Learning about Spices
What is a spice?
Why were spices important?
Sources of spices
Perfumes and Incenses 
Use of spices as aphrodisiacs
Use of spices as medicines
Culinary herbs
A spice timeline

Table of Spices
Allspice (Pimento)
Black Pepper
Chile Pepper
Coriander (Cilantro)
Frankincense and Myrrh
Nutmeg and Mace

Contacts and Acknowledgments


The heady aromas of expensive, exotic spices ensured that they would offer a voluptuously stimulating environment for invigoration of romantic encounters. In the Old Testament's the Song of Solomon, Proverbs and Psalms romantic verses extolled the sensory excitement offered by cinnamon, calamus, myrrh, saffron and other perfumed smells from fragrant spices. In Greece and Rome, spices were included in antidotes against poisons and venoms but their potent, life-restoring virtues earned them a heady reputation of being essential every-night aphrodisiacs; indeed, in Rome the word cinnamon was equivalent to the current use of "sweetheart" or "darling". The Romans also embraced the phytochemical concept of the biblical lover's spicy enticement: "Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe, or to a young hart, upon the mountains of spices." (Song of Solomon 8,14); "I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come let us take our fill of love till morning." (Proverbs 7, 17-18). The Arabs had their "Perfumed Garden" and the Hindus their "Kama Sutra", each of which extolled favored spices such as nutmeg, cloves, galangal, cardamon and ginger, while the Romans came to favor cinnamon and pepper, and the Chinese were most impressed with ginger.

Over the years, spices have offered the luxury of intriguing tastes, impressive incenses and delightful perfumes, and, as tools of the rich, they have always been included in recipes for improving sexual potency. It is of interest that the equivalent of the multi-herb antidote against all poisons that was concocted by King Mithridates VI, who ruled over ancient Turkey , is still on sale in a modern reformulation in that country (See section on Medical Use of Spices). It now carries suggestive names such as "Sultan's Paste".

Proprietary luxuries of this type, that consist of several dozen herbs and spices, are currently promoted as aphrodisiacs and tonics rather than as antidotes against poisoning, or as incenses, for appeasing the gods in religious ceremonies. Undoubtedly, spicy versions of these recipes that served the ancient pagan gods such as Priapus, Cupid, Venus, Eros, Pan and of course Aphrodite (the goddess who arose from sea foam - "aphros") continue to work their historic magic. Modern romances are catalyzed by spices and herbs which are called upon to provide symbolic and sensory support in luxurious perfumes, heady scents, and sensual aromatic cream or oil massages. However, it is of interest that the most appreciated of current aphrodisiacs is undoubtedly the New World's Aztec "food of the gods", the meso-American spice chocolate rather than the ancient and historic spices of Arabia and the Orient.

The essential oils and terpenoid alcohols of spices contribute to their smell, taste and tactile sensation. Thus, eugenol is found in cinnamon, clove and pimento; one of its medical qualities is a local anesthetic effect, which is utilized in dentistry. Menthol, from mints, has a cooling effect as well as a characteristic fresh taste and smell. Anise contains anethole, cinnamon produces cinnamaldehyde, mace contains myristin, and so on; all have specific pharmacologic effects that are generally mild. However, some - such as myristicin - are more potent, and large doses can result in harmful effects such as hallucinations.

A number of spice chemicals are shared with herbs and flowers. It is noteworthy that colorful flowers result in an experience of exciting color and smell, whereas most spices result in excitatory sensations of taste and smell without being particularly stimulating to the visual sense. There are some exceptions, including the crocus which is the source of saffron, and edible flowers such as nasturtium which can spice up a salad. Similarly, chile peppers and radishes can be visually exciting, whereas cinnamon bark and cardamon seeds are relatively dowdy.

The following spices have had a long reputation of having aphrodisiacal properties.

  • Asafetida This has a foul smell, but in small amounts it can provide a sensual taste or smell. The same phenomenon applies to musk oil (from the musk ox) and castoreum (from the beaver), and perhaps to the secretions of the civet cat and the skunk: these agents can give a salty, animalistic, deeply erotic fragrant quality to a perfume when suitably diluted.
  • Cardamon is popular in India and in Arabic cultures, and used to be employed by the Chinese court to give users a fragrant breath.
  • Cloves and some other spices and herbs contain eugenol; its smell is fragrant and aromatic, and has long been considered as enhancing sexual feelings.
  • Ginger contains gingerols, zingiberene and other characteristic agents that have made it a favored seductive flavor in Asiatic and Arabic herbal traditions.
  • Mace and Nutmeg contain myristicin and similar compounds that are related to mescalin. In larger doses, nutmeg and mace can cause hallucinations, whereas in smaller amounts they are traditional aphrodisiacs.
  • Pepper from India contains piperine: this pungent agent can stimulate sexual function, according to ancient beliefs.
  • Saffron contains picrocrocin which is alleged to have the ability to cause erotic sensations.
  • Vanilla contains the widely loved vanillin, whose taste and smell conjure up romantic feelings in the appropriate circumstances.

Other popular herbs that have been reported to have aphrodisiacal properties include garlic, mint, rosemary, sage and thyme. All these allegedly erotically stimulating agents have long been incorporated into cooking, incenses, rubs and other romantic sources for stimulation of sexual feeling. More recently, these and other herbs are utilized creatively in numerous massage oils and in incenses that are popularly utilized to improve sensations as a new-old form of therapy, with the modern title of aromatherapy.

Spice Exhibit URL: http://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice/index.cfm

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