Throughout history man has searched the earth for ways of enhancing sexual desire, looking for substances which would act as aphrodisiacs, a word derived from the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite. This quest for sexual stimulants has encompassed a startling variety of substances, some with good reason but many on the basis of entirely unfounded ideas. One good example of a well known but false sex enhancer is the long sought after rhinoceros horn, which is powdered and consumed in alcohol. Equally unfounded is the consumption of other animal products such as various parts of the tiger and the bear and drinks containing such delicacies as crushed frog bones or snake droppings.
Aphrodisiac recipes have been cooked up throughout the world for millennia. In Europe, up to the eighteenth century, many recipes were based on the theories of the Roman physician Galen, who wrote that foods worked as aphrodisiacs if they were “warm and moist” and also “windy,” meaning they produced flatulence. Spices, mainly pepper, were important in aphrodisiac recipes. And because they were reckoned to have these qualities, carrots, asparagus, anise, mustard, nettles, and sweet peas were commonly considered aphrodisiacs.
An aphrodisiac, as we use the term today, is something that inspires lust. It usually isn’t meant to cure impotence or infertility, problems that are now handled by separate fields of medicine. But until recently there was little distinction between sexual desire and function. Any lack of lust, potency, or fertility would have a common cure in an aphrodisiac. Galen thought that a “wind” — or as one 16th-century writer put it, an “insensible pollution” — inflated the penis to cause an erection, so anything that made you gassy would also make you erect.
Galen’s theories were not the only basis for concocting aphrodisiacs. Mandrake root was eaten as an aphrodisiac and as a cure for female infertility because the forked root was supposed to resemble a woman’s thighs. This was based on an arcane philosophy called the “doctrine of signatures.”In simple terms, the “Doctrine of Signatures” is the idea that God has marked everything He created with a sign (signature). This doctrine states that herbs that resemble various parts of the body can be used to treat ailments of that part of the body. Oysters may have come to be known as an aphrodisiac only by their resemblance to female genitals. However, because of the high amount of zinc in raw oysters, it actually worked to produce more semen and healthier sperm. Few old medical texts listed oysters as an aphrodisiac, although literary allusions to that use are plentiful.
Parts of the skink, a kind of lizard, were thought to be an aphrodisiac for centuries. It’s hard to say why exactly, but three different ancient authors make the claim. Potatoes, both sweet and white, were once known as an aphrodisiac in Europe, probably because they were a rare delicacy when they were first transplanted from the Americas. Potatoes are also related to night shade, which was known as a poison in Europe, but the Incas who first cultivated and domesticated potatoes as a food source, bred out the inherent poisons.
Some aphrodisiacs came out of mythology. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love (from whose name, of course, “aphrodisiac” is derived) was supposed to have held sparrows sacred. We think rabbits are promiscuous animals, hence the Playboy bunny and certain lewd sayings, but the ancient Greeks thought sparrows were especially lustful. Because of the association with Aphrodite, Europeans were inclined to eat sparrows, particularly their brains, as aphrodisiacs.
St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century friar, also wrote a bit on aphrodisiacs. Like Galen, he thought aphrodisiac foods had to produce “vital spirit” and provide good nutrition. So meat, considered the heartiest food, was an aphrodisiac. Drinking wine produced the “vital spirit.” The association between food and eroticism is primal, but some foods have more aphrodisiacal qualities than others. Biblical heroines, ancient Egyptians, and Homeric sorceresses all swore by the root and fruit of the mandrake plant. The grape figured prominently in the sensual rites of Greek Dionysian cults, and well-trained geishas have been known to peel plump grapes for their pampered customers. Fermented, of course, grape juice yields wine, renowned for loosening inhibitions and enhancing attraction (though as Shakespeare’s porter wryly notes in Macbeth, alcohol “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance”). Honey sweetens the nectar-like philters prescribed in the Kama Sutra to promote sexual vigor, and the modern “honeymoon” harks back to the old custom for newlyweds to drink honeyed mead in their first month of marriage. Grains like rice and wheat have long been associated with fertility if not with love, and Avena sativa (green oats), an ingredient in many over-the-counter sexual stimulants, may explain why young people are advised to “sow their wild oats.” Numerous herbs and spices—basil, mint, cinnamon, cardamom, fenugreek, ginger, pepper, saffron, and vanilla, to name a few—appear in ancient and medieval recipes for love potions, as well as in lists of foodstuffs forbidden in convents because of their aphrodisiac properties.
