Named after Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, aphrodisiacs have been used to get us in the mood for centuries. From English brothels in the 16th century dishing out prunes to Casanova dining on raw oysters for breakfast, boundless enthusiasm has been devoted to substances that have promised to increase libido and sexual pleasure. Here’s just a few from the aphrodisiac apothecary.
Tanner’s Cassia is a plant grown in central and south India. All parts of the plant have been used in Ayurvedic and Siddha medicines, but it’s the seeds that are commonly taken as an aphrodisiac. Herbal tea made from the plant has also been sold with the promise of “restoring sexual vitality”.
‘Spanish fly’ is common in many aphrodisiac preparations. However, the original drug contains an extract from the blister beetle, found largely in southern Europe and Africa. As its name suggests, the insect contains a toxic blistering agent, cantharidin, which, if ingested, causes inflammation of the urinary tract that can result in priapism – a prolonged abnormal erection.
Cinnamon bark has historically been associated with improving sexual dysfunction. The Old Testament’s Song of Solomon references the sensory excitement of cinnamon and 13th-century Persian texts cite the spice, alongside ginger, as an aphrodisiac. Sadly, there’s little chemical evidence to support this, and any benefits felt can most likely be attributed to its ‘warming’ properties.
It is believed in parts of south India that the raw flesh of the monitor lizard, particularly the tongue, is a powerful aphrodisiac. Thankfully, consumption of the lizard’s flesh has become less popular due to its association with meningoencephalitis – a condition resembling both meningitis and encephalitis, an infection or inflammation of the brain.
‘The Sultan’s Sex Potions’, written by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi in the 13th century, is a group of works devoted to aphrodisiacs as well as sexual stimulants and sexual practices. In it he notes the preparation of an aphrodisiac tonic that “strengthens the sperm and invigorates intercourse”. Disappointingly this is just a syrup containing ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and clove mixed with water.
The humble oyster’s status as an aphrodisiac might actually have a basis in truth because it is high in zinc, a deficiency of which can contribute to male infertility. But some have theorised that the aphrodisiac reputation of oysters originates from their resemblance to female genitalia, making them perhaps more visually than chemically stimulating.
The supposed healing properties of rhino horn has driven the animals to near extinction from hunting. But despite popular belief, rhino horns have never been mentioned in traditional Chinese medicine texts as possessing aphrodisiac properties. A 2016 campaign by WildAid featured celebrities biting their nails with the tagline: “Rhino horns don’t have anything your own nails don’t have”, in an effort to debunk their medicinal value.
The Aztec emperor Montezuma allegedly consumed huge volumes of cocoa beans to fuel his sexual activities. Since then, chocolate’s close association with romance has only continued, and not without support from the chemists. The presumed aphrodisiac effects of chocolate have been attributed to the presence of chemicals tryptophan (a building block of serotonin) and phenylethylamine, which is a stimulant.
Perhaps one of the more unpleasant historic examples of an aphrodisiac is Ambra grisea, a solid waxy substance produced in the stomachs of sperm whales. It was considered an aphrodisiac in many Arabic countries, where it was stirred into a cup of sweetened tea. Disgusting as it may sound, there is some truth in this belief, as Ambra grisea contains chemicals that have been linked to an increased concentration of sex hormones.
About the author
Ella Nørgaard Morton
Ella is an intern in the Digital Editorial department at Wellcome Collection. She studies Human Sciences at university in London. Hobbies include being bad at yoga and reading books about medicine.