Control room in Chernobyl's Reactor #4. Image © (2005) Gerd Ludwig via Boston Globe.
Today is the 26th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Alla Yaroshinskaya, former Deputy to the USSR Supreme Soviet summed up the outcome: "The most dangerous element that came out of the Chernobyl reactor wasn't Cesium or Plutonium, but lies. The lie of '86, that's what I call it, a lie that was propagated like the radioactivity throughout the whole country and the entire world." Above, the control room of Chernobyl's Reactor #4 mirrrors worries about Fukushima's Reactor #4 (a number considered to be bad luck in Asia).
In 1986 and 1987, 240,000 liquidators and support workers passed through Chernobyl to contain the crisis. They were called biorobots. Ultimately, 600,000 people were recognized for their clean-up work; and according to the IAEA, there were 100,000 more who went unrecognized. Greenpeace claims that there was a total of 800,000 liquidators. National Geographic has some photographs of these workers here. The IAEA sees no direct correlation between their radiation exposure and their later cancer rates. Perhaps 40,000 are dead now, and some 100,000, now in their forties, are disabled and suffer from unending health problems, with about 4,000 dying every year. Their children exhibited a seven-fold increase in genetic mutations. Their predicament has not been systematically studied or fully acknowledged. The debate on the number of deaths caused by the accident is inconclusive to say the least: Chernobyl's total number of deaths lies somewhere between 43 people and 1 million people.
The liquidators' efforts cannot be underestimated; they prevented a second explosion and China Syndrome at Chernobyl, which could have rendered Europe uninhabitable. The sheer size of the workforce, the speed at which they had to work, the resources they needed, and the costs involved to contain the fallout at Chernobyl all make Fukushima's smaller, valiant total workforce at the one year point of around 18,000 extremely worrying. Chernobyl is widely considered to be one of the key factors which brought down the Soviet Union.
The main medal (here) given by Soviet authorities to liquidators features a drop of blood irradiated with alpha and beta particles and gamma rays. First responders additionally received a medal with Lenin on it. There are various other medals for special workers, such as firefighters, and anniversary medals (see also here). One commemorative medal features a pregnant woman on one side and a Chernobyl clock on the other. According to Wiki, liquidator medals have been available for sale since the 1990s in Belarussian, Ukrainian and Russian markets. As their recipients died, some medals were sold by surviving family members. They are also sold on the Internet by antique dealers.
Mythology, water spirits and radiation: Chornobyl (Artemisia vulgaris) roots were traditionally used to banish Slavonic water nymphs, or rusalky. This is: Renée Fleming singing Song of the Moon in Dvořák's Rusalka in a NY Met production. In folk medicine, overdosing on Chornobyl roots led to memory loss.
The Chernobyl disaster (described in this excellent documentary) has not just engendered lies. It has also become interwoven with popular culture and Biblical, Renaissance and Millennial eschatologies. It is, in fact, an object lesson in how engineering and scientific failures can easily and rapidly enter the realm of myth, symbols, superstitions and religious dreams. With Chernobyl, it happened almost immediately, starting with a July 1986 article in the New York Times, which associated the name of the exploded nuclear reactor with the Wormwood Star in the Bible's Book of Revelation. In this post, I trace a winding, very strange road to follow how the religious and linguistic etymology of the word 'Wormwood' contributed to the mythologizing of this nuclear event.
The Book of Revelation has many interpretations and many criticisms. It enjoys countless cultural references. At this point, the Internet has made Revelation's Wormwood Star a Millennial 2012 phenomenon, making it relevant in pop culture way past its religious and folkloric connotations. The Wormwood Star symbol likely would have been popular in millenarian circles anyway, but Chernobyl and Fukushima have given that fascination real weight.
