veins, a river that has burst its dams and floods our minds and bodies with desire.

The myth of Tristan and Iseult (Isolde) demonstrates such a love potion. The Princess Iseult is to be married to Mark, Tristan’s king. As Tristan is bringing Iseult to his lord, the pair accidentally drink a love potion Iseult’s maid slipped into her lady’s things to help the marriage a bit. Tristan and Iseult, who didn’t even particularly like each other, find themselves utterly at the mercy of their all-powerful love for each other. Their love is a torment, both because they did not choose it or each other, and because it flies in the face of the duty they both hold so dear. This love potion lasts 3 years, after which they part ways, Iseult back to Mark (who was kind enough not to just kill Tristan and Iseult when he found out they were betraying him) and Tristan into the world to continue his knightly pursuits. He marries another Iseult, Iseult of the White Hands, but cannot bring himself to consummate the union. When he lies on his deathbed, he sends for the Queen Iseult, who healed him once before. However, his jealous wife lies to him, tricking him into thinking the queen has forsaken him. Tristan dies, and when Queen Iseult arrives, she dies in swoon over Tristan’s body.

As far as doomed lovers who both die in the end, I tend to favor the Tristan and Iseult myth over that of Romeo and Juliet.

For us, though, the important part is that damned love potion, the very thing that starts Tristan and Iseult down their path to the clearing (say thankya). The kind of potion The Searchers were singing about:

We want to be swept away (or, more likely, we want to be able to dose someone and have them be swept away by a tide of lust for us… the line between consent and rape gets pretty blurry when aphrodisiacs enter the mix). We want to be overcome. When it comes to love and desire, we want to lose control.

Problem is… there is no aphrodisiac that actually does that. It’s all a myth.

***

That’s actually where our biggest problem lies- in the definition of an aphrodisiac. If an aphrodisiac is something that only produces sexual desire consistently, then no aphrodisiac actually exists. There’s nothing out there with that magical ability to turn someone into a raging torrent of lust.

However, if we are less strict in our definition, we might find that there is some truth to some of tales. The reason things like oysters, asparagus, ginseng, chickpeas, seafood, and red meat have dallied in the realm of aphrodisia is because they contain trace vitamins or minerals that a person might lack. Oysters contain zinc, for example, a deficiency of which can cause impotence and delayed sexual development. Asparagus is rich in potassium, phosphorus, and calcium- these are essential for energy. It’s less about the individual foods containing some magical sex-juice and more about them keeping a person healthy. Unhealthy people don’t feel very sexy, after all.

There are a few herbs that are currently under study for their aphrodisiac qualities, including yohimbe, tribulus and maca, as they seem to act as a sort of natural Viagra. However, there are drawbacks- too much yohimbe will kill you. But, they are being studied to see if they have any medicinal properties that could be extracted and turned into a reliable treatment for sexual dysfunction.

Sweet spices (nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves) have actually been found to have some aphrodisiac properties, though this is most likely because they have the ability to reduce anxiety. These cooking spices, present in baked goods like pumpkin pie, are comfort foods that remind us of home and safety. They trigger relaxation, which helps promote arousal.

One or two glasses of red wine a day has been said to promote sexual desire in women. Part of this is because wine reduces inhibitions, though some studies claim the antioxidants in red wine contribute more directly to sexual desire.

Chocolate contains small amounts of the building blocks of serotonin and anandamide, neurotransmitters that contribute to that happy, euphoric feeling achieved during orgasm. It also contains caffeine, giving it stimulant power. While there are no studies that definitively state chocolate is an aphrodisiac, they can’t conclusively prove it isn’t, either. Perhaps it’s mostly psychosomatic arousal, but it’s still arousal, right?

When it comes to aphrodisiacs, it’s a fair bet to assume that 75-90% of any effect is a placebo effect. If you believe the wine or whale penis is going to do something for you, chances are it will. But this is less because it contains mystical powers and more because you are more relaxed. You have no reason to be tense- you believe, after all. The power of belief is staggering, and in this case, it can be enough for someone to overcome the hurdle of their own mind in order to enjoy a little between-the-sheets time.

Though, really… who actually does anything between the sheets? Hell, I don’t even have a top sheet on my bed. It’s such a useless covering.

***

I guess we have our answer, galleons.

No, there is no magical aphrodisiac out there. There’s no real love potion, no mystic sex powder. All we can do is keep ourselves healthy, learn what makes each other tick, and go from there. Food and herbs can provide a few helpful nudges, but that’s about it.

Probably for the best. Dosing someone with an aphrodisiac in fiction never ends well.

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