Food as Aphrodisiacs and Anaphrodisiacs?

Thomas G Benedek. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

According to the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1771), aphrodisiacs are “medicines which increase the quantity of seed, and create an inclination for venery.” Since the twentieth-century advent of sexual endocrinology, the definition of an aphrodisiac has become restricted to “a substance which excites sexual desire” (Steadman’s Medical Dictionary, 25th edition, 1990). The search for aphrodisiacs is rooted in universal anxieties about sexual performance and fertility. In many instances since ancient times, a distinction has been made between substances that were alleged to improve fertility (quantity of seed) and those that only stimulate the sex drive (inclination to venery). Some authorities held that the latter could only be achieved by achieving the former.

The scope of this essay is limited geographically to Europe and the Near East and, so far as possible, to foods and their preparation. Adequate nourishment has always been recognized as a requirement for health and a normal level of sexual activity, although the norm for the latter undoubtedly varies somewhat among cultures.

In ancient medical practices, when and by what indications nutritive and medicinal qualities of foods were differentiated is uncertain. A rather clear distinction, however, was made by Heracleides of Tarentum, a Greek physician in the first century B.C. In writing about aphrodisiacs, he said that “bulbs, snails, eggs and the like are supposed to produce semen, not because they are filling, but because their very nature in the first instance has powers related in kind to semen” (Athenaeus 1951: 275).

Another nagging question had to do with whether plant and animal products that ordinarily are not foods should be considered medicines or just special foods. Andrew Boorde (died 1549), a London physician, exemplified the vagueness of dietary-medicinal distinctions: “[A] good cook is half a physician. For the chief physic (the counsel of a physician excepted) does come from the kitchen: wherefore the physician and the cook for sick men must consult together for the preparation of meate [foods] for sick men” (1870:227).

According to ancient literature, aphrodisiacs and their opposite, anaphrodisiacs, were generally simple rather than multi-ingredient prescriptions. This pattern gradually changed, and the most elaborate prescriptions were written in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe (and much earlier in the Near East).

Table VI.15.1 lists the substances that were cited as aphrodisiacs and anaphrodisiacs by three ancient authorities, Pliny and Dioscorides from the first century A.D. and Paul of Aegina from the seventh century. The former two listed more substances than did Paul because they, and especially Pliny, sought to record every one they encountered and did not necessarily vouch for each. All three concurred about only three aphrodisiacs: varieties of orchid bulbs, leaves and seeds of rocket (Eruca sativa), and the flesh of the skink (a North African lizard).They agreed on only two anaphrodisiacs: the seed and, presumably, leaf decoction (tea) of Vitex agnus castus (also called the chaste tree), and parts of rue (Ruta graveolens), an evergreen shrub (Adams 1847, 3; Gunther 1959;Pliny 1963:Vols.7 and 8).

Table VI.15.1. Ancient sexual stimulants and depressants Sources: Pliny (1963); Gunther (1959); Adams (1847). 

Pliny Dioscorides Paul
Anise +
Basil +
Carrot +
Clary (Salvia) +
Gladiolus root + *
Orchid bulbs
Major orchis bulb + + +
Erythraicon bulb +
Satyrion bulb + + +
Pistachio nuts + +
Rocket + + +
Sage +
Sea fennel + +
Turnip + +
Skink flesh + + +
River snails +
Agnus castus x x x
Dill x
Gladiolus root **
Lentil x
Lettuce x
Nasturtium (cress) x
Minor orchis bulb x x
Rue x x x
Water lily x x

*Upper gladiolus root.

**Lower gladiolus root.

A Western philosophical association between dietary gratification and sexual stimulation was enunciated most clearly by St. Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) in his Summa Theologica. The biological aspects of the explanation were those of Galen, and they remained unchallenged for almost three more centuries. According to Thomas, the most urgent of the carnal vices was lust, with gluttony the second. Both were viewed as vices because they distracted from intellectual pursuits that brought men close to God. Moreover, certain foods both provided sensual gratification and created great incentive to lust. Such potentially lust-inducing foods and the qualities by which they could be identified should be learned so as to avoid them.

Procreation, according to Thomas, who did not distinguish this from “lust,” required the participation of three components: heat, vital spirit, and humor. Whatever enhanced the production of any of the three might be sexually stimulating. Substances that heated the body, such as wine, would stimulate the production of more heat. Flatulent foods, in turn, were part of the production of the vital spirit. Meat, the most nutritious food, was needed to produce humor. Lust, however, was kindled more by drinking wine than by eating meat. The more an animal resembled humans, the greater pleasure and nutrition it offered as food: “Animals which rest on the earth and breathe air and also their products, such as milk. Because of these resemblances to mankind, when they are eaten they produce a greater surplus of the seminal matter which is the immediate inciter of lust” (Aquinas 1932, 9: 189; 13: 71-2).

This definition, however, fails to explain the selection of one particular lizard and is inconsistent with the aphrodisiacal properties that, by the Middle Ages, were attributed to birds’ eggs, roe, and fowl. A final peculiarity shown in Table VI.15.1 is that different parts or combinations of the same sources were accorded opposite effects. A bifid root might have stimulant properties assigned to one segment and inhibitory effects to another. The small quantity of flesh adjacent to the skink’s kidneys was deemed especially stimulating because of its proximity to an excretory organ. However, if this was mixed with lentils or lettuce seed, the opposite effect was achieved (Gunther 1959: 108).

