Weird History

The Secret Role That a Crazy Hallucinogenic Fungus Played in History 

Peter Dugre
8k views 9 items

The little parasitic ergot fungus loves to live off rye grain. Unfortunately, it turns out, so did the peasant class in Europe and America. Before modern medicine, the crazy symptoms caused by ergot poisoning in history (including delusions and convulsions) were thought to be either God’s wrath or the spells of witches. Now there's tremendous speculation that historical events caused by ergot poisoning are many and significant. 

The rye fungus (which can also live on barley and wheat) happens to be closely related to LSD - in fact, this fungus was actually the source from which LSD was first derived in the laboratory. Besides symptoms of stomach-wrenching cramps, muscle spasms, nausea, seizures, vomiting, fever, and burning gangrenous limbs, ergot causes manic hallucinations. It's now that ergot poisoning had a role in everything from the Salem witch trials to the French Revolution. (Warning: Do not try ergot at home. It ain't pretty.)

The Salem Witch Trials
Salem Witch Trials is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Secret Role That a Crazy Hallucinogenic Fungus Played in History
Photo: Thomkins H. Matteson/via Wikipedia

In 1970, Linnda Caporael drew a link between the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the behavior of people on LSD. When the light bulb went off, she found that the bewitched women who’d been hysterical and convulsing, allegedly under the spells of witches in Salem, could more likely have been under the influence of ergotism from contaminated rye bread.

According to PBS, 

Ergot thrives in warm, damp, rainy springs and summers. When Caporael examined the diaries of Salem residents, she found that those exact conditions had been present in 1691. Nearly all of the accusers lived in the western section of Salem village, a region of swampy meadows that would have been prime breeding ground for the fungus. At that time, rye was the staple grain of Salem. The rye crop consumed in the winter of 1691-1692 - when the first unusual symptoms began to be reported - could easily have been contaminated by large quantities of ergot. The summer of 1692, however, was dry, which could explain the abrupt end of the “bewitchments.”

Scholars have since tried to debunk Caporael’s theory based on the symptoms being limited to only eight women and not being wholly consistent with the full spectrum of horrors that can come from ergotism - mainly, their cases lacked the rotting away of infected flesh at the extremities (fingers, feet). Still, it’s a strong rational explanation for the behavior of the women who at the time were suspected as having been targeted by America’s most infamous coven. Plausible? Absolutely.

The French Revolution is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Secret Role That a Crazy Hallucinogenic Fungus Played in History
Photo:  Eugene Delacroix/via Wikimedia

A mob of manic peasants fomented what is historically labeled The Great Fear, the mass hysteria that gripped the countryside of France leading up to Revolution of 1789. For three weeks, panicked peasants swore their food supply was disappearing, and began looting and burning down the homes of the aristocracy. The crazed paranoia eventually found its way to Paris and launched a revolution with the storming of the Bastille.

It turns out the conditions were ripe that year for a massive bloom of ergot on the rye crop (cold winter, wet summer). And according to the LA Times, "By some estimates, peasants in the region ate as much as two to three pounds of rye bread a day, making them particularly susceptible to ergot poisoning when conditions favored its development." Bread at the time made up more than 50% of a peasant's daily caloric intake.

It’s completely plausible that revolutionaries had been spurred on by hallucinations as they tripped out wondering what they’d eaten and began pointing fingers at the aristocracy. “Let them eat cake!” - At least the cake wouldn’t lead to the crawling sensation of bugs nibbling at their skin.

The Dancing Plague of 1518
The Dancing Plague of 15... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Secret Role That a Crazy Hallucinogenic Fungus Played in History
Photo:  Pieter Bruegel the Elder/via Wikimedia

A precursor to Woodstock and raves? In Strasbourg, Alsace - now France - in 1518, some 400 people uncontrollably took to the streets and danced for up to a month straight. Physicians at the time ruled out astrological causes and concluded what is known as the Dancing Plague was caused by "hot blood." They prescribed more dancing, so the local authorities rolled out a stage and a band as the phenomenon went on for over a month. Dancers dropped dead from heart attacks, stroke, starvation, and dehydration because they couldn’t stop.

Now it’s believed by many historians and psychologists that this Dancing Plague may have been caused by the convulsions and hallucinations of ergotism. It’s likely those afflicted with the need to dance were on something and that was the fungus that’s LSD’s cousin. (Other researchers dispute these claims, however, arguing that ergot is so toxic that anyone ingesting it would die well before a month had passed.)

The Eleusinian Mysteries
The Eleusinian Mysteries... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Secret Role That a Crazy Hallucinogenic Fungus Played in History
Photo:  Henryk Siemiradzki/via Wikimedia

For thousands of years in ancient Greece, a cult might have used ergot to induce visions and to awaken to the "Eleusinian Mysteries." Dating as far back as 1600 BC, followers of the cult of Demeter and Persephone convened at Eleusis in ancient Greece every year to perform secret religious rites in observance of Persephone descending to Hades before returning to the living world and reuniting with Demeter, her mother and the goddess of fertility. Attaining the Eleusinian Mysterious was a spiritual progression and required consumption of  kykeon, a hallucinogenic beverage, to unlock the experience of death and rebirth.

It’s not conclusive that ergot from locally-grown barley was the active psychotropic ingredient in kykeon, but some historians point to it as a possibility for its vision-inducing qualities.