The Aphrodisiacs that Spiced Up Sex Lives in the Ancient World

October 19, 2021

Sex is a primal urge humans share with animals. In the ancient world, human fertility had implications for safety and prosperity. However, as the search for birth control methods went hand in hand with the search for aphrodisiacs, the need for sex obviously went beyond mere biology and reproduction.

Humans devised several means to titillate their libido through the ages: stimulation of the sexual organs themselves, baths and massages, and erotic literature being some of these.

However, the quest for substances that, once ingested, are supposed to have the power to ignite sexual passion, increase pleasure in the sexual act, address erectile dysfunction and enhance semen production has occupied humans throughout history. Since ancient times, a distinction has often been made between substances that were alleged to improve fertility (quantity of seed) and those that only stimulated the sex drive (inclination to venery). Some authorities held that the latter could only be attained by achieving the former.

The Connection Between Food and Sex

The association between food and sex is itself elemental – after all, they both involve satiating the appetite. The profound interconnection between the very act of eating, in fact, and sexual desire has come to be recognized by neurologists, anthropologists, physicians, as well as psychiatrists in modern times. Various kinds of foods have been held to have almost magical biochemical effects on sexual appetite and virility through the ages.

Since food was scarce and undernourishment affected both male and female sexuality, certain foods were sought after to help keep the body in working order. Some items and foods gained their reputation as aphrodisiacs due to their resemblance to human genitalia- carrots, asparagus, figs and artichokes, for example and, more bizarrely, rhinoceros horn. The vanilla pod, with its resemblance to the vaginal canal, was endowed with aphrodisiacal qualities as well.

Bulbous foods such as eggs, beets, and fennel were also thought to have sexual power. This association between the appearance of certain foods and their function can be attributed to the ancient concept of ‘doctrine of signatures’ . According to this doctrine, which endowed many plants with attributes they did not possess, some resemblance should exist between a disease and its curative agent.

Ancient Aphrodisiacs – Belonging to Aphrodite

According to the Oxford Dictionary, an aphrodisiac is “a food or drug that is said to give people a strong desire to have sex”. The word entered the English lexicon in the early 18th century from the Greek aphrodisiakos which itself comes from aphrodiosis, or belonging to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The Greek poet Hesiod tells us the name Aphrodite itself derives from the word aphros or sea foam, as she was supposed to have risen from the sea.

The story goes that his wife Gaia (Earth) and children were fed up with Uranus (Heaven) because he was a bad husband and worse father. So, Gaia charged her youngest son Cronus with getting rid of his father. Disgusted with Uranus, not only did Cronus throw Uranus out of heaven, but he also cut off his genitals before doing so.

The blood from the genitals fell into the sea causing foam, and from this foam was born the beautiful Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, passion and reproduction. In Roman mythology, Venus is the counterpart of Aphrodite.

From the goddesses of love and passion to love and passion itself; apart from worshipping the goddesses, what did the Greeks and Romans rely on to stoke sexual passion?

Hot Greek and Roman Foods

According to Albert Ellis and Albert Abarbanel in volume 1 of their Encyclopaedia of Sexual Behaviour , the Greeks wrote extensively on the subject of aphrodisiacs. In Latin too there are numerous allusions to foods that were supposed to be sexual stimulants.

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