One of the most iconic art nouveau images of all, this 1896 image for Absinthe Robette by the Belgian posterist Privat-Livemount has spawned a million reproductions.To begin to understand the mystery that surrounds absinthe, I'd like you to go back in time a bit in your mind, to the 19th century (1800s), to the days of bohemian absinthe drinking.  Many "free thinkers" are using absinthe, and its use is associated with creative types, intellectuals, rebels, and to a lesser extent, the underground.  Absinthe use is beginning to affect people physically, and to rock the boat socially, and its reputation is beginning to tarnish.

Absinthe, to be brief, is an alcoholic beverage made with wormwood and other herbs.  Long term use of this drink can lead to absinthism, an ailment many suspect is partially responsible for Van Gogh's illnesses.  Absinthe is green in color from the chlorophyll in the wormwood and other herbs used to flavor it.  However, many disreputable manufacturers at this time (remember you are in the 1800s) use copper sulfate, turmeric, cupric acetate (acetate of copper) or aniline green to make the beverage green in color.

And here's the kicker, symptoms of absinthism include; delirium, nausea, hallucinations and epileptic attacks.  Many of these absinthism symptoms are identical to the symptoms for copper toxicity, and were possibly signs of poisoning from the various colorants used.  However, because of the reports of the dangers of absinthe (both socially and physically) it was outlawed in most countries by the early 1900s.

Now come back to the present. Absinthe remains legal in some areas such as Spain, and interestingly even widely available Vermouth contains wormwood and similar absinthe flavorings.  In 2007, the ban in the United States was lifted and you can now legally purchase absinthe.1  Note that this new legal absinthe may be a bit different than the original, but before we get into that let's look at what makes absinthe unique.

Absinthe is a witch's brew of many plant ingredients.  The constituents of these plants are extracted and distilled, creating a potentially synergistic blend.  Wormwood, a very bitter herb, is at the forefront of most recipes, however some blends also include lemon balm, fennel and/or aniseed and/or star anise, angelica, hyssop, juniper, nutmeg, veronica, dittany and more.

The combination of these plant constituents may affect the consumer more than the individual ingredients.  There is no doubt that wormwood contains mind altering, and potentially dangerous chemicals, however some of the bad rap it receives is rooted in the times of heavy absinthe use in the 1800s when people were showing signs of absinthism (or copper poisoning).

Just like coffee has caffeine, chocolate has theobromine, and nutmeg has myristicin . . . wormwood has thujone.  Every plant contains many chemicals, however what most books and herbalists are referring to in regards to the toxicity of wormwood, and to a lesser extent, mugwort, is thujone.  That said, it is important to note that most herbalists and authors of herbal books don't even know what constituent in an herb is responsible for its toxicity!  Many herbalists are educated through books written by crafters rather than scientists, but that's another story for another article.

Back to the subject of thujone.  Thujone is found in many household products, and in many plants like tansy, sage, thyme, cloves, rosemary, white cedar leaf and of course, most of the Artemisias2 including wormwood and mugwort. Thujone can be dangerous, but then again most things can be if you try hard enough to use them improperly.

Since 2007 when the ban on absinthe was lifted in the United States, the FDA has regulated the amount of thujone allowed in foods and beverages for consumption to less than ten parts per million.  Some traditional absinthe formulas are within this restriction, however most have been reformulated to meet the lower content requirements.  These new legal absinthe formulas are considered "thujone free" meaning they can contain all the traditional herbs, specifically wormwood, but must have less than ten parts per million of thujone.  This provides the traditional bitter-licorice like flavor while still being legal.

The amount of thujone in any given plant can vary greatly.  Two identical wormwood plants, grown in different elevations, soils and lighting conditions may contain vastly different amounts of thujone.  In addition, some people are very sensitive to even a small percentage of thujone taken internally, while others can consume large quantities without ill effects.  Therefore, the safe ground for thujone is always rather shaky.

In general, wormwood should not be taken internally.  Specifically, no thujone containing plants should be consumed by pregnant women, ever.  Let me say that again and clarify further.  If you are pregnant, intend to become pregnant soon, have any trouble with irregular menstruation, or have any other reproductive system concerns, you should never, ever, under any circumstances, consume mugwort, wormwood or other artemisia family plants or plants high in thujone.  These plants can act as abortifacients.

