Eat your heart out

At the risk of being too predictable, this week, for Valentine’s day, I bring you some ancient aphrodisiac recipes. I am not really one for celebrating the Saint of Love, and reading some of the recipes I have come across certainly did not put me in the right sort of mood. If, like me, you are a Valentine’s sceptic, read on…

As part of their all-encompassing regimens, Greek and Roman doctors regulated the sexual activity of their patients. They recommended periods of abstinence and exact times when a woman should go to her husband and ‘mix with him’ (the lovely Greek euphemism used in some medical texts). As some of these physicians saw pregnancy as a cure for terrible diseases, such as displacement of the womb, productive sexual activity was of the upmost importance. This is where aphrodisiacs find their place in ancient medicine. Ancient treatises on simple medicines (that is, treatises that describe ingredients one at a time) often mention whether a part of a plant or animal is aphrodisiac or an-aphrodisiac. For instance Galen (second century CE) lists the seed of a turnip as an aphrodisiac; the Cyranides (a collection of magico-medical information compiled in the fourth century CE) pig testicles; and Pliny the Elder (first century CE) garlic. The last author also informs us that cress is an-aphrodisiac.

The perceived aphrodisiac properties of an ingredient were often linked to its shape or function. Thus, seeds, eggs and animal testicles were seen as aphrodisiac because of their generative function; and orchids because of the shape of their roots, which are reminiscent of testicles. Orchids are a particularly interesting case because, according to Theophrastus (a philosopher of the school of Aristotle, fourth century BCE):

By bodily powers, I mean fertility and infertility. Some plants have the power to produce both from the same source, as in the case of the orchis. For these have two [tuberous roots], the one larger, the other smaller. The large one makes a person more effective in intercourse when given in the milk of a mountain-pastured goat, but the smaller harms and prevents [intercourse]. Theophrastus, History of Plants 9.18.3 [Translation: C.L. Gemmill]

Most ancient aphrodisiacs were drunk in a liquid, usually wine or milk. Some, however, were placed on the body. As in the following recipe, transmitted by Pliny the Elder, but originally by Xenocrates, a first-century BCE physician:

Mallows are so aphrodisiac that the stem of the single-stemmed mallow, sprinkled for the treatment of women, augment their sexual longing infinitely, so Xenocrates maintains, and that three roots fastened next to the affected place, have the same effect. Pliny, Natural History 20.227

Now Xenocrates had a reputation for being too interested in magical remedies, and certainly there are strong links between magical and medical practice in the field of love aids. However, as I have stressed earlier, aphrodisiacs had their place in ‘mainstream’ ancient medicine. Greek and Roman medical and botanical authors showed no coyness in discussing the topic. The same cannot be said of their modern editors and translators. The most commonly used edition of Theophrastus in the English-speaking world – that of Hort – omits the passage I have discussed earlier.

I leave you with some of my favourite aphrodisiac recipes. They are found in a collection of remedies for horses. Horses were very expensive and were given the same treatments as humans, which makes the Hippiatric treatises an excellent source for the medical historian:

[Recipes] to stimulate sexual desire in horses: saffron drunk with sweet wine; or scammony crushed with water; or costus crushed and drunk with hydromel; or the right testicle of the cock placed in the skin of a ram and hung onto the neck of the horse incites to sexual desire; or the testicle of the deer dried, crushed and drunk with honey water. Cambridge Hippiatric treatise 10.6

This passage lists both remedies that are drunk and remedies that are worn as amulets; and both vegetable and animal ingredients. The animals chosen – the cock, the deer and the ram – were all known for their sexual potency in antiquity.

On my way to source some cock testicles and ram skin then…

This week I made heart-shaped bath bombs scented with orange and ginger. Orange and ginger is a lovely aromatherapy blend which is supposed to be energising. I wanted to incorporate it into something easy to make and love-themed – hence the heart shapes. To be honest, I feel this would have worked better as part of a bath melt, but I did want to try to make bath bombs. They are very easy to make.

You will need

– 150 g. bicarbonate of soda
– 75 g. citric acid (you can easily find this online)
– 25 g. corn flour
– 2-3 drops red cosmetic colouring (optional)
– Essential oils: I used 10 drops orange oil and 10 drops ginger oil
– Something to spray the preparation with (I used rose water)

Rose water, essential oils, bicarbonate of soda, cornflour, citric acid, cosmetic colouring
Rose water, essential oils, bicarbonate of soda, cornflour, citric acid, cosmetic colouring

Mix the bicarbonate of soda, citric acid and corn flour in a mixing bowl. Add the cosmetic colouring and essential oils. Then you will need to spray the preparation. Be very careful, as you only need very little. The mixture will look and feel like wet sand.

The mixture will look and feel like wet sand

Pack the mixture into a silicone mould – do pack it as tightly as you can. Leave to dry overnight in a dry place (this is important. If you leave the preparation in a place where there is moisture, like the kitchen or the bathroom, the bombs will start to fizz out). IMG_0014

Add to warm bath and enjoy.

The finished bombs in a Valentine-themed dish
The finished bombs in a Valentine-themed dish
This entry was posted in Cosmetics, History of gynaecology, History of magic, History of medicine, History of veterinary medicine and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Eat your heart out

  1. Must Have Boxes says:

    Your bath bombs turned out great. I love the heart shape!

    – KW


  2. Pingback: Carnivalesque #93 Pre-Modern History with Added Cats | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  3. This is really interesting, You are a very skilled blogger.
    I’ve joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your wonderful post. Also, I’ve shared your site in
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