Aphrodisiacs: Some are for Real

Natural aphrodisiacs for both men and women to spice up your sex life

| March/April 1999

What do herbs such as ginseng, cocoa, coffee, oats, yam, and the bark of a certain West African tree have in common? They’re just a few of the many items people have used through the ages to ignite sexual fireworks. The list also includes such nonherbal items as oysters, alcohol, powdered rhinoceros tusk, and ground Mediterranean beetle.

Scientists generally have dismissed each of these traditional and mostly herbal aphrodisiacs as sexually worthless and sometimes dangerous. But recent research shows that herbalists of yore were actually on to something. Scientists still haven’t identified anything that charms reluctant objects of desire into disrobing, but a surprising number of herbs have physiological effects that just might qualify them as aphrodisiacs. And if we define aphrodisiac as anything that adds extra zing to lovemaking, then the possibilities become as boundless as the erotic imagination.

Sexy history

In general, people believe in aphrodisiacs for three reasons: ancient mythology, medieval medical theory, and traditional herbal medicine.

The mythological genesis of some purported sex-boosters is hinted at by the word aphrodisiac, which comes from Aphrodite, Greek goddess of beauty and love. In Greek mythology, after Uranus was killed in a battle of the gods, his body fell into the sea, and Aphrodite arose from it. Because of this, people have long considered products of the sea to be sexual stimulants, especially oysters, whose soft flesh bears some fanciful resemblance to female genitalia. (It turns out that oysters have reproductive benefits—read on.)

Such similarities lie at the heart of the Middle Ages medical philosophy known as the Doctrine of Signatures. The idea was that the same God who had cursed humanity with illness had also blessed his children with natural cures, mostly herbal medicines, and that these cures were identifiable by their appearance, or “signature.” Plants with heart-shaped leaves were prescribed for heart disease, yellow flowers were used to treat jaundice, and so on. Using the same logic, plants with a phallic appearance—for example, carrots and bananas—were thought to promote erection, according to George Armelagos, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta and co-author with Peter Farb of Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating (Houghton Mifflin, 1980). By the same token, anything soft and moist was considered an aphrodisiac for women.

The Doctrine of Signatures held sway from China to Kenya, which helps explain why Asians for centuries have revered ginseng root as a male aphrodisiac. Some ginseng roots are shaped like little people, with a bodylike center, branches that resemble arms and legs, and, yes, protuberances that look rather penile.

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