Wormwood’s history is linked to its references in the Bible. Its botanical name is Artemisia absinthium. This herbaceous perennial plant can grow to two to four feet. It has silvery-white leaves and stems and a bitter taste. It is widely distributed in the Mediterranean, Central Asia, Europe, and Kashmir. It is native to temperate regions of Europe and a naturalized species in the United States. The plant is found in the wild and cultivated as an ornamental.
In Biblical times, wormwood was a symbol of calamity and sorrow: there are seven references to wormwood in the Old Testament. However, it had important medical uses. Wormwood’s history is also linked to ancient Egypt and the Greeks. The Egyptians used wormwood as an antiseptic, stimulant, aromatic essence, tonic, beer and wine additive, and remedy for fevers and menstrual pains. The Greeks, who called it apsinthos, had similar uses. They also used it in childbirth.
Wormwood was thought to counteract most of the poisonous effects of hemlock and toadstools. Roman soldiers would
place the herb under their sore feet for relief. It was also used as an additive to rice wine in China (Ratsch, 1998, p. 70). The plant was used to expel intestinal worms in Egypt, Greece, and Rome until the Middle Ages.
Today, Bedouin Africans sell wormwood in Egypt as a remedy for ill health. The Bedouins also burn wormwood leaves as incense around their newborn children. They believe that this will bring good health to the child. Traditionally, wormwood was ground into powder and burnt on a coal fire or in incense smudge bundles. Dried wormwood herb was also smoked.
Common wormwood is a relative of sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua). Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is the key ingredient of the controversial aperitif known as absinthe. Absinthe is an alcoholic beverage that originated in the late 18th century in Switzerland. It became popular in France during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly among artists and writers. Absinthe acquired legendary fame among artists and Bohemians. Famous artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Picasso, Gauguin, and Manet worked under the influence of absinthe.
Absinthe was banned in many countries, including France, in the early 20th century due to concerns about its high alcohol content and association with addiction and hallucinations. The ban was lifted in many countries in the 1990s and 2000s, and absinthe is now produced and sold in several countries. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is the key ingredient of the controversial aperitif known as absinthe. It was also used in other wines and spirits, including bitters and vermouth.
Van Gogh was severely addicted to absinthe. His work reflects the enhancement of color and the swirling alteration of reality associated with its hallucinogenic effects. The following verse by Oscar Wilde exemplifies the thinking on absinthe in the artistic community of the time: “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 are, and this is the most horrible thing in the world.”
More on wormwood’s history and its medicinal properties, references to the plant in the Bible, and other details on – Holy Herbs: Modern Connections to Ancient Plants