Among other delicacies banned by the Church in centuries past were black beans, avocados, and chocolate, presumably all threats to chastity. And truffles—both earthy black and ethereal white—caused religious consternation in the days of the Arab empire. One story has it that the muhtasib of Seville tried to prohibit their sale anywhere near a mosque, for fear they would corrupt the morals of good Muslims. For those who held debauchery in higher esteem, the list of favored aphrodisiacs was bound only by the imagination. The herb valerian, noted for its stimulant properties at lower doses, was long a brothel favorite, and yu-jo, professional women of pleasure in feudal Japan, supplemented their charms with the aphrodisiacal powers of eels, lotus root, and charred newts.
Another foodstuff much favored by Casanova was chocolate, although the first person associated with chocolate as an alleged aphrodisiac was the Aztec ruler Montezuma, who is said to have drank 50 cups of hot chocolate a day in order to fully service his harem of 600 women. Such was the reputation of chocolate at that time, that the Aztecs and also the Mayans celebrated the harvest of the cocoa bean with festivals of orgies. However, this was far from being the earliest use of a vegetable substance for sexual purposes, as various plants were being extensively used in China thousands of years before that. The earliest known beneficiary was Huang Ti, the Yellow Emperor, who lived around 2600 BC. He was provided with a potion made from 22 herbal ingredients mixed with wine and it apparently bestowed him with an amazing sexual stamina. Empowered with this potent concoction of herbs he was able to enjoy the sexual favors of 1200 women and achieve a legendary status as the greatest of all lovers.
Coffee is another old one, and it’s still sometimes considered an aphrodisiac. “Every time you have an excitation, you have an effect of disinhibition,” says Paola Sandroni, MD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic. She reviewed the scientific evidence that exists on many supposed aphrodisiacs, and published her findings in the journal Clinical Autonomic Research.
But to call coffee or anything that contains caffeine an aphrodisiac would be misleading. “I think the effect is much more general,” she says. In the same way, cocaine and amphetamines may seem to be aphrodisiacs because they stimulate the central nervous system, but they have no specific effects on sexual desire.
Sandroni also looked at studies on ambergris, which comes from the guts of whales and is used in perfumes. Some consider ambergris an aphrodisiac and there is evidence to support this notion. In animal studies, it increased levels of testosterone in the blood, which is essential to the male sex drive, and is thought to play a part in women’s libido as well.
Next to oysters, the most well known aphrodisiac is the fabled “Spanish fly.” It’s not just a legend. Such a thing does exist. Its active ingredient is the chemical cantharidin, which is found in blister beetles. Cantharidin irritates genital membranes, and so it is believed to be arousing. It’s also deadly, causing kidney malfunction or gastrointestinal hemorrhages in people who ingest too much. A quick Internet search is all it takes to find some for sale. Sandroni says she was “horrified” to see how easy it is to buy.
Then there’s the “herbal Viagra” pitched in spam emails. This is yohimbe bark. Some claim, falsely, that arginine, an amino acid in yohimbe, can restore erectile function and act as an aphrodisiac. “The only saving grace there is that arginine in large quantity is not harmful,” says Cynthia Finley, a dietician at Johns Hopkins University.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote in The Art of Love, after giving a litany of aphrodisiacs,
Prescribe no more my muse, nor medicines give
Beauty and youth need no provocative.
Similarly, Finley says she thinks the only true aphrodisiac is good health achieved by a balanced diet — which isn’t all that different from what St. Thomas Aquinas said 800 years ago.