The “green fairy” (also called the “green lady” and the “green muse”) has been a Paris nickname for the drink absinthe since the 1880s. The “green hour”—often starting at 5 p.m. and lasting until midnight—was when the citizens of Paris began to drink the green alcoholic beverage.
Absinthe is historically described as a distilled, highly alcoholic (45%-74% ABV) beverage. It is an anise-flavored spirit derived from herbs, including the flowers and leaves of the herb Artemisia absinthium, commonly referred to as “grande wormwood”. Absinthe traditionally has a natural green color but can also be colorless. It is commonly referred to in historical literature as “la fée verte” (the Green Fairy).
Although it is sometimes mistakenly called a liqueur, absinthe was not bottled with added sugar and is therefore classified as a spirit. Absinthe is unusual among spirits in that it is bottled at a very high proof but is normally diluted with water when drunk.
Absinthe originated in the canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. It achieved great popularity as an alcoholic drink in late 19th- and early 20th-century France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers. Due in part to its association with bohemian culture, absinthe was opposed by social conservatives and prohibitionists. Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Aleister Crowley were all notorious ‘bad men’ of that day who were (or were thought to be) devotees of the Green Fairy.
Absinthe was portrayed as a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug. The chemical thujone, present in small quantities, was singled out and blamed for its alleged harmful effects. By 1915, absinthe had been banned in the United States and in most European countries except the United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although absinthe was vilified, no evidence has shown it to be any more dangerous than ordinary spirit. Its psychoactive properties, apart from those of alcohol, have been much exaggerated.
A revival of absinthe began in the 1990s, when countries in the European Union began to reauthorize its manufacture and sale. As of February 2008, nearly 200 brands of absinthe were being produced in a dozen countries, most notably in France, Switzerland, Spain, and the Czech Republic. Commercial distillation of absinthe in the United States resumed in 2007.
Green Fairy: The symbol of liberté
The Green Fairy is the English translation of La Fee Verte, the affectionate French nickname given to the celebrated absinthe drink in the nineteenth century. The nickname stuck, and over a century later, “absinthe” and “Green Fairy” continue to be used interchangeably by devotees of the potent green alcohol. Mind you, absinthe earned other nicknames, too: poets and artists were inspired by the “Green Muse”; Aleister Crowley, the British occultist, worshipped the “Green Goddess”. But no other nickname stuck as well as the original, and many drinkers of absinthe refer to the green liquor simply as La Fee - the Fairy.
The symbol of transformation
But Green Fairy isn’t just another name for absinthe: she is a metaphorical concept of artistic enlightenment and exploration, of poetic inspiration, of a freer state of mind, of new ideas, of a changing social order. To the ignorant drunk, absinthe will forever remain but potent alcohol, perhaps with a bit of thujone “high” thrown in. To the original bohemians of 1890s Paris, the Fairy was a welcomed symbol of transformation. She was the trusted guide en-route to artistic innovativation; she was the symbol of thirst (for life) to Arthur Rimbaud, the first “punk poet”: it was the Fairy who guided him—and his fellow poet and partner Paul Verlaine—on their quest to escape the conventional reality of their time into the sanctuary of the surreal.
Nouveau supplément du Dictionnaire historique d’argot, avec le Vocabulaire ...
By Étienne Lorédan Larchey
Paris: Libraire de la Société des gens de Lettres
DAME VERTE : Absinthe. — Allusion à sa couleur et à la passion qu’on a trop souvent pour elle.—“On a un peu calomnié la pauvre dame verte.” (Razona, 66.) “Tombé dans la misére par suite d’un trop grand amour pour la dame verte.” (Coffignard, 87.)
A drama of Paris
By Marie Corelli
New York, NY: National Book Company
Love, however, or the passion they called by that name, proved much too weak and inadequate a rival to cope with Absinthe,—the “green fairy” had taken a firm hold of our friend the actor’s mind,—...
1 June 1893, Perry (Iowa) Reporter, pg. 8, col. 3:
THE GREEN LADY.
