“Sleeping with the anemone”: Aphrodisiacs through time

Have you ever felt like your love life could do with a little bit of a boost? Like you’re still banging on about that time in year 6 when the popular kid accidentally brushed their hand against yours? (Later, he said my fingers were “sort of wet, like slugs”; I’m still waiting for him to call.)

Well, fear no more you loveless lot! For today I’m delving into the world of aphrodisiacs: foods that can apparently increase a person’s ‘natural abilities’ in the bedroom.

How long did it take you to come up with that title?

A long time, alright?

The word ‘aphrodisiac’ wasn’t invented until the 17th century when people realised they couldn’t keep describing asparagus and chocolate as “sexy time food” because it sounded stupid and lo, the word ‘aphrodisiac’ was invented, named after Aphrodite – Greek goddess of love, lust and all things sensual.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that there’s no evidence to suggest food can actually increase a person’s libido. Some people believe that alcohol might help, but – to quote Shakespeare – alcohol provokes desire but takes away performance. Hardly the sexiest of outcomes.

But a lack of scientific evidence hasn’t done anything as sensible as stop people believing in aphrodisiacs. It might be chocolate covered strawberries now, but people throughout history have tired all kinds of strange and wonderful foods to get them in the mood, and I’m going to look at (but not try, thanks very much) three of them today.

Ancient Greece: Humourous Veg (in more ways than one)

We’re starting with ancient Greece because their goddess Aphrodite so kindly lent her name to the concept of aphrodisiacs. Aphrodite’s origin story could be an entire topic in its own right; it’s got violence, incest and magic – it’s basically Game of Thrones for classicists.

“I swear to God, Brian, if you get that chord wrong one more time…”

Essentially, Aphrodite was created out of sea foam after Cronos, a divine giant with one hell of a grudge, cut off the genitals of his own father Uranus and absolutely booted them into the sea – as you do. In fairness to him, Uranus had eaten all his brothers and sisters in a sort of paranoid frenzy… but still – ouch.

Even detached, Uranus’ bits and bobs were still very powerful and they fizzed around in the ocean for a bit. Eventually from the sea foamy fizz Aphrodite arose – beautiful, divine and somehow completely untraumatized.

People in ancient Greece prayed to her about carnal matters and issues of love. There were many temples and sects dedicated to her and one at Paphos ordered new initiates to give the priest goddess money in exchange for some sea salt, a phallus and instructions “on the art of intercourse.”

I have no idea what was in the instructions, but it’s possible they contained recipes and remedies to help performance. This wasn’t a new concept – ancient civilisations had been experimenting with food in the bedroom for thousands of years and documenting their (presumably quite sticky) findings. One of the first documented records comes from a 2000 year old Hindu system of medicine called The Shushrata Samhita. It suggests taking remedies – called Vajikarana – such as sweet and refreshing fruit to restore a man’s virility.

The Greeks enjoyed a fruity pick me up as much as the next person but they also appreciated vegetables. Specifically onions, garlics and leeks which, when eaten raw, had a pretty potent kick to them but also apparently reminded people of certain body parts.

Just in case you don’t know what an onion looks like

But just being shaped in a funny way wasn’t enough. Bring a leek to bed and it’s a good time for everyone, but try and introduce a cucumber…?

And that’s because Greek aphrodisiacs weren’t just ideas they pulled out of thin air. They were based on the science of the time. Essentially, many Greeks believed in the 4 Humor Theory, a medical idea created by Hippocrates and developed, centuries later, by Galen. The 4 Humors were liquids that everybody had inside them: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. People’s mood and health was, supposedly, affected by how much of each liquid they had and it was believed that blood was especially important for carnal matters.

Any food that got the blood rushing or caused the skin to flush by creating a ‘hot’ feeling was therefore great for the bedroom. Foods that were very cold and wet, no matter how suggestively shaped (like a cucumber) were major party poopers and were tossed out faster than a god’s severed testicles.

Anything less smelly than an onion?

