28 April 2014

Is turpentine an intoxicant ?

I raise the question because of a passage I encountered this week in chapter two of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Of Love and Other Demons (translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman):
She was already addicted to fermented honey, which she had consumed with her school friends before she was married, and still consumed, not only by mouth but through all five senses in the sultry air of the sugar plantation. With Judas she learned to chew tobacco and coca leaves mixed with ashes of the yarumo tree, like the Indians in the Sierra Nevada. In the taverns she experimented with cannabis from India, turpentine from Cyprus, peyote from Real de Catorce, and at least once, opium from the Nao of China brought by Filipino traffickers. But she did not turn a deaf ear to Judas's proclamation in favor of cacao. After trying all the rest, she recognized its virtues and preferred it to everything else. Judas became a thief, a pimp, an occasional sodomite, all out of sheer depravity because he lacked for nothing. One ill-fated night, in front of Bernarda, with only his bare hands, he fought three galley slaves in a dispute over cards and was beaten to death with a chair…

He pushed her door open without knocking and tried to see Bernarda in the darkened room, but she was not in the bed. He called her by name, and she did not answer. Then he opened the window, and the metallic light of four o'clock revealed her, naked and sprawled in a cross on the floor, enveloped in the glow of her lethal gases. Her skin had the pale gray color of full-blown dyspepsia. She raised her head, blinded by the sudden brilliance streaming in the open window, and could not recognize the doctor with the light behind him. One glance was all he needed to know her destiny.

"The piper is demanding to be paid, my dear," he said.

He explained that there was still time to save her, but only if she submitted to an emergency treatment to purify her blood. Then Bernarda recognized him, struggled into a sitting position, and let loose a string of obscenities. An impassive Abrenuncio endured them as he closed the window again. He left the room, stopped beside the Marquis's hammock, and made a more specific prognosis:

"The Señora Marquise will die on the fifteenth of September at the latest, if she does not hang herself from the rafters first."

Unmoved, the Marquis said: "The only problem is that the fifteenth of September is so far away." 
The fermented honey would be the mead of classic antiquity.   Tobacco, coca, cannabis, peyote, opium are self-evident.  But turpentine?  I found little on a quick search, but didn't have time to be exhaustive.  One supposes that as a complex hydrocarbon, it might be inhaled to produce euphoria, somewhat after the fashion of glue-sniffing (note the later reference to "lethal gases"), but that is just speculation on my part.    There also could be subtleties lost in the translation - any clues in the Spanish, Paulo?


  1. Could it be a reference to retsina? The pine resin used in the Greek and Cypriot varietal gives the wine a distinct turpentine-like aroma.

  2. It seems to be a name for a tree: http://www.prcupcc.com/herbs/herbsc/cyprusturpentine.htm (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pistacia_terebinthus).

    Not sure about possible illicit pharmaceutical or intoxicant uses though.

  3. http://eol.org/pages/396429/details lists some historical uses of that plant also

  4. Turpentine is a pretty commonly abused inhalant/asphyxiant.

  5. According to TOMÁS, J. P. & TERRADA, M. L. L ("Las primeras noticias sobre plantas americanas em las relaciones de viajes y crónicas de Indias, 1493-1553". Valencia, Instituto de Estudios Documentales e Históricos sobre la Ciência, 1993, p. 204-206) turpentine (probably the resine made from Pistacia lentiscus, an european plant that was cultivated sucessfully in the region) was one of the products Colombia exported since colonial times, and I am supposing it was used locally as well:


    So, in that sense, maybe the "trementina de Quíos" that shows up now and then in Gabo's texts is part of the traditional pharmacy, a reminiscence from his childhood...

    I've also found a reference of the use of turpentine in association with cannabis: it is supposed to block the undesirable effect of short-term memory loss that cannabis has, and being also a bronchodilator, would intensify the absorption of THC:


  6. Turpentine gets a mention in the Steppenwolf song "Sookie-Sookie"...
    "Really got it bad child, drink a bottle of turpentine
    When you wake up in the morning, feelin' kinda fine
    Let it hang out baby, let it hang out now, now na-na now"

    1. Woah - that's totally new to me. And quite interesting.

      Tx, Bulletholes.

  7. I'm old enough to remember when turpentine was the go-to solvent for paint clean-up. I have fond memories of it; as a child I enjoyed its smell. Then sometime in the sixties, if memory serves, because of toxicity concerns it was replaced with "paint thinner," with its ghastly smell. Really, I'd rather smell vomit than paint thinner, and it's easier to wash off the smell of vomit. Hard to believe that something which smells so much worse is less harmful than turpentine.

    1. Speaking of turpentine and vomit, my earliest memory - of both - dates back to when I was maybe 4 years old and my father was painting a outside wall. He had a beer can nearby which for some reason I tried to drink. It wasn't beer - it was turpentine, which he was using as paint thinner. Shortly thereafter my mother introduced me to ipecac.

      It was many many years later before I tried drinking beer again.

  8. in the book "as I lay dying" by William Faulkner in Chapter 55( I may have the chapter number wrong, but its the only chapter that MacGowan narrates) and I quote,
    "So I took a graduated glass and kind of turned my back to her and picked out a bottle that looked all right, because a man that would keep poison setting around in a unlabelled bottle ought to be in jail, anyway. It smelled like turpentine. I poured some into the glass and give it to her. She smelled it, looking at me across the glass.

    "Hit smells like turpentine," she says." End quote. This has sent me on a wild goose chase looking for this said drug that MacGowan gave Dewey Dell. Can anyone tell me what it is?

    1. You might start with this article -


      I have some other thoughts but not time for the blog right now.

    2. Never mind. Couldn't find anything else. I suspect a lot of early patent medicines had turpentine or other petroleum distillates in them.


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