What Can We Learn About Moral Panics from Absinthe?

What Can We Learn About Moral Panics from Absinthe? June 12, 2018

At a recent event at The Satanic Temple’s (TST) Headquarters in Salem, member Karl Kasarda from the Arizona chapter gave a great talk on the history of absinthe and the 100 year moral panic surrounding the infamous drink. You can watch his presentation ‘The Burning of the Green Witch’ below.

Why Absinthe?

You may be wondering why The Satanic Temple is hosting such an event. After all there’s no explicit link between Satanism and the drink. It has a long history of being widely enjoyed by many historical luminaries. But many people’s familiarity with it doesn’t get past that one Nine Inch Nails video where Trent Reznor was cosplaying Edgar Allen Poe. Absinthe’s history is one of persecution, moral panic, and demonization; these subjects are near and dear to the hearts of most (if not all) Satanists. In addition, the ritualistic nature of how the drink is prepared makes for a thoughtful commentary on traditions and their importance.

There’s also an element of myth debunking in that many of the misconceptions about absinthe that were used as the impetus for the moral panic surrounding the drink were either convoluted half-truths at best, outright lies, or eventually entirely disproven by scientific testing. That, at least from the perspective of TST, lends itself neatly to the group’s 5th tenet ‘Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care to never distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs’. So in that sense, the presentation is a kind of Satanic learning excursion to dispel some flat-out wrong ideas many people have about Absinthe.

The Humble Beginnings of the Green Devil

The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As it turns out the reason for absinthe’s rise in popularity in the late 19th century are rather mundane. What is interesting however is the way the spirit became a scapegoat for societal ills despite scant evidence. Claims arose that it was hallucinogenic (it’s not); absinthe was blamed for murders, suicides, and all manner of moral decay. There was a concerted propaganda campaign to malign and disparage the drink, which is at worst no more harmful than any other cocktail.

The story of absinthe is reminiscent of other moral panics throughout history in which lies and half-truths were used to demonize counter-cultural activities like Dungeons and Dragons (which has also been the subject of talks at TST) or rock music.

Absinthe is a Ritual Reminder

Part of the allure of absinthe is undeniably the infrastructure that goes along with it’s consumption. The fountain, spoons, sugar cubes, and preparation process imbue the experience with a sense of contemplation and patience. Sure, you could mix it like any other cocktail and serve it up in a highball glass, but something very difficult to define would be lost in the experience. As such, absinthe is a delightful (and tasty … if you like the taste of licorice) example of a secular ritual that for about a century was villainized as wicked and evil.

To drink absinthe in this traditional manner is to reflect on the history of the drink which like D&D, like rock ’n roll, and like Satan is a story about being unfairly stigmatized by the whims of arbitrary authority.

About Jack Matirko
Jack Matirko is an activist, blogger, and podcaster focussing on issues of church and state separation. He runs Patheos' Satanic Blog For Infernal Use Only (patheos.com/blogs/infernal), co-hosts the Naked Diner Podcast (patreon.com/nakeddiner), and is a member of The Satanic Temple-Arizona Chapter. His opinions are his own. To contribute to his work please consider becoming a patron of his podcast. You can read more about the author here.
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  • Darrell Cadieux

    ‘The fountain, spoons, sugar cubes, and preparation process imbue the experience with a sense of contemplation and patience.’ forgot the drop of laudanum on the sugar cube.

  • Polytropos

    There may be a similar story behind Germany’s beer purity laws, which required that beer contain only barley, water, and hops. Concern for public health was part of the reason for this legislation, because apparently some brewers used toxic additives intended as preservatives. But the legislation also targeted herbs and spices which had previously been added to beer as part of the rituals used to worship pagan gods.

    Henbane is one such psychoactive plant and seems to have been used to promote spiritual experiences which the church disapproved of. It’s toxic in large quantities, of course, but I wonder how much of a public health concern it really was, and how much moral panic was involved.

  • alverant

    I was at a sci-fi convention where they were selling kits for absinthe. I was tempted to buy it to experiment at home but it was $20 for what looked like a handful of spices I already had in my kitchen.

  • Nos482

    Claims arose that it was hallucinogenic (it’s not)

    Learned that the hard way when I drank about 3/4 litre, hoping for something… anything.
    What I got was the Worst. Hangover. Ever. Oh, and a new carpet.
    Also to this day even the faintest smell of Anise makes me gag.

  • I’ve had ouzo hangovers and it’s fairly similar drink … yeah … not fun.

  • phatkhat

    Ouzo hangovers are horrible, but tequila hangovers are far worse.