Several important aspects of the real or perceived relationship between
plants and human sexuality exist in writings from the Ancient Classical World.
While obvious references to the efficacy of plants or plant-derived substances
figure prominently in some ancient medicinal and scientific works, much of this
interesting information remains scattered and half-submerged in works of
literature, requiring considerable philological detective work to uncover and
to analyze. Once these bits and pieces of information from all sources are
identified and reassembled, it becomes clear that for many common plants there
existed an elaborate and extensive framework of belief that linked them to
human sexual attraction and performance.
This perceived framework had at its core a belief in three important concepts: physis, the actual nature of a thing; dynamis, the innate and essential force of an object or being, and sympatheia, the hidden link between the natural world and the miraculous. The first of these, physis, represents an object's tangible characteristics subject to the regular workings of the natural world while dynamis is the vaguely spiritual property of an object, often spanning the gap between magic, medicine, and pharmacy. Sympatheia represents the overarching ancient concept of magical contagion under which the entire universe was thought to operate, and it corresponds closely to modern ideas of scientific causation. Thus, to the ancient mind there existed an interconnected network of influence between the animate and inanimate based on appearance and on perceived innate properties. The importance of the interplay of these factors is immense, for as Georg Luck has suggested, "the world of the ancients was full of magical powers, acting in all directions." (Arcana Mundi: Magic and Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds, [Baltimore:1985], 19)
Specific documentary evidence for the relationship of plants to human sexuality exists in texts of both distinguished and lowly genre; in scientific, medical, and philosophical works of various merit; and in subliterary documents such as collections of magic procedures and curse tablets. For example, many subliterary texts offer information unrecoverable from works of more distinguished generic pedigree but which provide valuable insights into the underlying cultural bases for more elevated literary expression. Taken in its widest compass, such evidence suggests a general commonality of popular understanding about the relationship of the vegetable kingdom to human sexuality in cosmopolitan Greco-Roman culture; as a result, such associations formed an integral part of the ancient psyche.
On the other hand, any exact identification of ancient plants with their presumed counterparts in the modern Linnaean system is fraught with difficulty, for the subtleties and complexities of ancient associations lie outside the modern taxonomic approach. Ancient perceptions of plants, rather, relied on both visual identification and on a belief in their efficacious properties (dynameis ). These two factors often mutually interacted mutually to establish an understanding of any given plant that practically amounted to ascribing it an individual personality.
In this resultant coalescence of vegetative properties with perceived "human" qualities some striking associations emerge in the literary record. As Ann Michelini has demonstrated ("HYBRIS and Plants," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82 , 35-44), one of the most striking of these associations originates in ancient perceptions of excessive and rampant plant growth and in its parallels to human activity. Both Aristotle and Theophrastus specify this overreaching tendency of certain plants by using the terms hybrizdein and exhybrizdein, verbs related to the familiar noun hybris. Furthermore, both authors use these verbs to indicate the results of an overabundance of growth caused by excessive nourishment (e.g., Aristotle, De generatione animalium 725b35). Such luxuriant growth is called "goating" (tragan ) by Theophrastus (Historia plantarum 4.14.6), and with it he indicates the adverse effects of an abnormality whose result is excessive foliar and floral growth but few appreciable fruits.
These concepts are closely linked to sexuality as well in that the verb tragan is itself the equivalent of tragizdein, literally "to be the he-goat." Such verbs also have specific sexual meanings that show a conceptual correspondence to other verbs derived from nouns designating male animals. For example, Aristotle uses both tauran (tauros, "bull") and kapran (kapros,"boar") to describe the sexual attraction of the female of the species for the male. Indeed, from the supposed promiscuity of mares an even more vivid term (hippomanein ) is derived, clearly equating sex drive with madness.
In the plant world a similar urge is found in Theophrastus' descriptions of the grapevine (Historia plantarum 8.7.4). Here the vine's tendency to run to overnourished and rampant growth is expressed by the word phyllomanein ("to go into leaf madness") a term synonymous with tragan and one even more graphically evocative of the concept of excessive growth. The term is particularly apposite since the grapevine, notorious for its vigorous growth, must be restricted in its natural tendencies to go beyond its beneficial social role and requires severe pruning to produce fruit.