In Mike Leigh's 1993 bleak film Naked, the Mancunian prophetic protagonist talks about Chernobyl and the Book of Revelation. This anti-hero, Johnny, relentlessly played by David Thewlis, refers to St. John the Divine's vision of the end of the world, the Day of Judgment, the Apocalypse. He runs through Millennial conspiracy theories and apocalyptic rumours; he ties Revelation 8:11 to the Russian translation of 'Chernobyl' - 'Wormwood.'
See sections of the film, Naked, below, in which the protagonist associates Wormwood with Chernobyl; the clips include a related debate on the meaning of time. You can watch Naked on Youtube in parts (starting here; links may expire).And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
'Chernobyl' does not translate precisely as 'Wormwood' (Artemisia absinthium); it refers to Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), which is in the same family as Wormwood and is sometimes called 'Common Wormwood.' Hence, the differentiation is not exact, since both plants are indeed described as Wormwood.
Mugwort, pink-flowered namesake of Chernobyl, aka Chornobylnik, Common Wormwood (Artemisia vulgaris). It has been used to flavour drinks since the early Iron Age.
Wormwood, aka Polyn, Absinthium, Absinthe Wormwood, Wormwood, Common Wormwood, or Grand Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). This yellow-flowered plant is named (and potentially mistranslated) in the Book of Revelation as the bitter plant which symbolically poisons the waters of our planet. The oil is poisonous, although parts of the plant were used to cure pain and stomach ailments, and for herbal love charms.
But to be clear, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and the eponymous nearby Ukrainian city (not Prypiat), once a Crown village of the medieval Duchy of Lithuania, were named after pink-flowered Mugwort. Wiki:
'Chernobyl' literally translates as 'black grass,' although Mugwort is not black. Aside from the overlap with Wormwood (also not black), this is another little symbolic tic built into the language surrounding the disaster that was to come. Why did people call this grass black, when it simply was not black?The ... name comes from a combination of chornyi (чорний, black) and byllia (билля, grass blades or stalks); hence it literally means black grass or black stalks. It is also the Ukrainian word for mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), which is "chornobyl" -- though no parts of mugwort or wormwood are black. The plants are pale green, and wormwood has a whitish tinge from a fine fuzz on the bottom of its leaves. The "black grass" may refer to the ground being burned prior to cultivation.
On occasion, Chernobyl has been translated controversially to mean simply "wormwood" (which most commonly refers to Artemisia absinthium), with consequent apocalyptic associations, that spread as far as Poland before Serge Schmemann of the New York Times published "Chernobyl Fallout: Apocalyptic Tale", July 26, 1986. The article quoted an unnamed "prominent Russian writer" as claiming the Ukrainian word for wormwood was chernobyl.
In fact, there are over 160 kinds of Artemisia, and the terminology is not generally accepted. Some sources refer to Artemisia vulgaris as "common wormwood", while others claim that "common wormwood" is Artemisia absinthium.
Wormwood is a different (but related) plant, Artemisia absinthium, Полин (Polyn). "Polyn" has no English equivalent, but corresponds to the botanical genus Artemisia. Botanically, mugwort is "Common Polyn" (Ukr. Полин звичайний); while wormwood is "Bitter Polyn" (Ukr. Полин гіркий).
Still more confusion comes from the fact that the word "wormwood" is used in the English text of the Apocalypse, whose usage as the name of a plant does not necessarily match that of the original Greek.
Chernobyl bears poetic connotations in folklore, for a number of reasons. Its strong smell is evocative of the steppe, as various species of Artemisia are widespread there—though the town of Chornobyl is in the wooded and swampy Polissia region, quite far from the steppe. Chernobyl roots were used in folk medicine for deworming and to heal neurotic conditions, although an overdose could lead to neurological disorders, including memory loss. In Ukrainian folklore, it is used to banish the mischievous water nymphs called rusalky.