That Is What Frenchmen Call the
Spirit of Absinthe.
The devil of absinthe, the “Green Lady,” as they call her, may be the muse of the poor poet. She gives him inspiration for his rich rhymes; she pours out emeralds for him, so he says. She bears him away to his fantastic paradise—but he does not stop to feel his pulse en route. When his little intoxication is over and finished—that is to say, within an hour or so—he does not seek to keep it up, and so does not make himself disgraceful.
To the “green hour,” however, succeeds the black hour of midnight and somber returns on the sticky asphalt pavement, with turned-up collar and shrugged shoulders and hands sunk in the pockets.
—New York Sun.
13 June 1893, Sioux County Herald (Orange City, Iowa), pg. 3, col. 3:
(The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—ed.) ...like the green fairy of absinthe, is not to be looked upon and resisted.
21 July 1893, Idaho Register, pg. 3:
DRUNKARDS OF PARIS
THEY ARE MAINLY OF THE
Tippling in the Gay French Capital
Reduced to a Science b ythe Better
Classes—The Haute Monde and Mor-
The devil of absinthe, the “Green Lady,” as they call her, may be the muse of the poor poet. She gives him inspiration for his rich rhymes; she pours out emeralds for him, so he says. She bears him away to his fantastic paradise—but he does not stop to feel his pulse enroute. When his little intoxication is over and finished—that is to say, within an hour or so—he does not make himself disgraceful. This is the difference between Parisian intoxication and the Anglo-Saxon idea of a big spree. In Paris this limited kind of drunkenness is widely spread.
It is not mistrusted, and favor is shown to it in every way. It has even its consecrated hour.
The hour of absinthe is at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. It is the “green hour,” and gives the signal to forget the cares of business and the harsh struggle for life. It is a poison to kindle short-lived enthusiasms, and in its opaline vapor it builds up visions of fortune. It even lets loose a sort of nervous appetite for food. To the “green hour,” however, succeeds the black hour of midnight and sombre returns on the sticky asphalt pavement, with turned-up collar and shrugged shoulders and hands sunk in the pockets.
June 1894, Atlantic Monthly, “The End of Tortoni’s,” pg. 751, col. 1:
The spirit which drove the glass of paris fashion and the mould of literary form to this central point of the Grand Boulevard, there to admire themselves at the green hour over their absinthe, has grown weak and failed before its hundred years are over.
20 July 1895, Baltimore (MD) Sun, “Professor Taft’s Final Impressions of the Paintings,” pg. 7:
a Green Lady.
A muse of another kind is the Green Lady, who in Maignan’s picture, “L’Absinthe,” has seized her wretched victim and maddened him with her traitorous caress. It is a powerful work, artistic in every respect, yet giving food for thought.
26 February 1905, Duluth (MN) News-Tribune, section II, pg. 6:
HOW ABSINTHE MAKES WRECKS
The National Vice of France Brings Degradation and Death In Its Wake—Victims of the “Green Fairy.”
Yet “the green fairy” it is called by poetical Frenchmen, “green been” (sic) by sporty Americans, and “most deadly and insidious poison” by doctors and savants whose scientific investigations on the subject have given them the right to speak with authority.
1 June 1907, Baltimore (MD) American, pg. 4:
The “Green Fairy” in Switzerland.
[From the London Globe.]
15 August 1909, New York (NY) Sun, pg. 6, col. 6:
Absinthe, the green fairy of too many poets and artists, was no stranger to Guys.
(Illustrator Constantin Guys—ed.)
The Art of the Bar: Cocktails Inspired by the Classics
By Jeff Hollinger, Georgeanne Brennan, Rob Schwartz
Photographs by Frankie Frankeny
Published by Chronicle Books
La Fée Verte
(The Green Fairy)
Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec drank it in copious amounts and immortalized it in their art. Nearly every night during the late 1800s, cafés in Paris would play host to l’heure verte (“the green hour”). Between the hours of about six and seven, a majority of cafés in the city would fill with crowds eager to experience the illusory world of the green fairy (la fée verte).