The reputation of several ancient remedies can be attributed to their alleged physical resemblance to genitalia. Illustrative is the association of double orchid bulbs with testes, with the very names of these bulbs revealing their perceived application: Orchis means testicle, and a single bulb variety was called satyrion (the mythological sexually aggressive satyr) (Brondegaard 1971). But orchid bulbs, along with carrots, turnips, and the like (which possibly bear some genital resemblances), were not ordinarily considered aphrodisiacal. Rather, the quality nearest to a common denominator that ancient aphrodisiacs supposedly possessed was that they presumably stimulated urine flow.

Some ancient aphrodisiacal attributions were based on mythology. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, for example, was said to consider sparrows sacred because of their “amorous nature” and, thus, they were included in some love potions. Although both bird and fish eggs were prescribed, among birds a predilection for the eggs and (especially) the brains of sparrows persisted at least through the Middle Ages. Geoffrey Chaucer in 1390 in The Canterbury Tales described the Summoner to be “as hot and lecherous as a sparrow” (1952: 42). Sparrows also were distinguished from other small birds by allegedly being “hard of digestion” (Chaucer 1952: 270). Yet this quality would, for most authors, have disqualified sparrows as aphrodisiacs.

Because the anatomic and physiological ideas expounded by Galen (A.D. 129-210) reigned unchallenged from the third to at least the sixteenth century, their relationship to the identification of supposed aphrodisiacs requires some scrutiny. According to Galenic humoral principles, the effects of nutrients on sexual function, most clearly that of the male, were governed both by their inherent humoral qualities and by the responses they elicited when consumed. To be effective as an aphrodisiac, a nutrient had to be “warm and moist.” Substances that were “cold and dry” had the opposite effect. The production of semen and erectile potency were differentiated. Although both required warm and moist nutrients for nonspecific stimulation, semen production needed particularly nourishing foods. Improvement of erectile potency demanded foods that generate “windiness” because “the penis is tensed … when the hollow nerve [corpus cavernosus] is filled with pneuma” (Galen 1968: 656-60). Thus, the English anatomist Thomas Vicary (died 1562) could write: “This member has three holes. Through one passeth insensible pollution and wind that causes the penis to rise. The other two holes … are for the sperm and … for urine” (1888: 81-2). “Insensible pollution” was the pneuma, which in this location was viewed as an inflator. “Wind” provided the expulsive force for semen and other excreta. Consequently, foods reputed to be flatulent were also thought to stimulate the emission of semen, provided the diet was sufficiently nutritious for an adequate amount to have been produced.

Earlier, the influential medical translator and commentator Constantinus Africanus (Constantine of Carthage, 1015-87) had concurred that the ideal aphrodisiac is nutritious, warm, and moist and that it generates windiness. And it was because few substances were reputed to contain all of the required humoral qualities that later prescriptions tended to become much more complex than they had been in the more ancient, particularly pre-Galenic, writings. Constantine, for example, prescribed “a tested electuary which increases lust” containing 19 ingredients. One of these, which remained popular for several centuries, was linguae avis (Delany 1970: 55-65), which in this case did not mean birds’ tongues, but rather was the name for ash seeds. It is interesting to note that in The Merchant’s Tale, Constantine was cursed because his “book” De Coitu apparently revealed aphrodisiacal recipes (Chaucer 1952: 36-7).

The Spice Trade

Spices were vital ingredients in the formulation of aphrodisiacs, rendering many such recipes dependent on imported materials. While the Roman Empire was in existence, spices doubtless reached Europe from Asia Minor via Roman legions, and probably supply was never interrupted entirely after its collapse. By the ninth century or so, Arab traders were supplying parts of Europe with spices from as far away as India and China. However, a great increase in the quantity and variety of spices for Europe was initiated in 1499 when the Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama (died 1524), rounded the Cape of Good Hope to reach India and returned to Lisbon with a cargo of pepper. A round-trip between Lisbon and the west coast of India in the late sixteenth century took about 18 months but could produce great profits. One hundred pounds of pepper, purchased in Calicut for 3 ducats, wholesaled in Lisbon for 25 ducats, and then retailed for 80 ducats in Venice.

Spices were the predominant Asiatic import, and pepper, used also as a food preservative, was the most important. Illustrative is the inventory of four ships that returned to Lisbon from India in 1580. It revealed a total cargo weighing 2,695,100 pounds, of which 97.6 percent was spices (Guerra 1965). Spain, the other Iberian nation, also got into the spice business following its conquest of Mexico in 1521.The Americas not only had indigenous spices to offer but also provided locations to cultivate spices previously grown only in Asia. Thus, ginger (the first transplanted spice crop) was introduced into Mexico in 1530; by 1587 Spain was importing 2¼ million pounds of ginger, ten times that carried by the Portuguese from India.

All of this activity in spices made a big business out of spice retailing, the practitioners of which since the Middle Ages had not only filled prescriptions but also supplied cooks with spices. Indeed, guilds of “pepperers” and “spicers” had been formed from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, and in England in 1617, a separate guild of apothecaries that distinguished them from grocers was created by royal edict (Kremers and Urdang 1951: 83-4, 136-40).

Semitic Influences

One of the tales from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night [The Arabian Nights], which probably is at least a thousand years old, contains an early example of the complexity that aphrodisiacal prescriptions achieved quite early in the Near East. The story of “Beautyspot” pertains to a merchant whose marriage has been childless for 40 years. This was cured by a prescription that consisted of spices and foods. Different translations vary in some of the ingredients, but two versions agree on six of the spices. Richard Burton’s version also includes opium, skink meat, frankincense, and coriander (1885: 30-2). These were to be mixed in honey and consumed after a meal of hotly spiced mutton and pigeon. In another text, musk and roe are added as final ingredients. But before consuming this prescription, a special aphrodisiacal diet had to be adhered to for three days; it was limited to hotly spiced roasted pigeons, male fish with intact genitalia, and fried rams’ testicles.

