As a young girl I’ll admit to have being enamored by the idea of love potions, and a bit afraid of being given one. As I grew up I continued to see love potions in media, in fiction, and as a cultural touchstone that people could comment on, regardless of if they knew what was in them or their history. Recently, I’ve stopped to wonder what exactly was in these medieval-seeming potions of yore.
Love potions don’t serve just to create an obsession in the object of your desire for you, but they were often allegedly used to inflame or cool down libidos, used to create political alliances, and generally manipulate those around you, regardless of if you had a romantic interest in them or not.
Love potions differ, but they typically include a mix of secrecy and, usually, bodily fluids. One of the most popular fluids was sweat. Love Cakes were quite popular medieval treats...but they aren’t quite as good as they sound. The cake, which was in all likelihood more of a bread, would have to be made while naked. Then, when the dough was completed they would rub in under the armpits, genitals, leg, neck, and lower back to soak up their sweat. Once finished, they would feed it to their hopeful beloved...and, if everything went correctly, they’d be lovebirds in no time.
Blood, particularly menstrual blood, was also an important part of blood magic which is sometimes tied to love potions. Most blood-based love potions required the blood of the spell-maker, but some also required the blood of the beloved (which must have been...weird to get). But, blood as an indigents shouldn’t come as a surprise as blood, and blood magic, was an incredibly popular ingredients and spell-work at this time. The fear, awe, and life-giving ability of blood of course makes it an essential part of most magic, including love spells. Blood is life and, to a point love (or, at least love-making) is also life. However, using blood can be binding and could even turn the love potion into a kind of emotional slavery.
Now, not every love potion demanded the use of bodily fluids (although those seem to be more purportedly potent) but many required a level of secrecy. For example, according to the lore of the Carolina mountains you just needed to come across some liverworts with heart-shaped leaves. Once you discovered these naturally occurring heart symbols, you would need to pick them and dry them out by a fire. Once dried, the leaves should be crumbled and made into a loose powder. Without your beau knowing, sprinkle this liverwort powder on some of their clothes. Before you know it, they’ll be pining for you (or the person of your choosing).
Another plant-based element popular in love potions were mandrake roots. You might know mandrake roots as witches’ familiars and important in other magical potions. However, it’s also been historically treated as an aphrodisiac. It’s connection to love and human control is likely due to its humanoid appearance. One could also be used as a fertility amulet worn around the neck.
Perhaps more strange and more sinister than sweat or blood or plants is the use of deceased people for the most intense of the love potions. Often, human cadavers were used for their bones. The bones would be ground into a powder and used in love potions. It seems that, when it comes to bone powder, the corpse doesn’t matter as long as its a corpses. However, some recipes called for very specific deceased persons. For example, one exceedingly powerful one called for the spleen and bone barrow of a young boy that had been murdered. However, it seems that many believed during this time that the bodies of the dead had particular power.
I think love potions are a way to control something we don’t always have control of - who we, or those around us, love. Love is an extremely powerful emotions so controlling it would obviously be an attractive power.
What’s in a love potion seems to align with most other spells and potions and it is the intent that truly makes the difference. Like power, life, luck, and other states achieved by magic love requires similar powerful objects derived from nature but molded and use just a little differently.