Green Fairies, Yellow Fairies: Wormwood & Damiana Sisters

Are you familiar with the green fairy? Le Fee Verte was affectionately and perhaps reverently (for you don’t mess with fairies) to the potent wormwood brew drunk by poets and artists in the 19th century.

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Viktor Oliva Absinthe Drinker . 

 A metaphor for artistic inspiration, free states of mind and a changing social order, she was a symbol of a thirst for life, transformation and creativity.

Paul Verlaine drinking absinthe in Paris.

 “For me, my glory is a humble, ephemeral Absinthe.” – Verlaine

Transformation is the absolute essence of Le Fee – because to drink her, the drink must first transform in a magical ritual, from an extraordinary green to cloudy greenish white. As the water liberates the power of the oil of wormwood and its other ingredients, so too do new ideas, concepts and notions be set free in the mind of the artist who imbibes it. 

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Le Fee Verte: To drink wormwood, one pours ice cold water over a sugar cube placed on a special absinthe spoon until the sugar dissolves in the drink. 

Under the influence of the green fairy, the avant garde elite of Paris became commentators on the new world, just as the subculture of hippies in the ’60’s became the voice of decades later. The parellels between LSD and wormwood are dazzlingly clear – wormwood taken internally is also an hallucinogenic. Yet many parellels can be made to all kinds of drugs across the decades – each decade, it seems, has it’s drug of choice that is both a muse and a demon. 

“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.” – Oscar Wilde

Whilst polite society shied away from the apparent decadence of absinthe, many revelled in le green heurte (the green hour, where absinthe the smell of it in cafes wafted out onto the streets) – Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso  and Oscar Wilde amongst it’s adorers. 

“A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” – Oscar Wilde

Yet absinthe was seen as madness – the scourge of Europe, responsible for madness, immorality and the general downfall of France in a poisoning of the population – so under the sway of the green fairy, decriers declared, that France could only be saved if they were rid of it. Of course, social decline or at least transformation was happening anyway with an emerging industrialization and other changes that were rattling the nation. How does one cope with rapid change but to find a scapegoat for it?  It’s not an uncommon turn of events. 

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Dega’s painting ‘L’Absinthe’ challenged the traditional ideas about woman in society – one critic called this subject a ‘whore’.

Valentin Magnan, physician-in-chief of  Sainte-Anne, France’s main asylum, was the national authority on mental illness and he contributed to the belief that madness was a a result of decline in French culture. Absintheeism was seen as a part of this and distinct from alcoholism: 

In 1869 he published results of an experiment designed to do just that. He placed one guinea pig in a glass case with a saucer of pure alcohol. A second guinea pig got its own case and a saucer of wormwood oil. Two other cases contained a cat and a rabbit, both with saucers of wormwood oil. As Magnan watched, the three animals inhaling wormwood fumes grew excited and then fell into seizures. The alcohol-breathing animal merely got drunk.

The mice were possibly overdosing on thujone, the main chemical in wormwood, of which absinthe is made. However, it is more likely that they were drinking inferior alcohol with adulterants such as chloride and copper sulfate – and worse, ethanol, because to keep wormwood in solution means you need more than 50 percent of alcohol by volume. The mice, like the men and woman dying of ‘absintheeism’ were likely just dying of chronic alcoholism. 

Anti-absinthe sentiment reached frenzied peaks with a murder in Switzerland in 1905 by a French speaking labourer:

Lanfray had drunk his way through the previous day, beginning near dawn with a shot of absinthe diluted in water. A second absinthe shot soon followed. At lunch and during his afternoon break from work at a nearby vineyard, he downed six glasses of strong wine. He drank another glass before leaving work. Heading home, Lanfray stopped at a café and drank black coffee with brandy. Back home Lanfray finished a liter of wine as his wife watched in disgust. She called him lazy. He told her to shut up. She told him to make her. He took his loaded rifle from the wall and shot her through the forehead. When his daughter Rose came to investigate, he shot her too. Then he went into the next room, walked to the crib of his other daughter, Blanche, and shot her.

Devastated, he hanged himself in prison three days after his trial. And thus the le fee verde became le diable vert – the green devil – and banned in Switzerland in 1905 and other countries, including the U.S, following suit. 