Another ancient ingredient that found its way into some European prescriptions was mandragora, or mandrake. Dioscorides said obscurely that “the root seems to be a maker of love medicines” (Gunther 1959: 473-4). Pliny, on the other hand, made no claim for a sexual effect (Pliny 1963, 7: 241-3). Both referred to a white male and a black female variety, but neither suggested that the plant might resemble human form as did later writers. They agreed that ingesting it induced sleep, that it could be used for surgical anesthesia, and that an overdose was fatal.

It is interesting that mandrake differs from most plants alleged to affect sexual function in that it actually has demonstrable physiological effects. It is related to deadly nightshade, or belladonna, and its content of hyoscyamine makes it potentially lethal. Yet it had a long-standing reputation in the Near East for encouraging female fertility. In Genesis 30:14-21, for example, Leah, who had become infertile, was given mandrake (manner unspecified), after which she conceived three more children.

Although most claims that mandrake corrects female infertility derived from this biblical reference, in the seventeenth century decoctions of the “white male” variety were alleged to overcome impotence as well (Thorndyke 1958: 10-13).Yet in 1771, the medicinal demise of mandrake was announced in an entry of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Authors have spoken very largely and idly of the virtues of this plant. The most common quality attributed to it, is that of rendering barren women fruitful: but we have no tolerable foundation for this: what we certainly know of it is, that is has a soporific virtue like that of opium.”

A leading medieval writer who expounded the aphrodisiacal qualities of various foods was Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides (1135-1204). A Talmudic scholar who became physician to Sultan Saladin of Egypt, Maimonides was medically a follower of Galen and of Avicenna. He differed from others of the period in regard to aphrodisiacs mainly in placing greater emphasis on meats and organs, although not ignoring vegetables and spices. Maimonides was blunt about the relative aphrodisiacal merits of foods and medicines, insisting that nutriments were of much greater value than medications. However, one needed to be selective. Foods (and medications) that moistened and warmed the body (that is, had the Galenic qualities of heat and humidity) were deemed to some degree aphrodisiacal, whereas those that were cooling and drying were to be avoided because of their anaphrodisiacal effects.

In addition to the guidance provided by Galenic qualities, symbolism also played a role in identifying other substances (Rosner 1974: 18-29). For example, one of Maimonides’s “very special” prescriptions required one to:”[t]ake the penis of an ox, dry it and grind it. Sprinkle some of this on a soft-boiled egg, and drink in sips” (Rosner 1974: 29).

The desired stimulation was sometimes transmitted through an intermediate. According to an Indian recipe some two centuries after the foregoing: “Boil the penis of an ass together with onions and a large quantity of corn. With this dish feed fowl, which you then eat” (Burton 1964: 242).

During the late sixteenth century in Europe, the compounding of ingestible phallic symbols varied only slightly from some of the prescriptions of Maimonides. For example:

A man whose conjugal ardor has cooled should take the penis of a stag that has been killed while in rut, dry it and grind it into a powder. He should take 5 gm. of this and a dram of black pepper, mix these together in a drink of malmsey, and take it in the morning. Taken several days in a row it will make him right again (Mattioli 1590: 447b).

The Doctrine of Signatures

It is clear that symbolism has been used in the assignment of aphrodisiacal properties to plants and animal parts since pre-Christian times. But the delineation of a philosophy based on analogizing the appearance of natural objects with their perceived utility was delayed until the sixteenth century. It sprang from the ideas of the anti-Galenic itinerant Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) and was popularized by some of his followers. One of the best known of the latter was German physician Oswald Croll (about 1560-1609). In the introduction to his Basilica Chymica (original 1609, English 1670) he stated the belief most clearly:

If he so desireth to be an expert physician, and to have knowledge of those things which point to Medicine, by that Art, which Nature externally proposeth by Signes, he may understand that those internally signify: for every thing that is intrinsical, bares the external figure of its occult property, as well in insensible as sensible Creatures. Nature as it were by certain silent notes speakes to us, and reveals the ingenuity and manners of every Individual.… As our intimate manners from external figures of the Body may be found out, so from the exteriour Signatures of Plants, Man may be admonished of their interiour Vertues. For Plants do as it were in occult words, manifest their excellency, and open the Treasures of hidden things to sickly Mortalls; that Man, of all Creatures the most miserable, may learn in grievous Diseases, where to find relief (Croll 1670: 3).

Herbals in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

The complexity of European aphrodisiacal prescriptions in the sixteenth century is particularly well illustrated by concoctions called diasatyrion (so named because although they were based on an orchid bulb, they had additional ingredients as well). The following directions for the preparation of a diasatyrion were published in 1536:

Take male orchid bulb, satyrion bulb, parsnip, sea holly, nutmeg, pistacio nuts, and pine nuts, 12 drams each, carnation, ginger, anise, ash seed, and rocket seed, each 5 drams, and musk 7 grains. Compound with a sufficient amount of honey.

Grate orchid bulbs and parsnip and cook for a short time while stirring with a spatula. Then add the pine nuts and pistacios, also grated. After brief cooking, remove from the fire and add the other ingredients, except for the musk. The latter is added the very last, [diluted] in rosewater (Schumacher 1936: 98-9).

