Mention “aphrodisiac” and the reaction may be a blush, a good-natured laugh, a scornful sniff, or a hushed query, “Do you think they really work?” Amend the image to “herbal aphrodisiac” and the imagination is set loose: herbs tucked into pillows and under mattresses, quaint recipes and rhymes from bygone eras, a mysterious tincture slipped into a claret cup by a lovesick swain. Practical use crosses into history and folklore, reminding us poignantly and sometimes humorously that love troubles and physical embarrassments are among the oldest human conditions. It is curious to explore the role of herbs through history in this dimension of human health, happiness, and emotional well-being.
Named for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, an aphrodisiac is—by broad definition—any substance or process that stimulates or intensifies human sexual desire. Theoretically, an aphrodisiac can do anything from enhancing love to aggravating lust. An aphrodisiac may include ingredients that play on the senses of taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. It may actually induce physical changes in the human body, or it may enhance a mood by its sensual associations or by its power to stimulate the recollection of pleasant erotic memories.
What an aphrodisiac cannot do, however great the claims of historical recipes to the contrary, is to induce a state of erotic or emotional attraction that did not exist previously. For centuries, a love-philter that really works on an unwitting or unwilling victim has been sought with all the urgency—and success—of a recipe for turning base metal into gold. Substances that induce a temporary state of engorgement, hallucination, or dementia may have been tempting to the desperate, but they were not true aphrodisiacs and were then, as they are now, dangerous or deadly.
Having dutifully made that disclaimer, let me turn to the more lighthearted aspects of herbal aphrodisiacs. I classify aphrodisiacs in three categories: substances whose sensual appeal has strong erotic associations, those that enhance physical health and ease and thus free the body and mind for erotic connections, and those that in themselves reputedly have a physical or erotic effect.
The first group, substances with sensual appeal and erotic associations for many people, includes many romantic traditions: flowers, chocolate, wine, perfume, exotic locations, unbound hair, firelight, candlelight, moonlight, leather. History supplies us with a rich bounty of recipes and customs in this category in which herbs feature prominently. Herbal cosmetics, hair rinses, and baths refresh, soothe, and scent the body. They are a delight both to the user and to the object of his or her affection. The idea is an old one: the Roman goddess Venus herself is said to have used myrtle as a douche and a skin wash to make herself more seductive. A legend tells of an elderly medieval queen who bathed in an infusion of rosemary to regain her youthful health and strength; she then used a combination of rosemary and thyme in a charm to help her find and win a virile, loving young husband. An early-nineteenth-century New Englander described a lover’s bedtime ritual as including cleansing teeth with salt and mint and bathing with herb-scented soap: “She smelled of lavender, so clean and good.”
Simple and Effective
Substances that enhance physical health cross the centuries to include herbs that are valued in healing today. Modern books about herbal health care offer many recipes to cure or alleviate ailments and enhance well-being. Many familiar herbs appear again and again in these recipes. Those associated with sexual health include, among others, parsley, carnations, nasturtium, lady’s-mantle, celery, ginger, juniper, ginseng, cloves, laurel, and galangal. Ginseng is widely known and respected as a whole-body health enhancer, as is garlic. Garlic as an aphrodisiac has some style limitations, of course; it tastes terrific, but both partners must eat it or one may be asked to sleep in another room. There are few aphrodisiac formulas simpler or more effective than a healthy body, a happy heart, and opportunity.
Claims of herbs’ having an erotic effect on the body may have some scientific basis. A number of herbs recommended as aphrodisiacs contain naturally occurring hormones that have been synthetically replicated and used in forms of hormone therapy and birth control. For example, licorice root and wild sarsaparilla, two herbs widely used historically as aphrodisiacs but not recommended today for prolonged use because of their toxicity, have served as analogues for the chemically derived versions of estrogen and testosterone.
I hesitate to claim that any herb has direct physical aphrodisiac effects. However, many may well have an influence—today as in the past—due to the strong belief that they work. If we believe that something will make us feel a certain way, we very well may feel it; the power of suggestion accounts for such a huge range of human experience.
In the sixteenth century, a simple aphrodisiac in this category was the fruit of a member of the nightshade family: the pomme d’amour, or love apple. Today we know it as the tomato. Imported to Europe from what is now Mexico, it was considered deadly if eaten whole but an aphrodisiac if eaten in minute amounts. It was initially cultivated in European gardens not for its fruit, but for its handsome foliage (and presumably also for romantic purposes).
Similarly, parsley and thyme both have rich histories as plants associated with lovers. The ancient Greeks ate parsley as an aphrodisiac. Calypso’s island, where she seduced Odysseus, was covered with it. A prudent Victorian English girl would not cut parsley, as that would make her unlucky in love, or give it away, as that would give away her luck in love. On Saint Agnes’ Eve (January 20), a questing woman would mix thyme with rosemary and pray: “Saint Agnes, that’s to lovers kind, / Come, ease the trouble of my mind.” Reputedly, the virgin martyr saint would send a dream about the woman’s true love.
Other herbal aphrodisiacs required combinations of many ingredients. An old prescription to “strengthen the procreative organs” called for ingesting a concoction containing imperial spices, sugar, borax, opium, steel filings, cinnamon oil, and oil of cloves, and included instructions to bathe the body often in warm water and the procreative organs in cold.
A belief widely held for centuries was the “doctrine of signatures”: the belief that the physical appearance of many plants or their fruits gave clues to their uses and that such clues were signs of divine generosity and skill in constructing the universe. Many plants once considered to be aphrodisiacs reflect this belief. Another member of the nightshade family, our simple potato, falls into this category. Shakespeare’s reference to a “potato finger” in Troilus and Cressida (V, ii) is a double entendre alluding to the potato’s reputation as both a body strengthener and a procurer of bodily lust.
