Sometimes we come across interesting words or phrases in the Bible that we don’t recognize, words with odd histories. The “wormwood star” is one of those words. Wormwood is a transliteration into English of a Greek and a Hebrew word—much like how “hell” is a transliteration of the actual word Jesus used, “Gehenna.” The wormwood star appears in Revelation as a dark omen of terrible punishment, with strange associations behind it.
What Is the Wormwood Star?
The wormwood star is mentioned in Revelation 8. Earlier in Revelation 6, a Lamb has begun breaking open seven seals on a scroll. Each broken seal results in something happening, often cataclysmic. For example, when the sixth seal is broken, an earthquake occurs (Revelation 6:12-17). When the last seal is broken, seven angels blow seven trumpets and shocking events follow. The Wormwood star appears when the third angel gets involved:
“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— 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” Revelation 8:10-11.
Depending on which Bible translation you read, the name of the star may be listed as “Bitterness” rather than Wormwood.
What Does the Wormwood Star Do in Revelation?
As established in the Bible quote above, the wormwood star falls into water sources, and it poisons waters. The Bible specifically starts that a third of the rivers were poisoned, which is interesting since three is an important number that occurs many times in the Bible. It also shows up other places within Revelation 8: after the fourth trumpet is blown, one-third of the moon, stars and sun are darkened (Revelation 8:12). Later, after the sixth trumpet is blown, one-third of the earth’s people are destroyed in fire and sulfur (Revelation 9:12-18).
The fact that the wormwood star poisons water is unusual since we don’t classically think of stars having that sort of effect. One could see it as being a toxic meteorite that poisons water supplies if one reads Revelation that literally. On the other hand, Revelation 9:1-11 describes a star that falls to the earth and is described in an anthropomorphic way (given human characteristics). This star is described as being given a key, which the star uses to unlock “the shaft of the Abyss” and bring pestilence on the earth.
Therefore, whichever way we interpret Revelation, we need to recognize that it uses some imagery that can’t literally be true. It’s hard to say what exactly the wormwood star is supposed to be, or if we can predict what it will be before it arrives. Many times, biblical prophecy seems to consist of statements that won’t be fully understood until the events come, or after the fact. The disciples didn’t understand the prophecies about Jesus dying and being resurrected until after he came back, even though he directly told them what would happen several times.
Does Wormwood Show Up Anywhere Else in the Bible?
The King James Bible uses “wormwood” as a transliteration of a Greek word in Revelation (apsinthos) and a Hebrew word in the Old Testament (la`anah). Both words are described in lexicons as meaning “bitter.” L’anah appears seven times in the King James Version of the Old Testament:
In Deuteronomy 29:18, God warns the Israelites not to return to idolatry, to be “a root that beareth gall and wormwood.”
Proverbs 5:3-5 warns against following a wayward woman, whose lips are like honey, “but her end is bitter as wormwood.”
Amos 5:7 speaks out against people who “turn judgment to wormwood.”
In Lamentations 3:15, the writer says the Lord’s anger has stricken him, “made me drunken with wormwood,” and in 3:19 the writer considers his “affliction and misery, the wormwood and the gall.”
Amos 6:12 talks about the fruit of righteousness turning into hemlock, a similar usage. Some articles list this verse as another usage of “wormwood,” although the root word is different.
All the Old Testament uses of l’anah create a certain image: things turning bitter, or people eating something bitter. This image of bitterness fits with the idea that the wormwood star makes water bitter, like putting a toxic root or plant into a well. It’s also interesting to note that in these passages, the people eating wormwood are being punished for sins, individual sins, or collective ones that the nation of Israel has committed. A few times, wormwood refers to something being turned bitter (something that looks good turning out to be poisonous, people poisoning each other with sin), but the vast majority of the time, it has to do with punishment. The various calamities in Revelation 8 have been interpreted as humans taking the full punishment for their sins (rejecting God in favor of idolatry and debauchery).
4 Fun Facts about Wormwood
While wormwood is certainly one of the more obscure words in the Bible, it has worked its way into modern usage in interesting ways. This is partly because it’s a name for a certain notorious plant, but also because a famous Christian apologist made it very popular through one of his books. Here are four interesting things about wormwood:
It’s the same thing as absinthe. In botany, wormwood is one of several popular names for Artemisia absinthium, a moderately poisonous plant used for various medical and cosmetic purposes. One of its more notorious purposes is it can be brewed to create the alcoholic beverage absinthe. Given that it’s a poisonous plant, it’s probably what the King James translators were thinking of when they used the word. Given that the Old Testament appears to be talking about a similar poisonous plant, it would be interesting to see a study on what plant the Old Testament was referring to and if it can be compared to modern-day wormwood.
C.S. Lewis talks about it. Probably the most famous use of “wormwood” outside of the Bible is in C.S. Lewis’ 1942 novel The Screwtape Letters. The novel collects satirical letters supposedly written from an experienced demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, advising him on how to corrupt humans. The book was one of Lewis’ first big successors as a novelist and is still widely read today.
It’s in a Marvel comic. In 1994, Marvel Comics released a comic book adaptation of The Screwtape Letters, which today is a collector’s item and has been described as looking like the Archie comics, only more diabolical. This may sound like an odd choice for Marvel, and it is. Tyler Huckabee has suggested that the primary reason Marvel chose to adapt The Screwtape Letters is the company was going through a rough economic patch and looking for anything they could use to get new readers.
It’s in Calvin and Hobbes. When C.S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters, he probably didn’t expect that it would ever get adapted into a comic book, much less that it would inspire comic strips. Bill Watterson’s highly successful comic strip Calvin and Hobbes includes an elementary school teacher named Miss Wormwood, who suffers the indignity of teaching Calvin and putting up with his shenanigans. Watterson admitted in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book that Miss Wormwood is named after the character in The Screwtape Letters, while Calvin is named after “a 16th-century theologian who believed in predestination” (i.e. John Calvin).
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/ADragan
G. Connor is a freelance writer and journalist, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has contributed over 600 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.