Table VI.15.2. Most commonly cited aphrodisiacs, 1546-1710 

Orchis, cynosorchis, dog-stones 8
Carrot 8
Mustard 7
Anise 6
Asparagus 6
Nettles 6
Claire, scariet sage (Salvia) 5
Ladies bedstraw (Galium verum) 5
Ash seed (Lingua avis) 4
Rampion 4
Rocket 4
Sweet pea 4
Terebinth seed (Pistacia terebinthus) 4

Judging by the contents of herbals, which were the principal textbooks of materia medica of the time, the number of botanicals to which aphrodisiacal properties were attributed reached their peak between the late sixteenth and the late seventeenth centuries. The 1554 herbal of Pietro Mattioli (1500-77), in its expanded German edition of 1590, contained 39 such entries, about two-thirds of which would ordinarily be considered vegetables, spices, or edible nuts (1590: 28). Yet most of the time the various herbalists failed to agree on the foods that had aphrodisiacal qualities, and even in comparing the 1597 and 1636 editions of the herbal of John Gerarde (1545-1612), one discovers numerous changes. For example, 35 substances in the earlier edition but only 30 in the later are said to be sexual stimulants. Moreover, only 24 were endowed with such a virtue according to both texts (Gerarde 1597; 1636).

A survey of eight herbals published between 1546 and 1710 found 13 substances (see Table VI.15.2) with alleged aphrodisiacal properties that are identified in at least four of them (Bock 1546; Dodoens 1578; Mattioli 1590; Gerarde 1597, 1636; Parkinson 1640; Theodorus 1664; Salmon 1710).The list was led by the double orchid bulb (8) and the carrot (8) (now gaining in aphrodisiacal reputation), followed by mustard seed (7), and anise, asparagus, and nettles (6 each).

It is difficult to explain the aphrodisiacal reputation of some foods in terms other than those having to do with their remote origin or their initial scarcity. The reception of the American potato in Europe serves as a good example.

The English word “potato” is derived from the generic term for the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas. The sweet potato was a staple food in the West Indies and was among the plants that Columbus brought back from his first voyage. It was planted in Spain, but because it requires a warm climate, it did not do well in northern Europe, where it became a scarce, imported item. The white potato probably reached Spain no later than 1570 and it may have been introduced in England by Francis Drake in 1586. During the first half of the seventeenth century, the “common potato” and the “Virginia potato” were the names of the sweet and the white potato, respectively (Salaman 1949: 130-2, 142-8, 424-33).

The sweet potato, at least in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, was eaten mainly as a candied delicacy. But in a late sixteenth-century description of English dietary customs, it was referred to as a “venereous root” (Harrison 1577: 129), and it repeatedly appears on the seventeenth-century stage as an aphrodisiac, by itself and in complex recipes. In The Merry Wives of Windsor (Shakespeare 1971) Shakespeare has Sir John Falstaff tell a lady before embracing her: “Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Green Sleeves; hail kissing comfits, and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here” (Act 5, Scene 4).

In modern terms, Falstaff fantasized being inundated with sweet potatoes and candied fruit or vegetables (which could be a reference to the preferred preparation of the sweet potato), and candied sea holly, which was also recognized as an aphrodisiac. According to Gerarde’s herbal:

The roots [of eringoes, which is the same as sea holly] preserved with sugar … are exceeding good to be given unto old and aged people that are consumed and withered with age.… It is also good for other sorts of people that have no delight or appetite to venery, nourishing and restoring the aged, and amending the defects of nature in the younger (1597: 1000).

In the mid-seventeenth century, as potatoes became more available (although still expensive), it is probably this tuber that was now being referred to in various recipes and theatrical comments. The entry on the potato in the 1710 herbal by the English physician William Salmon (1644-1712) combines its nutritive quality with its alleged effect on libido and fertility:

They stop fluxes of the bowels [diarrhea], nourish much, and restore a pining Consumption [tuberculosis]. Being boiled, baked, or rosted [sic], they are eaten with good Butter, Salt, Juice of Oranges or Limons, and double refined Sugar, as common Food: they encrease Seed and provoke Lust, causing Fruitfulness in both sexes, and stop all sorts of Fluxes of the Belly.

In 1805, however, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), then president of the Royal Society of London, called quasi-official attention to the fallacious use of these vegetables:

[T]he sweet potatoe was used in England as a delicacy long before the introduction of our potatoes; it was imported in considerable quantities from Spain and the Canaries, and was supposed to possess the power of restoring decayed vigor. The kissing comfits of Falstaff, and other confections of similar imaginary qualities, with which our ancestors were duped, were principally made of these, and of eringo roots.

The potatoes themselves were sold by itinerant dealers, chiefly in the neighborhood of the Royal Exchange, and purchased when scarce at no inconsiderable cost, by those who had faith in their alleged properties (Banks 1805, 1: 8-12).

Although potatoes and sweet potatoes are examples of foods that lost their aphrodisiacal reputation quite early, that of the oyster has persisted from ancient times into the twentieth century. The Roman author Juvenal (second century A.D.), in a satire on the unrestrained behavior of contemporary women, associated loss of sexual decorum with alcoholic intoxication and the eating of “giant oysters at midnight” (Ramsay 1940: 107). Oysters, however, appeared infrequently among the aphrodisiacs in medical texts, and their folkloric popularity has been better reflected in literature. For example, in a comedy staged in 1611 by the London playwright George Chapman (died 1634), a “lover” in preparation for seduction is to be strengthened with “a banquet of Oyster-pies, Potatoes, Skirret rootes, Eringoes, and divers other whetstones of venery” (Act 2: 31). And it is interesting that in the nineteenth century, Jonathan Pereira (1804-53), professor of materia medica in London, in his authoritative textbook on medications merely commented: “An aphrodisiac property is usually ascribed to oysters” (1846: 47).

