On Saturday 26th April 1986, in what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a reactor of the nuclear power station of Chernobyl, in northern Ukraine, exploded, releasing massive amounts of radiation that drifted across northern Europe, and affecting the inhabitants and food grown in the entire region. The area around the power station was evacuated permanently, and the damaged reactor was entombed in millions of tons of cement.
Since the nuclear disaster, the name Chernobyl, said to mean wormwood, has been associated with Wormwood, the name of the great star in the Book of Revelation, 8:10-11:
(from The Revelation of S. Iohn the Diuine – King James Version – 1611)
10 And the third Angel sounded, and there fell a great starre from heauen, burning as it were a lampe, and it fell vpon the third part of the riuers, and vpon the fountaines of waters:
11 And the name of the starre is called Wormewood, and the third part of the waters became wormewood, and many men dyed of the waters, because they were made bitter.
The earliest mention that I have found of the association between Chernobyl and the great star in the Book of Revelation is from Chernobyl Fallout: Apocalyptic Tale and Fear, by Serge Schmemann, published in The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Saturday 26th July 1986:
Moscow, July 25 — A prominent Russian writer recently produced a tattered old Bible and with a practiced hand turned to Revelations.
“Listen,” he said, “this is incredible: ‘And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; 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.’”
In a dictionary, he showed the Ukrainian word for wormwood, a bitter wild herb used as a tonic in rural Russia: chernobyl.
The writer, an atheist, was hardly alone in pointing out the apocalyptic reference to the star called chernobyl. With the uncanny speed common to rumor in the Soviet Union, the discovery had spread across the Soviet land, contributing to the swelling body of lore that has shaped the public consciousness of the disaster at the Chernobyl atomic power plant in the Ukraine.
Among many Russians, that passage from Revelations — also known as the Apocalypse — has touched a strong penchant for superstition in the national character, giving Chernobyl the quality of an almost supernatural disaster.
However, botanical and linguistic facts are more complex, as Mary Mycio [note 1] explained in Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl (Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2005). In the following passage, Mary Mycio is at Pripyat, a ghost city near the nuclear power station of Chernobyl, with a botanist named Svitlana Bidna and their local guide, Rimma Kyselytsia:
[…] Rimma crouched down to a short bush that had grown out of a crack between the road and the curb. It was about a foot tall, with small cottony flowers growing directly from purplish stems.
She pulled off one of the leaves and crushed it between her fingers for me to sniff the unpleasant, varnishy aroma, reminiscent of shoe polish.
“What is it?” I asked, wrinkling my nose.
“Chernobyl,” she said, using the common—but incorrect—pronunciation. In fact, chernobyl with an “e” is the Russianized version of the Ukrainian word chornobyl. You won’t find chernobyl or chornobyl in most Russian dictionaries, except in reference to the disaster, although the word chernobyl’nyk is used in some Russian regions in reference to the herb. But because the first version has become the commonly accepted spelling for the disaster and the nuclear station, I will use Chernobyl, with an “e,” to refer to them. I will use Chornobyl, with an “o,” to refer to the herb and the town.
“That’s wormwood, right?” I asked, hoping to finally clarify the botanical question at the heart of the Chernobyl disaster’s putative biblical symbolism. It is often said that the meaning of the Ukrainian word chornobyl is “wormwood,” and the suggestion that the disaster fulfilled the biblical prophecy of the Wormwood star that augured Armageddon resonated deeply with the fear of nuclear apocalypse. But the botany was actually more complex.
Svitlana took a closer look at the plant and shook her head. “No, ‘chornobyl’ is Artemisia vulgaris [note 2]. ‘Wormwood’ is Artemisia absinthium. The Ukrainian common name is polyn,” she said, handing me a leaf from a different plant that looked much like A. vulgaris, except it was covered with fine silky hairs that gave it a whitish tinge. As I looked around, I noticed that the plants were everywhere.
Botanically and chemically, Absinthium vulgaris [misprint for Artemisia vulgaris] is so similar to A. absinthium that A. vulgaris is also sometimes called “wormwood,” though “mugwort” is a more common English name. In Ukrainian, as well, polyn and chornobyl are sometimes used synonymously [note 3]. Both plants are hardy perennials, tolerant of poor soil and thus plentiful in the sandy lands of the Polissia region—where the twelfth-century town of Chornobyl took its name from the plant and, in turn, gave it to the twentieth-century nuclear station seven miles away. […]
In Christian legend, when the biblical serpent was expelled from Eden, wormwood sprang in its trail to prevent its return. Indeed, the herb is a frequent biblical symbol for bitterness, calamity, and sorrow; its use to name the third sign of the apocalypse [= Book of Revelation, 8:10-11] that opened this chapter conjured the desolation that would follow the apocalypse.
