From candy to herbs, here’s your guide to modern love potions
The romantic notion of a “love potion” that could cause someone to fall in love with another has been around in literature and popular thought for centuries. Here we delve into the primal notion of a love potion to discover if any of them might work.
The medieval tale of Tristan and Isolde is based on an ancient Celtic legend. In the story Tristan travels to Ireland to ask the princess Isolde to marry his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. There is some slaying of dragons along the way but Tristan succeeds and Isolde agrees to accompany him and they journey back to Cornwall where Isolde will wed King Mark. You can’t leave these things to chance though, and Isolde’s mother had sent along a love potion that was to be drunk by Isolde and King Mark so that they would fall in love and seal the union. The plot twist is that by mistake Tristan and Isolde drink the potion and become bound by an imperishable love that leads on to all sorts of ordeals.
This medieval tale is one of the most iconic uses of a love potion in literature and idea, but it is by no means the last, or even the first. In fact, another word for “love potion” is the Greek term philtron, which actually means “love charm”, but that charm can be a potion. The existence of a word to describe the concept is evidence that at least as far back as the ancient Greeks (2000 to 4000 years ago) human beings have believed in the concept of a potion that could make two people love each other.
Love can be so elusive yet so reassuring that believing in a substance that could make someone fall in love with you provides some sense of control in a chaotic world. It is no wonder then that love potions have come in many forms.
The chemistry of love
The first thing to be clear about in the pursuit of love potions is that love is a highly complex state. Love comes in variety of forms, and simplifying it to a feeling that can be somehow created in an instant is fraught with peril. What we are really talking about therefore is the creation of desire, and there are two levels to desire: the physical arousal that another might inspire and the mental arousal that goes with it.
On the physical level, desire begins when a sight, smell or sound causes signals to be sent from the limbic system of the brain via the nervous system to the pelvic region. These signals tell the blood vessels to dilate. This dilation of blood vessels in the pelvis increases blood flow to the region and creates an erection in both men and women. For women the erectile tissues are found in the clitoris and the region around the vaginal entrance while in men they are found in the penis. After allowing a rush of blood the vessels then close so that those erectile tissues stay erect. This erection is accompanied by rapid heart rate and the physical sensation of attraction.
At the same time, your brain is releasing hormones and neurotransmitters that tell your body that this is a good and pleasurable thing to be happening. Among these neurotransmitters are the feel-good chemical serotonin and the hormone oxytocin, known as the cuddle chemical and which plays an important role in human bonding. We will come to some recent advances around oxytocin later.
Despite our attempts to analyse the basis of love, it still remains an intangible thing as to what makes one person fall in love with another. However, if a love potion were to work, it would need to be working on the physical and mental levels. Of course, centuries ago the biochemical nature of love was not even at the level of our current meagre understanding, but that did not stop our ancestors confidently having a go at producing a love potion.
Love potion magic
Since the time of the ancient Greeks magic has been invoked in efforts to create love where none existed. For the Greeks this might take two forms. The first was a darker form of magic using effigies similar to those used by practitioners of voodoo. The practitioners of this dark magic were usually men who intended to make the woman represented by the effigy experience lust to the extent that she would leave her family.
Another, whiter, form of love magic was favoured by Greek women. In this form women used herbs either to make an errant lover return or to restore harmony to a dysfunctional relationship.
Both types of love magic usually involved spells or incantations, but they also relied heavily on ointments that could be spread on the clothing of the object of affection or herbs to sprinkle in their food.
Petals for petting
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy Puck makes a love potion from a flower called “love-in-idleness”, otherwise known as the “wild pansy” (Viola tricola). Puck’s potion is created when Cupid shoots an arrow that misses its target and instead hits the flower. The petals of the flower turn from white to purple and the flower’s juice becomes a love potion. Puck uses the potion on Lysander and then Demetrius with the result, of course, that hilarity ensues. Before you go juicing any pansies, there is nothing to suggest that the flowers can genuinely create love. Many flowers have had love-related powers attributed to them over the years but generally there has been little substance to the claims.
For instance, the Roman Emperor Nero consumed vast amounts of rosé wine in the belief that it made him sexually irresistible. In England the presence of honeysuckle in a woman’s bedroom was said to promote erotic dreams and bay leaves placed under a girl’s pillow were believed to promote dreams of her future husband. In China the heady aroma of jasmine has long been believed to have seductive properties. In order to facilitate an evening’s lovemaking, Chinese women would wear jasmine buds in their hair that were picked in the late afternoon so that by evening they would begin to open. The women would ensure that they still wore the buds in their hair when they went to bed, where the heat from the two bodies would heighten the seductive aroma.
The smell of seduction
The use of aroma to enhance seduction by Chinese women is not unique and has a sound basis in biology. The olfactory lobe, the part of the brain that processes scent, is part of the limbic system, which is associated with emotion and the formation of memory. That is why scents have a direct route to the emotions.
The most commonly used essential oils for their aphrodisiac effects are jasmine, neroli, rose, ylang ylang and sandalwood. Whichever essential oils you choose, they will work best if you create an environment where emotional and sensual closeness can thrive. Draw a hot bath for your partner, add a few drops of essential oil to the water and light some candles around the tub. Add a gentle massage to the equation and romance is almost guaranteed.
