“Absinthe is the aphrodisiac of the self. The green fairy who lives in the absinthe wants your soul. But you are safe with me.” –Coppola’s Dracula to Mina, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Was there ever a more historically controversial potion than absinthe? The history of this drink is ancient and steeped in myth. The roots of absinthe go back to antiquity when it was used as a treatment of venereal disease and a cure for indigestion. There were absinthe drinkers during the time of Shakespeare but it was not maligned as a drink until WWI when it was blamed for France’s great weakness in the initial weeks of the war.
Absinthe enjoys a French connection that perhaps stems from its use as a disinfectant and anti-malaria agent in French colonies such as Indochina. It was the soldiers returning home on leave who introduced absinthe to Parisian cafes. Eventually, it became associated with the artist groups of Montmartre, the Bohemian section of Paris, who were known to drink large quantities.
During the 1800s absinthe enjoyed a long relationship with poets and artists of the era. The Art Nouveau period of the late nineteenth century is full of absinthe advertisements and today these posters are quite collectible. During this period, the green fairy—green because of the emerald color of the absinthe—was the muse of both writers and artists alike. Yet, by the end of this era it was the dink of madmen and known as the queen of poisons.
As a liqueur, absinthe and its ingredients are not overtly glamorous. Up to seventy-five percent alcohol, anise and bitter wormwood are the major components of the brew. Sugar was often added to combat the bitterness of the wormwood. Perhaps it was the interaction of the parts that drew dramatic reactions from its imbibers. The initial potion in the glass was emerald green, but as water was added, the plant oils in the drink turned a cloudy green and this gave onlookers a bit of a magical show as they stared into the glass.
Wormwood has a rather murky past in itself. Biblically, it is mentions in the book of Revelations and Christians claimed that it grew in the wake of the slithering serpent. As a main ingredient of absinthe, its sullied reputation lent itself to the drink. Wormwood does have medicinal qualities though and was used by the ancient Egyptians to combat fevers. It continued to be used to treat various diseases in the middle ages, but there perhaps it became associated with disease as well. Besides absinthe, it was even added to beer.
While the high alcoholic content in absinthe could certainly have altered its drinkers perceptions of the world, it was undoubtedly the chemical called thujone in the wormwood that researchers today know caused the stimulating effects on people’s brains. There were many absinthe bottlers at the time absinthe drinking was at its height so the amount of thujone varied from brand to brand. Also, cheap varieties sprang up in the 1860s so that even the poor could experience the allure of absinthe. Absinthe houses were built for its users and actually making the drink became an art in itself.
It was during the 1870s when absinthe became heavily linked with madness in the eyes of the medical community and then the public. Long-time absinthe use seemed to go hand in hand with mental derangement and was also linked with impotence. When the French lost the Franco-Prussian War about the same time, absinthe was thought to have corrupted the troops and quite possibly even the rest of French civilization.
Nevertheless, absinthe continued in popularity despite its new label as the scourge of the people—especially as previously noted, with artists like Rimbaud and Verlaine. Most-famous of the absinthe-using artists is, perhaps, Vincent Van Gogh whose behavior did nothing for absinthe’s negative reputation.
There’s little doubt that absinthe was, indeed, at the root of the eccentric behavior of those who drank it—and drank it to excess, but its effects could be more severe than odd behavior. Its link with madness is well-established by research. Absinthism is characterized by delirium, epileptic-like attacks and hallucination. While undergoing these symptoms, absinthe-users would even tend to be violent.
While most of the ills from absinthe were due to excessive use, a growing movement in France sought to ban the drink that they attributed to all manner of vices that included sexual deviance. It was not banned in France, however, until the outbreak of WWI when it was blamed for early losses and poor-quality recruits.
Today, absinthe enjoys somewhat of a rejuvenation. Popular movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its supposed use by celebrities like Johnny Depp have returned it to its status as the glamorous drink of artists. In any case, it is still banned all over the world and while safer concoctions have been formulated, it still remains a potently dangerous blend in spite of its great allure.