The pursuits of passion are as old as the human race itself. The search for ways to improve one's luck in love are nearly as old, and records of people associating food, scent or ritual with success in the search are part of Man's earliest documents. Six thousand years later, the quest continues.
What attracts a mate varies from culture to culture, from age to age, and from person to person. Physical attributes which
suggest fertility, virility, or wealth, personality that intrigues, evidence of a comfortable lifestyle - these are practical but by no means sure ways to attract. When the usual fails, people have always turned to the unusual.
Modern medicine suggests other reasons something eaten might awaken a sleeping libido: depression, poor circulation, vitamin deficiencies, drugs and other ills are all counter- productive to one's love life. Curing one problem may help with the other. But before medicine was magic.
Spells and Such
While most charms and spells have little to do with food, there are a few that touch on the subject of aphrodisia. In A Midsummer Night's Dream
, Oberon said,
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.
The flower in question was "heartsease", otherwise
known as the pansy viola. Similar charms of the Renaissance were often more risky - For example, nightshade and foxglove, a pair of poisonous plants, might be combined and applied to a sleeping man's eyelids to make him propose upon awakening. All manner of toxic or noxious ingredients have been used to try to woo a lover throughout the years. That few of them were ingested (though commonly sprinkled on, trailed around or hidden near the intended) probably
increased their effectiveness, as an incapacitated lover was rarely the goal. Arsenic, beetles, sulphur, monkey dung, bat blood, fingernails, blood, sweat and tears were all fair game for the maker of love philters. And then there were the really
Consider this scandalous practice, begun in the 12th century by certain German wives: Laying down, with buttocks exposed, they had bread prepared upon themselves. Once baked, such bread would supposedly
ensure a husband's continued interest. I shall forego the obvious jokes about bunwarmers, et al.
At about this time the Church became unwittingly involved with this affair. A wife might kiss her husband while holding a consecrated host in her mouth and thus ensure his affection. People have written psalms on parchment and placed it where their beloved was sure to step, sprinkled holy water on wax images of the intended, touched their lover with fingers smeared with
holy oil, and sprinkled dust from a chapel on the slow to love. The latter continued in northern France almost to the present day.
Some went the other way with this notion. A certain old spell was performed thus:
"Write on an apple: Raguell, Lucifer, Sathanus, and say, 'I conjure thee apple by these three names written on thee, that whosoever shall eat thee may burn in my love.'"
I don't know about you, but I doubt I'd eat an apple with that inscription on it.
In the 17th century was noted a curious custom called "cockle bread" as performed by unmarried girls in England. (The Germans were still getting a rise out of their dough at this point, by the way.) Some dough, once kneaded, would be pressed to her vulva, then made into a loaf and baked. It was then given to the object of the young woman's affection who then would presumably fall hopelessly in love with her.
There are numerous other examples of strange
things done with or to food in the interests of desire, but many of them are too disgusting to bother listing. I'll expand this section when I find other information or my stomach can manage what I haven't mentioned yet. Until then, we'll move on to things people have tried that could more recognizably be called aphrodisiacs.
Love philters, as they have been called, have included a startling variety of ingredients. Apuleius, a Roman writer of the 2nd century A.D., created a simple drink with a base of fish, oil, and shrimp. He gave it to a wealthy widow, who then married him, and her relatives sued him for subverting her with his "magic potion." They claimed that she had no intention of ever remarrying... and perhaps
hoped she wouldn't, since she was over 60 and doubtless soon to deliver their interitances. Apuleius defended himself with the argument that her energy had been restored by the philter and she was much happier now. The court was swayed.
Other Roman philters contained less innocuous ingredients such as frog bones, nail clippings, semen, menstrual blood, and if legend can be believed, even human liver and bone marrow. I won't go into it.
Nearly 400 years
previous to the incident with Apuleius, a Chinese physician wrote a manual of Sui T'ang medicine. Included was instructions for a potion that included 22 powdered ingredients (flowers, seeds, roots and minerals) mixed with wine. The concoction reportedly bestowed amazing sexual stamina on a man who drank it daily. It lists the "Yellow Emperor", Huang Ti (c. 2600 B.C.), as one of its finest historical examples. Empowered by the drink, he "mounted 1200 women and achieved immortality."
Legend says Cleopatra made herself more attractive with pearls dissolved in vinegar. Other sources throughout history have included powdered gems and sometimes precious metals amongst the components.
The Kama Sutra
lists a recipe that includes several sweet ingredients, including ghee, which is clarified butter. As a whole, it is supposed to taste like nectar. The recipe
is available. Other love philters from the Hindu tradition include sap from the anvalli or bhuya-
kokali trees, and are said to give a man nearly endless sexual energy. One ancient Eastern beverage with ingredients easy for Westerners to come by is an elixir Arab men still use for sexual stamina: peppermint tea.
I should point out that many of history's love potions, like the nectar just mentioned, are maddeningly vague to a modern reader, even when the ingredients are listed. The exceptions are often those most "magical" in effect, and they are often
ridiculously complex. I suspect the complexity is sort of an aid to the belief system, as a failure of the ritual to produce the desired effect can be blamed on the performer, who may have made some mistake.
Some recipes are completely
unlisted, like that which brought Tristan and Iseult together. It was certainly made of herbs, roots and wine, but beyond that nothing is really known. The reason for this is simply that the ingredients were already known to the people
of the culture that produced the story. To list them would have been redundant.
There are medieval love potions whose instructions have survived enough for us to recreate them today. Consider the myrtle-based potion
used by many in Europe during that period. It had the reputation of inspiring eros enough for writers to not only mention it but to explain how to make it. Others, like Moses Maimonides' Mixture
, have ingredients that are tricky to find but not impossible. That
12th century Hebrew scholar called for kilkil grain. We of the West would probably find the oil of jasmine used in the potion easier to obtain.
Thus ends this chapter of the History of Aphrodisiacs. Our discussion will continue soon, when we will answer the question: Does absinthe make the heart grow fonder?