A hypothesis for the stimulatory reputation of oysters harkens back to the doctrine of signatures with their influence due to a resemblance to the female pudenda. But even if correct, it does not explain why, as therapeutics gradually became more rational, oysters maintained their aphrodisiacal reputation.

In the twentieth centur y, Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), the pioneer English sexologist, returned to the ancient principle that an aphrodisiac must foremost be nutritious. He speculated that “oysters and other shellfish … in so far as they have an action whatsoever on the sexual appetite, only possess it by virtue of their generally nutritious and stimulating qualities.” He therefore concluded that because it is nutritious and easily digestible,”[a] beefsteak is probably as powerful a sexual stimulant as any food.” Since it required relatively little energy to digest, more energy was available for other activities, including those that were sexual (Ellis 1906: 174). This is reminiscent of Galen’s concept that to effect spermatogenesis, foods must be particularly nutritious.

Beverages and Anaphrodisiacs

A glimpse of the ancient ambivalence about the role of wine in sexual matters can be found in the Old Testament story of Lot’s daughters, who each intoxicated their aged father with wine in order to be impregnated by him (Genesis 19:32-6). Perhaps the role of wine in this case was not that of an aphrodisiac but rather a sedative to overcome the taboo against incest. In the ancient world wine was consumed extensively, in part as medicine, but seemingly not as a sexual stimulant.

By the time of the Middle Ages this had changed. Maimonides, for one, strongly advocated wine as a sexual stimulant:

Drinking honey water promotes erections, but even more effective in this regard than all medicines and foods is wine.… [I]t arouses the erections all the more when one enjoys the wine with desire, and after the meal and after the bath, because then its effect is far greater than that of anything else (Rosner 1974: 20-1).

About two centuries later, the Catalan physician Arnaldus de Villanova (1236-1311) wrote a manuscript on wine that, in 1478, became the first book on the subject to be printed. He believed that many specific varieties of wine exerted a restorative effect in the face of certain ailments. Thus “[w]ine made from fennel seeds stimulates sexual urge, consumes dropsy and leprosy.… It increases milk and the natural sperm” (1943: 39).

Later in the fourteenth century, Chaucer had one of his female characters voice the understanding that wine may affect both sexes similarly:

Whenever I take wine I have to

think of Venus, for as cold engenders hail

A lecherous mouth begets a lecherous tail.

A woman in her cups has no defense,

As lechers know from long experience (1952: 295).

Yet if inebriation could leave a woman defenseless, it could also render a male incapable of taking advantage of her. This was expressed especially well by the French physician-novelist, François Rabelais (died 1553):

When I say that wine abateth lust, my meaning is wine immoderately taken; for by intemperance, proceeding from the excessive drinking of strong liquor, there is brought upon the body … a chillness in the blood, a slackening in the sinews, a dissipation with a pervasive wryness and convulsion of the muscles, all which are great lets and impediments to the act of generation.… Wine nevertheless, taken moderately, worketh quite contrary effects, as is implied in the old proverb which saith: Venus taketh cold when not accompanied by Ceres and Bacchus. [Love is suppressed when it is not accompanied by food and drink] (1931, Book 3: 540).

The best-known literary comment on such contradictory effects of alcohol emanates from Shakespeare (Macbeth, Shakespeare 1971): “Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator of lechery” (Act 2, Scene 3).

Most discussions of the sexual effects of alcohol have pertained to wines and, more recently, to liqueurs. An exception is found in the herbal of Jacobus Theodorus (died 1590), a southern German physician who was enthusiastic about another beverage:

Beer brewed from wheat, above all as a beverage, but also when used in food: on soups, sauces, and porridge, increases the natural seed, straightens the drooping phallus up again, and helps feeble men who are incapable of conjugal acts back into the saddle (1664: 641).

Nothing substantial has been added to an understanding of the behavioral effects of alcohol in the twentieth century. Clinicians who wrote extensively on sexual matters, such as the Swiss psychiatrist August H. Forel (1848-1931) and the German venereologist Iwan Bloch (1872-1922), both expounded on the pseudoaphrodisiacal effects that may occur when inhibitions are suppressed by small amounts of alcohol and the increasing anesthetic effect of gross intoxication.

Bloch speculated that moderate quantities of alcohol exert a dual effect, as “general psychic stimulant” and as a specifically sexual stimulant. But with a more protracted consumption of alcohol, the “psychic stimulation” deteriorates into “psychic paralysis” (loss of inhibition or judgment) before sexual excitement also wanes, leaving a gap of unrestrained sexual excitation. He concluded:”For the normal individual alcohol is not a means for the increase of sexual potency, but the reverse” (1919: 293, 444).

Other writers, biased by the temperance movement, were more outspoken. Thus, according to Forel:

The drink habit corrupts the whole of sexual life.… Most narcotics, especially alcohol (either fermented or distilled) have the peculiarity of exciting the sexual appetite in a bestial manner, thereby leading to the most absurd and disgusting excesses, although at the same time they weaken the sexual power (1926: 332, 503).