While the rampant growth of certain plants like the vine results in poor fruit production, the opposite is true of other plants whose innate properties (dynameis ) prompt the untimely formation of fruit, and this tendency, associated by the ancients with sexuality as well. For example, the perceived influence of sexual and generative power (dynamis gonimos ) is evident from ancient descriptions of the early (and unseasonable) fruiting of the fig-tree (Theophrastus, De causis plantarum 5.1.4-5). This unnatural vegetative activity is the result of an excess of generative fluid remaining in fruiting branches after the previous year's fruit production. Activated by heat and moisture, this residue prompts the abnormal formation of abortive fruits on old growth behind the newly forming leaf rather than in the usual fruiting location in the axils ahead of the leaf as is the case in normal and seasonal fruit production. The fruit thus formed rarely reaches maturity despite the efforts of the tree itself to effect the ripening process. Growth habit also contributes to this production of premature fruit since it is the nature of the fig-tree to be succulent and prone to early budding. Thus, the fig-tree can be considered sexually overreaching, with an excess of internal principle that results in untimely production of monstrous fruits. Like the hybristic growth of the grapevine, it is also paradigm for human activity.
A convenient starting point for understanding how these perceptions intersect with the world of literature is the poetry of Sappho. Here the prominence afforded flowers is truly remarkable, considering the meagre remains of the Sapphic corpus. When considered symbolically, moreover, vegetation images in general and floral images in particular represent a recurrent theme of erotic awakening and physical attraction (T. McEvilley, "Sapphic Imagery and Fr. 96," Hermes 101 , 257-278.).
Frequent poetic references to the rose (brodos ) and to other flowers often evoke romance and passion (as in Fr. 96LP), but there remain other varieties of plants whose suggestion of sexual attraction is more obscure. One such example is that of the commonly encountered dill (aneton ). In Fr. 81(b)LP, for instance, the poetic persona (generally assumed to be the poetess herself) bids her companion Dike to bind up her hair with garlands of dill (orpakas aneto ) while at the same time using the sexually charged adjectives "alluring" (eratois ) and "tender" (apalaisi ) to describe the delicate wreaths and the soft hands of the maiden. Such diction clearly reflects the sensual context of the piece even in its present fragmentary condition.
The mention of dill, moreover, evokes associations with the ritual wearing of garlands, suggestive of sensuality, seen elsewhere in Greek literature. Alcaeus (Fr. 362LP) for one makes specific mention of garlands of dill in a context that combines both ritual activity and sensuality; Anacreon also uses the imagery of dill in wreaths woven with myrtle, the plant of Aphrodite. In addition, the Hellenistic poet Theocritus writes of garlands of dill in festive and amorous contexts (Idyll 7. 63) and in Idyll 15 describes the "rustic arbors" of Adonis, the fabric of its bowers woven with sprays of "soft dill" (malakoi anthoi ). Contributing to its sensual and suggestive ambiance were suspended figures of Eros.
Of particular note is the word malakos ("soft") which elsewhere (Alcaeus Fr. 338LP) evokes the pliancy of seduction. It likewise describes the youthful awakening of a blossoming sexuality, especially as applied to the Greek word leimon ("meadow"), which suggests a living, fertile, primordial, and essentially feminine entity. Such associations pervade those frequent literary references to the "soft meadows" where sexual encounters take place. The same sense of fresh and vital liquidity attends another adjective descriptive of the bowers of Adonis and (by extension) of dill: chloros, a term associated by both Homer and Sappho with physical reaction, emotional excitement, and sexual awareness. It is most notably associated with the rising flush of sexual desire in the latter's famous poem (31LP) in which the poetic persona describes how she grows "more vibrant than grass" (chlorotera de poias ) at the sight of her beloved.
