Spanish fly, musk, garlic, grey amber (made from rotting whale intestine), vanilla, phosphorus, saffron, opium, chocolate, truffles, mushrooms, asparagus, strychnine, parsnips, ginger, cocoa, figs, calves’ brains, shellfish, pickled meat, French beans, dried peas, red wine, marrowbone, fresh egg yolk, aromatic showers focused on the ‘area’, cold enemas, all kinds of mineral water, acupuncture, electropuncture, galvanic currents, electric friction, cauterization of the prostate, rest cures, milk straight from a nursing mother, are just a fraction of what has been recommended as a cure for potency problems.
Spanish fly is traditionally the best-known substance. It is made of the dried and powdered insects of the species Lytta vesicatoria from Southern and Central Europe and in Asia, which are about 2 cm long. The active ingredient is cantharidine, which when applied to the skin causes a powerful rash. Scientifically, the operation of the substance comprises both inhibition of phosphodiesterase and protein phosphatase activity and stimulation of beta receptors, causing vaso-congestion and
inflammatory reactions. An oral dose of 5 mg gives a powerful stimulus to the urogenital system, but this dose can also cause severe kidney damage. Other side-effects include a burning sensation in the mouth, nausea, vomiting blood, blood in urine, epileptic fits and arrhythmia.
If Spanish fly has always been the best-known aphrodisiac, in the pre-Viagra period yohimbine was considered the best. At the end of 2006 the outgoing conservative-liberal Dutch government banned its use in herbal mixtures because of possible side-effects. Yohimbe bark comes from Pausintyalia yohimbe, a variety of tree from tropical West Africa. The South American quebracho tree (Aspidosperma-quebrach- blanco) also provides yohimbine. The substance inhibits the sympathetic nervous system. In high doses it is supposed to increase the blood supply to the sexual organs. If it is injected into the brains of rats, the number of copulations increases. Partly for this reason it is thought that yohimbine acts mainly on the brain. The scientists are agreed that yohimbine’s possible effect is confined to psychogenic ed. The recommended dose is 10 mg daily, and possible side-effects are dramatic: heavy perspiration, giddiness, palpitations, falling blood pressure, overexcitement, trembling of the hands, insomnia, restlessness, hyperventilation, rashes, nausea and vomiting. An excellent move by an outgoing government!
In Greek mythology Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty, the daughter of Uranus, the personification of heaven. She has given her name to the term aphrodisiacs. Since the beginnings of recorded history man has been interested in aphrodisiacs, and in every culture people prepare love potions in the hope of restoring their potency or increasing it at will. The oldest description of an aphrodisiac is to be found in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul, where a clay tablet from the thirteenth century bc contains the following (Hittite) cuneiform inscription:
If the man’s potency wanes in the month of Nisannu, you must catch a male partridge, pluck it, wring its neck and salt it; next mash it together with the Dadanu plant. Serve this mash in beer, after which you will soon see that potency is restored.
You can do the same with the penis of a male partridge, the saliva of a bull with an erect penis or of a goat with an erection.
Then take a sheep and make a ball of its tail hair and wool from the perineum. Tie this to the man’s thigh bone and his potency will return.
Genesis (30:14-17) also contains references to an aphrodisiac:
And Reuben went in the days of the wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I pray thee, some of thy son’s mandrakes.
And she said unto her, Is it a small matter that thou hast taken my husband? And wouldest thou take away my son’s mandrakes also? And Rachel said, Therefore he shall lie with thee to night for thy son’s mandrakes.
And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son’s mandrakes. And he lay with her that night.
And God hearkened unto Leah, and she conceived, and bare Jacob the fifth son.
Mandrake is mentioned in one other place in the Old Testament, in The Song of Solomon 7:13: ‘The mandrakes give a smell, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old. . .’ Mandrakes could be found while harvesting. They were extremely rare and were sought after not only for their wonderful scent, but because they were a cure for infertility. They contain mucous material, sugar, resin, nonvolatile oil, tannin and various salts.
In Southern Europe it was believed for centuries that the mandrake grew mainly in places where criminals were hanged. According to tradition while in their death throes on the gallows they not only had an erection but also ejaculated. This sperm, consigned to the ground under extraordinary circumstances, was supposed to produce fertile ground for the mandrake. Christ’s agony on the cross is almost never depicted with an erection. I am aware of only one exception: Maarten van Heemskerck’s painting of Jesus that hangs in Ghent, which displays not only the stigmata of his crucifixion but also an erect penis. The association between strangulation and sexual excitement was later also a theme in the books of the Marquis de Sade.
