Love Potions & Aphrodisiacs
a Cross-Cultural and Historical Perspective

By Kay Morgenstern

"...I am the soul of Nature that gives life to the Universe
From me all things proceed and to me they must return
Let my worship be in the heart that rejoices for behold,
all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals..."

Thus reads an old pagan song of the Goddess - but after 2000 years of Christian conditioning modern (western) attitudes to sex and love have been thoroughly desecrated. For centuries sex was regarded as something "dirty" and "evil", that belonged to the vices of the "devil". One was supposed to feel as little pleasure as possible in the "act", which at any rate, should only be carried out for the purpose of procreation. As a result, even now sexual stimulants and aphrodisiacs are regarded as somewhat "kinky ". This has not always been the case, though . . .

Exactly how far back in time the history of aphrodisiacs stretches, is impossible to ascertain. However, given the fact that sex, the most basic human instinct, is still the predominant issue on most people's minds, gives reason to assume that this has been the case since the very beginnings of human culture. There is ample archeological evidence, dating back as far as the Paleolithic age, that points to the fact that some of the earliest expressions of spirituality were linked to ferility rites in connection with the Earth-mother. Numerous female figurines emphasizing the breasts, womb and buttocks, found at some of the oldest archeological sites bear witness to her worship.

The Earth-mother embodied the mysteries of life and death. She was seen as the source of all life, to whom all eventually must return - to be born again and again in an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Thus, the fertility of the Earth-mother was of utmost importance to our ancestors and her sacred ritual was the divine mystery - the sacred union of the opposites. Making love then, was not just regarded as a basic animal instinct but held a deeply rooted spiritual significance. Human sexuality had a direct relationship to the cosmic sexual energy of the Universe - it corresponded to the divine creative act of the God and Goddess, - Heaven and Earth - and here the true meaning of the word "pro-creation" is revealed. It is more than likely, that aphrodisiacs were originally linked to ecstatic rites in celebration of this mystery and played a significant role as offerings of incense and decorations, and as sacramental ritual drugs .

In ancient cosmologies not only the Earth itself is regarded as a living being, but the forces of nature also carry a symbolic, and often supernatural significance. Lightening bolts for example, are expressions of the male cosmic sexual energy, and the rain that fertilizes the land has its counterpart in the masculine sexual essence. By the same token, all aspects of nature, (including plants and animals), were expressions of various Gods, spirits and demons. This type of perception was not merely symbolic. Rather, the Gods, Goddesses or demons were thought to "live" in the trees and plants etc. and thus were able to convey their powers through them.

Some of these associations have survived as folkloristic remnants even to this day. In the old pagan days of ancient Europe for example, Hazel twigs, were commonly employed as fertility rods. Hazel (Corylos avellana) was sacred to Donar/Thor, a God who was strongly associated with fertility. At Beltain, or better known as May-day, the most important fertility festival of the year, the entire female population of the villages, animal and human alike was "blessed" with Hazel rods. This procedure usually involved stroking, or more often hitting the female genitals with these rods. Symbolically, Hazelnuts represented both, the male glans and the female sexual parts, while the rods were seen to signify the phallus. Thus, the strokes given with this symbolic divine penis were believed to transfer the God"s power of fertility to the recipient. Furthermore, the bush is among the first to come out in flower in the spring-time, a certain sign for its inherent power of fertility. 

Lodoicea maldivica Consequently, Hazel not only plays a significant role in many such sympathetic magic rituals, but is also often found as an essential ingredient of ancient aphrodisiac recipes. Sometimes it is the oil of the nuts, sometimes the ashes of their burnt shells, sometimes the flowers or in some cases even the bark that is utilized in such recipes. Even nowadays Hazelnuts are believed to have aphrodisiac properties. As it so happens, they are a rich source of vitamin E, which is perhaps the most important vitamin associated with normal sexual function. Many other nuts have a similar mythological background and likewise share these aphrodisiac associations - walnuts, pine kernels, almonds, chestnuts, coconuts and, the most blatantly suggestive Coco De Mer (Lodoicea maldivica) [see picture] are all believed to stimulate the sex drive.

Sometime during the late Middle Ages this basic idea of likenesses eventually became formulated as the Doctrine of Signatures. According to this doctrine, a plant that looks like a certain organ of the body could be used to heal its ailments or at least would be useful as a tonic for that part. Thus, certain fruits, plants or parts of animal that by shape or texture suggest the human sex organs, were believed to stimulate the sex drive. This fact explains much about the obscure collection of plants, substances and other items that have at one time or another been regarded as aphrodisiacs. Obvious candidates include such unsubtle items as dried tiger"s penises, the horns of various animals, as well as the hormonal secretions and even the sex-glands of certain animals that were perceived as particularly virile. Such items were all highly valued for their supposed power of sustaining erection and restoring a lost or diminished sex drive in men. On the slightly more subtle side, various plants, such as peeled grapes, mangos, avocados, bananas, figs, passion fruit, pomegranate, okra and certain anthropomorphic roots to name but a few, had the same reputation. Not that such plants necessarily have any overt physically arousing properties, but they certainly stir the imagination and thereby excite the senses.

For questions or comments send email to: Kay Morgenstern
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Doctrine of Signatures

Mary Lambert's poem "Moonflower"

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