Reading backward, this kind of weird little detail - the fact that Ukrainians named a pink-flowered plant black - inspires the superstition that unknown future events could somehow be anticipated by those who precede them. Anachronistic logic reveals that prophecies, superstitions and paranormal thinking all read time against its natural flow. Believers think that what makes sense to them now (for example, nuclear radiation) was somehow evident to a Biblical-era, anti-Roman visionary. Surprisingly, Millennial analysts try to use algorithms to read cryptic signs on the Internet, based on the reverse-etymological assumption that unknown future events can shape, or could have shaped, our language now or previously in the past (see my blog post on that precognitive paranormal puzzle here).
Reading forward, why was the name of a related, yellow-flowered weed associated with poison in the Bible in the first place? The association arises from translations of Revelation's original, unconfirmed source. Firstly, the term, now usually mentioned in English Bibles as 'Wormwood,' was translated from different languages, and bears different meanings in the Old and New Testaments. Wiki:
This comment implies that there is a transition in the meaning of Wormwood from the Old Testament to the New Testament. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word, לענה (la'anah) translates as a bitter substance. The word's connotation of bitterness derives from an unused linguistic root associated with a 'curse.' But mainly, the word refers to a bitter, physical substance. See the relevant passages in the Old Testament here.Although the word wormwood appears several times in the Old Testament [Deuteronomy 29:18; Proverbs 5:4; Jeremiah 9:15; Jeremiah 23:15; Lamentations 3:15, Lamentations 3:19; Amos 5:7; Amos 6:12], translated from the Hebrew term לענה (la'anah), its only clear reference as a named entity occurs in the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation: "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon a third of the rivers, and upon the springs of water; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and a third of the waters became Bitter; and many people had died of the waters, because they were made bitter." (Revelation 8:10, 11 - KJV).
The Hebrew meaning of la'anah could simply have meant bile. The Bible Encyclopedia:
Later Biblical texts translated לענה interchangeably as 'gall,' 'Wormwood' or 'Hemlock.' But that likely came from the Greek translation of Old Testament Hebrew. At some point, although possibly not in their first translations of the Hebrew Bible, the Greeks used the term 'Apsinthion' (Αψίνθιον), which some say meant 'undrinkable.' Their term still denoted a bitter substance. The Greeks gave the plant, Wormwood, the name, 'bitterness.' They named the Wormwood family of plants Artemisia, in honour of their Goddess of the Hunt, Artemis. The Latin name merely followed Greek designation: Wormwood is the Goddess of the Hunt's bitter or poisonous plant.Hebrew לענה, la'anah, the Artemisia absinthium of botanists. It is noted for its intense bitterness ... . It is a type of bitterness, affliction, remorse, punitive suffering. ... What the Hebrew la‛ănāh may have been is obscure; it is clear it was a bitter substance and it is usually associated with “gall”; in the Septuagint it is variously translated, but never by apsinthos, “wormwood.” Nevertheless all ancient tradition supports the English Versions of the Bible translation. The genus Artemisia (Natural Order Compositae), “wormwood,” has five species of shrubs or herbs found in Palestine (Post), any one of which may furnish a bitter taste. The name is derived from the property of many species acting as anthelmintics, while other varieties are used in the manufacture of absinthe.
The name by which the Greeks designated it, absinthion, means “undrinkable.” The absinthe of France is distilled from a species of this plant. The “southernwood” or “old man,” cultivated in cottage gardens on account of its fragrance, is another species of it.
However, this does not explain a shift in the meaning of 'Wormwood' from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The Greek use of their word apsinthion to describe the plant Wormwood does not seem to support John's conceptual escalation to a great, global poison. The question is: when did the bitter physical or bodily substance la'anah acquire John's meaning of a planetary toxin apsinthos? And how? Was it just John's poetic flourish?
