Viagra burst onto the market and into pop culture in 1998. The little blue pill’s approval by the FDA seemed to usher in a new era of unfailing sexual performance. Now men of every age would be able to have (and maintain) erections at will. The drug is designed to treat erectile dysfunction, but everything from Sex and the City to Pfizer’s own marketing campaign suggests that it has a second life as an aphrodisiac that enhances sexual pleasure. It might seem that between the contraceptive pill and Viagra we live in a new epoch, but a new study of ancient medicine reveals that we are the hardly the first to use drugs to manipulate sexual pleasure.
In an article on “Erectogenic Drugs in Greek Medicine” published this month in Pharmacy and History, University of Cincinnati doctoral student in classics Brent Arehart dug through some neglected ancient medical literature that describes the remedies designed to secure an erection.
A whole host of ancient writers, it seems, describe cures for impotence (alongside cures for venereal diseases). The second-century doctor Galen writes that “to make the penis erect” one should “anoint [it] with honey before sex” or “put arugula seed in honey and drink [it].” Galen isn’t alone; one of the ancient Greek magical papyri straightforwardly recommends a concoction of ground pepper and honey as a topical ointment for the underperforming member.
Many of the recipes in the ancient world utilize animal parts as remedies. Galen recommends drinking a medication made from the “the area around the kidneys of the skink (a kind of lizard)” but warns that while it can “produce erection …[it] seems able of doing the opposite, especially when imbibed with lettuce seed in water.” The late antique medical writer Oribasus recommends “stag penis.” Another author writes that the “stone found in the gizzard of the belly of an ostrich,” when worn as an amulet around the neck, has the ability to conjure “an erection for those who are already old and want to have lots of sex.” It also has the side effect of making “the wearer charming.” In what sounds like a prescription for a urinary tract infection, Galen notes the following recommendation, “whenever the bull urinates after sex, mix the soil and the mud made by the urine into a plaster and anoint it on the penis.”
Not every recipe involves animal dissection or following bulls around a paddock. The medical writer Aelius Promotus, who lived and worked in the second century A.D., provides an ingredient list in his Dynameron that can be found in well-stocked kitchens: “chopping up two ounces of arugula seed, one of pepper, and half an ounce of celery seed, take one spoonful with seasoned wine mixed with hot water on an empty stomach after a bath for three days.” If this all seems a bit elaborate, it might still be worth it; the author promises that “you will be amazed” by the results.
Aelius is an equal opportunist when it comes to aphrodisiacs and includes several recipes intended to make “the woman become weak from pleasure” or “howl.” Some of the usual ingredients—pepper and honey—appear along with more surprising elements like the berries of white ivy or a quantity of “larvae found in bathhouses.”
For those experiencing an erection for four hours or more, there are also prescriptions to prevent erections. Aelius recommends that if you crush up mountain mint with wine and milk and “rub [it on] the member and it will not be made erect.”
It’s difficult to know why ancient people thought these substances are aphrodisiacs. Arehart told The Daily Beast that the texts themselves often don’t explain why a substance was thought to be stimulating and he hasn’t run across any fierce debates in the medical literature over how they work. His hunch was that many of these remedies had been passed either in texts or by word of mouth and that later doctors would then try to explain those traditions. There is, however, a pattern. Arehart said “sexual activity is often talked about as having a 'heating' effect on the body, so foods that are heating would make natural candidates for stimulation.” This can in part explain the presence of arugula and pepper in so many recipes: they’re spicy.
Erections aren’t just about getting (literally) hot. Arehart added, “When it comes to erectogenics, it seems that the pneumatic model (i.e. the idea that erection is caused by the penis being inflated by an airy substance) made flatulence-inducing foods good candidates. So, if you're like Galen and you believe that the arteries transport pneuma (in addition to blood) to the penis and that heat can dilate those arteries, thereby increasing the amount of pneuma in the penis, then heat + flatulence sounds like the perfect combo.” One might imagine that this is (or at least was) good news for men whose partners complain that they fart too much: flatulence is a sign of a man who can perform.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were not the only ones looking for a little help in the bedroom. The ninth-century Tunisian physician Ahmed Ibn al-Jazzar provides ample advice about sexual health in his Provisions for the Traveller and Nourishment for the Sedentary. This early healthcare guide was very popular: it was translated into Greek, Latin and Hebrew and was widely used in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Al-Jazzar, like many medics of his day, believed that health was a question of balancing the humors: “The power of sexual intercourse will only be at its best,” he writes, “when the temperament of the testicles is warm and moist.” Among his dietary recommendations for producing good sperm were chickpeas and turnips, which promoted sexual vigor. He notes that beans (combined with pepper and ginger) would help with both sperm production and sexual performance.
Those who needed a little more help could turn to a beverage (his own recipe) that “stimulates the lust for sexual intercourse” as well as serves as a general health aid. The rather elaborate recipe includes a number of herbs, spices, and a multi-day preparation process. The process, he says, produces an “exquisite drink” the potency of which can be amplified by extract of carrot.
If all of these complicated prescriptions fail, there are several more traditional routes to better sex that al-Jazzar recommends: “affectionate words, showing passion, kissing the cheeks, fondling with the hand, licking with the tongue, joy over sight of the beloved, expressing one’s devotion to the beloved and refraining from dwelling on grievances against her.” This might, however, seem like a lot of work.