Tag Archives: aphrodisiacs

Lizards and lettuces: Greek and Roman recipes for Valentine’s Day

As you prepare to tuck into your oysters, followed by a garlicky main course, and a chocolaty desert on Valentine’s night, spare a thought for the Greeks and Romans, whose aphrodisiacs I now present to you. Ancient medical treatises contain numerous recipes for aphrodisiacs. This abundance may give the impression that the Greeks and Romans were a liberated bunch, with a healthy interest in a fulfilled sexual life.

Sexual scene on one of the walls of the lupanar at Pompeii. Photo: Laurence Totelin, October 2014
Sexual scene on one of the walls of the lupanar at Pompeii. Photo: Laurence Totelin, October 2014

Certainly, archaeologists have discovered a wealth of sexually-themed Greek and Roman objects over the years. Many, like those found at Herculaneum and Pompeii, were hidden away for decades in ‘Secret Rooms’ in museums, only to come to full light quite recently. One has to be careful, however, not to look at such objects with too modern a gaze. Many had ritual purposes: they were meant to ward off various dangers. And among the perils the ancient feared most was infertility, human, animal, and vegetal. Barrenness of the earth would bring hunger; human barrenness would mean the end of the family line. I believe it is in this context that ancient aphrodisiac recipes are best read.

One of the most impressive collection of aphrodisiacs is to be found in the pseudo-Galenic Euporista. Euporista’ is the title of several ancient medical recipe collections. It simply means ‘Remedies easily procured’, that is, remedies whose ingredients are relatively easy to find, and whose preparation is relatively simple. This particular collection of Euporista is attributed to Galen in the manuscripts, although it is quite clear that Galen himself did not write it. The chapter on aphrodisiacs starts as follows:

Aphrodisiacs for the penis: these stretch the penis and lead to sexual union: pine-cones, pepper, parsley, fillings deer’s penis, turpentine, of each the same amount; mix with honey, and give to drink in wine. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.2]

This recipe is quite clearly meant to be used by men! It explicitly states that it will stretch out the penis. It features one of the most common ancient aphrodisiac ingredients – deer’s penis – with herbal ingredients. The deer’s penis is very large and was therefore considered useful as a sexual stimulant. Two of the herbal ingredients (pine-cones and pepper) present themselves as seeds, which again had links with fertility. Pseudo-Galen then gives several other similar recipes, most of which seem passably palatable, with the exception of the following:

Another [aphrodisiac]: when the bull defecates after sexual intercourse, mix clay with the pat from the bull, and coat the penis with this poultice. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.2]

Perhaps one had to have reached a certain level of desperation to make use of that particular remedy. A man under less pressure might have prefered to consume cow’s milk, which features quite often in ancient aphrodisiacs.

Aphrodisiacs could be more complex than those preserved in the pseudo-Galenic Euporista. For instance, the seventh-century author Paul of Aegina transmits the following recipe:

Man orchis (saturion), the penis of deer, of each 2 drams, seed of rocket, pellitory, barley (?), wax, of each 2 drams, turpentine, 1 dr., 3 eggs of sparrows, 3 geckos, pine or iris oil, a sufficient amount. Steep the live geckos in vinegar until 40 days have passed, smearing the vessel [containing the gecko] with dung. [Paul, Medical Collection 7.17.84]

Satyr on a red-figure cup, sixth-century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Satyr on a red-figure cup, sixth-century BCE. Source: Wikipedia

The Greek name of the man orchis, saturion, does more than hint at its alleged aphrodisiac properties: this is the plant of the Satyrs, the companions of the god Dionysus, usually represented with huge erections. This plant, like other orchids, has a bulb that can be perceived as resembling a testicle (the Greek word for testicle is – you may have guessed – orchis). Beside this most powerful plant, the recipe also boasts herbal ingredients, deer’s penis, gecko, sparrow’s eggs, and dung.  The gecko deserves special attention. It is a type of lizard whose kidneys in particular were reputed for their aphrodisiac powers. This is what the pharmacologist Dioscorides (first century CE) had to say on the topic:

