APHRODISIACS. Throughout the centuries, emperors and everyday folk alike have ingested, imbibed, sprinkled, or applied almost every conceivable substance—from almond paste to zebra tongues—in the hope of arousing sexual desire. Whether to woo a reluctant lover, revive a flagging libido, or pique carnal pleasure and performance, lovers the world over have relied on aphrodisiacs to do the trick. But which ones have the greatest reputations for potency (and why?) and do any of them really work?
Aphrodisiacs through the Ages
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 nectarlike 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-thecounter 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.
From Symbol to Science
How did certain foods come to be regarded as aphrodisiacs in the first place? In some cases, legendary associations play a likely role: Cleopatra is rumored to have rubbed her private parts with a honey-almond mixture that drove Mark Antony mad. Some believe that the Aztec ruler Montezuma fortified himself with upwards of fifty cups of chocolate before visiting his harem (though more scholarly reports contend it was the conquistadors who sought such reinforcement). Casanova famously boasted of seducing a virgin by slipping a raw oyster into her mouth. Madame du Barry is said to have used ginger in a custardy concoction that stirred Louis XV to passion. And because Aphrodite, Greek goddess of sexual love, was said in myth to be born from the sea, a beguiling array of seafoods have been deemed aphrodisiacs (her very name is the source of the word).
Symbolism, too, plays an obvious part. During the Middle Ages, the Law of Similarities, or Doctrine of Signatures, held that in God's universe "like causes like," so suggestively shaped and textured substances were believed to enhance virility and fertility by virtue of their resemblance to sexual organs. Firm, elongated asparagus, sea cucumbers, and ginseng (literally, "manroot") and moist, fleshy figs, peaches, and oysters are prime examples. Other symbolic aphrodisiacs are rhinoceros horn and deer antler and the sex organs of animals known for their virility or procreative fervor, such as the tiger or rabbit.
Some foods are exalted as aphrodisiacs by virtue of their rarity or luxury. Bird's nest soup, foie gras, caviar, truffles, and champagne are all, even if no longer necessarily difficult to obtain, still suggestive of wealth and largesse, playing into the age-old association among food, sex, and the provision of resources. Certain foods also lend themselves to particularly sensual dining rituals and modes of eating. Preparing food tableside with competence and élan, consuming whole ripe fruits or succulent birds or crustaceans, eating with the hands, licking fingers coated in delectable juices, feeding one's partner, sharing food from a common platter, sucking and slurping seductively—such acts and rituals constitute true foreplay for culinarily inclined lovers.
"No one has ever succeeded at seduction by means of food alone," wrote Manuel Vázquez Montalbán in his Immoral Recipes, "but there's a long list of those who have seduced by talking about that which was about to be eaten." Certainly, stimulating the mind helps stoke the sexual appetite, and it is our social and cultural associations that imbue certain foods with erotic meanings. But is there solid scientific evidence to support the claims made for aphrodisiacs beyond their placebo effect?
Proponents of chocolate point out that it contains phenylethylamine, or PEA, the brain chemical believed to underlie the euphoric sensation of being "in love." But eating chocolate has not been found to actually increase PEA levels in the body. The chili pepper may have a stronger claim to its fiery reputation: it quickens the pulse and induces sweating, mimicking the state of sexual arousal, and has also been shown to stimulate the release of endorphins, naturally occurring opiates that play a role in sexual pleasure. Ginkgo biloba, said to boost both mental and sexual performance, may restore or enhance physical function by increasing blood flow to the genitals, but the safety and efficacy of this herbal enhancer are still unclear (heart patients and those on aspirin need to be especially cautious). Garlic may promote potency through a similar mechanism, with its high content of arginine, an amino acid that enhances blood flow and could thereby augment erections. The lure of the elusive truffle may derive in part from a pheromonelike chemical it contains, similar to one secreted in the saliva of male pigs to attract sows. And the oyster, that consummate aphrodisiac, is noted not only for its fleshy, briny sensuality but also for its rich supply of zinc, which may aid normal sperm production and libido (though it is unlikely that oysters make a difference in any but the most zinc-deficient diets).
