I know it may sound trivial, occasionally, for me to be writing a blog explaining the connection between food and sex, while others are conquering much more complex and controversial issues as the connection between food and race, gender, place, and health. But the more I deal with it, the more I think that it is very important to study this connection. What else is more visceral to our existence than food and sex? We, as individuals, have to eat to survive and we, as a species, have to have sex to survive. Sure, we don’t think about sex in a survivalist manner much anymore, but that’s probably because our species is doing so well and we have such long lives to procreate. In the 16th Century, the average lifespan of Europeans was only 25-30 years. That’s not much time to get busy and have 6 children, of which over 4 might die before they are able to reproduce. So increasing sexual desires was for more than just pure pleasure. Food has been used to increase desire and fertility for centuries in vastly different cultures, but it wasn’t necessarily to promote sex as pleasure, but rather to encourage procreation. For this reason, food as an aphrodisiac, has had great influence all sectors of human existence, from affecting sense of place to religion to etymology to social relationships.
I wanted to return to the idea of the aphrodisiac, for one because I found this awesome (scholarly!) article about aphrodisiacs, but also because I believe the topic has a much deeper history and social meaning than I ever imagined.
The article is called “Aphrodisiac Foods: Bringing Heaven to Earth” by Miriam Hospodar and was published in Fall 2004 in the Journal of Food and Culture (http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2004.4.4.82).
Before I get into aphrodisiacs, though, I wanted to talk about the connection between fertility and crops throughout history. People used to believe that the extent of their own fruitfulness influenced that of their crops. For this reason, many different cultures encouraged the practice of appointing couples to have sex in the fields before and during planting. In fact, in some belief systems, an entire kingdom’s fertility was believed to rely upon the fertility of its king. Different sexual ceremonies were performed in different cultures to make crops grow. In ancient Sumeria, the king and a fertility goddess performed a ritual marriage. In ancient Egypt, pharaohs tried to conceive their first sons during the harvest festival of Min, “god of cultivation and generative power.”
The connection between sex and food goes as far as to be imbedded in language across the world. Languages on several different continents have words that mean both “to copulate” and “to eat.” Vanilla was named “vaina” or “vainillo” by the Spanish from the word “vagina.”
I will soon discuss sweet foods and their historical regard as aphrodisiacs, but I will first point out that we connect sweetness to love and sex through language. We have sweethearts, sweeties, honeys, and sugar daddies. Also, we go on honeymoons, the time when our sex lives are romanticized to be at their best. Aphrodisiac was even derived from Aphrodite, name of the Greek goddess of love and sexuality. She was linked to food from the start. She was described by an Orphic Ode as the goddess of “the feasts which last for nights.” Since Aphrodite was born from the sea, seafood was regarded as aphrodisiacs by the Greeks.
I really liked Hospodar’s point about how ideas that once used to be so intertwined, have been segregated by modern society to give us, perhaps, a less wholesome existence: “Mainstream religion, medicine, food, and attitudes toward sexuality, which formerly were intertwined, have largely become estranged bedfellows. Gone from popular culture are sacred aphrodisiac foods bestowed by the divinities to grant mortals a sweet taste of heaven. Advertising taps into our most powerful desires, attempting to manipulate our yearnings to be sexually attractive, lovable, happy, powerful, and long-lived—the underlying desires motivating the search for aphrodisiacs in millennia long past.”
Thus, products attempt to quench our individual desires one at a time, with a real goal of simply making money instead of actually pleasing people. Aphrodisiacs, however, were thought to alleviate many of these desires at once. Perhaps if we still believed in the power of bread, sweets, seafood, nuts, and spices, we would feel more fulfilled. There would be more magic in our lives.