Sadism, Spices & Science | Spanish Fly: Enchanting or Endangering?

Spanish Fly isn’t a myth, but it is pretty legendary. Spanish fly, also known as cantharidin, has been used for centuries culinarily, medicinally, and as an aphrodisiac in various cultures. Africans, Asians, Greeks to Romans can attest to its savoriness, therapeutics, and stimulating effects; but not only does it heal and arouse, it can kill.

Spanish fly’s alter ego, cantharidin is the key element and chemically derives from meloid beetles (commonly known as blister beetles, but more specifically Spanish flies). If you observe how the beetle uses this substance, it will clue you in on how multipurpose this product is.  The male beetle will create and use cantharidin as both a defense mechanism and as a means to arouse and attract the female beetle. The female beetle will take this substance and use it to coat and protect her eggs. 

Enter Humans

Ancient civilization noticed cantharidin’s multifaceted uses – it was a great addition to spice mixtures; it also caused priapism or prolonged erections in men and vascular congestion of the genitourinary system in women. This engorgement in the pelvic area simulated sexual sensation, but its harmful side effects were initially unknown. A French chemist named Pierre Robiquet pointed out cantharidin’s aggressive blistering properties, allowing it to be used as a means to heal lesions without scarring. It was also during this time that it was observed to be as toxic as the most violent poisons around. Signs of poisoning ranged from irritation and discomfort to blistering. These effects could eventually lead to erosion and ultimately to gastrointestinal internal bleeding and irritation to the lining of a female’s urethra.

Historically, cantharidin has been used for a myriad of purposes in a variety of cultures. In North Africa, specifically, Morocco, spice blends known as ras el hanout sometimes included green metallic beetles. Well, we now know that was none other than a small ration of cantharides. Its sale was banned in 1990. Also in North Africa, dawamesk, a jam containing almond paste, pistachios, sugar tamarind peel, cloves and other spices, occasionally included cantharides. [source]  In Asia, the first recorded stink bomb was made in China using a mixture of arsenic, human excrement and none other than cantharidin. Asians also used cantharidin as a treatment option for skin infections & rabies. Also, because of its potent vesicant properties, it has been used topically as a means to remove warts, moles, and tattoos. In the United States, dried blister beetles were once used medicinally to treat pneumonia and smallpox. Emergency personnel and dermatologists found it beneficial to use, but it also ended up being on a list of “problem drugs” due to its adverse effects when used medicinally. When ingested, the loading dose is ~0.5mg/kg, with a dose as little as 10mg being potentially fatal.

Interestingly enough, its culinary uses and therapeutic benefits have been overshadowed by its more infamous reputation as a deadly love potion. While it couldn’t have been the most pleasant stimulation, due to the irritation and discomfort that would follow, it didn’t stop ancient civilization from using it as an aphrodisiac. Greeks made preparations for bridegrooms and before special occasions. In Ancient Rome, Augustus Caesar’s wife allegedly used Spanish fly against political rivals to sway them into committing sexual indiscretions and later blackmailing them. King Henry IV, King of England and Lord of Ireland from 1399 to 1413, consumed cantharides as a sexual stimulant. In France, in the 1600s, despite being an illegal substance, Spanish fly was commonly used in aphrodisiac potions and later connected to a series of poisonings. Even more scandalous was when French writer, Marquis de Sade, who was into more of the rough stuff (see the word “Sadism”), poisoned two prostitutes with cantharidin-laced candies during a sodomy filled orgy. It has killed others too! Rumor has it that Venezuelan leader, Simon Bolivar, may have also been accidentally poisoned by Spanish fly.

IMG: Spanish Fly. Nancy L. Stockdale. Flickr. Creative Commons

So yes, it’s a sexual stimulant, and yes, it is also a potent blistering agent, and alas cantharidin has had therapeutical beneficial uses throughout time, but despite being widely used, cantharidin has never been and is not currently FDA approved. Cantharidin’s extreme toxicity makes any use of it in any capacity highly dangerous and therefore more readily available illicitly than lawfully. So don’t get caught up and pick it up on your next trip abroad. Stick to Viagra and high doses of chocolate; Spanish fly needs to “fly” away.

Sources
  1. Torbeck, R.  Cantharidin: a comprehensive review of medical literature. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24945640. June 15, 2014. Accessed July 15, 2018
  2. Oaks, M.D., Wilbur W. Cantharidin Poisoning. The Journal of the American Medical Association. April 1960; 105(4):574-582.

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