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Are Love Potions Real? Here's What History & Science Have To Say

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When you have an insatiable crush and you want them to reciprocate your feelings, you might share a photo on the 'Gram or upload a Snapchat Story to inspire them to reach out. But when people in Ancient Rome or Medieval times wanted to get that cutie to notice them, they prepared potions — with some pretty unexpected ingredients, to boot. Not only are love potions real, but they have rich historical roots, and have continued to evolve over time.

Kourtney Kardashian is hardly the first person to imbibe a solution that's meant to improve her love life (true story, BTW). Love potions reportedly date back as far as Biblical times. The Ancient Greeks ground up orchid, which they regarded as a powerful aphrodisiac, into a powder and added it to wine. They believed that this concoction could inspire passionate love in whoever consumed it. It was such a popular potion among the Greeks that the orchid plant actually went temporarily extinct. Another popular aphrodisiac incorporated into love potions during that time was the Spanish Fly, also known as the Blister Beetle.

During the Middle Ages, if you had your eye on someone, you would whip up a special cake. But this wasn't your typical red velvet or Boston cream — after rubbing the dough into your armpits, genitals, and breasts (presumably, where most of your pheromones are emitted) to absorb your sweat, you baked the cake in the nude. At the time, it was believed to be an effective way to lock down your crush.

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In 16th century Europe, magical texts became increasingly popular — particularly with the release of a love potion instruction book called The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus: Of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts. One of the recipes entailed mixing crushed earthworms with periwinkle, which was supposed to boost affection between a husband and wife when consumed by one's spouse. Around that time, animal products became a common component in love potions, with recipes calling for anything from the fat of a snake and the head of a sparrow to the blood of a bat and the heart of a pigeon.

Spells have also long played a significant role in the Wiccan religion, as the original Wiccans were considered healers with great knowledge of plants and herbs’ powerful properties. However, Wicca operates on a cardinal rule to “harm none,” which is part of the Wiccan Rede. Wiccans are expected to practice magic responsibly, especially when it comes to love, and that typically means avoiding any spells that compromise someone’s free will. In 2019, Bustle writer Abby Lee Hood's conducted a survey with more than 100 practicing witches, and while 67% said they had cast love spells in the past, a whopping 87% reported they no longer participate in these spells. Clearly, there is an increasing focus on the idea of ethical magic — which definitely doesn't mean that love potions or spells are disappearing, but rather, that they're evolving in nature.

Of course, interpretations of the Wiccan rede may vary from group to group or individual to individual. But many modern-day pagans (especially those following the Neowiccan tradition) make it a point to focus love spells inward, not on another target. For example, a witch might use magic to help them feel more worthy of love, or to attract unconditional love into their life.

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Meanwhile, the jury is still out on whether aphrodisiacs can actually work as intended. “The FDA concludes that based on the current level of published scientific evidence currently available, any over-the-counter drugs containing ingredients for use as an aphrodisiac cannot be generally recognized as safe and effective,” says Dr. Michael Krychman, a UC Irvine assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and head of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health.

Dr. Kyrchman does acknowledge that some natural aphrodisiacs can help to get you in the mood, but he notes that clinical studies have yet to conclusively demonstrate their effectiveness and safety. According to Dr. Kyrchman, ginkgo has been shown to boost blood flow to the genitals in both men and women, and some studies have suggested that both maca and ginseng may be able to improve sexual function and combat erectile dysfunction.

As for the future of love potions, the next iteration may come in the form of a pill. Neuroscientists at the University of Oxford who have studied the chemicals in the brain associated with love are proposing the possibility of producing “love drugs,” not necessarily to instill desire in someone but to strengthen existing relationships. There’s even been an ongoing discussion around potential "anti-love" drugs, which could be used to alleviate the pain associated with breakups, unrequited love, and other forms of heartbreak. Regardless of whether or not this concept intrigues or terrifies you, one thing is for sure: While love potions have radically evolved over the years, their appeal doesn’t seem to be fading.

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Depictions of love potions can also be found everywhere from Hocus Pocus and Harry Potter, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And interestingly, in many pop culture examples, these magical experiments don’t exactly end up working as planned. For example, in the legendary tragedy Tristan and Isolde, which has Celtic origins, a young couple drink a love potion that catapults them into all-consuming infatuation, which is super inconvenient given that Isolde is already engaged to marry Tristan’s uncle, King Mark. I don't think I have to tell you that it didn't end well for those two. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania unknowingly consumes a love potion in her sleep, which is supposed to make her fall back in love with her estranged husband — but instead, it casts a spell on her that makes her fall for the next person she sees. Meanwhile, Hermia and Lysander’s relationship gets rocky when Lysander drinks the same potion, and the first person he sees is his ex. TL;DR, things get awkward. What's the message? Perhaps, that in order for a spell to work, the intention behind it must be pure.

In theory, a love potion may sound appealing — you give your crush a substance to ingest, and they instantly become yours. But manipulating another person’s feelings threatens an individual’s romantic and sexual autonomy. Fortunately, love magic doesn't have to mean ensnaring the object of your affection regardless of their will. But here's one last important clarification: There's a difference between identifying as a Wiccan (which is a religion), and practicing witchcraft (which is more of a skill set and lifestyle choice). In other words, not all witches are Wiccans, though all Wiccans are witches. It's up to you which route you choose, and witchcraft is a supremely individualized practice. Regardless of how you incorporate magic into your love life, know that it is actually possible to leverage spells and potions in a way that's ethical, safe, and potentially even empowering.

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