Sure – how about this recipe from the 3rd century Greek writer Metrodora:

Take the womb of a hare fried in a bronze frying pan, add 3 litrai of rose oil then mix with sweet perfume, fat, excrement of crocodile, sap of the plant scorpion, blood red sumach, honey…”

On the Diseases and Cures of Women, Metrodora

Certain herbs and flower were also symbolic of love. The red flower anemone carried significance, for example, because Greek mythology claimed its origins came about when Aphrodite’s lover Adonis died. Distraught, the goddess apparently sprinkled nectar onto Adonis’ blood and from this the flower was born.

So it’s whatever you’d fancy from that, really – onions or some sort of crocodile dung mixture possibly decorated with flowers. Take your pick.

Medieval Europe: Womb for more?

If you know anything about the medieval Church you’ll know they were big on sin. Not committing sins, obviously (although lots of priests did) but getting very high and mighty about what ordinary folk could and couldn’t do. Sex, surely, would be up there on the list of things you weren’t supposed to enjoy?

Well… during a 200 year period up to around 1200, the population of Europe more than doubled. No one can be certain but by 1500 the population of London was around 50,000 having grown from around 25,000 in 1200.

And these babies weren’t just growing on trees were they? Clearly something was causing this increase. Part of the answer, weirdly, could have been down to the Church. Because although the Church liked it if you kept your hands (and other parts) to yourself if you weren’t married, it was fine – no, a duty – for a husband and wife to have children. But the population growth wasn’t just down to married couple alone, non married and extra marital affairs accounted for many new lives too.

Sex seemed something that people were obsessed with in medieval England. There is so much erotic artwork hidden in marginalia, a good smattering of lewd poetry (hello, Chaucer) and dirty jokes that it sometimes feels like medieval people did nothing but, er, bonk?

Medieval aphrodisiacs

Medieval medical texts are where we find most European aphrodisiacs, although they’re not called that.

Remember at this time in Europe anything medical or religious to do with sex tended to focus on the goal of procreation, rather than offering generic advice for a good time – so the description of aphrodisiacs is often pretty to the point, and presented in a way that suggests it will help with conception. The other thing it’s probably good to understand is that during the middle ages, it was believed by many that conception could only happen if both parties enjoyed themselves fully.

What that means is that when a text discusses what food to eat to conceive a baby, it’s partly because it thought these foods would help strengthen sperm, or prep the womb or whatever, but also because it was about getting both partners in the mood; if one of them wasn’t, then no baby.

You’d expect that these foods would be appetising then. Ha.

The 12th century Old English translation of Medicina De Quadrupedibus has a couple of very un-enticing recipes to try, one of which is this:

To arouse a woman for sexual intercourse, take the testicles of a deer, grind them to dust, do a part of this in a drink of wine.”

Medicina De Quadrupedibus

Not quite a chocolate covered strawberry, is it?

Another famous, albeit later, medieval medical text was the Trotula. It’s less explicit in its dealings with aphrodisiacs but follows a similar line of thought to Medicina De Quadrupedibus. According to Trotula, to conceive a boy a man should take the womb and vagina of a hare, dry them, crush them into a power and then drink in wine.

“Take my womb, would you? Bastard.”

I’m going to need some alternatives to rabbit womb, please.

Well if we look outside of Europe, then things get interesting.

Unlike the Europeans, who linked sex with procreation, there are hundreds of medieval Arabic sources which discuss food and herbs to increase desire without linking them to conception. These documents liken these mood boosting foods to medicines which can correct or enhance sexual function.

The 9th century Persian work The Book of Choice Sexual Stimulants and the Sultan’s Mixtures (which sounds both gross and intriguing) was a text dedicated solely to aphrodisiac-style medicine. Likewise, the 11th century Persian physician Avicenna, who wrote the Canon of Medicine, dedicated an entire section to aphrodisiac-like remedies and their uses and suggested medicines made from honey, almonds, fish, dates and herbs.

Avicenna had an enormous influence on European medicine and if you compare Trotula to his Canon you’ll find myriad comparisons. When it came to embracing performance enhancing drugs, though, European literature seems not to have embraced Islamic ideas as readily as they did others.

Avicenna

You know what’s really sexy? 18th century slimy raw fish.