The Ultimate Aphrodisiac
Overall, aphrodisiacs seem to be more the stuff of folklore than of science. But in the realm of food and love, the power of the imagination is not to be ignored—believing something's an aphrodisiac may well make it so. Yet all the oysters in the world cannot take the place of the ultimate aphrodisiac. As the Roman philosopher Seneca once promised, "I will show you a philter without potions, without herbs, without any witch's incantation—if you wish to be loved, love."
See also Art, Food in ; Chocolate ; Greece, Ancient ; Rome and the Roman Empire ; Sex and Food ; Symbol, Food as .
Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of Love. New York: Random House, 1995.
Allende, Isabel. Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
Hopkins, Martha, and Randall Lockridge. InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook. Memphis, Tenn.: Terrace, 1997.
Nordenberg, Tamar. "Looking for a Libido Lift? The Facts about Aphrodisiacs." FDA Consumer 30, no. 1 ( January–February 1996): 10–15.
Meryl S. Rosofsky
The Notorious Spanish Fly
Cantharides, a potent preparation made from the crushed dried bodies of the green blister beetle, has been famed throughout history as an aphrodisiac. The Marquis de Sade reportedly favored Spanish fly to enhance virility, and an entire legion of nineteenth-century French soldiers "stood at attention" for prolonged periods after feasting on frogs that had themselves been dining on cantharidin-laden beetles.
Spanish fly does indeed produce erections, but one might die for the pleasure: the French legionnaires in question suffered from priapism, persistent painful erections that, untreated, can result in scarring and permanent loss of erectile function. Antonio Gamoneda in The Book of Poisons noted that "Great injury befalls those who take the Spanish Fly, because they will feel a burning corrosion in almost all their body. . . . They will suffer from swoons, surfeit, and lightheadedness, and will fall to the floor and gnaw table legs." This urogenital-tract irritant can be deadly and should be avoided.
Fortunately, safer drugs are now available to aid impotence, and people experiencing sexual dysfunction are well advised to seek medical advice.
An aphrodisiac is a substance that can be administered topically, internally, by injection, or by inhalation to stimulate sexual arousal or to enhance sexual performance. The term is based on Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, and it came into the English language during the early 1800s. Although no solid scientific evidence exists for any substances that have selective effect on sexual function, many foods and food combinations have a long-standing reputation as aphrodisiacs—such as oysters, caviar, champagne, and truffles (a subterranean fungus uprooted by pigs in the oak forests of France).
Alcoholic drinks have also been considered to be an aphrodisiac, since sexual behavior often occurs after "cocktails," during or after parties, or during periods of alcohol intoxication—but only if not too much alcohol has been consumed. Objective measurements have demonstrated that Alcohol (a depressant) actually decreases sexual responsiveness in both men and women. This paradoxical effect was best expressed about 1605 by William Shakespeare in Macbeth, act 2, scene 3:
What three things does drink especially provoke?
Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance….
Since the 1980s, COCAINE has gained popularity as a potential aphrodisiac, since its use purportedly enhances the sexual experience; MARIJUANA and AMYL NITRITE have had this reputation, in general, since the 1960s. Nevertheless, chronic cocaine users, like chronic heroin users, often report a loss of sexual interest and capability; therefore no rationale exists for the use of alcohol or other drugs as sexual stimulants. Quite the contrary, the use of these substances can lead to a loss of sexual desire and excitement and the development of a physical and/or psychological dependence.
A prescription drug—yohimbine, derived from the African yohimbe tree—seems to help cure some men of impotence. The data suggest that it may work as a placebo (psychologically), but urologists prescribe it nonetheless in the hope that the patient can avoid more invasive treatments. The treatment takes three to six months before there is an effect, and the natural form (available in health-food stores), is not the form used therapeutically.
Chitwood, D. D. (1985). Patterns and consequences of cocaine use. In Cocaine use in America: Epidemiologic and clinical perspectives. NIDA Research Monograph No. 61, DHHS Publication no. (ADM) 85-1414. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Root, W. (1980). Food: An authoritative and visual history and dictionary of the foods of the world. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wilson, G. T. (1977). Alcohol and human sexual behavior. Behavioral Research and Therapy, 15, 239-252.
