IF MUSIC be the Food of Love...

If-music-be-the-food-of-loveDuke Orsino in “Twelfth Night” might well have regarded music as being a prime factor in the nurturing of love, but Shah Jehan, as he sat mournfully gazing across the water at the Taj Mahal tomb of his beloved Mumtaz, placed his faith in more prosaic remedies, and fed his fading libido with all manner of potions and remedies. In fact, he nearly drove himself crazy with strange aphrodisiacs, much to the despair of his courtiers.But throughout history both men and women have placed their faith in various foods and chemicals in order to restore vitality. Even today Italian scientists recommend a glass of red wine a day in order to maintain a healthy sexual drive, and there are, of course, many other remedies to which people have turned over the ages. Sometimes there is indeed a basis for such faith. Pomegranate juice has been proved to raise testosterone levels by up to 30 per cent,  whilst oysters, brimming with zinc, greatly assist in sperm and testosterone production, whilst the omega-3 which they contain wards off depression and gives rise to a general sense of well being. The smell alone of almonds reputedly arouses passion and desire in women, but the magnesium and vitamin E which they contain certainly assist fertility. And should a headache threaten to impinge upon a promising liaison, the ancient Greeks discovered that basil was a potent cure.

In the popular imagination some foods are aphrodisiac on account of their shape.   Bananas, with their phallic appearance, are just such an example. (It is interesting to note that according to Islamic myth, when Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise, they covered their nakedness not with fig but with banana leaves.   And figs were Cleopatra’s favourite fruit, into which she popped the odd asp or two.)  Avocados, on the other hand, when they arrived in Spain, were considered so obscene in their shape that priests forbade their congregations to eat them. Arriving at roughly the same time, chillies were added to the aphrodisiac cornucopia on account of the fact that the capsaicin they contain heated the blood and boosted the heart rate, thus leading to enhanced performance in bed. When mixed with chocolate, a natural source of serotonin, the result was earth shattering; or so the story went. How many people genuinely benefitted from such a concoction is somewhat doubtful. Equally doubtful is the result obtained by the consumption of animal testicles, but, as in the case of a medicinal placebo, the mind can often be duped to provide the desired effect.

It is this question of mind over matter which lies at the basis of love “magic”. The use of potions, charms, spells, rituals and the like goes back to antiquity, whenever one person sought to gain the affection of another by magical rather than direct means. Often such activities were taken seriously, and it was the accusation that Anne Boleyn had used witchcraft in order to entrap Henry VIII that contributed heavily to her downfall. The mediaeval Church was constantly on its guard against such practices.

The Malleus Maleficarum (The hammer of witches), a handbook for those concerned in extirpating witchcraft, deals extensively with what was considered to be basically a feminine activity. Its authors, James Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, wrote “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.” They go on to contend that witches received their power through intercourse with the devil. It is for this reason that only too often the use of love magic to ensnare a partner ends in tragedy.Such is the theme of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”, Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’amore”, or Falla’s “El amor brujo”; a theme extensively found in literature. But if many of the love potions produced by witches or “wise women” were fraudulent, there is some scientific basis for believing that such a potion can in fact be produced. This notion is behind many mass marketed perfumes. A study reported in the “Proceedings of the Royal  Society” found that people generally like their own body odour, and that this odour plays a more important role in human mate selection than we realize.
For this reason it is technically possible to manufacture a “love potion” perfume that can help singles improve their chances of finding ideal mates. This odour is recognized subconsciously.    The more pungent smells that emerge every so often in the human body, such as sweat, those due to bacteria or the consumption of certain foods, and other contributing factors, do not impinge upon this recognition.

The ingredients used by the witches to lure Macbeth to his downfall in the Shakespearean play of the same name are not entirely fanciful as one studies some of the spells and charms recorded from the Middle Ages.It is amazing to what lengths lovesick loons went to ensnare their beloveds.One of the most famous ingredients to be found in  such love potions is, of course, Spanish Fly. It is a misnomer, although “Spanish flies” are a sub species of the same group of insects. The insect in question is actually a “meloid beetle”. It is sometimes called a “blister beetle” as it contains cantharidin, which can blister the skin, and is sufficiently powerful to remove warts, moles, or tattoos, albeit somewhat painfully. It is actually a poison which, if ingested in a sufficient quantity, can lead to heart and lung problems, kidney failure, convulsions, coma, even death. The philosopher poet Lucretius (99 BC – 55 BC) is said to have died from an overdose. In small quantities, however, it can be used as an aphrodisiac, although it is now recognised that this is a rather silly thing to do. As it works its way out of the body it irritates the urethra, causing it to swell, thereby causing a lasting and not altogether pleasant erection.   It is for this reason that in antiquity it was often used to lace the drink of a bridegroom.   Lucretius just took too much!  

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