In addition, even if you have no reproductive system concerns and are not pregnant or intending to become so, you should not consume these plants simply because a book on herbs said it was okay to do so.  Research, think, discover for yourself, ask questions from those with experience and find out for yourself why a plant is said to be used for something magickally or medicinally.  Wormwood tea is reputed to increase psychic and magical awareness, and this action can be attributed to the mind altering effects of thujone as well as the energy of the plant.  But, there are better herbs for enhancing psychicism, and many are far safer.

Mugwort also contains thujone, and is related to wormwood.  Many references incorrectly cite mugwort as a safe alternative to wormwood.  However, it is not necessarily any more safe.  As stated before, each person varies in his or her sensitivity to thujone, and each plant varies in its thujone content.

Whenever you see an something recommended for internal use, find out what the toxicity is for the material.  Check botanical names in your reference materials.  Scott Cunningham, a popular Pagan author, was bad about citing accurate botanical names, and many of the binomial names and common names in his books contain glaring errors.

If you intend to consume any herb, additional caution should be taken if you are on any kind of medication.  Always consult a qualified health care practitioner before consuming potentially dangerous plants.  The chemical constituents in certain herbs can cause deadly interactions with some medications. See the PaganPath Cautions & Disclaimer.

Below is a list of the thujone content of some plants you will encounter in your herbalism studies.  These percentages are for the combined iso-thujone and thujone content.  As stated earlier, thujone content can vary greatly from plant to plant, and sensitivity to thujone can vary greatly from person to person.  I do not recommend the consumption of thujone containing plants except in very minute quantities, and novices should avoid these plants altogether in their practice blends.  The following percentages are averaged and plants are listed somewhat in order of greatest percentage to least, as much as is possible.

  • Cedar Leaf (Thuja occidentalis) 58% - 72%
  • Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) 55%-69%
  • Sage (Salvia officinalis) 36% - 50%
  • Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) 0.03% - 7% (much less than most wormwood, hence the perceived safety)

So the mystery of absinthe can be partially unveiled when we understand the social, political, physical and chemical effects.  The attitude of absinthe drinkers was somewhat rebellious, causing political unrest.  The chemicals in absinthe, especially alcohol, thujone, and potentially toxic coloring agents were causing alcoholism and absinthism.  But that veil is not completely parted, as absinthe retains an aura of independence and mystery that cannot easily be defined.  I believe this is because of its history and the natural mysteries of the plants it contains.

References & Resources

  1. Legal Status of Absinthe in various countries at Erowid
  2. Artemisia Moon Garden - PaganPath Article includes: What is Artemisia? • Wormwood Magic • Growing Wormwood • Artemisia Moon Garden • Moon Garden Design

* Wikipedia entry for Absinthe

* Note: Absinthe has inspired many people, including Ernest Hemingway, Henri de Toulouse-Latrec, Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh, and of course Aleister Crowley.  Crowley was an influential magician and mystic.  His poetic book, Absinthe: The Green Goddess, is available here on PaganPath for Members only. Please register free or login to read the online book in the Library area.  I've illustrated the book with classic absinthe advertising posters from the late 1800s and early 1900s such as the one at the beginning of this article, and included many notations about magick and herbs.

References & Resources is a consolidated notes, footnotes, comments, links and references section at the end of most articles on PaganPath.  This area contains some links that are off-site so we cannot control the content of those pages not on the paganpath.com site. If you discover broken links, please report them to Friday through the Contact Us area, or Members may connect with Friday through Private Messaging, phone or email.

About the Author
Friday
Author: FridayWebsite: http://PaganPath.comEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Author & Academy Instructor
Friday is devoted to writing books and articles on a variety of Pagan subjects, and is the instructor of the online PaganPath Academy. She has studied and practiced the Craft since 1987, and worked as a professional tarot reader and vice president of a national psychic network for several decades. Currently, she is now a practicing herbalist and ordained minister. As a Master Gardener with a deep interest in permaculture, she is developing the PaganPath Sanctuary with her partner. This long term community project is an edible landscape demonstration, orchard and educational facility for future generations.

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