The radical shift in tone is true of the Book of Revelation in general; it is tentatively dated around 90 CE, during Roman emperor Domitian's persecutions of Christians. Domitian was the first Roman Emperor who had demanded to be addressed as "dominus et deus (master and god)." His claim to divinity led to the stamping out of other contemporary religious cults. Thus, the imagery in the Book of Revelation is vivid and violent: "the whole of Christianity is threatened with a fearful danger (3:10): the immediate prospect is for the outbreak of a general persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. In 17:6 John sees the harlot who is Babylon-Rome drunk on the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus." The text is seen as apocalyptic, anti-Roman and essentially political, precisely because it used the genre of prophecy: "Prophecy with political implications, like that expressed by John in the book of Revelation, would have been perceived as a threat to Roman political power and order." The text may also push religious conceptual meanings from the tangible to the intangible: F.C. Baur (1792–1860), true to his era, even felt that John was the ultimate Hegelian, who achieved in the Book of Revelation a synthesis of Jewish and Gentile Christian traditions.
Likely written in response to persecution, Revelation's word for apocalyptic poison - later translated as 'Wormwood' - escalates in magnitude. It is no longer just a bitter substance; it is much more symbolic, cosmic and frightening. It suggests that the Johannine author employed the name of a bitter, physical substance to refer metaphorically to an bright, explosive poisonous event, entity or object of much greater power. In Revelation 8:11, Wormwood refers to a 'Star' or 'Angel.'
Some scholars have argued that the Book of Revelation may have been written in Aramaic, because of irregularities in John's Greek grammar. The earliest Greek papyri copies still held by today's libraries which have parts of the Book of Revelation written on them date from the 3rd century CE (see here and here; they are called the Oxyrhynchus Papyri; their main page is here). The question of whether or not parts of the New Testament were originally written in Aramaic rather than Greek is controversial and highly disputed (see here, here, here).
At any rate, in case the original word for 'Wormwood' came from Aramaic, the Aramaic version of Rev 8:11 is here and here:
ܘܫܡܗ ܕܟܘܟܒܐ ܡܬܐܡܪ ܐܦܤܝܬܢܐ ܘܗܘܐ ܬܘܠܬܗܘܢ ܕܡܝܐ ܐܝܟ ܐܦܤܢܬܝܢ ܘܤܘܓܐܐ ܕܒܢܝܢܫܐ ܡܝܬܘ ܡܛܠ ܕܐܬܡܪܡܪܘ ܡܝܐ ܀
One translation of Revelation from Aramaic to English is here; the translator, Victor Alexander, claims (among other things) that his work is based on, "manuscripts ... from the Ancient Church of the East, one of the first Churches that emerged out of Jerusalem during the Apostolic Age, in the First Century of Christianity." Presumably, he means this church - not this church? Alexander translates Rev 8:10-11 from Aramaic to English as follows:
Alexander's translation notes maintain that Absinthus and Absinthen are the original Aramaic terms: "8:11*Aramaic name retained. 'Wormwood' in English. *Aramaic word retained. 'Bitter.'"10. And the third angel blew and a star fell from the sky burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and water springs.
11. And the name of the star is called Absinthus*, and a third of the waters turned to Absinthen* and much of mankind died from the water because they became ill.
Another, slightly different, Aramaic-to-English translation is here; it similarly refers to the Aramaic word: "'Apsythna' [sic] is the Aramaic name for 'Absinthium' – 'An Aromatic plant yielding a bitter extract used in making absinthe and in flavoring certain wines.'" Yet another Aramaic Bible, translated fully into English here, gives the following translation of the same passage:
With apologies to those who know Aramaic, I believe the original Aramaic word (?: ܐܦܤܢܬܝܢ) for bitterness is 'absinthen' and derivative toxins are variously transliterated into English as 'apsyntha,' 'absinthus' or 'absinthe.' A quotation I cited above in this post asserts that the Septuagint did not initially translate the Hebrew term into the Greek 'apsinthion.' I do not know if that is true, but Aramaic translators claim that variations of absinthen provide the original word in their version. Perhaps this means that the Aramaic version of Revelation predates the Greek version?10 And the third sounded, and a great burning star fell from the sky like a blaze and it fell on a third of the rivers and upon the springs of water, 11 And the name of the star is called Absinthian and a third of the water became like Absinthe and a multitude of people died because the waters were made toxic.
