Ancient World, Getty Villa

The Ancient Wisdom of Aphrodisiacs

Food and sex are the most basic human drives. It’s no wonder that aphrodisiacs—food and drink with a reputation for making sex more attainable or pleasurable—are named after the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite. (She was known as Venus to the Romans—Latin for love or sexual desire.) The femme fatale of Mount Olympus and one of the most powerful ancient gods, Aphrodite’s roles as mother, seductress, instigator of sexual desire, and patroness of brides were popular subjects in ancient art.

Aphrodite’s origins are dramatic, to say the least. The Titan Uranus was castrated by his own son, Kronos, and when the severed genitals were cast into the sea, Aphrodite emerged from the foam. The Greek name aphrodite has been interpreted as meaning “foam-born.” This explains why seafood has long been linked to love and sex, and why Aphrodite is often seen emerging from a seashell.

Statuette of Venus

Statuette of Venus, 100-1 B.C., made in Egypt. The J. Paul Getty Museum

In the ancient world, human fertility was directly linked with the prosperity of the land. Procreation was an important moral and religious issue, and aphrodisiacs were sought to insure both male and female potency. Since food was not as readily available as it is today and undernourishment created a loss of libido – and thus reduced fertility rates – certain foods were sought after to help maintain the body in working order. Some of these foods gained their reputation as aphrodisiacs due to their suggestive shapes. Carrots, asparagus, figs and artichokes all bear some resemblance to genitalia and are thus considered stimulating. Bulbous foods such as eggs, beets, and fennel were also considered to have sexual power. Foods with sensual mouth feel, such as oysters, were considered scintillating. Spices with arousing aromas helped raise body temperature and provided instant energy.

Cooking and eating, like making love, stimulate smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound. Scent was a key element in arousal, and the ritual of using roses as a seduction tool has deep roots in history. The rose was a favorite flower of Aphrodite, its thorns representing the pain of love. In fact, myth has it that, distraught after the death of Adonis (one of her many lovers), she ran through the woods barefoot and cut herself with the thorns of a white rose, forever turning roses red. Rose garlands were placed on Roman dining tables for their sweet scent, and eating rose pudding was key in rekindling a flame. Cleopatra even carpeted her floor with rose petals to woo Mark Antony, much like we carpet the floor at modern weddings.

The earliest written record of Aphrodite appears on wine cup from the 8th century B.C., inscribed this way: “Whoever drinks from this wine cup, beautifully crowned Aphrodite’s desire will seize him immediately”—an early link between drinking and desire. On Valentine’s Day, enjoy this rose cocktail with your loved one and pair it with a home-cooked meal, the ultimate aphrodisiac. It is sure to make Aphrodite swoon with delight!

Modern science tells us there’s no such thing as a proven aphrodisiac, but ancient wisdom tells a very different story!

Touch of Venus Cocktail

This recipe was served at the Getty Villa’s “Aphrodisiacs Cocktail Party,” part of the Getty Museum’s popular ongoing program of studio courses and culinary workshops.

For the lavender crystals:

  • ¼ cup dried culinary lavender
  • ½ cup sugar

For the cocktail:

  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon rose syrup
  • 2 ounces lemon juice
  • 2 ounces simple syrup ice
  • sparkling water
  • 2 ounces vodka
  1. Make the lavender crystals by placing the dried lavender and sugar in a food processor and processing until fully combined, about 1 minute.
  2. Make the simple syrup by simmering equal parts of sugar and water until the sugar is dissolved. Let cool.
  3. Prepare the drink by pouring the lemon juice onto a small plate and spreading the lavender crystals on a second small plate. Dip the rim of a 12-ounce glass into the lemon juice, then dip it into the lavender crystals to lightly coat. Repeat with a second 12-ounce glass.
  4. Pour 1 teaspoon of the rose syrup and 1 ounce each of juice, vodka and simple syrup into each prepared glass. Add ice and enough soda water to fill each glass. Mix and serve.

Makes 2 cocktails

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  1. Suzanne Burke
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    I just love this article and video! You made me want to race out and purchase the ingredients for a scintillating cocktail and I don’t even drink cocktails!!! Happy Valentine’s Day!!

    • Maite
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Suzanne! It’s good with gin too but if you’d rather skip the booze it’s great as an exotic lemonade as is. Cheers and Happy Valentine’s Day!

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      William Pope.L

      Tell us a bit about how and why you became an artist.

      I used to blame my being an artist on my grandmother, but that was my younger self looking for a scapegoat. At one point in undergrad, I had a moment, a crisis where I thought it was my job to save my family and the best way to that was to be a commercial artist—but I had to let go of that. Truth be told, being an artist is something I choose every day. Of course, maybe I choose art because I’m afraid of theater—too much memorizing and being in the moment and shit.

      A lot of your work deals with racial issues—perceptions of “blackness,” “whiteness,” the absurdity of racial prejudices, the violence of it. Why do you address race in your work? Do you think art can be an agent of change?

      I address race in my work ‘cause day-to-day in our country it addresses me. Yes, art can change the world but so can Disney—so there is that. I think the real question is not can art change the world, but can art be changed by the world? Would we allow this?

      Humor, with a touch of the absurd, seems to be an important component in your artistic practice. What role does humor play in your work?

      I like to use humor in my work ‘cause it answers/deals with questions in ways that are very unique. Humor answers questions with an immediacy and creates a productive amnesia of the moment in the receiver—but then the wave recedes, the world floods back in with its pain, confusions, and crush but the humor remains like a perfume or an echo or a kiss inside beneath one’s skin.

      More: Artist William Pope.L on Humor, Race, and God

      From top: Obi Sunt (Production Image from the making of Obi Sunt), 2015, William Pope.L. Courtesy of the Artist © Pope.L; Gans-Nelson fight, from the album ‘Incident to the Gans-Nelson fight’ (Page 40-3), Goldfield, NV, September 3, 1906, William Pope.L. Courtesy of Steve Turner and the Artist; Tour People, 2005, William Pope.L. Courtesy of the Artist © Pope.L; Failure Drawing #301, NYU/Napkin, Rocket Crash, William Pope.L. Courtesy of the Artist © Pope.L.


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