Moving to nonalcoholic beverages, cacao (or cocoa), imported to Spain from the Caribbean islands, became a popular drink by 1580, after it had been modified into chocolate by the addition of sugar and milk. Although it was designated as “cold and dry,” chocolate gained some reputation as an aphrodisiac. The reasons for this are uncertain. One mid-eighteenth-century French author implied that chocolate “promotes Venery” due to its nutritive quality. Because it is also a stimulant, its consumption is desirable as a restorative for old and phlegmatic people, while it should be avoided by “young people of a hot and bilious Constitution” (Lemery 1745: 364, 366).

Another reference work of the period states that cacao is cooling and yet “stimulates to Venery causing Procreation and Conception, facilitates Delivery, preserves Health, helps Digestion, makes people inclinable to seed” (Pomet 1748: 131-2). Yet in the seventeenth century, it had also become customary to mix various traditionally aphrodisiacal spices, such as pepper and cinnamon, with cacao. Proportions were adjusted to taste or according to the medicinal purpose. Hence, cacao may have been used by some to modify the potency of more traditional aphrodisiacs, and not actually accorded much potency of its own.

Although introduced to Europe toward the end of the sixteenth century, coffee did not become a popular beverage until about the middle of the seventeenth century – somewhat later than chocolate. As the popularity of coffee spread, so too did a rumor from its source in the Near East that, at least when consumed in excess, it suppressed sexual desires. Yet coffee was (correctly) recognized as having the ability to stimulate urine production, and since there had been an association between diuretics and aphrodisiacal properties since ancient times, any easy acceptance of the rumor seems inconsistent. Indeed, an English author felt the need to point out (published posthumously, 1746) that it is “an egregious Mistake, not only among the Persians, but also among most other Nations, to think that the Seed which when toasted is called Coffee.… is of so cooling a Quality as to produce Impotence, even in those who use it frequently; for it dries them (Paulli 1746: 138-9).

In the nineteenth century, some settled for the same explanation that had been offered for the dual effects of alcohol. For example, M. Lallemand, a member of the Montpellier medical faculty, declared that coffee “augments the venereal desires, favors erections, and accelerates ejaculations; taken in excess, however … they are diminished and even completely extinguished.” His explanation was that “what passed in the urinary organs is a good index of what is going on in the spermatic; the secretion of semen was increased as well as that of urine” (1866: 199-200). The implication was that although coffee is primarily an aphrodisiac, impotence eventually results from gonadal exhaustion caused by the protracted spermatorrhea-inducing stimulus.

Half a century later, Bloch continued to insist that coffee in sufficient volume induced impotence, which persisted as long as excessive coffee consumption continued (1919: 444). And an author in 1928, who still accepted that coffee ordinarily was an anaphrodisiac, recommended that in cases of impotence due to depression, it could act as a sexual stimulant by counteracting the symptom of fatigue (Loewe 1928: 184-6).


As indicated in the discussion of coffee, save for alcohol consumed in excess, the list of dietary anaphrodisiacs is rather short and ambiguous. Among generally accepted foodstuffs, however, lettuce has had the most durable reputation – one probably originating in Greek mythology. The beautiful youth Adonis, killed by a wild boar, was laid out on a bed of lettuce by his lover, Venus (Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology 1959: 81-2). Alternatively, he was killed in a field of wild lettuce (Athenaeus 1951: 301-3), or Venus threw herself on a bed of lettuce to lull her grief and repress her desires (Paris 1828: 9). In any event, the transient survival of a mortal, even when loved by a deity, became equated with the rapid withering of lettuce, which, in turn, became associated with impotence. Thus, according to Dioscorides, lettuce “is somewhat in virtue like unto Poppy.… [I]t is in generall soporiferous and easing of Paine” (Gunther 1959: 177). Such a notion is readily associated with the obviously anaphrodisiacal effect of sedation. According to Boorde, who wrote in the sixteenth century, lettuce “doth extynct veneryous actes, yet it doth increase mylke in a womans breste” (1870: 281).

One of the simpler seventeenth-century anaphrodisiacal recipes was a salad of lettuce, purslane, and mint with vinegar (Plater, Cole, and Culpeper 1662: 172). A contemporaneous prescription combined the alleged chemical and mineral anaphrodisiacal magic of many plants. Its ingredients were conserves of water lilies and of mint, candied lettuce and coolwort, seeds of Agnus castus (chaste tree), rue, coral, crystal, and camphor, made into an electuary with syrup of purslane.

Complex prescriptions were in demand, in part, at least, because of the paradoxical response of some persons to any one ingredient. In this regard, Nicolas Venette (1633-98), a French physician, informed his readers:

Lettice and Succory, for Example, prevents the Generation of seed in most Men. But I know that in some it produces such a Plenty, especially if they eat it at Nights, as to subject them to Nocturnal Pollutions. This same experience teaches us, that Pepper and Ginger [usually aphrodisiacal] diminish the Seed, and dissipate Winds that are necessary to the action of Love (1906: 174-5).

Although most sexually inhibiting advice pertained to men, in the seventeenth century anaphrodisiacs were also prescribed to control “womb-furie.” This was a manifestation of an “immoderate desire for carnal copulation [which] is able to master the Rational faculty [resulting in] Love-melancholy.” The ailment was attributed mainly to virgins, young widows, and wives of impotent husbands. Thus a diagnosis of “immoderate desire” was doubtless based, at times, on some quite overt symptoms (Riverius 1655: 417-18).

Relevant prescriptions resemble those for the control of male lust, which were “cooling and sedating.” Foodstuffs made up a minority of the ingredients, but among them, the leaves, stalks, and seeds of lettuce were the most common. Their alleged sedative effect was fortified by the inclusion of poppy seeds among the dozen or so ingredients (Riverius 1655: 417-8).


