The idea of a potion that can make someone fall in love is as old as the idea of love itself. But is there anything in them that might actually have an effect? Ian Morton investigates.

In one of the best-known episodes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sleeping Titania’s eyelids are anointed with the juice of a magical plant and she awakes to fall in love with the first creature she sees: Bottom the weaver, his head transformed into that of an ass.

It’s a mystical moment for modern viewers but for Shakespeare’s audience, the notion of an effective love potion would not have been particularly strange. Philtres claiming to win the heart of another were central to medieval culture, as potions promising love were already as old as love itself.

History and literature record that they have never been out of fashion from the oft-retold Celtic legend of Tristan and Isolde and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts, potions have been plied to direct or misdirect romantic fortunes. In the current genre, young Harry Potter not only encounters potions, but also their antidote: Wiggentree twigs, castor oil and extract of Gurdyroot, a concoction absolutely in the magical mainstream tradition.

Love as a thunderbolt always had its own tradition, well expressed in ballads old and new. However, in the medieval period, doubts were quickly aroused if a gentleman of rank or wealth fell helplessly in love with an obviously unsuitable maiden.

It was easy to murmur witchcraft, an allegation difficult to dislodge, and often with fatal consequences to the ‘witch’ – some 200,000 of whom were burnt in early modern Europe. The suggestion of black magic having a role in love became so entrenched that it even gave rise to its own vernacular: to have been bewitched, spellbound, charmed, enchanted, enthralled, captivated or even fascinated by a female all derive from suggestions of the dark arts rather than a healthy and ingenuous attraction between man and woman.

Witches preparing a love potion in a woodcut from the 16th century

Witches preparing a love potion in a woodcut from the 16th century

Many love potions were complex, traditional, international… and utter nonsense. Human elements, including bone, hair, nail clippings and menstrual blood, featured widely. Animal remains often tossed in the mix included dove hearts, sparrow brains, stork droppings, snake fat, ass testicles, bat’s blood in beer, bones from the left side of a toad’s head eaten by ants and feline parts (cats were regarded as witches’ familiars and as such were cruelly treated).

Worms mixed with leeks and powdered periwinkle, best taken with meat, were supposedly good for fertile love-making. Consecrated bread stored under the tongue during Communion was a powerful ingredient when added to the potion to be drunk by the object of one’s desire.

If you’re wondering how any concoction so vile might ever have been drunk, honey was often added to the more gruesome recipes for purposes of palatability, although it was also regarded as a positive component in its own right.

Love potions to invite affection and aphrodisiacs to provoke and prolong arousal were recorded in pre-Biblical Egypt, Greece and Rome. The Ancient Greeks favoured an orchid, Satyrion, which, when powdered and added to wine, rendered the drinker madly in love. They were so addicted that they utilised it to extinction, making it impossible to know if there was a genuine pharmaceutical effect at work.

Pliny the Elder recommended hippopotamus snout and hyena eyelid. Horace favoured dried marrow and liver. Rhino horn, crocodile dung and globe artichokes had their advocates. Mandrake root was regarded as a potent aphrodisiac, although the plant was said to scream when pulled up and elaborate precautions were needed to handle it, which added to its mystical intensity.

In Elizabethan England, prunes were considered sexually potent and were, therefore, served for free in brothels. The quest continued. Napoleon recommended truffles, Casanova suggested oysters and the Maharaja of Bikaner favoured ground-up diamonds.

A love potion available for sale at the annual Healing Festival during Holy Week on Siquijor Island,Philippines

A love potion available for sale at the annual Healing Festival during Holy Week on Siquijor Island,Philippines

But not everything was based on such whimsy, since many of the ingredients used do in fact produce real effects on the human body. Nightshade plants of the Solanaceae family that produce hallucinogenic alkaloids played a leading role in the pursuit of love and some potions and ointments could also be employed as poison.

Henbane was believed to induce true love and to bind couples together, and its narcotic effect is real – an overdose, however, can lead to delirium, coma and death. Verbena was also used, a sleeping draught which was thought to aid the seduction of a woman, but, when given to a man, could render him impotent for a week.

No male aphrodisiac was more dangerous than that derived from an emerald-green meloid beetle, Lytta vesicatoria, otherwise known as Spanish Fly. Its ability to inflate and sustain the libido had been known since ancient times thanks to its powerful constituent, cantharidin, which has a strong priapic effect on the male member.

The Spanish Fly’s downside has been known since ancient times: it can produce fatal kidney failure, and caused the painful demise of poet and philosopher Lucretius. It also ended the life of Ferdinand II of Aragon, the man who ushered in Spain’s Golden Age by sponsoring Columbus’s voyage of discovery and pushign the Moors out of the Spanish peninsula after 800 years of occupation. Ferdinan died in agony from an overdose at the age of 64.

Despite recorded casualties, Spanish Fly survived as a sexual stimulant through the centuries, made scandalous newspaper headlines in the mid-20th century and remains available today as an alternative pharmaceutical preparation.