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Rye Ergot and Witches

Tonight on NOVA I am watching a program to explain the strange behaviour around the world that was frequently blamed on witches.  Ergot alkaloids ingested in animals present similar affects as LSD.  Anybody want to grow some rye with me?

http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1037.htm
Many symptoms of ergot poisoning and the plague are similar. They probably coexisted. The worst plague damage occurred where ergot suppressed the human immune system and made people vulnerable. Records of plague deaths show huge regional variations. The plague probably followed pockets of rye ergot.

And what about witch hunts? The symptoms of bewitchment are consistent, but the way those symptoms were received was not. Crazy behavior was commonplace in the medieval plague years. The mad “Dance of Death” is a theme shot through medieval iconography. The spasms suffered by ergot victims were called St. Vitus Dance. Do you remember Ingmar Bergman’s wonderful movie about the plague, The Seventh Seal? It began and ended with the figure of death leading the doomed in an eerie dance across a hilltop.

Then, in the 1500s and 1600s, the symptoms of ergot were blamed on witches—all over Europe, and finally in Massachusetts. Witch hunts hardly occurred where people didn’t eat rye.

In the 1740s, the so called Age of Rationalism, ergot symptoms became a mark of holy, not demonic, possession. Visions, trances, and spasms were read as religious ecstasy. It was a period of religious revival that historians call the Great Awakening.


Posted by SPN on 10/27 at 07:42 PM in Science / Technology

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