You may have heard that oysters are an aphrodisiac -- but what about potatoes, skink flesh, and sparrow brains? These things were once considered aphrodisiacs, too. Almost everything edible was, at one time or another.
Aphrodisiac recipes have been cooked up throughout the world for millennia. In Europe, up to the eighteenth century, many recipes were based on the theories of the Roman physician Galen, who wrote that foods worked as aphrodisiacs if they were "warm and moist" and also "windy," meaning they produced flatulence. Spices, mainly pepper, were important in aphrodisiac recipes. And because they were reckoned to have these qualities, carrots, asparagus, anise, mustard, nettles, and sweet peas were commonly considered aphrodisiacs.
An aphrodisiac, as we use the term today, is something that inspires lust. It usually isn't meant to cure impotence or infertility, problems that are now handled by separate fields of medicine. But until recently there was little distinction between sexual desire and function. Any lack of lust, potency, or fertility would have a common cure in an aphrodisiac. Galen thought that a "wind" -- or as one 16th-century writer put it, an "insensible pollution" -- inflated the penis to cause an erection, so anything that made you gassy would also make you erect.
Galen's theories were not the only basis for concocting aphrodisiacs. Mandrake root was eaten as an aphrodisiac and as a cure for female infertility because the forked root was supposed to resemble a woman's thighs. This was based on an arcane philosophy called the "doctrine of signatures." Oysters may have come to be known as an aphrodisiac only by their resemblance to female genitals. Few old medical texts listed oysters as an aphrodisiac, although literary allusions to that use are plentiful.
Parts of the skink, a kind of lizard, were thought to be an aphrodisiac for centuries. It's hard to say why exactly, but three different ancient authors make the claim. Potatoes, both sweet and white, were once known as an aphrodisiac in Europe, probably because they were a rare delicacy when they were first transplanted from the Americas.
Some aphrodisiacs came out of mythology. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love (from whose name, of course, "aphrodisiac" is derived) was supposed to have held sparrows sacred. We think rabbits are promiscuous animals, hence the Playboy bunny and certain lewd sayings, but the ancient Greeks thought sparrows were especially lustful. Because of the association with Aphrodite, Europeans were inclined to eat sparrows, particularly their brains, as aphrodisiacs.
St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century friar, also wrote a bit on aphrodisiacs. Like Galen, he thought aphrodisiac foods had to produce "vital spirit" and provide good nutrition. So meat, considered the heartiest food, was an aphrodisiac. Drinking wine produced the "vital spirit."
Wine, Spanish Fly, and Thou
Alcohol is one of the only things known for ages as an aphrodisiac that has any real effect on sexual desire. A little alcohol can dissolve inhibitions and put you in the mood, but overindulgence is said to have the opposite effect on performance, now as in Shakespeare's time. ("It increases the desire but it takes away the performance" comes from Macbeth.)
Coffee is another old one, and it's still sometimes considered an aphrodisiac. "Every time you have an excitation, you have an effect of disinhibition," says Paola Sandroni, MD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic. She reviewed the scientific evidence that exists on many supposed aphrodisiacs, and published her findings in the journal Clinical Autonomic Research.
But to call coffee or anything that contains caffeine an aphrodisiac would be misleading. "I think the effect is much more general," she says. In the same way, cocaine and amphetamines may seem to be aphrodisiacs because they stimulate the central nervous system, but they have no specific effects on sexual desire
Sandroni also looked at studies on ambergris, which comes from the guts of whales and is used in perfumes. Some consider ambergris an aphrodisiac and there is evidence to support this notion. In animal studies, it increased levels of testosterone in the blood, which is essential to the male sex drive, and is thought to play a part in women's libido as well.
Next to oysters, the most well known aphrodisiac is the fabled "Spanish fly." It's not just a legend. Such a thing does exist. Its active ingredient is the chemical cantharidin, which is found in blister beetles. Cantharidin irritates genital membranes, and so it is believed to be arousing. It's also deadly, causing kidney malfunction or gastrointestinal hemorrhages in people who ingest too much. A quick Internet search is all it takes to find some for sale. Sandroni says she was "horrified" to see how easy it is to buy.
Then there's the "herbal Viagra" pitched in spam emails. This is yohimbe bark. Some claim, falsely, that arginine, an amino acid in yohimbe, can restore erectile function and act as an aphrodisiac. "The only saving grace there is that arginine in large quantity is not harmful," says Cynthia Finley, a dietician at Johns Hopkins University.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote in The Art of Love, after giving a litany of aphrodisiacs, "Prescribe no more my muse, nor medicines give / Beauty and youth need no provocative." Similarly, Finley says she thinks the only true aphrodisiac is good health achieved by a balanced diet -- which isn't all that different from what St. Thomas Aquinas said 800 years ago.