History of Wormwood
Wormwood, an herb closely related to the mysterious mugwort, has earned itself a place in the ‘notorious’ plant category. Used as a main ingredient in the reportedly mind altering spirit Absinthe in the 19th century, wormwood was both touted as a creative wonder drug and demonized as the cause of violent homicidal madness. Less dramatically, wormwood boasts many medicinal and folkloric uses, and is associated with immorality, ancestor, protection, and reversal magick. Let’s take a closer look at this bitter and notorious herb.
The Bitter Herb
Wormwood’s official name is Artemisia absinthium. A cousin to mugwort, wormwood is part of the genus Artemisia, and boasts many of the same energies. Artemisia refers to the Greek goddess Artemis, who was connected to the wilderness and forests, as well as the moon, childbirth, femininity, and healing. According to the Herbarium of Apuleius, this family of plants was discovered by Artemis and given to Chiron (the figure who taught Achilles how to use yarrow), after whome he named them. Absinthium is from the Greek “apsinthion”, which most likely came from a Persian or Hebrew word for ‘bitter’. Once source even suggested that the Greek word had the connotation of ‘undrinkable’ or ‘unenjoyable’.
Wormwood was referred to as absinth in English even before the infamous green liquor was created; however it is from this etymology that the drink was named – which we will explore later in this post – but the source of the word is kind of a mystery. Etymology.com suggests a folk etymology of Old English “wermod” -similar to Old Saxon “wermoda” or Dutch “wermoet”. The theory is that it has something to do with ‘man’ and ‘courage’, or that it was used as a way to get rid of parasitic worms. It is also related to “vermouth”, an alcoholic beverage flavored with wormwood. Wherever it came from, wormwood is indeed bitter and was used for many purposes. Some of its common names were wormseed, sagewort, old woman, lad’s love, sloven wood, santolina, and sweet Annie.
Medicinal & Folkloric Uses
Before we get into the Absinthe issue, we should look at the traditional uses of wormwood. It was used for centuries for many different reasons. In ancient Egypt is was an antiseptic. In Medieval Europe it was used as a flea and mite repellant, and unsurprisingly, it was often used to get rid of intestinal worms. In 1597, one herbalist wrote, “wormewood voideth away the wormes of the guts”. It was used to treat stomach pains, gas, nervousness, and to stimulate the appetite. It was also known as a fever reducer, and to treat various bites and stings, as well as a method of inducing mensuration or childbirth.
It was used in wines and other alcoholic beverages before Absinthe as well. Romans used it in victory wine to remind themselves that victory has a bitter side to it. There were also folk drinks made with wormwood, such as wormwood wine and crème d’absinthe.
In medieval England people carried it on them to ward off the plague and burned it in their houses after a bout of plague. In Russia, wormwood was worn as protection against Rusalki, water spirits with sharp claws who roamed in the forests and along rivers.
There is a folklore belief that when the devil left the Garden of Eden, wormwood sprung up after him, therefore wormwood has long been associated with snakes, and was used to keep them at bay by being planted in gardens and near home entries.
In Popular Culture
Because of its reputation as a bitter and effective herb, and later, its notoriety which stemmed from the Absinthe controversy, wormwood has been portrayed in different lights in popular culture. Below I’ll look at a few examples from famous pieces of literature, and then I’ll (as briefly as possible) delve into wormwood’s notoriety.
The quote at the beginning of this article is from Hamlet, but this isn’t the only time Shakespeare mentions wormwood. In Romeo & Juliet, the nurse speaks of wormwood as a method of weaning Juliet from breastfeeding. “And she was wean’d (I never shall forget it), Of all the days of the year, upon that day; For I had then laid wormwood to my dug, Sitting in the sun under the dovehouse wall. My lord and you were then at Mantua. Nay, I do bear a brain. But, as I said, When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool, To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug! (Act I, Scene III).
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, a character writes in their diary, “He hath made my chain heavy. He hath filled me with bitterness – He hath made me drunken with wormwood.” This describes their sour mood at the situation.
In Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter, two characters are talking about the bad attitude of another. They say, “It begun then — at the time of the trouble with her lover,’ nodded Old Tom; ‘and it seems as if she’d been feedin’ on wormwood an’ thistles ever since–she’s that bitter an’ prickly ter deal with.”
The phrase “gall and wormwood” appears in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, E.W. Hornung’s Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, and The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (again by Dickens), proving that the saying was extremely popular and common, and as always, wormwood was associated with bitterness.
One last mention is in An Old Maid by Honore de Balzac. It reads, “Before Madame du Bousquier returned to town, Madame du Ronceret, one of her good friends, had driven out to Prebaudet to fling this corpse upon the roses of her joy, to show her the love she had ignored, and sweetly shed a thousand drops of wormwood into the honey of her bridal month”. I’m not familiar with the story, but I really like this quote in showing the versatility with with authors used wormwood to indicate bitterness, sadness, unhappiness, and general annoyance.
