Oysters for Lovers ….
Ever since Roman times, we have written sources that claim the sexual potency of the oyster. Imperial orgies were never complete without provisions of oysters in their thousands. Galen of Pergamon (129-199), possibly the most accomplished physician of all antiquity, prescribed oysters as a cure for declining sexual desire.
During the Middle Ages, it was generally known that the oyster “exciteth Venus”- and so on throughout history and literature. There was even a Victorian underground magazine of erotica, published in the 1880’s, called The Oyster, and devoted to more heterosexual material than its predecessor, The Pearl. So it was no small wonder that the poor country girls, the oysterwenches who stalked the streets of the growing cities, hawking their wares, were often regarded as prostitutes.
But even in earlier societies, there has been overwhelming evidence of the magical beliefs in shells, as the resemblance between the mollusc shell and the female genital organ helped spawn associations. As Mircea Eliade, the famous historian of religions, wrote “belief in the magical virtues of oysters and of shells is to be found all over the world, from prehistoric until modern times” (1952/1961, 125).
Mollusc shells, in particular, seem to have been associated with fertility, and were a valued gift and amulet to girls on reaching puberty. They have been found in places connected with agricultural, nuptial and funerary rites, and symbolised the magical powers of the womb, of birth and rebirth. And the Greek legend of the birth of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, from a shell (often mistaken for an oyster’s but in fact more a scallop’s) in the foam of the sea is a metaphor for the same belief.
So this symbolism of mollusc shells is the first part of the aphrodisiac equation of the oyster. As with other aphrodisiacs like avocados, figs, asparagus, bananas, or nuts, because of their appearance or form, we naturally succumb to the temptation to follow the paths of our associations and jump from the idea of fertility enhancers to substances that arouse sexual excitement.
In this context, the name of Giacomo Casanova faithfully rears its head and his own description given in volume 12 of his Histoire de ma vie [Story of my Life], chapter 2, 54-57 of eating his beloved oysters in female company deserves to be quoted in full, as he and his insatiable appetite for oysters are so often taken for granted. In these memoirs of his, most mentions of oysters refer to social gatherings where he is entertained and plied with platefuls of them. But on this special occasion, he is in Rome, amongst friends; it’s 1771 (more than 20 years before he wrote his memoirs) and after an evening at the opera with Armellina and Emilia, two young women from a convent whom he has got to know through common acquaintances, has ordered oysters, rum and champagne in the private rooms of an inn and is introducing them to his “oyster game”, one of his ways of enjoying them:
Casanova on Oysters
“I put the shell to her [Emilia’s] mouth, I told her to suck in the liquid and keep the oyster between her lips. She performed the feat to the letter after laughing heartily, and I took the oyster by pressing my lips to hers with the greatest decency.
She was delighted by the delicacy with which I took the oyster from her lips…….It was by chance that a fine oyster which I gave Emilia, putting the shell to her lips, dropped into her bosom; she made to recover it, but I claimed that it was mine by right, and she had to yield, let me unlace her, and gather it with my lips from the depth to which it had dropped.
“In the course of this she had to bear with my uncovering her bosom completely; but I retrieved the oyster in such a way that there was no sign of my having felt any pleasure except that of having recovered, chewed and swallowed it.
Armellina watched the whole procedure without smiling, surprised that I appeared to show no interest in what I had seen. Four or five oysters later I gave one to Armellina, who was sitting on my lap, and I cleverly dropped it into her bosom, which brought a laugh from Emilia, who at bottom was annoyed that Armellina had escaped a test of an intrepidity such as she had shown me.
“But I saw that Armellina was delighted by the mishap, though she refused to give any sign of it.
“I want my oyster,” I said.
“I unlaced her whole bodice, and, the oyster having dropped as far down as possible, I complained that I would have to bring it up with my hand. Good God! What torment for a man in love to have to hide the excess of his delight at such a moment!
Armellina had not the slightest pretext to accuse me of anything, for I did not touch her beautiful breasts, hard as marble, except in searching for the oyster. After retrieving and swallowing it, I took hold of one of her breasts, demanding the liquid from the oyster which had spilled on it; I seized the rosebud with my avid lips, surrendering to all the voluptuous feelings inspired in me by the imaginary milk which I sucked for a good two or three minutes.”
(Reader supplied text)