Turning to a more direct relationship between plants and humans, one encounters a considerable number of species whose actual or perceived innate properties were consciously incorporated into substances intended to affect sexuality and sexual performance. For example, many of the methods for increasing male potency (or, in fact, for curing impotence) consisted of an external application of various substances in the form of salves, plasters, and ointments. One of the most striking accounts of such use is found in Theophrastus where the effects of a salve derived from some unidentified plant were only halted by the failure of other bodily systems (Historia plantarum 9.18.9). Ancient approaches to enhancing male sexual performance also relied heavily on remedies internally ingested, and both methods are intimately linked to a belief in magical influence as both a cause and a cure for sexual failure.
Metaphorical associations identify plants with the human world as well. These associations frequently derive from obvious visual characteristics, and they appear in works literary, scientific, and medical. As examples of the so-called "Doctrine of Signatures" they link the structural appearance of a naturally occurring object or organism, such as a stone or a plant, with some perceived effect upon a correspondingly similar human organ or condition (Jerry Stannard, "Medical Plants and Folk Remedies in Pliny Historia Naturalis" History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 4.1 , 14). One group of familiar plants with these particular characteristics is collectively known as bulbi (Gr. bolboi ).
This loosely-defined group of plants, particularly two familiar members of the genus Allium, garlic and onions, came to be considered sexually stimulative and were deemed curative for male sexual dysfunction. One reason for this is that the floral structure of these plants led to their association with male sexuality because of its swollen and elongated appearance. Similarly, there also existed a popular notion equating this visible swelling with an increase in bodily gas when bulbi were eaten as part of a dietary regimen considered efficacious in promoting male sexual performance. Such associations, even when their initial visual connections lie obscured, leave their mark in literary echoes of commonly held notions about male sexuality.
Verbal resonances are the strongest and metaphorical associations the clearest in Greek Old Comedy. Early on in Aristophanes' Acharnians an intriguing exchange takes place between Dicaeopolis the main character, and Theoros, the leader of a band of rowdy Thracian mercenaries. At this point a number of commonly understood terms drawn from the contemporary world of agriculture figure prominently in the lively and sexually saturated wordplay. The specific imagery of garlic (skorodon ) stands out as especially rich in visually-originated connotative force, and the particular expression "to dose with garlic" (skordizdein ) plays an important role. A few lines later in the exchange (ll. 165-166) Theoros warns Dicaeopolis about the wildly aggressive character of the unruly soldiery, describing them as "all dosed up with garlic" (eskorodismenois ), a verbal evocation of the practice of feeding garlic to gamecocks prior to their combat.
Later, midway through the same play, intoxicated and randy youths from the city of Megara, itself a prominent producer of garlic, are described as pephysingomenoi ("all bladder-like and swollen up"), a term drawn from the Greek root phys- ("to blow, to inflate"). Moreover, by drawing on Theophrastus' technical discussion of propagation methods for the genus Allium (Historia plantarum 7.4.12), it becomes clear that the related term physinx ("bladder") represents the whole flowering mass of the garlic plant, swelling with buds and bulbils, and that popular association has prompted the sexual imagery. As a result, the mention of garlic in the contexts cited above carries with it the image of the plant swelling with flowers atop an upright stalk, and hence pephysingomenoi in this comedic context can be clearly understood as "sexually swollen."
Along with the concept of swelling associated with the flowering structure of the genus Allium and its analogy in male sexuality, the concepts of hollowness and inflation are likewise significant. In the case of the onion (krommyon ), Theophrastus (Historia plantarum 1.10.8) points out that the leaves of certain varieties are hollow. That the cylindrical and upright leaves of the familiar onion appear to be inflated an inspection of its growth habit will bear out: on warm days, after the air trapped internally swells the waxy leaves to the point of obvious turgidity, they may be squeezed and burst manually. The flowering stalk of the onion is similarly hollow, and in resembling the floral structure of garlic and related members of the genus, it prompts the same popular notions ascribed them.