They say that the part around the kidneys of the gecko, in the amount of one dram drunk with wine, has such a sexually-stimulating power, that the intensity of desire must be checked by drinking a broth of lentil with honey, or the seed of lettuce with water. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.66]

Now the lettuce has always been reputed for its soporific properties – recall Beatrix Potters’ story of the Flopsy Bunnies. Of course, sleep is the worst enemy of sexual intercourse, and if you fall prey to sleepiness, pseudo-Galen gives us a recipe to prevent sleep immediately after his chapter on aphrodisiacs:

Against sleep: Write upon the surface of a bay leaf and secretly place it on the head [of the patient], uttering ‘konkofon brachereon’. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.3].

Happy Valentine’s Day!



Horse love pills

By Laurence Totelin

In the seventh century BCE, Semonides of Amorgos wrote his now infamous poem on the races of women, each one worse than the next. The mare-woman is perhaps my favourite, the ultimate high-maintenance lady:

Another type a horse with a splendid mane begat.
She turns up her nose at all kinds of work and toil.
She would never touch a mill, nor a sieve
Would she ever lift, nor would she throw dung out of the house,
Nor, for fear of the soot, would she near the oven
Ever sit. Only out of necessity will she make love to her husband.
She washes off the dirt every day,
Twice, sometimes three times; then she anoints herself with perfumes
She always wears her mane combed loose,
Abundant as it is, and strewn with flowers.
What a beauty to look at, she is that woman
For others; for her owner she is a pain,
Unless he is a king or a sceptre bearer
Who can delight in such pleasures.
[Semonides fragment 7, 57-70]

Now Semonides was describing human women here, but he may as well have been berating an actual mare. For in antiquity horses in general, and mares in particular, were considered rather troublesome, especially in their sexual habits.

Centaur women flanking Aphrodite on a Roman mosaic, Tunisia. Photograph by Giorces available on Wikimedia Commons
Centaur women flanking Aphrodite on a Roman mosaic, Tunisia. Photograph by Giorces available on Wikimedia Commons

According to Aristotle, horses were the most salacious of animals after men, but unlike civilised Greeks, they had no revulsion for incest:

Horses will mounts their mothers and their daughters. In fact, a herd of horses is not considered perfect, unless horses copulate with their own offspring. [Aristotle, Enquiry into Animals 6.22, 576a18-20]:

In some regions, mares left without a stallion, were said to imagine the pleasures of love and conceive ‘wind-foals’, with the help of the west wind (this story is often repeated in ancient literature, see for instance Vergil, Georgics 3.269-275; Columella, On Agriculture 6.27.4-7). Other mares fell in love with themselves:

There is a rare, but remarkable, form of madness that overcomes mares. If they see their reflection in water, they are seized with a vain love, and as a result, they forget to forage and they become lost to this wasting love disease. [Columella, On Agriculture 6.35]

However, when breeding was required, mares turned cold. They often had to be tied to submit to the stallion (Varro, On Agriculture 2.7.8; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 10.179). And the only way to get a mare to submit to an ass in mule-breeding was to clip her mane, because a long mane made her ‘proud and high spirited’ (Pliny, Natural History 10.179). No wonder then, that the ancients developed love pills to regulate equine desire. The Roman agronomists recommended squill, crushed to the consistency of honey in water, to be smeared on the genitals of the mare; while the stud was made to smell her genital scent (Columella, On Agriculture 6.27; Varro, On Agriculture 2.7.8). The Greek Hippiatric treatises, beside similar herbal remedies, have slightly more complicated concoctions:

Horse carrying a nude woman. Detail from a mosaic at the Baths of Caracalla, Ostia. This photograph by Hubert Steiner is available on Wikimedia Commons.
Horse carrying a nude woman. Detail from a mosaic at the Baths of Caracalla, Ostia. This photograph by Hubert Steiner is available on Wikimedia Commons.