Ah, now to the most intriguing part of the history of wormwood – its notorious ties to Lee Fee Verte (The Green Fairy). Although I’d love to go into an entire essay here about this drink (and believe me it is fascinating), I’ll try to stick to the basics and what is relevant to learning about wormwood’s actual properties and associations.
The origins of Absinthe originated in Northern Africa, when French soldiers, amounting to about 100,000 by 1840, were stationed there after the conquer of Algeria. The soldiers experienced fever, dysentery, and constant insect attacks. To treat these problems, they were given wormwood. Because of its bitterness, they put it in their wine, creating a unique, bitter flavor, that they became accustomed to. When they returned home, they brought this acquired taste with them. The drink was a vibrant shade of green, and they called it “une verte”. Soon, civilians and soldiers were asked for ‘the green’…you see where this is going right?
The drink’s popularity grew, and people began to partake in the ‘green hour’ in the evenings. Tales grew of the drink’s hallucinogenic properties, and artists, poets, and other ‘bohemian’ types began drinking it and touting its mind altering powers. Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alfred Jarry, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, and Edgar Allen Poe are all among the legendary artists who partook in the Green Fairy’s delights.
Then a man named Valentin Magnan, a respect psychiatrist and physician-in-chief of France’s foremost asylum came along. Like most ‘witch-hunts’ in the world, they start with one fanatic who has power, influence, and a strong moral conviction. He believed France was going downhill and that Absinthe was to blame. He dubbed the word “absinthism”, and performed experiments to show just how bad this wormwood infused drink was. (If you want to read my source in full, click here ). His methodology, unsuprisingly, was flawed, but nevertheless, became popular; and thus the reputation of The Green Devil was created.
In 1905, the Lanfray murders pushed the frenzy to a breaking point, and by 1914 Absinthe was banned. The article states: “Absinthe faded into lore, kept alive through the stories of Parisian decadence. What remained were caricatures of mad geniuses who roamed from café to café calling out “une verte!” as they chased that next great insight, the transcendent perspective available only through the grace of the Green Fairy. Of course, anyone who knows this kind of story—romantic, poetic—knows the Green Fairy can never really die”.
So what are the facts? The facts are that Absinthe had an outrageously high alcohol content – up to 80% in fact. This, combined with the notoriously lax standards of production of the times, means that the ‘devil’ in the Green Devil was probably the actual alcohol or other adulterators (copper, sulfate, chloride), NOT wormwood. Wormwood does contain thujone (which we looked at in the mugwort post), but tests have shown that not only is thujone not a hallucinogen, but it was usually never found in high enough levels to produce toxic results. Thujone can cause serious complications, convulsions, or death, but to get those high doses you’d have to drink undiluted distilled wormwood oil, OR you’d have to drink so much Absinthe that you’d be dead from the alcohol long before the thujone reached toxic levels.
So it seems that wormwood got its bad reputation for nothing! Yes, it can be toxic and should be used with caution, but it isn’t as dangerous as myth would have it be. Same warnings apply as with mugwort-don’t use if you are pregnant or allergic to plants in the same family, and always take care to do your research, but wormwood probably isn’t as dangerous as it has been made out to be.
In Magickal Workings
The magickal properties of wormwood are many, some surprisingly gentle for an herb that supposedly caused people to go mad. Here are a few examples of the type of magick you can use wormwood in:
- Calling spirits & ancestor work
- Love magick
- Sending spells/curses back to who cast them
- Spells for vengeance or where bitterness is required
- Astral projection
- Letting go of bitterness
Like mugwort, wormwood can be purchased quite easily online ( I use Starwest Botanicals). You can use the dried herb in incense blends or in teas. In tea, it is extremely bitter, and is mostly recommended at 1 tsp to 12 oz of water. Otherwise, you can use the herb as you would other herbs – as ingredients in spellwork, to anoint candles, or in charm bags. Wormwood is great for communing with ancestors (think Samhain ritual), and if you’re into darker magick, it can be used to perform revenge spells. This makes sense as it’s historically associated with bitterness. Overall, wormwood is fairly safe, just take the same precautions as with mugwort.
Right. Wormwood tea doesn’t sound that appealing, although it could be worth a try, but the allure of Absinthe still holds sway. There’s something about the myths and legends of the Green Fairy that make me want to try it. Therefore, I’ve hunted down an at-home recipe for Absinthe – I take no responsibility for this recipe, but it seems legit from what I’ve read about the liquor. It is pretty simple, but you will need quite a few herbs. I’d say give it a try and report back!