For as long as humankind has had erections, it has thought to itself, “This is all well and good, but what if it was that little bit harder?” People have turned to all kinds of methods to make hard-ons harder, boners bonier, erections more erect.
Many ancient recommendations involved rubbing various substances into the penis. At one point in ancient Egypt crushed crocodile hearts were suggested, a fairly unerotic prospect (particularly for the crocodile). Medical texts from ancient Greece, authored by the second-century physician Galen, feature a variety of solidifying treatments. Rubbing honey — sometimes mixed with pepper — into the penis was said to help, as was a fairly unpalatable-sounding concoction made from post-sex bull urine mixed with soil.
If any of these were successful, it’s difficult not to think that the rubbing was doing most of the work.
Not all treatments were topical and applied directly to the area in question — there were plenty of orally-taken medicines said to result in harder penises. Arugula and honey mixed together was said to help, as was eating a stag’s penis or a medicine made from lizards’ kidneys.
Greek physician Aelius Promotus wrote, sometime around the second or third centuries, of the erection-boosting powers of arugula, peppers and celery mixed with wine, taken after a hot bath, assuring people that three days of this would lead to “amazing” results.
Hot and spicy foods come up in a lot of ancient enhardening treatments, due to the association of heat with sexual energy. A 2019 paper in the academic journal History of Pharmacy & Pharmaceuticals speculated that certain foods were taken for, again, a fairly conventionally unsexy reason: they caused flatulence. The thinking at the time was that an erect penis was inflated with the air-like substance pneuma, so anything known for increasing air pressure would presumably be good for making erections fuller and harder. The idea that an impressive erection is throbbing with farts might seem comically disgusting to modern sensibilities, but it all made logical sense at the time.
Ninth-century Tunisian physician Ahmed Ibn al-Jazzar recommended beans, chickpeas and turnips, while also insisting that keeping the testicles warm and moist would ensure super-hard erections. There is no record of whether people knitted little ball-hats, but they might have.
Around the twelfth century, in China, someone thinking way outside the box came up with the idea of stretching a goat’s eyelid around the base of the penis to allow blood to flow into it, but restrict the outward flow — this led to harder, firmer erections (as well as, speculatively, the eyelashes providing a bit of ticklish stimulation for the wearer’s partner) and the cock-ring was born. How the conclusion of a goat’s eyelid was reached has been lost to history — were other eyelids trialled? — but in a pre-latex, pre-rubber world, it was pretty imaginative.
Various pharmaceutical and practical approaches have followed over the centuries — the snake-oil salesmen of the 18th and 19th centuries swindled a lot of people out of a lot of money with phoney tinctures and elixirs promising iron-hard results — but the cock-ring has remained popular since.
It makes sense: it’s easy to understand, is endlessly reusable and doesn’t require prescribing (although should never be used for prolonged periods of time and should alway be removed when not in active use). There’s something to be said for visual ambiguity too — there are innocuous-seeming objects from Victorian times and earlier that get classified in museum collections as ‘dress fasteners’ but seem like they’d do a fine job of restricting blood flow out of an engorged penis…
Technological advances have of course brought changes and innovations to them, surely a relief for goats everywhere — 3D printing, battery-operated vibrating models and ergonomic designs that take the wearer’s partner’s experience into account as much as the wearer’s have all led to tweaks and refinements, but the mechanics of it all remains the same: more blood means a harder erection. For all the centuries people spent messing about with bull urine, mud, spices and chemicals, it turned out a low-fi response got the best results.