Aphrodisiacs & Charms to Ensure Wedding Fidelity
Today the aphrodisiac trade is enjoying an unprecedented boom, and of course we have Viagra, available as every chemist. It wasn't so easy in the olden days. In Europe 'strengthening mixtures are seen as part of every drug-store display: in the southern United States in particular, sales are brisk among both white and negro populations of 'love powders' (male —pink, female — white), brimstone, lodestone, sassafras, asafoetida, resin — traditional components of charms for seducing girls, tethering husbands and bringing dilatory lovers up to scratch. Some rebarbative charms, made of grave dirt, feathers, hair, blood or powdered human bones, dried frogs and snakeskin — the materia medica of voodoo — are carried on the person, wrapped in red flannel within little scented leather bags, and their power is never underestimated. In the Ozark mountains such ju-jus' or 'conjures' are regarded so seriously that their victims are held blameless: were they not controlled by others more powerful than they? Deserted wives are consoled by the thought that wandering husbands were 'conjured off and did not depart of their own free will.
The fidelity charm too is still in considerable use. An American negro charm of the south requires a hair from the woman's head and a little of her pubic hair. The man slips from bed and pokes the hair into a crack in wall or floor nearby and the charm ensures that his wife will never leave him. In north Devon, '(see string quartets in Devon) still liquors' brewed from wheat and herbs revived tired men after a hard day on the farm, and 'kept them near their wives'; 'matched cider'— prepared by burning a brimstone taper within the half-full barrel - was said by the old folks to 'make girls feel cuddly'; brimstone is an ancient love-charm ingredient. Wives in Carolina hold straying husbands by driving a hickory 'stob' into the doorpost: hickory is a wood slow to rot, and while the peg is sound, husbands remain faithful. Other women sew a little of their own and their husbands' pubic hair into a sachet to be worn in the clothing as a fidelity charm. Coat collars are favourite repositories.
The idea of fidelity is still strange concept for some people today. I recall playing with my string quartet at civil wedding ceremony at a very prestigious venue. When the registrar got the bit saying about taking this man to be your et cetera et cetera and forsaking all others, the bride paused for a moment, fix the registrar in the eye and said, in an Essex accent, "you what?" There was a long silence while the registrar tried to gather his thoughts. Eventually, he composed himself sufficiently to only just managed to get out of his mouth, the same question again, but with considerably less confidence. There was a moment's silence from the bride, who donned a resigned expression, then said (again in her Essex accent), "oh, all right then." It was a wonderful moment!
The doctrine of signatures, developed in the fifteenth century, 'signed' or attached many plants by colour, shape or habit to a specific condition or disease. From this doctrine the oriental ginseng, Panax schinseng, from Chinese for 'man-shape', a highly regarded aphrodisiac, derives its reputation. It is said to boost the waning sexual powers of ageing men; but its users are likely to be disappointed, for most medical authorities report that ginseng is at best an appetite stimulant, with no effect on other functions. Any benefit felt must be psychological. But despite such pronouncements ginseng's reputation is undimmed: sales constantly increase. In Germany 50,000 bottles of ginseng mixtures are sold annually by one company alone. The prime section of the oriental root—'heaven-grade'—sells at up to $100 per ounce: average roots weigh an ounce each and are about three inches long, often forked, naturally or by judicious trimming, into a rough human form, with arms, legs and, with luck, penis. By the doctrine of signatures ginseng must therefore benefit man. (The first time I drank ginseng tea was in South Korea, many years ago before it became commonly available in the UK. No, I wasn't out there playing with my string quartet, I was out there selling high-value plant and machinery into their steel industry. (This was one of my past lives, prior to becoming a full-time musician.) It was quite an experience out there. I arrived for a morning meeting at the company, with our agents, to find the gates locked and security guards outside. We were told we couldn't go into the company until the afternoon. Just then a group of people, dressed in everyday office attire, came running then the corner from building carrying machine guns and hand grenades. Security guards were completely unruffled. I was alarmed, to say the least. Our agent questioned the guards. It turned out to be nothing more than anti-Communist training. It seemed that, at that time at least, government officials would descend without notice at an office or company and announced that they wanted to run a communist insurgency exercise. This was an exercise to train people not to as a reaction to an invasion from North Korea. This was in Seoul, right on the border. It seemed the desks were filled with an grenades and machine guns and ammunition, just to be ready for this potential invasion. By the afternoon, all was calm again and we held the meeting as if nothing unusual has happened. Anyway, I've deviated. What I was going to say was that I certainly have never noticed any aphrodisiac qualities of ginseng tea. (That was long-winded way of saying that)).