Over the centuries, doubts about the effectiveness, mechanism of action, and the very existence of aphrodisiacs were occasionally raised, although most were limited or ambiguous. The Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 18), who may have been the first recorded doubter, wrote in his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love):

There are, that strong provoking potions praise

and nature with pernicious med’cines raise:

Nor drugs nor herbs will what you fancy prove,

And I pronounce them pois’nous all in love.

Some pepper bruis’d, with seeds of nettles join,

And clary steep in bowls of mellow wine:

Venus is most adverse to forc’d delights

Extorted flames pollute her genial rites.

With fishes spawn thy feeble nerves recruit,

And with eringo’s hot salacious root.

The goddess worship’d by th’ Erycian swains,

Megara’s white shallot, so faint, disdains.

New eggs they take, and honey’s liquid juice,

And leaves and apples of the pine infuse.

Prescribe no more my muse, nor med’cines


Beauty and youth need no provocative

(1776, Book 2: 55-6).

Clearly, Ovid has provided a fine list of aphrodisiacal ingredients. But he warns that youth and beauty are sufficiently strong attractants that artificial stimulants are not only superfluous but counterproductive because artificially induced passion (“extorted flames”) destroys true love.

Disagreement had always existed about the substances that affect sexual function and in which ways, but because the concept of objective therapeutic evaluation had yet to be devised, authors tended to ignore, rather than attack, claims with which they disagreed. But this situation gradually began to change at the end of the sixteenth century, with mandrake the first target. Gerarde, who acknowledged numerous botanical aphrodisiacs, disparaged anyone who would prescribe this root:

Mandrake is called of the Graecians Circea of Circe the Witch, who by Art could procure love: for it hath beene thought that the roote heere of serveth to winne love.… There have been many ridiculous tales brought up of this plant, whether of olde wives or some runnegate surgeons or phisickmongers, I know not …, but sure some one or moe [sic] that sought to make themselves famous in skillful above others were first brochers of that errour I spake of (1597: 280-2).

Mandrake also came under attack in a larger effort aimed at the demolition of the doctrine of signatures by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82). Although he did not mention aphrodisiacs as such in his Pseudodoxia epidemica (1646), his argument is relevant because “signatures of nature” were so important in the identification of these substances. Browne denounced as a “false conception” the notion that bifurcated root resembled human thighs. He pointed out that man-drake did not necessarily have a bifid root, and when it did, the two were often interwoven, destroying any human resemblance. Furthermore, bifid roots were not unique to this plant, and thus it made no sense to ascribe powers to mandrake because of a natural signature and not ascribe the same to a bifid carrot or a parsnip. In addition, such a notion gave rise to fraud because roots of other plants were carved to imitate bifid mandrake “to deceive unfruitful women” (1927: 285-99).

The waning of the conviction that the physical appearance of a natural object offered clues to its medicinal value did not, however, foster skepticism about substances believed to have a genital effect. But it did shift the focus to their intrinsic qualities. According to A Golden Practice of Physick, a well-known English medical text of 1662:

[I]t is our opinion that such medicines [aphrodisiacs] work by a manifest quality, rather than by stretching the Yard [penis] with Wind as some say (which cannot be) besides their secret hidden quality which was observed by the first teachers of such things, from the whiteness of the flesh, fruits, and roots, resembling seed: Or because Taken from Leacherous Creatures; or from their shape resembling Stones [testicles] as the Satyrions or plants called Dog-stones; or like a rough wrinkled Cod [scrotum], as Toad-stools or Mushrooms (Plater, Cole, and Culpeper 1662: 172).

Having disposed of both the pneuma mechanism of erection and a doctrine of signatures, the authors proceeded to provide a lengthy list of animals, animal products, vegetables, and seeds that would serve as sexual stimulants. Meats were best because they nourish well and produce much blood. Species to be selected should have white tissue, such as brain, testicles, and much marrow, particularly when these were obtained from “the most lecherous Beasts.”The latter were cocks, quail, and the ever-present sparrow, along with beaver flesh and, in the case of the fox, just his testicles.

The sea creatures on the list were exclusively invertebrate, and were followed by nuts, grains, and vegetables. But at this point, without explanation, the authors veer away to conclude that the preparation of sexual stimulants was more important than the ingredients. All of these foods had the same effect, but “especially if they be peppered and salted: for Pepper stimulateth and provoketh Venery, and we suppose that when such things are so eaten it comes rather from the sauce than the meat” (Plater, Cole, and Culpeper 1662: 172).

Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738), a famous professor of medicine at Leiden, wrote somewhat hesitantly regarding “generators of seed.” These were the various botanicals, mammalian and rooster testicles and brains that “are commended by the Ancients; but these are doubtful, and perhaps vain” (1740: 152).

Later in the eighteenth century, however, the very existence of aphrodisiacs was clearly denied for the first time, with the credit going to William Cullen (1710-90), a leading physician of Edinburgh. Among the terms he defined in his Treatise on the Materia Medica (1789) we find:


Medicines supposed to be suited to excite the venereal appetite, or to increase the venereal powers. I do not know that there are any medicines of specific power for these purposes; and therefore the term seems to have been for the most part improperly employed (1808: 107).

Nevertheless, despite Cullen’s influential reputation, and the increasing skepticism of science, the popularity of aphrodisiacal prescriptions and recipes did not lose their popularity.