To incite horses to sexual intercourse… the right testicle of a cock; place it in the skin of a ram and hang to the neck of the horse; or the dried right testicle of a deer; reduce to powder and make it drink with milk-honey. For frequent and unpainful sexual intercourse… The flesh of a skink (lizard) in sweet-smelling mixed wine; inject into the animal…  [Hippiatric treatise of Cambridge 10.6 and 15, ninth century CE]

The animals whose testicles were sacrificed to the greater good of horse breeding were, of course, not chosen at random: both the cock and the deer were known for their sexual vigour. Nor was the right testicle an arbitrary choice: the right side was believed to be involved in the production of males.

Such fanciful and expensive aphrodisiacs may never been used on actual mares, but it is significant that they are recorded. Horses were time-consuming and costly animals to keep–animals whose possession was indicative of social standing, very much like Semonides’ beautiful horse-woman, kept entertained by luxurious flowers and perfumes.

Anthony Lewis and the Aphrodisiac Remedy

By Jennifer Evans

In early modern England, academic and popular medical writers expressed concern that there were many couples who struggled to conceive and so were childless. An English edition of François Mariceau’s midwifery manual remarked that that he ‘admire[d] the great passion which many have, who complain of nothing with greater regret than to [be] without Children, especially without Sons.’[1] Barrenness though was not only limited to those who were childless; those who had had children previously but now struggled to conceive again were also thought to be barren.

One strategy for remedying barrenness, particularly if it was caused by frigidity (a loss of libido and sexual pleasure caused by cold) recommended by early modern medical writers was to consume ‘provokers of venery’ what came to be called in the late seventeenth century aphrodisiacs. Numerous foods were thought to be aphrodisiacs including, nettles, artichokes, parsnips, mustard seeds and onions. As one published book of medical recipes, Dr. Trigg’s Secrets, Arcana’s & Panacea’s  (1655) declared ‘an excellent secret to help barrennesse’ was ‘The buds of the Sun-flower before it blossome, boiled and eaten with butter, vinegar and pepper, do mightily excite to venery, and provoke lust more than the Artichoke. Nettle seeds are good for the same purpose; so is garden cresses and rocket and purslaine’.[2]

Wikimediea Commons: H. Zell
Wikimediea Commons: H. Zell

Many aphrodisiacs were incorporated into fertility remedies recorded in domestic recipe books, although these texts were rarely as explicit as Dr. Trigg’s secrets in explaining that these remedies were useful because they encouraged couples to engage in sexual activity that would lead to conception. One plant regularly described by medical authors as an aphrodisiac was Eryngo also known as Sea Holly. The roots were often candied, and recipes for this were recorded in several domestic recipe books including an anonymous seventeenth and eighteenth century collection housed in the Wellcome library (MS 8097).[3] The author of this recipe gave detailed instructions for washing, boiling and candying the roots of this plant. The root was also included in several remedies designed to improve fertility. A collection attributed to Elizabeth Okeover included ‘An excellent helpe to conception’ – ‘Take the rotes of seaholly it growth by the sea side & is like to little trees of halfe a yeare height some call it Aringeime take the rootes of this & make it in sirrupe & eate it in the morne & at 4 a clocke take some gentle pills at the beginenge not before every recept’.[4] Similar remedies were also included in a recipe book attributed to Anne Glydd (1656) and one attributed to Bridget Hyde (1676-1690).

