Last time, we saw that many varieties of Artemisia were used in a medicinal context, for example to fight tired feet. This association with travel was continued in a later name, Saint John’s weed, because the saint protected people on the road.

It is also explicitly mentioned in the Bible, and by some it is believed that one of these passages prophesized the Chernobyl disaster. In Revelations 8.10-11 it is said that:

10 The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— 11 the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.

Although the Greek probably refers to another kind of Artemisia, namely absintha (“the name of the star is Wormwoodκαὶ τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ ἀστέρος λέγεται Ἄψινθος) rather than the vulgaris, it is not difficult to see why people found this particular passage as a compelling prophesy: the nuclear meltdown as the blazing star, the polluted water, and the people who died from it.

Whether you believe in prophesies or not, this shows that in popular imagination, the toponym of was still related to the herb we have been discussing in the last few posts. I found it interesting to see that the toponym was still associated with its original meaning, and that it played a role in giving the nuclear meltdown meaning.

In my experience, some people tend to see etymology as an academic fancy, because they suppose that historical meaning is not experienced in daily life: only synchronic meaning matters. Here we have a clear example that for people, etymology does matter.

Here I speculate a bit (but hey, it’s my blogpost!), but I can image that for its inhabitants, Chernobyl must have referred mainly to the place, not the herb. Still, a way to process this disaster was to attach it to a historical authority, to a meaning not really there. Delving into the (intellectual) history of a word helps to deepen our appreciation of a word today.