To this day oysters are considered an aphrodisiac. I’ve never understood why. I mean, yes, I get the symbolism and I understand they’re supposed to resemble certain body parts, but I don’t understand why anyone would think having a phlegmy lump of mollusc slide down your throat would do anything but make you vomit on your lover’s pillow.

Yet here we are. Oysters have been written about extensively and in ancient Rome they were seen as luxury items, a little like they are today. There’s not a lot of evidence, however, that the Romans viewed them as aphrodisiacs. Actually, it’s not until the 16th century or so that there was a meaningful shift in how people thought of them.

In 1566 the French poet Alain Chartier wrote that “oysters provoke lechery” – apparently so much so that some brothels began serving them to their clients.

By the 17th century the word oyster had become a slang word for female genitalia and by the 18th century oyster sellers – women who stood on street corners selling baskets of oysters – found their job title had morphed into a byword for sex worker.

So who’s driving up the demand for oysters in the 18th century?

Who else? Casasnova.

Casanova

His name has become synonymous with philanderer, womanizer, seducer. He wasn’t shy about it either. In his memoirs he recounts over 100 encounters – some consensual, others less so – with women and men. But aside from his peacocking, he also mentions food. A lot.

Casanova holds food and women up as two things he celebrates more than all else:

I have always liked highly seasoned food…as for women I have always found the one I was in love with smelled good.”

The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, trans. Arthur Machen.

There you go ladies – ditch the perfume and just douse yourself in peri peri sauce.

Casanova loved many types of food. He wrote a ten stanza poem about macaroni to gain access to some sort of elite poetry society and then, once in, ate so much of the stuff that they nicknamed him the prince of macaroni.

But the thing that Casanova seems to eat more than all else is oysters. He supposedly consumed 50 of them every morning. Oysters weren’t just a food to him, but a means to an end and they often crop up in foreplay.

He plays a game with rich women which he literally calls the “oyster game”. The game consists of him persuading women to let him feed them oysters which he then “accidentally” drops down their tops. Or bodices. Or whatever, I’m not an expert in 18th century clothing. As they say, hilarity (and sex) often ensues.

“LOL so funny Bernard, but if you drop one more of those things down my top I’ll punch your eyes out, OK?”

Casanova never explicitly calls oysters an aphrodisiac. At one point he suggests that a meal of oysters shared between himself and one of his paramours “had their natural effect” and later on he refers to them as “an aid”. Similarly, one woman who attempts to rebuff him says she will “pick up no more oysters” as she fears the effect they’ll have on her.

Unfortunately for Casanova, it may have all been in his head. Not that it seemed to stop him, but though oysters are high in zinc, which has in some studies been shown to boost testosterone, it’s not present in high enough levels to have any sort of meaningful effect on libido.

Does it matter, in the end?

Probably not.

Whether aphrodisiacs work or not almost certainly comes down to your mindset. The action of taking an aphrodisiac, be it a bumper bag of onions, a dried rabbit womb or a plate of oysters could prime a person to expect it to work, which might lead to increased confidence and thus success with any lovers.

What your partner thinks of your breath after eating all that? Well, that’s probably the thing that decides if you get lucky or not.

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3 thoughts on ““Sleeping with the anemone”: Aphrodisiacs through time

  1. Brilliant! Hilarious and revolting at the same time… pretty much like aphrodisiacs. Thanks for all the research. It must have taken some time to pull all this together.

    I’m sure you’ll be fascinated to know that one of the Old English penitentials (mid-10th century) records the sin of using a particular aphrodisiac, requiring a pretty big penance: ‘A woman/wife who mixes a man’s/husband’s semen into her food and consumes it, so that she becomes more pleasing to the virile man, should fast 3 years.’

    More direct action than all of the other food-related aphrodisiacs, I’d suggest, especially when it seems she surreptitiously obtains the semen from a previous encounter with her man/husband. I say this because only the woman/wife is required to do penance and it’s unlikely that the man/husband would go penance-free if he were cognizant of her activity.

    This was part of my PhD. You can see the kind of high-minded research I engaged in.

    1. Oh my goodness that 10th century one is quite something! And a lot more direct than anything I stumbled across, thank you.

      3 years of fasting…I hope it was worth it!!

      Is the source damning of her because she is unfaithful, or because she is lustful?

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