The Myth of the Green Fairy: Distilling the Scientific Truth About Absinthe

Kima Cargill, University of Washington - Tacoma Campus


In spite of its history and illegality, the use of absinthe, the aperitif made famous in fin de siècle Parisian cafés, is on the rise again in the United States and abroad. Writers and artists like Baudelaire, Verlaine, Wilde, van Gogh, Hemingway, Degas, Picasso and Gauguin all prominently featured absinthe in their writing and art, often attributing their creativity, as well as emotional instability, to the effects of la fée verte, or the green fairy. Consequently, absinthe has earned a reputation as a mysterious and dangerous substance capable of inducing all manner of psychosis, violence and passion. Yet contemporary science shows that the absinthe myth cannot be accounted for by the pharmacological reality. This article describes the history of absinthe and recent scientific developments, and uses a psychoanalytic framework to explain why the absinthe myth endures.