Love is a many splendid thing, but what do you do when the one you love doesn’t love you back? Flowers? Poetry? Obsessive social media stalking? Maybe. Or you could look at what lovers throughout history have done to win the hearts of their intended: Make a love potion. Sure most love potions are made from some strange stuff like menstrual blood, mashed-up worms or cakes made from human sweat, but hey, what wouldn’t you do – or eat – for love?
Although love potions’ roots go as far back as Biblical times (and possibly beyond), medieval Europe, which was the moment in time where love magic was all the rage, really takes the cake when it comes to trying their hand at concocting strange things to be consumed or worn all in the name of love. Some medieval recipes for love potions have been called sweaty cakes for reasons which I’m sure you can guess. Yes, that’s right, they were made from sweat – and sometimes bits of skin and hair, too, just to make it more (un)appealing. Sweaty cakes have also been known to contain fun stuff like blood and, well, other bodily fluids. The idea here is that by putting your “essence” into these little cakes and having the person you’re in to eat them, that that person would then fall instantly in love with you. At this point you may be asking yourself, just how did they get the sweat into the sweaty cakes? But of course the answer is that while they were making the batter they were naked, and when the cakes came out of the oven, the cook dabbed them on their armpits, forehead, genitals, really any place there may be some sweat. Hungry yet?
It may seem disgusting to most of us now, but it wasn’t unusual for people long ago to ingest things like human bits or even animal bits all in the name of love. It was common all over Europe for people to use animal parts for powders, potions and charms. Some of the most powerful ingredients included decapitated birds heads and scooped-out brains, the hearts of deers, poop from a stork, donkey testicles and even something very, very specific from Suabia, in southwestern Germany: bones from the left side of a toad that has been devoured by ants, which they would turn to powder and put into a liquid concoction (bones taken from the right side apparently induced hatred). Bat’s blood was also popular. In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder did a lot of thinking on the subject of love potions. One of his theories was that if you took bat’s blood and let it coagulate, then put it under the pillow of the woman you want to be with, well that would be enough for her to wake up wanting you. Nothing says desire more than the smell of clotted blood while you sleep!
Lizards and their inside and outside parts seem to have been popular around the world for medicine and love potions alike. Our favorite recipe comes from Nigeria. They say to use a lizard neck mixed with viper’s blood, witch’s hair, a piece of your own umbilical cord, and all the toenails and fingernails you’ve ever cut off yourself. We have so many questions about this recipe. First, are there many witches in Nigeria you can get hair from? Second, a piece of your umbilical cord? How? Third, we’d have to investigate more, but does everyone in Nigeria keep their nail clippings from birth until death just in case they need them for a spell like this? Anyway, once you have all the ingredients, you have to cook them for seven days over the fire of a volcano, then drink it. If the woman you want does not love you after all that, don’t worry! You can blame it all on the witches in your family (Well that answers our first question!). By the way, you have to be careful which culture you get your love recipe from with regard to lizard bits. Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that will turn your desire into disdain. For example, Pliny, in his Natural History, says drowning a lizard in a man’s urine creates an aphrodisiac; but in some cultures it’s exactly the opposite if you mix in wine.
And let’s not forget about the smashed up worms – also very popular, despite the taste. But why would these creepy crawlies be the creature of choice for love? Much of it had to do with worms being regarded as fertility symbols due to their closeness to the earth. It definitely wasn’t because they tasted like chocolate. In fact, the taste was/is so bad that it was necessary to mix the smashed worms with better-tasting things like periwinkle, leeks, wine, and various herbs and flowers. Some of the less-tasty recipes from 17th-century indigenous people in New Mexico included bodily fluids mixed in, so adding anything that would cover the taste (and aftertaste) was good.
But it wasn’t just animal parts people found useful, people parts were also all the craze – dead or alive. Although some recipes called for horrid things like the bone marrow and spleen from a murdered boy, you could also use less-vomit-inducing (although not much less) ingredients like pubic hair, menstrual blood and toenails to ensure your lover would love you back. Going back to Medieval Europe, you’ll find love potions that require either your bone or the bone of your soon-to-be lover smashed into powder, hair and menstrual blood. Go back to the beginning of that sentence: It requires either your bone or your lover’s bone. It doesn’t say how you’re supposed to get that bone, but there you go.
Going back to our opening story, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk briefly on menstrual blood. For a more in-depth look into this fun fluid, please refer to the previous chapter on Aunt Flo & Her Helpers: Menstruation, Tampons & Pads. It’s a doosy! So this type of blood was considered magical right from the get go. I mean, why wouldn’t people think it’s magical? It mysteriously comes out of the same area that brings forth life and stimulates pleasure! So it goes without saying that the ancients, and well, believe it or not, people today, have found it to play a very potent part in love potions. People have used it to secure monogamy as well as love. For example, if your intended drank your menstrual blood (mixed in with something else of course, due to the taste and smell), then your taste and smell will be locked into part of his subconscious. Once that happens, all he will be able to think about is being with you, without ever (hopefully for him) knowing why.
But love potions weren’t just about making people fall in love, they were also used to make someone more passionate – or just plain willing – in bed. What we call Spanish Fly is a perfect example of this. Spanish Fly has been used since the time of ancient Greece in trying to inflame a person’s desire. But it wasn’t the entire fly, and actually it wasn’t even a fly. It was a blister beetle, and they only used some of its body (the part that had the cantharidin secretion they needed) and its bright green wings crushed up with other ingredients. Cantharidin is an irritant that, in small doses, made private parts swell, but more often than not too much would be administered, causing organ failure.
Aphrodisiacs go as far back as Babylonian times. People were using different things around them to stir warm fuzzies down below. In ancient India, the Datura plant was used in potions, however it was a deadly hallucinogen, so like Spanish Fly, not so safe. The Greeks found a safer way to get turned on: an orchid called Satyrion. They would dry it out, turn it into powder, mix it with wine and let nature take its course. It supposedly worked so well that the Greeks picked it into extinction, so we will never know if it truly worked. But don’t worry, we can always try the things that were used by good ol’ Pliny: hippopotamus snout and hyena eyelid.