The ancient Druids venerated the mistletoe, an evergreen, sticky, globe-shaped parasitic bush that lives on trees and never makes contact with Mother Earth, which they saw as a magic plant. The Gauls regarded it as a gift from the gods implanted in trees by lightning. They considered it a bad omen when parts of the plants fell out of the tree. The white-robed Druids cut the mistletoe at New Year ceremonies, probably the origin of the English custom of hanging mistletoe in the home at Christmas. The plant also had medicinal uses. Panoramix, the old, venerable druid from the village of Asterix and Obelix, would cut the mistletoe with his gold pruning knife to prepare the magic potion with which he made his people invincible. ‘But he knows many other recipes. . .’ says the writer, expressing the unspoken thoughts of the adult comic-book reader.
Things were different again with the Romans. Alongside the official physicians there were the so-called sagae, most elderly prostitutes. They operated in two areas: as unauthorized midwives who performed abortions or prepared magic potions with an aphrodisiac effect. Just like today abortions were carried out for a variety of reasons (other than because of a prenatally diagnosed harelip): a married woman, for instance, wanted to erase the traces of adultery, or a promiscuous woman was frightened of having her style cramped by lack of libido due to pregnancy. A few women took a different view: Julia, the daughter of the emperor Augustus, would only tolerate lovers when pregnant by her husband Agrippa. If people expressed astonishment that despite all her debauches her children always resembled her husband, then according to Macrobius she always said: ‘I never take passengers, except when the ship is fully laden!’ (Etenim nunquam nisi navi plena tollo vectorem!)
Though the abortions gave the sagae plenty to do, they still made up only a small proportion of their work. Normally these potion – makers came at night to the Esquiline Hill, which was the scene of magic spells and sacrifices, and the site of the cemetery for slaves, who were buried at random without even a shroud. It was unsafe there at night, and at the bottom of the hill close to the Porta Metia, stood the gallows and the crosses, from which hung the bodies of those executed. The executioner’s house was naturally close by, since he had to watch over his victims. In these macabre surroundings the sagae did their work. By moonlight they picked their magic herbs and gathered hairs and bones and fat from those who had been hanged. According to Dufour there were even child sacrifices, particularly when very potent drinks had to be brewed. The sagae were paid handsomely for these dreadful practices. The child in question had first to be stolen from its wet nurse or parents, then buried alive and finally butchered. Otherwise the liver, the gall, the prepubescent testicles and the bone marrow would lack the true aphrodisiac power. . . Some sagae had the ability to produce potions that could make a man completely impotent, a fate that Romans dreaded.
The official, respectable physicians strongly disapproved of the use of all these potions, and countered by recommending natural mineral water rich in sulphur and iron, which must, though, be drunk close to the source. These aquae amatrices, as these invigorating drinks were called, lost their strength the further away from the spring they were drunk. So much for the Romans.
Since time immemorial musk has been considered an aphrodisiac scent. It is the secretion of the glands in a deer’s foreskin, and the name derives from the Sanskrit word for testicle, an allusion to the fact that the substance comes from the sex organ. In nature musk smells are found in many places: the musk mole, the musk ox, the musk duck, the musk hyacinth, the musk cherry, musk wood, etc. In the mating season lizards and crocodiles secrete musk through glands in their lower jaw, and elephants do the same through glands in their head.
The mustard plaster was invented by Hammond, a nineteenth – century expert, who believed that this form of therapy must be used with caution, since it might cause inflammation or even cancer.
Occasionally there is a scientific explanation for the effect of a supposed aphrodisiac. In evolution it was the male boars who with their rooting and trampling spread truffles through a large part of France. Truffles are a type of fungus that grow underground among the roots of oaks and hazel trees. They are considered a delicacy and nowadays truffles are hunted with specially trained sows or bitches, the only creatures capable of detecting where the fungi are located. The clue to their ability is alpha-androsterone – a hormone – which makes these females wrongly think that they are on the track of a male. Since alpha – androsterone is also found in men’s armpit sweat and women’s urine, it is possible that it has an unconscious effect on sexuality.
The Chinese regard soup made from a sea swallow’s nest as the ultimate aphrodisiac. The nest is made of sea grass held together with roe, a rejuvenating substance. In addition, sea grass contains a great deal of the previously mentioned phosphorus.