Credit: Rowan McOnegal. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk
Credit: Rowan McOnegal. Wellcome Images

Despite the frequent appearance of such fertility remedies though, it was rare for manuscript collections to include direct or explicit references to sexual stimulants on their own. The only instance I have encountered so far was recorded in a collection described as ‘Medical Reciepts written by Anthony Lewis, from a book owned by Lady Marquee Dorset’. The recipe stated, ‘Sotherne wood being laid under ye beeds [sic] head, doth provoke venery.’[5] Nicholas Culpeper in his English translations of the Royal College of Physicians Pharmacopoeia Londinensis had also described southernwood as an aphrodisiac listing it as follows:

‘A Brotanum mas, foemina. Southernwood, male and foemale. Is hot and dry in the third degree, resists poyson, kils worms, provokes lust; outwardly in plaisters, it dissolves cold swellings, and helps the bitings of venemous beasts, makes hair grow: take not above half a drachm at a time in pouder’.[6]

Culpeper’s text suggested that southernwood provoked lust when taken as an internal medicine, like many aphrodisiacs. In Anthony Lewis’s recipe, though, the herb was supposed to stimulate sexual desire just through proximity to the body. This was not unprecedented Phillipa Pullar has suggested that the Greeks and Romans enjoyed satyrion root [a type of orchis] because its tuberous and erect fleshy stem was thought to have an effect even when held in the hand.[7]

However, the positioning of the herb within the bed, where it was perhaps expected that sex would take place, is reminiscent of infertility magic where enchantments were placed in the bed of the victim to prevent them from engaging in copulation. For example The Magick of King Karani, a medieval treatise republished in the early modern period, included a spell that appears very similar to the above,

‘hat a Man’s Member cannot be erect, till what is laid be removed. And if one lay the Herb [whores vervain] under the Pillow, he that lies upon it shall not erect, a[n]d if you give a little of the Herb powdered in drink to a Man, he will not erect to coition for seven dayes.

Interestingly, this remedy may have been influenced by ideas of magic, or perhaps counter-magic, against infertility enchantments. However, there is nothing surrounding the remedy to suggest that this was the case. The remedy was also not explicitly related to fertility–there was no suggestion that this was the reason that it had been recorded. It was recorded on the same page as a method for establishing whether a pregnant woman was carrying a male or female child, but was sandwiched between an oil to remove facial wrinkles and a medicine to make the hair grow. If anything this might suggest that this aphrodisiac was included as an anti-aging measure. It was a common humorous trope, and accepted medical reality, that many old men were impotent.

This lone recipe is something of an anomaly then. It is puzzling that this is the only remedy of this type that I have found so far. Recipe books include much material taken from medical texts and from physicians, and it was common for general medical texts, midwifery manuals and herbals to describe aphrodisiacs, so why was this information not more readily incorporated into manuscript texts?

One possible reason was that many aphrodisiacs were described as being effective on their own without much complex preparation–although there were some remedies that combined numerous ingredients. It was perhaps common knowledge that eating artichokes, sea holly, or satyrion would have these effects. Perhaps this remedy merited notation precisely because it was not to be consumed which made it unusual. I have yet to figure out why this lone note is the only explicit reference to aphrodisiacs in manuscript collections, but it does continue to intrigue me.

[1] Hugh Chamberlen, The diseases of women with child … written in French by Francis Mauriceau (London, 1672), 6.

[2] Anonymous, Dr. Trigg’s Secrets, Arcana’s & Panacea’s: Approved by his long admired Experience and Practice, whereby he wrought such wonderfull Cures (London, 1665), p. 141-2.

[3] Wellcome Library London, MS 8097; see also London British Library, M.S. Add. 45196, Brockman Papers: The Receipt Book of Anne Glydd, 1656,; London Wellcome Library, M.S. 2990/27, Bridget Hyde 1676-1690, fol. 27r; London Wellcome Library, M.S. 1511, Mrs Carr 1682, Fol. 18r; London Wellcome Library, M.S. 3082, Johnson Family 1694-1831, Fol. 203v.

[4] Wellcome Library London, MS 3712, Elizabeth Okeover (& others), 141.

[5] British Library Ms Sloane 556: Medical Receipts Written by Anthony Lewis; From a Book Owned by

Lady Marquee Dorset, 1606. fol. 31 r.

[6] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, or, The London dispensatory further adorned by the studies and collections of the Fellows, now living of the said colledg. (London, 1653), p. 13.

[7] Philippa Pullar, Consuming Passions: A History of English Food and Appetites (London, 1970), p.238.