Music hath powers
Music is proven to affect your mood and your behaviour. It may also qualify as something of a love potion in an abstract sense. This is known anecdotally; you probably can think of instances in your own life where music has served as grease for the wheels of love. It has also been proven scientifically as in a study published in the journal Psychology of Music.
In this study, the researchers set out to test whether listening to a love song makes a woman more likely to accept a proposal for a first date from an unknown man. The researchers began by having a group of women (who were not in the main part of the study) rate a group of men for attractiveness. The researchers then chose the man judged by most women as “average” looking to be their man for the experiment: the man was dubbed “Antoine”.
The next phase was to set Antoine up in a room while a series of women came and waited in a waiting room. While in the waiting room the women listened to either a love song or a neutral song. The women were then ushered into the room with Antoine where they engaged in a discussion about food products guided by the experimenter. That experimenter then left them alone for a moment which is when Antoine delivered his line, “I was wondering if you would give me your phone number? I’ll phone you later and we can have a drink together somewhere next week.” It may not be the greatest pickup line ever, but it served its purpose.
The interesting finding was that when the women had been listening to a love song Antoine had a 52 per cent success rate in getting a first date, but when they had been listening to a neutral song the success rate dropped to 28 per cent. This might be due to either a generally positive feeling being generated by the love song, or the song may have acted as a “prime” to prepare the women for displays of behaviour associated with that prime.
Whatever the reason, it certainly seems that loading up your playlist with a few love songs to be subtly played next time you ask someone out on a date certainly won’t do any harm.
An oxytocin potion
Earlier we mentioned oxytocin, and it is time that we returned to it. Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is involved in childbirth and breastfeeding. It is also associated with trust, empathy, sexual activity and relationship building. You may have heard it referred to as “the love hormone” because levels of oxytocin increase during hugging and orgasm. All of which raises the question as to why a modern love potion based on oxytocin has yet to be released. It turns out there are some good reasons, but those reasons may soon disappear.
The problem with oxytocin is that receptors for it are found throughout the body. If used at too high a dose and for too long it might cause cardiovascular problems or even uterine issues. A few years ago researchers at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland made small modifications to the structure of the oxytocin molecule. Their synthetic version of oxytocin was claimed to be as potent as oxytocin but with reduced side effects because it did not activate heart muscle cells and produced a more regular pattern in uterine tissue. With developments like this being made, an oxytocin love potion may not be too far away.
Love potion potentials
If you are looking for some potential ingredients for a modern love potion, there are some things you might try. In what we mention here we will deliberately look at things that have some basis in science, rather than just mentioning things that have enjoyed an aphrodisiac reputation simply because they look like human genitalia, such as avocadoes and bananas. The caveat here is that most of these ingredients are things that will boost sexual arousal, rather than promoting love per se. Nevertheless, arousal is half of the equation so here goes.
In ancient China, people used liquorice to enhance love and lust. The smell appears to be particularly stimulating. Alan R Hirsch MD, neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, conducted a study that looked at how different smells stimulated sexual arousal. He found that the smell of black liquorice increased the blood flow to the penis by 13 per cent. When combined with the smell of doughnuts, that jumped to 32 per cent. Mind you, Hirsch’s research also found that the smell of pumpkin pie stimulated blood flow to the genitals, which raises the question of how specific his findings are to the American context.
Chocolate contains phenylethylamine and raises serotonin levels, which is partly why it has a “feel-good” effect. Chocolate also contains anandamide, which binds to the same receptors in your brain that your natural endorphins normally occupy. This does not necessarily mean that chocolate will increase desire, but if it makes you feel good enough it might lower your inhibitions so that you are more receptive to certain loving suggestions.
Ginseng is an adaptogen (mentioned in this issue in the “Adaptogen alchemy” article) that improves overall wellbeing but also has specific benefits for sexual capacity. In a study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Asian Ginseng was shown to improve ability to achieve erection and also enhance libido and “copulatory performance”.
For sexual arousal in the genital area a naturally produced chemical is needed to relax blood vessels in a part of the body called the corpus cavernosum. The corpus cavernosum is a spongy bundle of tiny nerves, surrounded and filled with blood vessels. It is located in the penis and clitoris and it transmits endorphin-stimulating impulses to the brain. For men, penile erection and optimal sensation requires proper function of the corpus cavernosum, and for women, the ability to enjoy sex and achieve orgasm is often dependent on clitoral corpus cavernosum activity. The corpus cavernosum becomes active when it becomes engorged with blood during periods of sexual excitement, and its stimulation is dependent on the relaxation of genital muscles during sexual arousal.
Nitric oxide and its metabolite cyclic GMP (cGMP) are the two dominant chemicals that induce genital muscle relaxation, and subsequently increased blood flow to the corpus cavernosum. This is where the amino acid arginine supports sexual health since it promotes natural nitric oxide production in the body. Foods rich in arginine include nuts, seeds, cheese, yoghurt, meats and whole grains.
This is not to promise that you can use liquorice, chocolate, nuts, seeds and ginseng as the basis of a love potion, but at least you can enjoy them in their own right and whatever happens, happens. One thing is certain, that the human quest for a love potion will never cease.