The Japanese walnut (Ginkgo biloba) is another medicinal source well known to the Chinese. The extract of the leaves is supposed to help the smooth muscle cells in the erectile tissue compartments relax and hence bring about an erection. The ginkgo has existed for hundreds of millions of years, originating in the Permian period, which means that herbivores like dinosaurs already grazed on ginkgo leaves in the Jurassic period. The tree is the only surviving intermediate form between the higher and lower plants, between the ferns and the conifers, though it is not a conifer but a deciduous tree. Fossil remains show that today’s ginkgo has scarcely changed in the last 65 million years. A different, but scientifically interesting aspect, is that its swimming spermatozoids play a part in reproduction – an exceptionally rare occurrence in plants and trees. The ripe seed has a soft, fleshy yellow outer layer and the unpleasant smell of rancid butter. These seeds (‘nuts’) are prized as a delicacy in the Far East. The ginkgo disappeared from Europe in the Ice Age, and it was not until 1691 that the German doctor and botanist Engelbert Kampfer, who worked for the Dutch
East India Company, rediscovered the tree in Japan. In the Far East ginkgos were regarded as very special trees, and in China had been planted from time immemorial in Buddhist temple and monastery gardens, where they were regarded as sacred.
In the temperate climate of Western Europe ginkgos grow quite slowly. The trees in say, Kew Gardens, are far older than most in Europe, but even they pale before the temple ginkgos of the Far East, some of them between two and three thousand years old, up to 20 metres in circumference and 60 metres high. The unique fan-shaped leaves, with a notch in the middle, turn a wonderful yellow colour in autumn. No wonder that Goethe devoted a fine poem to the tree. Ginkgos are no longer a rarity to be seen only in historical parks and botanic gardens: nowadays some can even be found lining suburban streets. The tree is indestructible, not even succumbing to an atom bomb. The death toll in Hiroshima was huge and massive buildings were completely destroyed, but the Ginkgo biloba only one kilometre from where the bomb landed simply went on growing.
Ginseng root comes from traditional Chinese medicine and is mainly used in Western phytotherapy to increase stamina. The major supplier is Pannax Ginseng from Korea. Its effect is supposedly based on an increased production of nitrogen oxide in the erectile tissue
compartments in the penis. Nitrogen oxide is a potent vasodilatory molecule and the discoverers of that fact were awarded the Nobel Prize. With a little imagination one can see a little man in the shape of the ginseng root. So according to the doctrine of signatures, according to which the form and medical application of a plant are linked, ginseng is suitable for use with men.
In Asia the enduring interest in all kinds of aphrodisiacs has unfortunately resulted in the virtual extinction of both the Javanese and the Sumatran rhinoceros; the African rhino is also seriously under threat. It is widely believed, especially in East Asia and the Middle East, that the use of ground horn can restore potency, which may be associated with the fact that the act of mating in rhinoceroses takes almost an hour and involves multiple ejaculations. The horn commands astronomical prices and in Europe in the autumn of 1994 it reached the point where on the advice of Interpol rhinos in zoos were kept under close surveillance, since information had been received that poachers – a ruthless bunch anyway – were targeting animals in captivity.
Not so very long ago, on the island of Curasao in the Netherlands Antilles, the iguana was in danger of extinction. Soup made from this splendid creature was supposed to eliminate potency problems. The iguana’s sex organ is so shaped that it appears to have two penises, and a similar abnormal shape was once diagnosed in a human being, the 22-year-old Portuguese gypsy Joao Batista dos Santos. According to the doctors both penises functioned properly, and once he had climaxed with one he immediately continued with the other. The patient preferred the left-hand one, which was thicker.
There is a rice-based alcoholic drink in China that includes one lizard per bottle. This is a gecko (Japaloua Polygonata), a large species of Asian lizard, and the potent beverage is called Ha Kai Chiew. The Chinese attribute a salutary effect to the juices of the quick and agile gecko, especially in cases of impotence. The so-called ‘preserving’ of animals is traditional in many countries: in France adders disappear into eau de vie, in Spain frogs and in Mexico worms.
Traditionally chocolate is also considered an aphrodisiac. This probably originates from the time when chocolate was scarce and hence expensive. It contains phenylethylamine, related in structure to the so – called neuro-transmitters, but it is broken down before it reaches the brain. In addition there are minimal quantities of caffeine, thebromine and anadomine. None of these ingredients can explain the reviving effect of chocolate. Women are supposed to experience a pacifying and hormone-calming effect, for example when sexually aroused.
Avocados, oysters, mussels and asparagus are also considered to be aphrodisiacs, and when they appear on the menu are meant to herald
fireworks in bed. This hypothesis rests solely on the supposed similarity of these foods to genitalia, which can also be found in bananas, carrots, figs, peaches and coconuts. Avocados grow in pairs and are supposedly reminiscent of testicles. The durian is fruit the size of a football with spines, which grows on huge trees in South-East Asia. It has a distinctive flavour and is held to be aphrodisiac. As a Malay proverb puts it: ‘When the durians are down, the sarongs are up.’