Ancient aphrodisiacs
Ancient aphrodisiacs

Food and Aphrodisiacs Throughout History by Dr. Ursula Janssen

Dr. Ursula Janssen is an archaeologist, a culinary historian and a book author, and in the spirit of St. Valentine's Day, has prepared a blog for us on ancient aphrodisiacs. She also has a fantastic YouTube channel, where she shares videos of herself preparing ancient recipes. 

An aphrodisiac is an ingredient, a substance or a dish that is meant to enhance lust and passion. The desire to do so is supposedly as old as humanity itself. The word aphrodisiac comes from the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. Her birth is described somewhat non-erotic – the titan Cronus severed Uranus' genitals and threw them into the sea. The foam from his genitals gave rise to the goddess who would carry a number of mysterious love potions at her belt – aphrodisiacs.

Let us have a look at some of the substances that were considered an aphrodisiac in different periods of our history, and what we can learn from this today. I would divide aphrodisiacs broadly into the following four categories:

1) Shape analogy is among the most common reasons – ingredients that visually remind us of either female or male reproductive organs. 16th century Swiss medical doctor and researcher Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, called Paracelsus, developed the antique theory of the humours to his theory of correspondences, stating that plants resembling various parts of the body can be used to treat ailments of those parts. Examples are asparagus, celeriac, carrots, oysters, mussels, and so on.

2) The idea of transferring powers from other creatures onto the consumer of “potent” body parts such as antlers, horns and reproductive organs. This practice leads to the near extinction of many endangered species, and there is absolutely no scientific base for its usefulness.

3) The sensual side should not be underestimated – consider the beauty of a flower or a specific dish, or good smells like incense, sandalwood and cinnamon oil. Incense is known to have been frequently used by ancient Egyptians and Romans. Of course, a good smell creates a festive atmosphere and helps to cover bad body odours. The latter was especially important in times before regular showers or baths were available to everyone. For the same reason, mint is considered an aphrodisiac as chewing it can help to disguise bad breath.

4) The fourth category are substances that have an actual effect on the body – most of them are either relaxing or, on the contrary, stimulating drugs. Many of the historically used substances are toxic in higher quantities, some of them even illegal. I will write only of safe ingredients here that are commonly used as kitchen herbs or spices, like ginger, pepper, saffron, nutmeg (be careful, as nutmeg is toxic in bigger quantities than those usually used in the kitchen), parsley (again, be careful – parsley in excessive quantities is uterotonic and should be eaten with care by pregnant women), and alcohol (again, in moderation).

The medical idea of “humours” - the four qualities that regulate human bodies – was developed during classical antiquity and was generally regarded as a pillar stone of medical science throughout the Middle Ages. Even foods were categorised the same way, resulting in the belief that everything hot and spicy (like pepper, garlic, onions, ginger or mustard) would lead to sexual excitement, while cold and wet foods (think cucumbers and pickled vegetables) helped consumers to stay abstinent. The Roman poet Martial (1st century AD) wrote:

“If your wife is old and your member is exhausted, eat onions in plenty."

A concoction made from garlic with coriander was regarded as a wonder drink for that very purpose. On the contrary, medieval monastic kitchens prepared dishes for monks and nuns accordingly, abstaining from spicy foods. Anyway, I would not recommend garlic in quantities as an aphrodisiac, for obvious reasons! Persians recommend Sir Torshi, garlic pickled in vinegar over an extended period, thus loosing its pungent smell, as a miracle tonic.

The pomegranate, with its sumptuous blood-red colour and its many seeds, was seen as a symbol of the uterus and of female fertility. The pomegranate is, together with the quince, one of the attributes of Aphrodite and is often regarded as the fruit of temptation that Eve gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden. In the 16th century, the Italian medical practitioner Mattioli recommended the powder of dried pomegranate peels for external use in both men and women.

Speaking of powders, one of the weirdest aphrodisiacs of history originated in early modern Europe: mumia, a powder obtained by crushing ancient Egyptian human mummies. It was ingested orally. This disgusting and uttermost undignified idea apparently has its origins in a mistranslation from the Arabic word “mumiya”, a bitumen-like substance used as a general tonic in Greek and Middle Eastern traditional medicine, which was also used in the embalming process of Egyptian mummies. A sobering reminder of the value of correct translations!

During the Baroque period, members of the French nobility hosted erotic banquets where women sucked asparagus and men indulged in oysters. At the court of Louis XV, another concoction was used – a mix of raw egg yolks and ginger. Raw egg yolks can be found as a tonic in many parts of the world, sometimes mixed with alcohol to enhance their effect. An eggnog is nothing else. “The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight”, a late medieval Arabic erotic manual, describes the consumption of big quantities of eggs – somewhat exaggerated – as the key to male potency.

In general, one can say that the presentation is as important as the actual ingredients are, as well as the quantities. A meal destined to seduce and excite should be strengthening, but not too filling either. It may come as no surprise that a digestive coma is very counterproductive to the intended cause!

I have compiled a sensual menu based on the more palatable of the ingredients discussed here, featuring both of Aphrodite's attribute fruits:

  1. A salad with pomegranate seeds and walnuts
  2. Chicken and quince stewed in spiced wine
  3. Zabaglione, the Italian dessert combining the goodness of raw egg yolks and alcoholic beverages

You can find a detailed description of the recipes in my video here...

– Dr. Ursula Janssen

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Food and Aphrodisiacs Throughout History by Dr. Ursula Janssen was published on 1 January 2020