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15 January 2007
Impotentia Maleficium
The War Against Erectile Dysfunction Part II
by Paul Aitken

In last week's column I explored some of the supposed aphrodisiacs used by the ancients to cure impotence. Some of these arose from trial and error and may have actually conferred some benefit. Others were chosen for their resemblance or association with anything that looked like a big hard dick. But for a host of others the rationale wasn't so clear. Most of these were hodge-podge concoctions - eye of newt, toe of frog kind of thing. The rationale behind many of these arose out of what was then the leading contender for the etiology of erectile dysfunction: Magic. Specifically, witchcraft.

With the luxury of 21st century hindsight we can of course scoff at this, but before we get all flush with the self-satisfaction that arises from being so superior to those ignorant saps who lived in the past, it should be considered that within the living memory of just about every guy reading this, it was widely accepted that the root cause of our erectile dysfunction was unresolved jealousy stemming from the fact that our mothers had sex with our fathers instead of us. Frankly, when one appreciates the knowledge available at the time, magic makes a lot more sense. In the ancient world, and frankly up until the Newtonian revolution, it was thought that the world was controlled by supernatural forces and few things were as obviously under their mysterious control as the erection. After all, it seemed to come and goes as it pleased. It tented the toga at the most inconvenient moments yet would fail to arise when it was actually needed.

Even for those keen on rationalism the erection was largely a mystery. The ancient Greeks attributed the erection to "inflation by wind" or "spirit." And who else controlled this "wind" but Gods. The Gods were known to be capricious and temperamental but not generally speaking malicious. If the problem persisted, as erectile dysfunction often does when it takes hold in the latter stages of a man's life, then it stood to reason that malicious intent must lie behind it. And of course then, as now, the tendency was to blame some chick.

It wasn't a ridiculous assumption either. Curse tablets, providing incantations on how to induce impotence, date back almost as far as the remedies to thwart such curses. One of the more eloquent sought to "dry it up like wood and make it like a rag on the manure pile," There were no doubt many women who would have willed such a fate to befall husbands or lovers who strayed, just as there were many men who feared such a curse. One of life's ironies is that men achieve power, and the concomitant ability to attract new mates just as their ability to fully capitalize on it diminishes.

It's a scenario that plays out to this day. Man leaves wife for bimbo - finds he can't perform - blames former wife. Ditto for the men who suspected their wives didn't want to have sex with them in the first place. A not unreasonable suspicion, given the manner in which wives were treated, certainly in ancient Greece. According to the Greek historian, Herodotus, the Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis was convinced that his political marriage to Ladice of Cyrene was unconsummated because his new bride had bewitched him. She denied this but was unable to appease his anger and eventually had to swing a deal with Aphrodite to give him back his manhood. Aphrodite agreed and eventually it all worked out for the crazy kids. As you might imagine though, not all such stories had "happy endings."

To counter the curse of impotence - either imagined or admitted by their gleeful wives - men resorted to whatever they believed was necessary, including, as we've learned, ingesting the vilest of concoctions. Those with weaker stomachs tried to make do with wearing magical amulets while others opted for old standards of appeasement, incantation and sacrifice to whichever Gods it was thought were responsible.

After Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, the pagan Gods were abandoned but impotence remained. Who was to blame now? For St. Augustine, the eminent 4th century Christian theologian, impotence (which he described poetically as the "desire that cools off in the body while it is at boiling heat in the mind"), was divine punishment for what went down in the Garden of Eden. The traditional cures of counter-potions and amulets were seen as the work of the devil and fell out of favor (at least with the church). Prayer, recitations and pious self-denial were the only accepted recourse. In other words: appeasement, incantation and sacrifice. Plus ca change.

As the dark ages darkened however, the idea of impotence as the working of malevolent spirits reasserted itself big time. Now, instead of Gods doing the dirty work it was demons operating at the behest of... you guessed it... women. Impotentia Maleficium it was called - impotence as a result of malicious witchcraft. Maleficium covered all manner of nasty stuff (it's also, not surprisingly, the title of a heavy metal album by the Swedish group Morgana Lefay) including turning milk sour, striking people dead, causing diseases, preventing hens from laying... whatever. If something, anything went wrong, it was generally assumed that some dastardly woman was responsible. But impotence in particular seems to have been a hex favored by witches. It is discussed almost obsessively in the Malleus Maleficarum, the 15th century witch hunter's handbook, which for a couple of centuries was the best selling book after the bible.

While witchcraft was originally a pagan concept, it eventually became adopted by the Christian church, with deadly consequences. Between 1350 and 1650, thousands of innocent women were burned at the stake for any number of crimes, not least of which was making men impotent. Save for the violence visited on the denizens of the New World, the persecution of witches was perhaps the greatest tragedy of the High Middle Ages, and was made all the more poignant by the fact that every women so condemned was innocent. As much as women may have wished it, they had no more control over a man's erectile function than did the man himself.

But even while the witch hunt terror was sweeping Europe, the light of truth was finding its way. In 1477, a 25 year old Leonardo Da Vinci attended a public hanging and observed that some of the executed men developed erections after death. Struck by curiosity, Leonardo gained permission to dissect the corpses and made what was then a startling discovery. Rather than being inflated by wind, as the ancient Greeks had asserted (and which was, astonishingly, still the "standard model" of penis function), Leonardo learned that the penis was in fact inflated by blood (hydraulics as opposed to pneumatics). It would be another five centuries before we would learn what actually caused the blood to enter and stay, but the door of science had been opened, if only just a crack, and the history of erectile dysfunction would never be the same...

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