Lay Literature

Until recently, physicians saw only a minority of medical problems and were not consulted at all by large segments of the population. Medical advice, however, still reached many through a genre of “domestic medicine” books that began to appear in the vernacular in the seventeenth century. They became particularly popular toward the end of the eighteenth century and continue to be published today. And until the middle third of the twentieth century, far more people were likely to have been influenced by the recommendations in these popular books than by any personal contact with physicians.

Because these publications focused on actions that could be taken without the intervention of a physician, dietary advice was prominent, and as late as the nineteenth century, the problems that diets were intended to correct were “acidity” and “wind” (gas formation). Acids were deemed to irritate the urinary passages, thereby stimulating sexual sensations, and gaseousness stimulated the urge to expulsion, that is, ejaculation. Substances that induced either were generally considered aphrodisiacal, and those that counteracted them were anaphrodisiacal.

Thus, a domestic-advice book from 1800 recommended that to increase seminal fluid, the diet should emphasize milk, eggs, and tender and nutritious meats, as well as herbs and roots that were mild, spicy, and diuretic. Conversely, to inhibit passion, one was advised to resort to a diet that was less nutritious, to avoid spices, and to abstain from alcoholic beverages. “Cooling” nourishment, such as lettuce and cucumbers, was seen to be beneficial (Willich 1800: 557-61).

A similar volume in the latter part of the nineteenth century relied more on medicines than on diet to counteract impotence. In regard to nutrition, the reader was told only to rely on “plain, simple, easily digested, and nourishing food.” Much greater attention, however, was paid to “spermatorrhea” (involuntary seminal emissions), as well as, implicitly, those voluntary emissions resulting from the sin of masturbation. The dietetic component of this therapy for spermatorrhea consisted of the avoidance of carbohydrates because they were thought to readily ferment, producing gas in the stomach and acid in the intestines. Such acids were then absorbed, and they acidified the urine, “causing great irritation of the lining surface of the bladder and urinary passages, greatly increasing and perpetuating the disease.” More specifically, fruits and vegetables were to be eaten sparingly and milk was to be avoided. Distilled spirits were preferable to beer, wine, and other fermented liquors, although water and black tea were viewed as the safest beverages. Coarse, well-baked wheat bread, fresh eggs, and various meats, stewed or boiled to tenderness, formed the most curative diet. The author conceded that it did not afford much variety, but “it offers the most abundant nutrition, and aids materially in the cure of this ailment” (Gleason 1873: 454-60).

In a book written in 1894, Dr. J. Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), the inventor of corn flakes, taught that the sole cause of almost all impotence was sexual excess of some kind. Consequently, controlling spermatorrhea prevented impotence. Such control required avoidance of all stimulation, dietetically including “tea and coffee, spices and other condiments, and animal food [because they] have a special tendency in this direction” (1894: 267-77, 319, 613). Other (and earlier) widely used books, such as those by S. A. Tissot (1769) and H. Buchan (1778), had avoided sexual matters other than pregnancy.

The Early Twentieth Century

The observation of Havelock Ellis (1906) that high nutritive value and ease of digestion are the only criteria for a dietary aphrodisiac coincided with a shift, at least in the medical literature, away from the notion that some foods could exert a specifically sexual effect. In texts of materia medica published between 1891 and 1911, the only real food item to which aphrodisiacal powers were attributed was in a work by the American physiologist Roberts Bartholow (1831-1904). He wrote: “Carrot seems … to produce diuresis, augment menstrual flux, and cause aphrodisiac effects in the male” (1903: 791). Some newer herbs, such as damiana, were recommended, as were metals reminiscent of Paracelsian teachings, among them gold chloride, iron arsenite, and zinc phosphide (Bartholow 1903: 297, 175, 135).

With the disappearance of aphrodisiacal foods from (at least) scientific discussion in the twentieth century, however, there remains only the question of vitamins to be dealt with, and of these the only ones shown to be specifically relevant to any aspect of sexual function are vitamins A and E. The American biochemist Herbert M. Evans (1882-1971), who discovered vitamin E in 1922 (Evans and Bishop 1922), subsequently found with collaborators that a lack of this substance from the diet of male rats resulted in sterility due to deterioration of the seminiferous tubules, but not to a loss of the sex drive. Females did not become sterile, but they did abort their fetuses. Vitamin A deficiency also resulted in male sterility (Evans 1932a, 1932b).

Rodent experiments such as these were misunderstood or distorted by the lay press and by charlatans touting the “anti-sterility vitamin” as a cure for all sorts of sexual dysfunctions of men and women. Some published case reports suggested that vitamin E might assist those women who have had spontaneous abortions to carry a pregnancy to term (American Medical Association Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry 1940: 2214-18). However, habitual abortion is not the result of vitamin E deficiency, and the reliability of vitamin E administration for such a problem has not been proven. Vitamin deficiencies, unless they are a part of starvation, seem to have no effect on human sexual activity.


According to modern science, the only substances in the realm of food and drink that can be considered to have a potentially aphrodisiacal effect are alcoholic beverages in quantities sufficiently small to reduce inhibitions without overtly sedating. There are no positive sexual stimulants and no inhibitors other than sedating amounts of alcoholic beverages. Circumstances surrounding the consumption of food or drink may, of course, exert a positive or negative psychological influence on sexual desire, which is another way of saying that the alleged sexual effects of foods are culturally determined, psychological factors. And the desire of the public for aphrodisiacal foods to exist continues to support the publication of books with titles such as Aphrodisiac Culinary Manual (Heartman 1942), Venus in the Kitchen (Douglas 1952), The Virility Diet (Belham 1965), and Lewd Food (Hendrickson 1974).