For thousands of years this plant, taken medicinally and carried on the person, has been the 'root of life' to the Chinese. An unbroken root of shaped ginseng, encased in silk, set in a jewelled casket and costing from $30O—$400, is an appropriate gift for an old man. It is a common belief that a man who has lost his sexual powers — his 'manhood'— will die within the year, although one man of 93 who admitted believing this in his younger years said that experience had proved it wrong! American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is also valuable, and although it is now rare there are stories of secret patches profitably cultivated in the Ozark mountains.
The mandrake is another plant of ancient reputation ('provocative to venery' said Sir Thomas Browne). There is much confusion between the true mandrake, Atropa mandragora, the American mandrake, mayapple or raccoonberry, and the English mandrake, the white briony. Other plants are also substituted and probably very little of the 'mandrake' sold in herbal shops today is A. mandragora. The Greeks called the plant anthropomorphum, the Romans semi-homo, for its human form; the Arabs, 'devil's testicles' after its paired fruits. The belief in mandrake's effect on conception is as ancient as the story of Reuben, Rachel and Leah in Genesis. In the period of Henry VIII briony roots were trained in moulds into little man-shaped figures, with sprouted millet for hair and beards. Italian ladies paid as much as 30 gold ducats for such 'puppettes' or 'mammettes' which brought sexual energy, conception and luck in love. Mandrake is still considered a fertility stimulant and its roots are tied to bedposts or scraped into water and taken medicinally. In the markets of the Middle East amulets of mandrake are sold as aids to virility; in Cambridgeshire, England, (C string quartet in Cambridgeshire) mandrake was often hung in cottage bedrooms to induce large families, and today orthodox Jews of New York and Chicago still import large quantities of mandrake roots which, according to shape, are deemed male or female and taken accordingly.
The tomato too has a sexual reputation. (I bet you never knew that!) When the plant was brought from South America to North Africa and finally to France it was called la pomme du Moor — interpreted by Englishmen as la pomme d'amour, so that its career as an ingredient of love potions began forthwith. ('Tomatoes are cheaper, now's the time to fall in love,' sang Eddie Cantor in the 19305.) The juice of the 'love apple' was —and perhaps still is — slipped into the drinks of torpid lovers, and today nutritionists identify an element in the tomato which increases fertility and virility, and believe there may be a grain of truth in the old superstition.
Lettuce, (presumably not limp lettuce!), wild and cultivated, was also thought to have the power of arousing love and of promoting childbearing if eaten by a wife. It was a customary ingredient of medieval love-philtres. (Perhaps mediaeval lettuce that was closer to the wall of lettuce, had a bit more to it than current day varieties. Certainly, lettuce isn't something that springs to mind in this context! Sayings like "someone is like a limp lettuce" or "you're like a damp lettuce" are more common than the connotation of a lettuce, particularly a rather sad supermarket variety, arousing love and promoting childbearing.)
As sometimes occurs, the belief became inverted: by the seventeenth century it was said that lettuce 'represses venereous dreams' if applied to the testicles. (What a revolting thought). (see string quartets in London) It was prescribed for those suffering from satyriasis and nymphomania, or those not desiring children. By the nineteenth century the belief was stated quite emphatically: 'O'er much lettuce in the garden will prevent a young wife's bearing.' Then the superstition seemed to revert to its original form, and in 1951 a correspondent wrote to the Daily Mirror, of London, that after several childless years she and her husband had been advised by their doctor to eat plenty of lettuce. Within six months she had conceived. Lettuce juice is a very mild substitute for opium, producing a languorous drowsiness and a sense of relaxation and wellbeing. On this perhaps rests its reputation as a promoter of love, and indirectly of fertility.
In the English Fenland (see string quartets in Lincolnshire), tansy tea made from Tanacetum vulgare was the fertility drink, for the plant grows freely near rabbit burrows and rabbits are paragons of productivity. Similarly, in the Ozarks the fat found round the kidneys of wild rabbits in fall is a specific for sexual debility, and the patient who eats it will acquire the sexual energy of the rabbit. It is an old country joke that parsley grows best 'where petticoats rule'. Men wanting sons were depressed by an over-lush patch of parsley in their gardens, for it meant that female influences reigned to the point where no boys would be born to the family. No man of resolution permitted much parsley to flourish unhindered for long!