While I come from a church background, I have admittedly spent little time in the study of the book of Revelation. Needless to say, all of the intricacies and various theories regarding Revelation are fascinating to me now as we’ve begun to delve into an examination of it. For that reason, I have found my attention caught by numerous passages or concepts which are brought up within the book. One such occurrence was in the mention of Wormwood in Revelation 8:11: “The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter.” This struck me as interesting because I have been aware of the phrase wormwood for a while, without ever really knowing exactly what it meant or what the significance of it might be.
The appearance of Wormwood as a “great star” directly correlates to the blowing of the third trumpet by the third angel. If we are seeking to find tangible proof beneath the many literary devices and heightened points of emphasis within Revelation, we must acknowledge that it is highly unlikely that an actual star would strike the earth. Considering their limited understanding of space during this time, it is not so strange to think that a meteorite or foreign object such as that could be interpreted as a “great star.” The meteorite theory could also have a possible explanation in the portion of the verses that describe the waters being poisoned. If we look to contemporary events, we can find a correlation within the 2007 Carancas impact event: after the impact of a chondritic meteorite near a lake and the village of Carancas in Peru, the villagers succumbed to an unexplained illness. The meteorite impact was later confirmed by scientists, and since the ground water in the surrounding area contains arsenic compounds, theories began to circulate that the heat and impact of the meteorite strike caused the local water to boil near the impact, which boiled the arsenic-laced water and led to sickness in the villagers who inhaled that compound. A geologist who studied the impact lent credence to that theory, stating that “the reaction between the elements in a meteorite and the Earth’s surface can generate gases that then dissipate.” Since people at the time of the writing of Revelation would have no understanding of compounds or reactions such as this, it is highly possible that it could be interpreted as a divinely appointed “great star” crashing to poison the water and make humanity suffer during this time of judgment and tribulation.
In order to gain a better understanding of Wormwood as it is used here, it would also be helpful to look back at its various mentions throughout the Old Testament. Wormwood is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament, and each occurrence relates to bitterness or death in some way. A few examples include Proverbs 5:4 (“but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.”), Lamentations 3:15 (“He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood.”), and Amos 5:7 (“O you who turn justice to wormwood1 and cast down righteousness to the earth!”). There are other mentions of wormwood in the Bible, but like the aforementioned ones, they all deal with bitterness, poison, or even death in some manner. So clearly, wormwood has negative connotations within a biblical context, which means that calling the great star Wormwood in Revelation could be a way of tying it to these negative views.
Wormwood is also an herb which has been known to work as both a poison and as a medical treatment. Wormwood most commonly refers to A. absinthium, which is used today as the main ingredient in absinthe. For that reason alone, I believe it is fairly clear that wormwood can have some strong effects on people. As this source states, numerous cultures have used wormwood in medical practices; however, the full effects of wormwood are not entirely known, so there is also great risk involved in using it. In fact, wormwood can sometimes cause “seizures and other adverse effects.” For this reason, people of the time period who encountered wormwood without fully understanding its effects could easily have thought of it as being a kind of poison.
Wormwood can also sometimes be classified as “something harsh or embittering.” So perhaps wormwood could even be considered as a literal bitterness amongst people during the events of Revelation. With the events of Revelation being a time during which judgment is passed and people undergo tribulations, it is not farfetched to deduce that non-believers could become embittered or harsh about the trials which they are forced to endure. Considering the hardships and trials that are prophesied about within that book, it seems likely that the people who remained during and after those events would have very little to feel benevolent or hopeful about, which could easily lead to a bitter, sharp mindset.
So as I’ve researched Wormwood, I’ve drawn these aforementioned theories. As with much of Revelation, it is very open to interpretation. However, there is evidence to support these varying theories, from the literal to the metaphorical, within the Bible’s mention of Wormwood in the book of Revelation.