The Aramaic term (ܐܦܤܢܬܝܢ) either predates or simply returns to the Greek word (Αψίνθιον); both meant 'bitter substance' and both appear to have used to name a slightly poisonous plant and products made from it. These translations at least explain why the plant, Wormwood, was finally associated in English translations with the Hebrew word for bitter substance, or bile (לענה). But they still do not explain the huge shift in meaning from the Old to New Testaments from bile to what became translated in English as Wormwood Star.
Regardless of what scholars say about the New Testament's original language, ancient Aramaic is a fashionable darling among Millennial 2012 theorists, whether they are religious or not. This is due to the fact that the Web makes obscure languages and texts instantly accessible to anyone. The Bible in ancient Aramaic? Yep. There's an app for that.
One online commenter ties the whole mess together, and potentially explains the escalation of Wormwood's meaning, with all the authority of an Internet chatroom: "An ever-increasing, possibly overwhelming, body of evidence suggests that the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic ... rather than Greek. The Aramaic word for star, kwkb, can be both noun and verb - for example, meaning to radiate like a star, an interesting association since the term applies perfectly to what happened at Chernobyl." For this commenter, the powerful vision of a global toxin hinges partly on the term 'absinthen,' but mainly on asserting the historical primacy of Aramaic and the way the word for 'star' works in Aramaic. It is easy to see how a nuclear event could be associated in Millennial imaginations with John's vision as portrayed in Aramaic: a green absinthine star, radiating, creates fallout raining from the sky, which transforms a third of the world's waters to absinthe.
Absinthe. Image Source: Wiki.
Aside from the radiating star, there is the curious, only-obvious-now, and completely unsubstantial point that this linguistic chain of translated words all feature a common colour. What we see as a thematic progression from physical illness (bile), to poison (Wormwood), to toxic radiation (Wormwood Star) is symbolized through the progression from green bile, to the bright green of absinthe, to the glowing green colour often (but not entirely accurately) popularly associated with radioactivity (see my blog post on this here). Uranium is a dull silver colour. But uranium oxides and other uranium compounds and solutions (as here and here) are a variety of yellow-green colours, depending on their composition; this is what gave 20th century Vaseline glass its trademark green glow.
A coloured X-ray photo of radiation emitted by uranium ore, Ontario, Canada. Image Source: Science Photo Library C011/8875 © Ted Kinsman.
Caption for the above photograph: "A sample of uranium ore conglomerate (also called pitchblend) from Ontario, Canada. This highly radioactive black ore is made up of uranium (U) and oxygen (O) in the chemical formula U3O8. The ore is important for the nuclear industry as a source of uranium. This image was created by placing a slice of radioactive conglomerate on a sheet of sensitive x-ray film for four days. The brightest spots represent the highest sources of radiation. colour then was applied to the black and white image."
Again, these intuitive and visual associations are purely Millennial ones, enabled by easy Internet searches. They build upon a Millennial nuclear interpretation of Wormwood Star which began right after the Chernobyl accident, with the above-mentioned New York Times article in 1986. There have also been many other wild attempts on the Internet to take Revelation literally and interpret what the Wormwood Star symbolizes, whether a mighty leader, a future asteroid, a Planet X - or a big invisible star (see here, here and here)!
As fanciful as these ideas are, there is no doubt that radioactive elements, weapons and crises are now wedded to Millennial apocalyptic cultures. Uranium was central at Chernobyl and remains so for the nuclear power industry. Wired: "Uranium is currently the actinide of choice for the industry, used (sometimes with a little plutonium) in 100 percent of the world’s commercial reactors. But it’s a problematic fuel. In most reactors, sustaining a chain reaction requires extremely rare uranium-235, which must be purified, or enriched, from far more common U-238." That immense power, barely harnessed by the pride of our modern science, is easily served by dramatic and apocalyptic language. In a 2009 book, Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World, when author Tom Zoellner wanted to describe the element's significance, he quickly turned to poetry. He described uranium as a "mineral demon." A book review at BLDGBLOG eagerly picks up Zoellner's embellished descriptions: uranium is "'the mineral of apocalypse.' There is 'a fearsome animal caged in this exotic metal,' he writes, 'hot as the sun, but one whose instabilities could be accurately charted and precisely aimed.'" One glance at Chernobyl's paralyzed corium shows why science gone wrong quickly turns to symbol and myth.
