The idea that oysters are an aphrodisiac has long entered the corpus of folk-lore and seems nowadays to be a natural concomitant in any context where oysters occur. Most would readily associate the Greek goddess of love and desire, Aphrodite, with the meaning of aphrodisiac, which of course is completely natural. But the truth of the matter is far more intriguing than would initially meet the eye and has more to do with what is hidden in the name of the goddess. For one could say that aphrodisiacs have nothing to do with….aphrodisiacs!
The single most authoritative source ever since Roman times right up until the 18thcentury in matters on the medicinal value of food was antiquity’s revered physician, Galen, a Greek citizen from Pergamon, who is generally accredited with prescribing oysters as a medical remedy for a lack of male sexual desire, allegedly in the case of one of the Roman emperors. He lived towards the end of the 2nd century A.D. (129-216) and was a prolific writer whose volumes formed the basis for medical practice and knowledge during 1400 years or more.
However, there is no specific mention in the writings of Galen of oysters being recommended or prescribed for this ailment, although one can infer this, insofar as he was of the opinion that any food that caused flatulence, or had laxative qualities could also facilitate male sexual desire. It is certainly not the usual idea associated with aphrodisiacs but much of ancient Greek writing on food and medicine focused often on how the stomach was affected. Galen also recognised popular notions that certain foods were reputed to incite the need for sex, like for instance hyacinths, rocket and chickpeas, that were no less flatulent than broad beans, because they were thought to generate sperm. When he writes specifically of oysters as one of the many testaceans, all he really mentions is their salty juice and soft flesh which he considered a laxative and contained little nourishment. According to one of his medieval commentators, Laurent Joubert, a French doctor, Galen thought apparently that oysters, whose flesh was softer and more loose than other shellfish, were less of a food than a laxative, producing, “nothing but coarse and viscous phlegm” and what drove men to the venereal act had more to do with the windiness they caused. Here Joubert added a comment, again quoting Galen, that it was by virtue of its salty juice that the flesh of oysters also had the ability to excite.
All quite circumstantial evidence, but anyway shared and entrenched in popular imagination, it seems. Another widespread belief, that Galen seems to repeat, is that the milky soft texture of oysters was likened to semen and that by eating oysters more semen would be generated. Little did they know in those times how right they were if oysters were eaten during the summer, as then they are spawning and their flesh is mostly composed of gametes, male or female, or contain fertilised eggs. However, in antiquity and according to Aristotelian ideas, oysters were thought to be unable to reproduce naturally, and instead to generate spontaneously from the mud in the water.
There is yet another strand to this equation, far more pertinent to the question of oysters being regarded an aphrodisiac, one which seems to derive from Aristotle’s idea that semen was foam, its whiteness being caused by it containing bubbles of foam, just like in sea water. It seems as though Galen agreed with Aristotle for pointing this out and for referring to “the ancients” who also observed this, that semen is foamy, and linked this in turn to the name of Aphrodite, “the goddess who presides over the union of the sexes” and how she acquired her name. For her name means “foam-born” (from ἀφρός/aphros, foam). And it is this underlying meaning that is most relevant here. It is worth just summarising the circumstances of the origins of her birth.
Aphrodite, goddess of love and sexual desire, was the result of premeditated violence, the paternal castration by Kronos, son of Uranus and Gaia, flowingly described by Hesiod in his Theogony. Goaded on by his revengeful mother, Kronos who hated his father as much he was hated by him, laid in ambush for his lusting father, dismembered him just before a sexual act and threw his genitals into the surging sea. They were swept away over the waves and a white foam formed around them from which grew a beautiful and golden maiden, the foam-born Aphrodite (ἀφρογενέα/aphrogenea) and she was carried across the ocean over to Cyprus in soft foam (ἀφρὦ ἔνι μαλακὦ/aphro eni malako), where she landed. Implicit in this mythic narrative is the notion that foam arose from the semen of Uranus’ genitals which was fertilisedby sea-water.
So this salty taste is also associated with the taste or foam of the sea from which Aphrodite was born, the union of genital fluids, of which she was the tangible personification. That this foam becomes transformed later into a shell, albeit a scallop shell, as in Botticelli’s famous painting of her birth, is an extra dividend that seems to verify a subconscious thought process, linking together semen, foam, the sea, salt, shellfish and sexual desire.
Set against this array of mythological images, and the popular beliefs, some reiterated by Galen, that not only the saltiness and soft texture of oysters gave rise to flatulence and loose bowels which in turn could facilitate penile erection but also were likened to semen and its salty juice to foam, so that by eating oysters more semen would be generated, or desire invigorated, it seems a short step to arrive at the idea that the consumption of oysters re-enacted symbolically, so to speak, the birth of Aphrodite and this very idea itself representing sexual arousal, which then led to the oyster being regarded as an aphrodisiac. All this shows is the power of belief and shared fantasies, but also the residues of ancient fantasies in folk-lore and how an array of various explanations have been attempted to try and keep them alive throughout the ages.
On the other hand, when oysters are referred to as a kiss of the sea, there is something quite seductive in the image of an oyster as “the foam of the sea”. So Byron’s words from the 2nd Canto of his ‘Don Juan’ that “oysters, too, are amatory food” are not likely to be ever forgotten!
Aristotle: De generatione animalium (trans by A.Platt). In: J.A. Smith and W.D. Ross (eds), The Works of Aristotle. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912.
Byron, Lord: Don Juan, Canto II.
Grant, M: Galen on Food and Diet. London: Routledge, 2000.
Hesiod: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica (trans. by H. Evelyn-White). London: Loeb Classical Library/Heinemann, 1914.
Joubert, L.: The Second Part of the Popular Errors (trans. by G. de Rocher). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.