Visual identification, however, is not the only thing that associated these plants with male sexuality, for their dietary role was significant. Since digestion itself was thought to play a role in promoting arousal, ingesting flatulent food was highly regarded as contributing to the stimulation of the male. The onion itself promotes the internal "gassiness" associated with this gastric disruption as both Dioscorides and Galen attest; in fact, the former asserts clearly that it promotes desire (Dioscorides, De mat. med. 2.151). In the literary record, moreover, this association had surfaced much earlier in a fragment of the playwright Diphilus preserved by Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae 2.64a), and is even more graphically depicted elsewhere (Deipnosophistae 1.5c). Garlic, too, was well-known for its ability to produce internal gas, and Aristotle's description of garlic's effects on the urinary tract and the genitalia stresses the flatulent nature of the plant (Problemata 13.6). Because of their importance in a dietary regimen thought to enhance virility, it is easy to see how the growth habits of both plants served also to act as an external expression of their perceived function when taken internally.
Instances where bulbi are encountered as a dietary means to promote male sexual performance appear in several works of Latin Literature. In agricultural writing Columella mentions Megarian bulbi as particularly stimulating (De re rustica 10.105-109) and associates them with rocket (eruca ), another plant widely reputed to effect male desire. These two plants appears as well in an epigram of Martial (3.75) about impotence, wherebulbi are called salaces ("lust provoking"). The Satyricon of Petronius, moreover, affords an especially good look at how a popular belief in the efficacy of bulbi complements the themes of impotence and social failure. In one noteworthy episode, the impotent and hapless main character Enclopius, despite his repeated and unsuccessful attempts at a sexual encounter with the beautiful temptress Circe, undertakes a set of remedies based on dietary elements. Thus, after begging for yet another opportunity to perform, Encolpius prepares his body with health-promoting (validioribus) dietary remedies for sexual dysfunction which prominently include bulbi (130.7).
Finally, Latin Literature also affords a particularly striking example of how the imagery of garlic was artistically combined with other cultural elements to function thematically in a literary text. Horace's third Epode is a half-serious denunciation of the agonizing results of eating garlic (cf. E. Gowers, The Loaded Table, Oxford: 1993, 280-310). In it the interplay of magic and sexuality functions as a humorous subtext and draws upon popular associations of garlic with venomous feminine enchantment and rampant male sexuality.
Clearly, then, the varied associations of plants with human sexuality were culturally significant in the Ancient Classical World, and their importance cannot be overlooked in interpreting ancient texts. As popular notions merge with scientific investigation on the written page, the connections spread much wider and extend far deeper into areas of natural history, folk medicine and magic than one might at first imagine. In fact, the more one reexamines even the most familiar writings from the past, one realizes that there yet remains much to be studied about how the interaction of plants and humans functions in literary works.
For further reading, the following will be of interest.
Adams, J. N. The Latin Sexual Vocabular. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
Carson, Anne. "Putting Her in Her Place: Woman, Dirt, and Desire" in Halperin, David M., John J Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin. Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990: 135-169.
Gowers, Emily. The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931 (repr. New York: Dover, 1982).
Henderson, Jefferey. The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy. Second Edition. New York: Oxford, 1991.
Henry, Madeline. "The Edible Woman: Athenaeus's Concept of the Pornographic." in Richlin, Amy, ed. Pornography and Representation in Greece & Rome. New York: Oxford, 1992: 250-268.
Irwin, Eleanor. Color Terms in Greek Poetry. Toronto: Hakkert, 1974.
Luck, Georg. Arcana Mundi: Magic and Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
McEvilley, T. "Sapphic Imagery and Fr. 96." Hermes 101 (1973): 257-278.
Michelini, Ann. "HYBRIS and Plants." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82 (1978): 35-44.
Nicholson, B. N. The Oxford Book of Food Plants. Oxford: University Press, 1969.
Seager, Robin. "Aristophanes Thes. 493-496 and the Comic Possibilities of Garlic." Philologus 127 (1983): 139-142.
Stannard, Jerry. "Medicinal Plants and Folk Remedies in Pliny Historia Naturalis." History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 4.1 (1982): 3-23.
Winkler, John J. The Constraints of Desire. New York: Routledge, 1990.