History, part 2

Let’s move (for now) from odd practices, and look at things people have tried that could more recognizably be called aphrodisiacs.

Love philters, as they have been called, have included a startling variety of ingredients, some surprising in their pedestrian qualities rather than their bizarreness. Apuleius, a Roman writer of the 2nd century A.D., created a simple drink with a base of fish, oil, and shrimp. He gave it to a wealthy widow, who then married him, and her relatives sued him for subverting her with his “magic potion.” They claimed that she had no intention of ever remarrying… and perhaps hoped she wouldn’t, since she was over 60 and doubtless soon to deliver their inheritances. Apuleius defended himself with the argument that her energy had been restored by the philter and she was much happier now. The court was swayed.

Other Roman philters contained less innocuous ingredients such as frog bones, nail clippings, semen, menstrual blood, and if legend can be believed, even human liver and bone marrow. We’ll just leave that at that for now.

Nearly 400 years previous to the incident with Apuleius, a Chinese physician wrote a manual of Sui T’ang medicine. Included was instructions for a potion that included 22 powdered ingredients (flowers, seeds, roots and minerals) mixed with wine. The concoction reportedly bestowed amazing sexual stamina on a man who drank it daily. It lists the “Yellow Emperor”, Huang Ti (c. 2600 B.C.), as one of its finest historical examples. Empowered by the drink, he “mounted 1200 women and achieved immortality.”

Legend says Cleopatra made herself more attractive with pearls dissolved in vinegar. Other sources throughout history have included powdered gems and sometimes precious metals amongst the components.

The Kama Sutra lists a recipe that includes several sweet ingredients, including ghee, which is clarified butter. The final product is supposed to taste like nectar. I’ll post the recipe at some point, and you can tell me what you think. Other love philters from the Hindu tradition include sap from the anvalli or bhuya-kokali trees, and are said to give a man nearly endless sexual energy.

One ancient Eastern beverage with ingredients easy for Westerners to come by is an elixir Arab men still use for sexual stamina: peppermint tea.

I should point out that many of history’s love potions, like the nectar just mentioned, are maddeningly vague to a modern reader, even when the ingredients are listed. The exceptions are often those most “magical” in effect, and they are often absurdly complex. I suspect the complexity is sort of an aid to the belief system, as a failure of the ritual to produce the desired effect can be blamed on the performer, who may have made some mistake.

Some recipes are completely unlisted, like that which brought Tristan and Iseult together. It was certainly made of herbs, roots and wine, but beyond that nothing is really known. The reason for this is simply that the ingredients were already known to the people of the culture that produced the story. To list them would have been redundant.

There are medieval love potions whose instructions have survived enough for us to recreate them today. Consider the myrtle-based potion used by many in Europe during that period. It had the reputation of inspiring eros enough for writers to not only mention it but to explain how to make it, and though uncommon, the ingredients are reasonably at hand. Others, like Moses Maimonides’ mixture, have ingredients that are tricky to find but not impossible. That 12th century Hebrew scholar called for kilkil grain. We of the West would probably find the oil of jasmine used in the potion easier to obtain.

As we go, I’ll post the recipes mentioned above, and more. I just won’t make any promises about the results.

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Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.