Nick E. Goeders
A number of foods are reputed to have aphrodisiac properties, including asparagus, caviar, eel, garlic, ginseng, honey, lobster, oysters, peaches, and truffles. Many of these foods are exotic, and any effect they have on sexual desire is more likely due to the setting in which they are presented.
In much of the above account the receivers of the supposed aphrodisiac were unaware what was being offered to them. In recent times therapeutic strategies have been developed to assist those who have sexual desire but lack the ability to perform. Male impotence affects large numbers of men from age 40 onwards, because of the inability to maintain an erection. In some instances, for example paraplegics, the nerve pathways from the brain to the penis are interrupted, so that desire cannot lead to an erection. A breakthrough in understanding occurred when it was realized that, to obtain an erection, the penile muscles, especially of the blood vessels, need to relax. This allows the blood spaces to fill causing swelling, the resulting tumescence compressing the veins, preventing venous drainage. Papaverine and phenoxybenzamine, an α-adrenoceptor blocking drug, were amongst the first to be used. The former is a spasmolytic, (a smooth muscle relaxant), whereas phenoxybenzamine prevents vasoconstriction by blocking the effects of sympathetic vasoconstriction and so allowing the filling of the blood spaces. For the latter an intact sympathetic outflow is needed. These agents have widespread activity throughout the body and therefore have to be injected, locally, into the penis. An alternative approach is to increase levels of cyclic AMP locally in the penis, again causing muscle relaxation. This has been achieved by using an inhibitor of phosphodiesterase (which breaks down cyclic AMP). The penile tissue is particularly rich in a particular phosphodiesterase, PDE5, so a specific inhibitor of PDE5 was developed which can be taken orally, namely sildenafil citrate (Viagra). An erection is obtained only when sexual stimulation is present; the drug is therefore useful in male erectile dysfunction, but only if other pathways are intact. Whether phenoxybenzamine or sildenafil should be described as aphrodisiacs is arguable.
Finally, a word about alcohol. In Macbeth, Shakespeare wrote of alcohol ‘Lechery it provokes and improvokes. It provokes the desire but takes away the performance.’ Clearly alcohol reduces inhibitions, causing Ogden Nash to note ‘Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.’ Scientific research has shown alcohol raises testosterone levels in women — a hormone linked to libido in both sexes.
A great variety of odours have been found to increase penile blood flow, including liquorice, lavender, and pumpkin pie.
Alan W. Cuthbert
See also impotence; libido; sex hormones.
- cestus Aphrodite’s girdle made by Hephaestus; magically induces passion. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 183]
- ginseng induces passion. [Plant Symbolism: EB, IV: 549]
- lupin leguminous plant; arouses passion. [Plant Folklore: Boland, 9]
- mandrake a narcotic that arouses passion. [Western Folklore: Boland, 13]
- marjoram used on bedsheets; Venus used it with Ascanius. [Rom. Myth.: Boland, 11–12]
- periwinkle, worms, and houseleek combination induces passion. [Plant Folklore: Boland, 9]
- raw oysters food consumed as a love potion. [Popular Folklore: Misc.]
- Spanish fly preparation made of green blister beetles and used to incite cattle to mate. [Insect Symbolism: EB, IX: 399]
- willow seeds taken in water, produce only sons. [Western Folklore: Boland, 11]
aph·ro·dis·i·ac / ˌafrəˈdizēˌak; -ˈdēzē-; -ˈdēzhē-/ • n. a food, drink, or drug that stimulates sexual desire. ∎ a thing that causes excitement: for a few seconds she'd fallen for the powerful aphrodisiac of music.
An aphrodisiac is a substance that causes someone to feel sexually aroused or that enhances sexual performance. Many foods, such as oysters, have a long-standing reputation as aphrodisiacs. Another common belief is that alcohol is an aphrodisiac, but in fact alcohol (a depressant) decreases sexual responsiveness in both men and women. Some drugs of abuse also have reputations as aphrodisiacs, including cocaine, marijuana, MDMA or "ecstasy," and amyl nitrite (an inhalant, often called poppers). To the contrary, the use of these drugs can lead to a loss of sexual desire, excitement, and capability.