Ergot (Claviceps purpurea) is a fungal parasite of grasses and cereal crops, particularly Rye, which if cooked and ingested, generally as bread, can cause wild symptoms including the sensation of burning of the limbs, gangrene necrosis of the flesh, intense hallucinations, miscarriage in pregnant women, and in the extreme, a horrific painful death.
Ergotism is sometimes known as Holy Fire or Saint Anthony’s Fire, named after the hermitic Desert Father Saint Anthony of Egypt, renowned for the visions of seduction and terror that he endured whilst in the solitude of devotion. The monks of the Order of St Anthony were said to be very skilled in dealing with Ergotism victims.
Convulsive Ergotism due to its profound symptoms and hallucinatory influence, has also been suggested as the possible cause of several outbreaks of Werewolf and Witch Hysteria in Europe, including the instance of Elfdale and Mora in 17th Century Sweden, whereupon a number of people were executed upon the testimony of children. The English Anglian Witch-hunts and also the infamous Witch-trial of Salem in 1692 have also been suggested as possible cases of Ergot infestation. Regarding the latter it was said that the New England founding fathers reputedly preferred bread made from Rye rather than the native Maize (which does not become infected by Ergot).
In Germanic and East European lore, Ergot is associated with the Crone-goddess, Roggenmutter ~ the Rye Mother. (Known also as the Iron Woman, Rugia Boba and the Tit-Wife, there has been comparison drawn to Baba Yaga, the witch of numerous Russian folktales). It is said that
the Rye Mother will lure children to the grain fields and suckle them upon her iron, Ergotamine-tainted nipples, causing them to become wild and insane.
Ergot and the Rye was also associated with wolves and included amongst the many colloquial names for Ergot are Roggenwulf (Rye Wolf), Wulfzahn (Wolf’s tooth) and Roggunhund (Rye Dog). An old Germanic saying states “The werewolf sits amid the grain.” It may be a cruel coincidence that in the harshest weather where the poor may have had no choice but to eat tainted bread (Ergot infestation also causes a considered drop in yield) were also the same conditions which may have forced starving wolves to enter the towns and villages.
It has suggested that the name of the mythical Anglo-Saxon hero, Beowulf, translates as ‘Barley Wolf’. He is of course remembered for his battles against woeful otherworldly monsters.
Though apparent accounts of Ergotism date back to 857AD and there is theory that the ancient Greeks and Mesopotamians were well aware of the properties of the unassuming smut on grass and folklore had drawn the association between the tainted cereal and the malady, science started to draw the link between fungus and symptoms in the 18th Century, and it wasn’t until the 20th Century that proper research was conducted upon Ergot. Whilst synthesising Ergot alkaloids in 1943, chemist Albert Hoffman accidentally absorbed traces of the active chemical d-lysergic diethylamide into his skin. His cycle ride home from work was far from the usual and upon that day LSD was born into the world.
Though scientific and agricultural practice have sought efficient measures to counter the problems of Ergot, Ergotism outbreaks are not impossible in the modern world. In 1951 in Pont St Esprit in France, 6 people died and 130 were hospitalised (many describing being attacked by wild animals as they were admitted) following the consumption of ergot-tainted bread.
Text and images © Andy Paciorek