Thursday, May 15, 2008

Is the Green Fairy a Myth?

David Bradley posted an interesting piece, Arty with a Capital F and the Myth of Absinthe, concerning absinthe’s legendary psychotropic effects. Sometimes called the “Green Fairy” or the “Green Muse,” in part because of its typical green color, absinthe has become associated with artists, writers, and Bohemian culture of late 19th- and early 20th-century Paris.

A recent article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry compares modern day absinthe with pre-ban (before 1915) absinthe. “The authors conclude that the thujone concentration of preban absinthe was generally overestimated in the past. The analysis of postban (1915–1988) and modern commercial absinthes (2003–2006) showed that the encompassed thujone ranges of all absinthes are quite similar, disproving the supposition that a fundamental difference exists between preban and modern absinthes manufactured according to historical recipes. Analyses of pinocamphone, fenchone, base spirits, copper, and antimony were inconspicuous. All things considered, nothing besides ethanol was found in the absinthes that was able to explain the syndrome ‘absinthism’.”

I have to take issue with the wording of the final conclusion, however, as it seems overbroad. The legend of absinthe’s psychotropic properties may exceed reality. However, the authors of this recent study only tested for a limited number of chemicals. Absinthe contains essences from a number of herbs that have long been recognized for medicinal properties, such as common wormwood (Artemisia absinthium L.), anise (Pimpinella anisum L.), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis L.), and Florence fennel (Foeniculum Vulgare Mill.). The pharmacological properties of the mix remains a scientific mystery.

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