Thus, it’s been banned for nearly a century. Today you can find genuine absinthe in many places over the world, despite myths that say ‘you can’t get it with wormwood anymore’. A quick search online dispels this myth – in Switzerland, for example, you can find absinthe brewed from the holy trinity of wormwood, anise and fennel seeds. Recipes might include other various aromatic plants such as lemon balm or hyssop. As the fitting mice will attest, however, it wasn’t so much the amount of wormwood that will make you hallucinate, but the amount of alcohol. 

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Green Muse by Albert Maignan 

Many nights in the Czech Republic where I ignored my warnings to self of the night before and ended up drinking the green juice, which ended in hallucinogenic experiences on dark cobbled lanes, was perhaps not the green fairy, therefore, but the excess consumption of alcohol that went with it. Still, they were nights spent in thrall, and I want to believe in her, winging her way to my shoulder as walked home, full of creativity and ecstasy.

Damiana As Wormwood’s Sister: A Contemplation

La fée jaune? To me, if Absinthe is the Green Fairy, then Damiana Liquer is the yellow fairy…

Absinthe was not always a green devil – it’s key ingredient was used by the Greeks as a medicine, soaking artemia absenthium in spirits to supposedly aid childbirth, and Hippocrates prescribed it for period pain, anaemia and rhemeutism. During the bubonic plague, the English used to burn wormwood to fumigate their houses. In the 1830’s expansion of the French into North Africa it was used to ward off insects and prevent fever – the fact it ended up as a cheap alternative to wine and a muse of poets from here doesn’t take much imagination. More recently wormwood has been studied for it’s ability to combat malaria and cancer. 

Like wormwood, damiana too is a medicine. Long believed to be a folk medicine, it is heralded as an aphrodisiac – in Mexico, they make an aphrodisiac liqueur from it. It’s also known to help with anxiety (this writer can attest to that!) and may have analgesic qualities. Whilst some articles call it a ‘herbal hoax’ which could be paralleled to the ‘hoax’ of absinthe (did it really stimulate ideas, or was this just the alcohol talking?), later science has proved there is merit in the belief damiana could be an aphrodisiac (see links below).

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Egon Shciele: The Embrace. Damiana is often touted as the ‘lover’s herb’

Yet there’s another sisterly link with absinthe. It’s use in synthetic cannabis has caused authorities and the media to feel concern and the focus has been on the low levels of cyanide-like compounds which can cause excessive doses to be dangerous. However, remember ethanol? It’s not the damiana itself that’s to blame, but an unregulated market that may use any number of other dangerous substances in the mix. Reported side effects of synthetic cannabis have been agitation, blood pressure increase, heart attacks and kidney damage, paranoia and weight loss. I’m not an expert on this by any means but to me, it seems that the isolated herbs in these synthetic drugs can often become a scapegoat due to a lack of real understanding of their power and magic. There is often an unfair stigma attached to herbs that cause it to become feared in society. 

Bans on legal highs (the name for herbal alternatives like ecstasy or cocaine) in places like the U.K stem from isolated cases of deaths and overdoses. Forget about the terrible toll of opoid addiction and other more socially legitimate highs such as alcohol (in both Australia and the UK, 4.5 percent of deaths annually can be attributed to alcohol) – let’s ban something that society doesn’t understand because there’s been little to no research done on them. A cry to ban alcohol certainly didn’t happen when this year, a teenage girl died in a Sydney hospital with a lethal amount of booze in her system from consuming large amounts of alcohol.  The health system is still prescribing pills that lead to suicide, addiction and a host of other ills. And one would wonder, too, whether the legalization of long feared substances like cannabis might prevent this kind of thing in the first place. 

The beautiful yellow fairy that is damiana is well loved in this household. Like her sister absinthe, our vodka soaked damiana is a powerful brew, evoking bliss and euphoria in a gentle and dreamy way. It sends us into an immediate state of well being and, drunk by candlelight and moonlight, increases inimacy, desire and sensation. Damiana tea helps sleep but also brings on lucid and erotic dreams.

Like the green fairy did with the poets long ago in France, damiana brings on my muse – I feel creative and stimulated by her. 

Sources & Further Reading

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