The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Food and Drink
Absinthe is the Latin name for the herb wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and for a controversial alcoholic beverage distilled from its leaves. In addition to wormwood, the distilled beverage is a sophisticated blend of other herbs including anise, dittany of Crete, fennel, and star anise.
Wormwood has long held a powerful magical reputation. It is mentioned in the Book of Revelation and is considered by some to be the original biblical bitter herb. Its Latin names, Artemisia absinthium and Artemisia judaica, indicate its affiliation with the lunar witchcraft goddess, Artemis.
Wormwood is powerful: it possesses narcotic properties, contains the neurotoxic chemical constituent thujone and can potentially cause convulsions and brain damage. It can also cause intense uterine contractions, thus pregnant women or those actively attempting to conceive should avoid it.
Wormwood is traditionally believed to serve as a weapon against malevolent magic and so is identified as a witch’s tool. Some perceive wormwood as a powerful and sacred plant; others consider it evil, and still others perceive that it guards against witchcraft.
These days, the “worm” in its name is believed to indicate its former use as a vermifuge or de-wormer, used to rid livestock of worms. In medieval Europe, however, “worm” was considered synonymous with “dragon” and especially that Old Dragon, Satan. In Christian Europe, wormwood was said to have first sprung up along the path the serpent took when it slithered out of Eden. Wormwood thus bore something of an ambivalent, ominous reputation.
That reputation transferred to the drink named after the herb. Herbal concoctions have been brewed from wormwood for millennia. Witches brewed healing and aphrodisiac potions with it. Wormwood allegedly enables one to communicate with the dead and potions were used for such purposes.
In classical Greece, wormwood leaves were infused in wine to create medicinal potions; Hippocrates recorded its virtues. In the Middle Ages, an English ale was brewed with wormwood. However, the beverage marketed as Absinthe that raised all the fuss and remains controversial did not exist until almost the end of the eighteenth century.
Absinthe is an emerald-green color, which, combined with its aura of witchcraft, led to its nicknames—the Green Goddess or Green Fairy (Fée Verte).
Absinthe in its modern form was invented in either 1792 or 1797 by a Swiss country doctor, Dr Ordinaire. It developed a local reputation as a panacea. When Dr Ordinaire died, he willed the formula to his housekeeper, who gave it to her daughters who continued to bottle and sell it. Among those who purchased it was an army major who gave it as a wedding gift to his future son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod, who then purchased the formula from the sisters. He opened the first absinthe distillery in Switzerland. He then opened a larger one in France in 1805 and began manufacturing on a commercial scale.
Absinthe had an exceptionally high alcohol content, bottled between 120 and 160 percent proof. Because of its high alcohol content, it was hardly ever drunk undiluted but usually blended with water. Because of its bitter flavor, sugar was usually added. An absinthe-drinking ritual evolved with a lump of sugar on a special slotted absinthe spoon placed over the glass. Water was dripped over the sugar; as the water and sugar entered the glass, the drink’s beautiful color shifted and evolved.
The demi-monde of Paris adopted absinthe as their personal potion. Many painters and artists swore by it, believing it stimulated creativity. Absinthe also maintained its reputation as an aphrodisiac.
Among those associated with absinthe are painters Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, and Edouard Manet, who painted The Absinthe Drinker in 1859; writers include Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, and Ernest Hemingway.
Among some circles, absinthe was considered provocative, modern, magical, and subversive in an appealing, positive way; in other circles, however, it was considered counter-cultural and subversive in a malevolent, threatening way. Absinthe was associated with the degeneration of society; in 1905, when a very drunk Jean Lanfray murdered his wife, absinthe was fingered as the true culprit, although Lanfray had only consumed two glasses of the drink during a binge that included copious quantities of other alcoholic beverages as well. Calls to ban absinthe were at the vanguard of the Prohibition movement. Absinthe was banned in the United States on July 25, 1912. France followed suit in 1915. Absinthe remains illegal in the United States and elsewhere, although in recent years restrictions have been eased throughout Europe.
It is now generally acknowledged that the dangers of absinthe derived largely from its exceptionally high alcohol content rather than its herbal ingredients. In addition, because of its trendy popularity, inferior cheaper bootleg absinthes were produced, which included toxic adulterations leading to increased health hazards like heavy metal poisoning.
The liqueur Pernod was developed and marketed as an alternative to the forbidden absinthe; its taste is somewhat similar. Many craft their own wormwood potions by infusing wormwood leaves in wine or Pernod, although these are not exact substitutes for the original, which was a distilled liqueur.
Absinthe was made from the leaves of the wormwood plant; one must never substitute Essential Oil of Wormwood as the toxic ingredients are incredibly concentrated in the essential oil, which is poisonous to the point of fatality.