W is for Wormwood

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

C.S. Lewis in “The Screwtape Letters” warns, “Be not deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks around upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” Wormwood here is not a plant, but instead a young demon learning from his wiser Uncle Screwtape, an established denizen of Hell.

The Bible mentions wormwood. In the Old Testament, it is mentioned seven times, all with reference to a bitterness or curse. In the New Testament, Wormwood is an angel or star who falls into the waters of earth at the sounding of Revelation’s third trumpet. “A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died …” Of course, biblical interpreters attribute greatly varied historical, allegorical, and metaphorical meanings to the wormwood passages.

Although there are many members of the plant family, one incarnation of wormwood is Artemisia absinthium which is a key ingredient of the fabled “green fairy” drink, Absinthe. Wormwood is a perennial shrub with aromatic leaves and bitter flavor. It produces yellow to green blooms from July to August. In Caribbean folk medicine, wormwood treats menstrual complaints. It is ingested by some Hoodoo practitioners hoping for visions. It can be carried as part of a protection spell, and if burned on charcoal, it summons helpful spirits.

Dioscorides claimed wormwood protected drinkers from intoxication and a remedy for excessive consumption. It odorific leaves kept moths from clothing during ancient times. “Wormwood voideth away the wormes of the guts…it quickly refresheth the stomack and belly after large eating and drinking…” advised John Gerard in his “Herball” from 1597. Today, wormwood is commercially available as a capsule, tincture, and essential oil, but it is classified as an UNSAFE HERB by the US Food and Drug Administration. The safety of wormwood is poorly documented despite its long history as a food additive, and results from clinical trials are few. Wormwood, also known as should not be given to pregnant or lactating women, as it is a documented abortifacient and emmenagogue. Use of wormwood is linked to convulsions, dermatitis, and renal failure. Experiments in Germany use wormwood in the treatment of Crohn’s Disease.

In Anne Bronte’s “If This be All,” she mentions wormwood, “…while all the good I would impart, the feelings I would share, are driven backward to my heart, and turned to wormwood there…” Wormwood is the name of a Canadian/Australian children’s television show from 2007-2008, a 2004 comic by Ben Templesmith, and an Avatar Press 2006-2007 comic book mini-series by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows. The protagonist in Roald Dahl’s children’s book “Matilda” bore the last name Wormwood, as did the overbearing teacher from Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes.” Clive Barker’s “Abarat” books included the Wormwood Deathship. Poppy Z. Brite and Terry Dowling published books of short stories titled Wormwood, and Graham Taylor and Marie Corelli authored novels with the title. Any songs and albums also bear the name, and the final passage of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” includes a reading from the Book of Revelations including the Wormwood mention.

Steven King includes wormwood in several of his writings, including his novels “Carrie,” the “Cell,” “Under the Dome,” “The Mist,” and “The Dark Tower, Gunslinger.” It is also a component in his short story “Home Delivery.” Wormwood is an asteroid in the “Christ Clone Trilogy” by James Beau Seigneur, a meteor in “The Light of Other Days” by Arthur C. Clark and Stephen Baxter, and a comet in the “Shadowmancer” series by G. P. Taylor. In the TV series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” wormwood is a missile. In “The Sarah Jane Adventures” it is an alien intent on poisoning earth’s waters, and in “Dexter” it is a chemical weapon.