The formerly molten core at Chernobyl in 1996. Image Source: Railpage.
Perhaps the most poignant Millennial connotation surrounding the original meaning of Chernobyl, under the circumstances, is memory loss. Every week, the Internet catalogues Chernobyl's lessons lost. It is still a location that requires a high degree of security to prevent theft of radioactive material. According to the Guardian, plans are underway to encase Chernobyl's Reactor #4 in a new giant 20,000 tonne arched sarcophagus, the largest of its kind in history. It will cost around 1.2 billion. The new sarcophagus is supposed to last 100 years. Chernobyl cost the USSR, and has now cost the Ukraine, a total of around $235 billion.
According to Wiki, about 100,000 km² of land was contaminated with fallout. In 2011, Gorbachev insisted that management of the Chernobyl site proves that nuclear power remains dangerous:
Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union at the time of the Chernobyl disaster and now head of the environment group Green Cross International, used the occasion of the 25th anniversary to say nuclear power was not the answer to the world's energy problems or to climate change.
In a statement he said: "Nuclear power has been presented as a financially sound, economically efficient, clean and safe solution that will bring about energy security and drive economic growth. Recently, the so-called 'nuclear renaissance' has hitched a free ride on the back of the need to find low-carbon solutions to the climate crisis. ... "It is necessary to realise that nuclear power is not a panacea, as some observers allege, for energy sufficiency or climate change. Its cost effectiveness is also exaggerated, as its real cost does not account for hidden expenses.
"In the United States, for example, direct subsidies to nuclear energy amounted to $115bn between 1947 and 1999, with an additional $145bn in indirect subsidies. In contrast, subsidies to wind and solar energy, combined over this same period, totalled only $5.5bn."
Caption for Chernobyl photos below by Gerd Ludwig from the Boston Globe: "Internationally-renowned photojournalist Gerd Ludwig has spent years documenting the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In 1986, errors at the plant in Ukraine led to an explosion that ultimately caused over a quarter of a million people to permanently evacuate their homes to escape the radiation and radioactive fallout. Over the course of several trips to the site and the region for National Geographic Magazine in 1993, 2005, and 2011, Ludwig has amassed a documentary record of a people and a place irreparably altered by a tragic accident."
"Although radiation levels only allowed for a few minutes of access, workers initially had to pass over hazardous ladders to a section underneath the melted core with life threatening contamination. To facilitate faster access, a daunting hallway called the leaning staircase was erected. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine, 2011." Image © (2011) Gerd Ludwig via Boston Globe.
"Nineteen years after the accident, the empty schools and kindergarten rooms in Pripyat - once the largest town in the Exclusion Zone with 50,000 inhabitants—remain a silent testament to the sudden and tragic departure. Due to decay, this section of the school building has since collapsed. Pripyat, Ukraine, 2005." Image © (2005) Gerd Ludwig via Boston Globe.
"Via Juxtapoz: A muralist by the name Combo created a very appropriate Simpsons family portrait power plant scene inside a building at ... Chernobyl." Image Source: Energy News.
"The nuclear accident contaminated tens of thousands of square kilometers, forcing 150,000 people within a 30 km radius to hastily leave their homes. Today, nearly all the small wooden houses in the scattered villages within the Exclusion Zone are abandoned, and nature slowly takes over these remnants of civilization. Korogod, Ukraine, 2005." Image © (2005) Gerd Ludwig via Boston Globe.
See all my posts on Nuclear topics.
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