Spanish fly, holy bread and mashed worms: history’s weirdest aphrodisiacs and love potions

Throughout history, pining lovers have turned to love potions to win the hearts of their intended. From mashed-up worms to cakes made from human sweat, Emma Slattery Williams dips into some of the weirdest of these concoctions for BBC History Revealed

Bottle of 'love potion'

When love is unrequited, what you can you do? For some people throughout history, a love potion has been the answer – but just what goes into these heady (and allegedly head-turning) draughts? Below are seven notable aphrodisiacs from the annals of unreciprocated affection.

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1

Spanish fly

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the deadly insect known as the Spanish fly has been used in love potions. A type of blister beetle, the emerald green insect was popularly crushed with herbs and made into tonics. It could cause feelings of warmth to course through the body, but this was normally due to inflammation rather than desire.

The toxic bug was incredibly dangerous and its use was rumoured to have caused the death of Ferdinand II of Aragon. After the death of his wife Isabella I of Castile, Ferdinand swiftly married the much younger Germaine of Foix. It’s thought that, due to his advancing years and their desire to have a male heir, Ferdinand may have resorted to potions to improve his virility. He died in January 1516 after a steady decline in health, and it was well documented in his court at the time that he had ingested many suspicious elixirs and drinks that may have contained Spanish fly.

2

Lizard necks

Animal parts have been used in medicine and witchcraft for centuries. Native Americans would use lizard tails in their love potions, and lizard necks were deployed in traditional Nigerian spells. In some cultures, though, a drowned lizard was thought to have the opposite effect in love. Rhino horns have often been believed to possess aphrodisiac properties, as well as being valuable in traditional medicines – a combination that has led to the animal being poached to near-extinction.

3

Flowers

Flowers have long been associated with romance, so it’s no surprise that for centuries desperate lovers have turned to them when looking to snare their heart’s desire. A common love-charm method was to plant marigolds in the footsteps where the object of your affections had walked. The Datura plant was a popular ingredient in ancient Indian potions, and was thought to be a powerful aphrodisiac – but was also a deadly hallucinogen. In ancient Colombia, it had an even darker purpose, allegedly being used to drug the wives of dead chieftains so they that could be buried alive alongside their husbands.

In classical Greece, one type of orchid, known as the Satyrion, was picked so much for its purported magical properties that it allegedly went extinct. The German alchemist, writer and later saint Albertus Magnus wrote that affection between a man and wife could be created with the periwinkle and crushed up worms. Flowers, it seems, had unlimited uses when it came to love.

Albertus Magnus
Albertus Magnus was an alchemist and saint (Photo by DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)
4

Mashed worms and herbs

During the 17th century in colonial New Mexico, the settled Spanish would trade goods and customs with the local Native Americans. Inquisition records show that a number of women were convicted of witchcraft after administering potions they had obtained from indigenous peoples. Some of these would involve mashed worms, herbs and bodily fluids, which were to be spread on the chest of the one whose love you hoped to gain.

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5

Sacramental bread

In the Roman Catholic Church, the consecrated communion host (sacramental bread) is believed to turn into the body of Jesus Christ during the rite of the Eucharist. As a result, some believed it held magical properties. In medieval Italy, a pining lover sought the advice of a wise woman in order to regain her long-lost sweetheart. She was advised to steal the consecrated host to use for a potion. The lover claimed that when she got home with her stolen host, it had transformed into a bleeding piece of flesh. It is still held at the Cathedral of Alatri and was declared a miracle.

6

Prayers to St Luke

Religion and witchcraft don’t usually go hand-in-hand but those in search of true love might have resorted to a mixture of the divine and devilish in the medieval period. Saint Luke – patron saint of artists, physicians and bachelors – was often called upon to help people find their soulmates.

Painting of Saint Luke
Saint Luke the Evangelist, 1478 (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

An old wives’ tale required that on the saint’s feast day – 18 October – a mixture of herbs, honey and vinegar should be anointed on the head before going to bed. The following prayer to St Luke would then be said and, consequently, one’s beloved would be seen in a dream: “St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me, in my dreams let me my true-love see”.

7

Sweaty cakes

Some of the less appetising love potions used throughout history involved human ingredients. Some medieval recipes called for cakes to be made from sweat, blood and other bodily fluids, which could be presented to an intended lover – the hope being that these baked goods would instantly make them fall head over heels in love. Bits of skin and hair from an intended couple could also be whipped up into a brew to promote amorous stirrings.

Love potions: three famous tales from history

Tristan and Iseult

The Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult is a tragic love story that was known across medieval Europe. Tristan travels to Ireland – so one version of the story goes – to ask for the hand of the princess Iseult on behalf of his uncle, the King of Cornwall. On the return journey, they accidentally consume a love potion meant for the king and his future bride, which binds them together. Images from this tale were often carved into caskets and given as gifts; the legend was one of many that prompted women to be accused of ensnaring their lovers with witchcraft and potions.

Lovesick poet Lucretius

The Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius was reportedly driven insane by a love potion given to him by his wife, before later killing himself. Historians are uncertain whether this tale of his demise is true, but the image of him as a frenzied, lovesick poet has lived on. Love potions, which were commonplace in the ancient world, have their own classically derived name: philtre. This word traces its roots to the Greek philtron, which describes a substance that was eaten or drunk to induce passion.

Louis XIV and the Affair of the Poisons

One of the most famous cases involving love potions was in the court of the French monarch Louis XIV. The so-called Sun King, who lived in the decadent Palace of Versailles, had many mistresses, but the most well-known was Madame de Montespan. In 1677, she got caught up in the Affair of the Poisons – a supposed plot to poison the king. She was cleared of any wrongdoing, but it was still rumoured that she had sprinkled love potions on the king’s food and used other dark and sacrilegious methods to maintain her hold over him – including sacrificing a baby and having black masses performed over her naked body. Understandably, de Montespan swiftly fell out of the king’s favour – and his bed.

Emma Slattery Williams is BBC History Revealed’s staff writer

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This content first appeared in the February 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed