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Weekend Aphrodisiac: Bear

"Bear meat turns people into spinning wheels of lust." -Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century

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As I wade wide-eyed through anthropologist/ethnopharmacologist Christian Ratsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling's new 684-page Encyclopedia of Aphrodisiacs: Psychoactive substances for use in sexual practices -- foreword: "No one is advised in any way to use any of the substances or preparations that are discussed in this work" -- I'll pass along some insight. Today, bears. 

Ratsch narrates, "One time when I was in the jungle, I tried bear meat. ... In contrast to my almost exclusively vegetarian diet, the meat had a profoundly invigorating and sexually stimulating effect on me."

I love any story that starts, "One time when I was in the jungle." But his doesn't begin to conjure the intensity of other tales in the realm. Medieval healer Hildegard of Bingen wrote in her twelfth-century Physica:

If a person is full of lust or licentiousness, the bear can smell him from half a mile away and will run to him if possible -- the male bear running to the woman and the female bear to the man -- and they will pair with each other in sex.

Infer that something(s) horrible happened to some people (Hildegard?) that informed such a matter-of-fact statement.

These beliefs predate even her, though. By far. Worship of the sexual prowess of the bear goes back 30,000 to 60,000 years, to Neanderthals and the long-extinct giant cave bear, according to Ratsch and Müller-Ebeling.

I did find it funny that such an icon of sexual prowess went extinct. But that was the Stone Age, when funny things happened all the time. 

Ancient cultures also ate bear testicles and wore bear teeth amulets. Which fell off as practices, but bear bile (from the gall bladder) remains a staple in many schools of alternative medicine, for various uses. It's also used in Western medicine -- a drug called ursodiol -- which can dissolve human gallstones. That drug was actually developed after we noticed that bears don't get gallstones themselves.

Some also believe the bile has a role in fertility, as anthropologist Wolf-Dieter Storl wrote in Berserker und Kuschelbär, "Bear bile ... is taken in the form of a suppository shortly before sexual penetration into the vagina, in order to increase the chance of conception."

We do still hear reports of bears being killed for their gall bladders, which is illegal in many places. In 1989, an AP story in the New York Times told of 400 bears that were slaughtered for their gall bladders in the northeastern United States, because they're "prized as aphrodisiacs in the Far East." Last year in India, the Hindu Times reported that some rare black bears were killed by poachers for their "aphrodisiac gall bladders."

I don't find any empiric evidence to support using bear as an aphrodisiac, nor should we slaughter them for their gall bladders. But if you find yourself licentious in a jungle, and you hear a bear coming, do what you have to do.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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