Roots shaped roughly like a human body caused both ginseng and mandrake to be esteemed as aphrodisiacs, but whereas ginseng is still valued today for enhancing general health, the ingestion of mandrake can be fatal.
Throughout much of history, plants have been eaten not only to satisfy hunger or for flavor, but also for their health-giving virtues. Different plants were designated as hot, cold, moist, or dry. Hot plants or seasonings were those considered to have stimulating or aphrodisiacal qualities. Onions, for instance, were thought to clear the head and increase sexual prowess. (Anyone suffering from severe allergies will appreciate the correlation between a cleared head and any interest in romantic activities.)
Ginger was once thought to be so powerful an aphrodisiac that it would make even a faithful wife go astray if she drank an infusion of it while her husband was away. When I was in college, a quite elderly Roman Catholic religious told me that when she was in the novitiate pepper never appeared on the table because it was thought to be too stimulating.
The efficacy of herbs as aphrodisiacs was open to interpretation, however. Startling contrasts abound. As an ingredient in love potions, yarrow was at various times used to attract and repel the attentions of a lover. Gerard advised husbands and wives to eat periwinkle leaves to “cause love between them,” but the plant was also made into wreaths to place on the biers of dead children.
A Matter Of Intent
There are few aphrodisiac formulas simpler or more effective than a healthy body, a happy heart, and opportunity.
Was the aphrodisiac intended for someone oblivious to the pursuit? for one who was attracted but unable to perform? or for someone who was neither willing nor interested in establishing or reestablishing a romantic relationship? The success of a recipe likely depended highly on the state of the consumer.
Much has been made in plays, novels, and history books of desperate lovers’ attempts to arouse or rekindle passion in another. Among the many unfounded charges brought against Anne Boleyn when England’s King Henry VIII sought to divorce her were that she ensnared the king’s affections by use of love charms and subsequently did the same with other lovers. Anne was desperate to bear a male child, and Henry desperate to have one. When Anne failed to do so, as had Catherine of Aragon before her, Henry severed their relationship and Anne’s neck.
In the gentler realm of aphrodisiacs, there was the matter of two lovers who wished to be fulfilled with one another but could not: one of the oldest and most poignant of human frustrations, whether the failing was male or female. Here aphrodisiacs were a loving gift and a gesture of hope. It is interesting that a prayer, word charm, or spell usually accompanied the herbs or other physical substances. Accompanied by prayer, the aphrodisiac was acknowledged as a gift from God to assist the faithful. Accompanied by a charm or spell, other sources were being called on for assistance, a practice that the Christian church viewed dimly.
Throughout much of history, people believed that an aphrodisiac could be administered to an unknowing victim, causing him or her to fall helplessly in love. In a story set in the late Middle Ages, an elderly clergyman accused a young barmaid of slipping something into his beer that caused him to fall humiliatingly, publicly in love with her. He hauled her into the local court on a witchcraft charge. The judge, on hearing the case, sensibly dismissed the accusation, commenting that if such things were possible there would not be enough jails to hold all those accused of causing others to make fools of themselves.
Occasionally, an herb might be a counteraphrodisiac. In 1656, William Coles reported, “If a man gather Vervain the first day of the New Moon, before Sun Rising, and drink the juice thereof, it will make him avoid lust for seven years.” One old recipe, surely not benevolent, suggested breaking a whole walnut meat into two and hiding the two parts in a conjugal bed to render the bridegroom impotent.
The Games Herbs Can Play
I call, I call. Who do ye call?
The maid to catch this cowslip ball:
But since these cowslips fading be,
Troth, leave the flowers; and maids, take me.
Yet, if that neither you will do,
Speak but the word, and I’ll take you.
Herbs play a traditional role in divination. As children, many of us learned the simple game of picking off daisy rays while chanting, “He loves me, he loves me not.” British folklore teems with such recipes and customs. An apple peel carefully removed in a single spiral and thrown over the shoulder was supposed to form the initial of the peeler’s true love. A traditional May Day game among unmarried girls, reflected in the poem above, was to make a ball of cowslips and toss it around in a circle. Names of hoped-for swains were called aloud as the ball flew about; supposedly the groom would bear the name called out when the ball was dropped. Such games were the source of endless entertainment.
Another of herbal aphrodisiacs’ roles in courtship is the use of symbolic herbs as gifts. What willing lover would not be touched by a progression of courtship tussie-mussies including such herbs and flowers as arborvitae (in the language of flowers, unchanging friendship), daffodil (regard), carnation (admiration), mistletoe (“I surmount difficulties”), tulip (ardent love), rose (love), celandine (joys to come), rosemary (remembrance), fennel (strength), olive (peace), sage (domestic virtues), ivy or fir (fidelity), violet (steadfastness), and lavender (loyalty). One of the many things that attracted me to my husband was his splendid lavender hedge, which was the first thing he had planted when he put in his garden. When we married, my wedding bouquet was a large tussie-mussie of roses, rosemary, sage, fir, ivy, olive, fennel, and lavender, all harvested from our combined gardens.
Do herbal aphrodisiacs work? Herbs help us heal our illnesses, enhance our wellness, flavor our food, scent our bodies, and give much pleasure in their cultivation and gathering. Share any portion of these gifts with a beloved, and you have an aphrodisiac.
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Robbie Cranch is a freelance writer, folklorist, herb gardener, and medieval and Tudor historian. She lives in California’s San Joaquin Valley with her husband, two young children, two dogs, and ten turtles. This year, the family is overhauling its 1/3-acre yard, replanting it largely with herbs and drought-tolerant perennials.