The Lure of the Green Muse
Shall we flirt with the Green Fairy for a while? She supposedly promises many gifts if you’ll only embrace her: clearness of thinking, enhanced creativity, and the gift of flowing poetry. She’ll be your lover and your muse, all you’ll ever need. Just ask the Bohemian artistes who populated Paris in the 19th century, many of whom died destitute from alcoholism and mental illness. Their Green Goddess exacted a powerful toll for her visions.
Absinthe was even more popular by the turn of the 20th century. Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Edouard Manet – all called absinthe their muse at some point. Even Ernest Hemmingway worshipped the Green Goddess, buying his absinthe in Spain after it was banned in the US.
Mr. Wilde described the effects of absinthe as such:
After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.
While absinthe drinking worried many, it wasn’t until the drink spread to the working classes that a campaign to ban it spread in many European countries. Public outcry sealed the drink’s fate when, in the summer of 1905, a Swiss peasant by the name of Jean Lanfray shot his entire family before turning a rifle upon himself in a botched suicide attempt. Never mind that Lanfray was a serious alcoholic who’d drunk, before killing his family, a crème de menthe, a cognac, six glasses of wine with lunch, a glass of wine before leaving work, a cup of coffee with brandy in it, a liter of wine after getting home, plus another cup of coffee with marc [Baker, p. 3]. The two glasses of absinthe that he’d drunk before work were surely what led to such an evil act. It was the final nail in the coffin for the herbal drink.
Recent research has shown how absinthe was a political victim – a scapegoat for many social ills of the time and much has been written on the history of absinthe. Let’s just say it started out on a far nobler foot than the vilified drink it was later considered. One story of absinthe’s creation has it as the invention of Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French monarchist who fled to Switzerland in the later 1700s. By the time of his death, in 1821, the drink was already called Le Fee Verte, or The Green Fairy. Another tells of the Henriod sisters either coming up with the original concoction we call absinthe on their own, or maybe they worked with Dr. Ordinaire. Either way, the drink was popular in the area, guaranteeing that production of the drink continued.
In the late 1790s, a Major Dubied discovered absinthe and realized the positive effects on digestion. Absinthe also improved the appetite and helped with fever and chills. Dubied enthusiastically began commercially manufacturing absinthe, later moving his plant to France to avoid the import fees on an increasingly popular drink. His company, Pernod Fils is still a major alcohol manufacturer in France, switching to the creation of anise-flavored drinks after the ban on absinthe.
France started expanding its empire into Northern Africa in 1830. By the mid-1840s, expansion efforts were at their peak, but malaria and dysentery were rampant problems throughout the army. Someone, having heard of Ordinaire’s potent tonic, began giving the troops daily rations of absinthe to help with malaria and other fevers. It also served to kill bacteria in their drinking water, helping alleviate dysentery. When the victorious troops returned home, they continued enjoying their health-saving drink. French soldiers enjoying their late afternoon absinthe on a Parisian café terrace became an image of patriotic pride in which the French middle classes soon joined. The Green Hour was born.
Tarnishing A Reputation
Unfortunately, the enjoyable taste of absinthe, combined with its high alcoholic content, led to the drink being consumed in ever growing quantities in France and elsewhere. The drinking of absinthe spread from the retired military to the upper middle class to the bohemian and artistic classes to finally the working class. At each stop along the way, it moved farther and farther from a noble drink that saved soldiers’ lives to the notorious “Queen of Poisons.”
Aside from the high alcohol content – the current bottle in our freezer is 136 proof – absinthe does contain thujone, which is present in wormwood, one of the herbs of absinthe. Thujone is a powerful poison causing extreme convulsions and death. Thujone poisoning leaves the victim unconscious while violent convulsions set in and increase in severity until they are continuous. Since several of those who died before the ban on absinthe suffered convulsions and seizures towards the very end of their lives, absinthe took the blame for it. In truth, many of these unfortunate folks were true alcoholics who suffered from malnutrition or even outright starvation. Some also suffered from mental illness, often caused by syphilis.And the truth of the matter is that you need an awful lot of thujone to cause poisoning. Even those who’ve never gone near alcohol have ingested thujone which is present in several other herbs, including sage, hyssop, fennel and certain mints.
Thujone belongs to a class of chemicals known as terpenes, which are a form of hydrocarbons usually found in essential oils. They are used as solvents as well as by scientists and nature alike in the synthesis of organic compounds. Terpenes are major components in resins and their derivatives including turpentine. (It’s been speculated that Vincent van Gogh drank turpentine, as well as his paints, because he was addicted to terpenes.)
Now, before you panic at the thought of these “poisons” in your herb cabinet, please relax. We need terpenes. They are some of nature’s essential biological building blocks. For example, vitamin A is a terpene. It’s just that people were looking for something to blame back before the absinthe ban. Once thujone was isolated, and it was realized just how viciously deadly it could be, it became the obvious bad guy. Even when cooler scientific heads called research into question, the court of public opinion had already tried wormwood (and absinthe) and found it guilty.
The Herbs of Absinthe
Pretty much any bottle of absinthe worth drinking contains the following three herbs. As you’ll easily see, all of them have many of the same uses therapeutically. Combined into one tonic, absinthe packed a triple threat for what ailed those of the early 19th century (and today).
Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium or grand wormwood, is the plant that caused all the controversy. Absinthe, as wormwood is called in France, has a very long history as a medicinal plant being mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus as well as in the works of Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Galen, Pliny, and Paracelsus. Dioscorides even suggests it as a remedy for drunkenness, which, given the herb’s stimulant properties, isn’t nearly as ridiculous and far-fetched as it sounds. Many a drinker of absinthe, including yours truly, has reported a clear-headed effect after having had a drink. Of course, to help place things in perspective, that clear-headedness is often tinged by the high alcohol content of the drink. It’s also been suggested in the past that wormwood helps one have visionary dreams, further adding to absinthe’s notorious reputation.
Above all, wormwood is used for stomach issues such as indigestion, gastric pain, and lack of appetite. Several different herbal sources list it as a tonic, stomachic, carminative, and cholagogue. It helps stimulate both the liver and the gallbladder to function better.
Wormwood is also considered an antiseptic and antipyretic. It was these uses that led the French Army to include a measure of absinthe daily as part of their troops’ rations worldwide after it had proven itself effective with the troops serving in Algeria. Or course, absinthe was also blamed for France’s loss to Germany during the Franco-Prussian War, so these things can be a bit subjective.
Further uses of wormwood suggest its use as an anthelmintic – the powdered flowering tops expel intestinal worms.
Under carefully supervised use, the oil is said to be a cardiac stimulant which will improve circulation. Personally, I’d look for other, safer herbs before tempting fate. However, the oil is also good used topically on areas suffering from rheumatism, neuralgia, and arthritis. It works as a local anesthetic.
Wormwood is also a useful herb in the garden, where it makes an excellent companion plant. The roots of wormwood give off a secretion that inhibits the growth of nearby plants, helping with weed control. Planted along the edge of a plot, it will also help repel insect larvae. Furthermore, an infusion of the leaves makes a good spray against other pests. They don’t like the smell.
Finally, remember that any drink containing wormwood will also need something to help mask the bitterness. Perhaps the only plant with a bitterer taste is rue.