In the wake of the Chernobyl explosion, few people in the officially atheist Soviet Union had Ukrainian-language Bibles. But some of those who did noted that the word “wormwood” in the Wormwood star of the book of Revelation was translated as polyn—and was a very close botanical cousin to chornobyl. Suddenly, the biblical prophecy seemed to acquire new meaning: wormwood was radiation, and it presaged the nuclear apocalypse that would end the world. The story spread like wildfire through the notorious Soviet rumor mill and as far as Washington, D.C., where President Ronald Reagan was said to have believed it, too.
Chernobyl’s putative apocalyptic connection became so widespread, combining fears of radiation with apocalyptic dread, that the state-controlled Soviet media took the highly unusual step of running interviews with leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church (the most tolerated religion in the USSR) to debunk it, largely by arguing that no man could know when the end of time was near.
Perhaps their arguments would have been better served by botany. Aside from the fact that polyn and chornobyl are different species of Artemisia, it is unlikely that the wormwood in Revelation referred to either of them. Artemisia judaica is widely cited as the most likely candidate for biblical wormwood.
The expression cultural Chernobyl has been particularly associated with Disneyland Paris (formerly Euro Disney Resort), an entertainment resort which opened on Sunday 12th April 1992 in Marne-la-Vallée, 32 km east of the centre of Paris, France.
For example, in French Resume Their On-Again, Off-Again, Love Affair With America, published in the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) of Friday 14th July 1989, Rone Tempest wrote the following from Paris:
Some members of the French intellectual community had strongly opposed the huge Disney project, calling it a “cultural Chernobyl”—a reference to the Soviet nuclear disaster.
In this acceptation, cultural Chernobyl appears to be a loan translation from the French expression Tchernobyl culturel, said to have been coined by the French stage director Ariane Mnouchkine (born 1939).
The French intelligentsia were horrified when in 1987 Robert J. Fitzpatrick (born 1940), a fluent French speaker as well as a scholar in medieval French literature and president of the California Institute of the Arts, became president of the projected Euro Disney Resort. In Robert contre Fitzpatrick (Robert against Fitzpatrick), published in L’Humanité (Paris, France) of Friday 10th April 1992, Michel Boué recalled:
« Vous ? lui lança Ariane Mnouchkine. Mais, Robert, c’est un Tchernobyl culturel ! »
“You? Ariane Mnouchkine cried out to him. But, Robert, this is a cultural Chernobyl!”
However, the expression cultural Chernobyl had occurred earlier, in The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Florida) of Saturday 2nd April 1988:
Fire called a ‘cultural Chernobyl’
Leningrad library blaze covered up, writer says
Moscow — A leading cultural figure accused Communist Party officials of “upside-down glasnost” for trying to cover up the truth about a fire that destroyed or damaged millions of literary treasures at a Leningrad library.
State Cultural Fund Chairman Dmitri Likhachev said party officials ignored the plight of Soviet literature and failed to preserve rare books that their elders managed to protect even from the siege of Leningrad during World War II.
He said the fire, which raged for 19 hours, was a national disaster made worse by official attempts to conceal it and “became, truly, a Chernobyl of our culture.”
Disneyland Paris – from the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) – Tuesday 28th May 2019:
1 The journalist, author and lawyer Mary Mycio was born to Ukrainian parents who immigrated to the United States when she was one year old. She reported on Ukraine for the Los Angeles Times from 1991 to 2003 while also directing a legal aid program for Ukrainian journalists. Since then, she has been splitting her time between international development consulting and writing.
2 The following from the website of the chemical, life science and biotechnology company Sigma-Aldrich confirms that the Ukrainian noun chornobyl designates Artemisia vulgaris:
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Synonyms / Common Names / Related Terms
[…] cernobyl (Czech), chernobyl (Russian), chornobyl (Ukrainian) […]
Note: Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) should not be confused with wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), or St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum L.), despite similar names.
3 The translations of wormwood In the English-Ukrainian Dictionary Cybermova confirm that polyn and chornobyl can be used synonymously:
wormwood: полин [polyn], чорнобиль [chornobyl’]; гіркота [hirkota], прикрість [prykrist’]