It was the go-to poison for many painters, poets, writers, and intellectual thinkers in 19th century France. It became the symbol of bohemian cultural lifestyle. No afternoon happy Hour could be complete without drinking a glass of absinthe, otherwise known as the “Green Fairy” for its emerald color. This potent potion, rumored for both its narcotic and aphrodisiac qualities, would become the popular craze among painters and poets alike.
Absinthe derives from the herb Artemisia absinthium or wormwood, which is found most prominently in Switzerland. In 1792 it started out as a medical tonic developed there by a French physician. Before becoming the drink of choice in many local cafes, Parisian cafes, absinthe was used in the military for wounded soldiers. It also became instrumental in the treatment of malaria, later on.
In the 1860s, many European vineyards were hit with a terrible blight. This came as a crushing blow to France, whose fertile vines were ravaged by parasites. Without one of their signature beverages, wine, drinkers had to find a new poison. The absinthe craze initially started with tales from returning soldiers about the euphoric qualities of the beverage. Soon after it became every Parisian’s favorite drink, supplied at local bars and cafes, including the famed Moulin Rouge.
The Green Fairy became a guilty pleasure for many customers, most notably the artists of the area. Oftentimes creativity is associated with drugs. That was the case, back in 19th century France. Absinthes popularity came from its rumored psychoactive effects: supposedly ingesting it would induce creative visions, many of which were said to inspire artistic works. The Green Fairy had its influence on genres such as Surrealism, Symbolism, Modernism, Impressionism, and Cubism.
And, in fact many notable artists were partakers in the craze. Authors under the influence included Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde, and in later years, even Ernest Hemingway. All of them spoke glowingly of its effect on creativity, even going so far as to combine the Green Fairy with other substances, such as opium, laudanum, and hashish. Wow!
There’s a quote from Rimbaud, describing the Green Fairy in one of his poems: “None of which equals the poison welling up in your eyes that show me my poor soul reversed, my dreams throng to drink at those green distorting pools.”
Because of its rumored hallucinogenic effects, absinthe was seen as a way of unlocking a door to the senses. Artists would incorporate this into their works. One called The Absinthe Drinker, by Viktor Oliva, depicts a lone man in a cafe being visited by a translucent, green fairy after drinking his beverage. Hemingway featured it in many of his books, including For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises.
There are other weird stories as well. One artist was so hooked by the substance that he would carry a hollow cane filled with it wherever he went. Another got so wasted off the Fairy that he painted his face green and proceeded to ride his bike through Paris singing.
But for all its rumored “enhancements” there were also stories of the dangers associated with the Green Fairy. At its worst it could induce blackouts, fainting spells, and vicious hallucinations. The primary chemical said to be responsible for this was thujone. But in distilled absinthe it is only present in small quantities. As a result, much of the psychoactive effects of the Green Fairy were highly exaggerated.
Nonetheless, absinthe was said to shorten the lives of many artists who took it. People even went so far to suggest that the Green Fairy was what led Van Gogh to cut his ear off. Obviously not true. There was, however, rumor that chronic use of the drink would lead to a condition called absinthism, which was characterized by addiction, more hallucinations, and hyper-excitability. It was even said that this condition could be passed on to children.
The Green Fairy was prepared through three steps: (1) pouring about an ounce of absinthe into a glass; (2) placing a sugar cube on a perforated spoon that would be held over the glass; and (3) adding in about three ounces of water that would dissolve the sugar cube, diluting the alcohol and adding a bit of sweetness to the beverage. Altogether, you would have a drink that was 75% alcohol by volume.
Once the wine vineyards began to grow again, the Green Fairy’s days were soon to be numbered in France. More stories started to abound about the dangers of absinthism. The temperance movement of the late-1800s shifting opinion against the Green Fairy. And not all the artists had been fans. Mane and Degas depicted absinthe drinkers in their paintings as idle, strung-out lowlifes.
And then came a famous crime in 1905. A Frenchman, Jean Lanfray, murdered his pregnant wife and children while under the influence of the Green Fairy, among other alcoholic substances. Although he had drank more than 15 glasses that day, the absinthe was seen as the primary culprit. Lanfray was imprisoned for life and later hanged himself behind bars.
In 1906 Belgium banned the sale of absinthe, followed by many countries across Europe. In 1912 it was banned in the U.S., and in 1915, finally France.
The 20th century saw absinthe replaced by other popular beverages, such as cocktails/martinis. It had a brief comeback later on among a new generation of bohemian-style writers in places like San Francisco and New Orleans.
But the Green Fairy still remains a mystery. Whether a door to the senses or a door to insanity, we can thank our 19th century artists for giving an insight into one of history’s unknown, hallucinogenic beverages.
Source: All About History, No. 42