The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Ergot, The Corn Mother, and The Rye Wolf
The Rye Mother who hides in the cornfields waiting to seize and eat children doesn’t have to literally catch them. According to legend, the blackish ergots sometimes affixed to rye grain are the Rye Mother’s iron nipples, which she gives children to suck so they’ll die.
Ergot (Claviceps purpurea) is a parasitic fungus that grows on various plants, especially on grains, especially on rye, and especially on a specific strain of rye (Secale cereale). It is visible, covering the stalks with black growths called sclerotia.
Ergot is sometimes identified as the Rye Mother or, specifically, her nipples
Ergot is a tool of healers, midwives, witches, and shamans
Ergot causes deadly, frightening epidemics
Some historians consider ergot the root cause of Europe’s witchcraze
Among the school of anthropologists and historians who prefer physical or scientific rationales for events (cause and effect), a popular explanation for the witchcraze is that it was stimulated by ergot. For what it’s worth, however, rye grain was especially prevalent in England and Russia; compared to other parts of Europe, neither country had particularly virulent witchcrazes.
Ergot is not innocuous but, like the Rye Mother herself, dangerous yet potentially benevolent at the same time.
Ergot produces alkaloids known as ergotamines. In carefully monitored doses, ergotamine causes contraction of smooth muscle fiber and is used to control hemorrhage, promote contraction of the uterus during childbirth, and treat migraines—its primary modern use.
Although outbreaks of ergotism are now rare, they are not entirely a thing of the past; outbreaks have occurred in recent history. There were 10,000 reported cases of ergotism in Russia in 1927/28, and in August 1951, ergot poisoning caused six fatalities and over 130 people to be hospitalized in the town of Pont St Esprit in Provençe, France. Victims had visions of being attacked by animals (snakes and tigers) and also perceived that they had transformed into animals themselves.
Removed from the food crop, ergot is part of an herbalist’s pharmacopoeia. However, if ergot-contaminated grains are harvested, threshed, ground into wheat, and baked into bread, ergot poisoning can afflict an entire community.
The term is obscure today: because of various developments (including modern milling techniques) ergotism now rarely occurs. However, it was once frequent because of the widespread diffusion of rye throughout Europe: it’s a hardier grain than wheat.
Two forms of ergotism exist:
Gangrenous ergotism attacks the extremities causing wasting (atrophy) of the limbs accompanied by sensations of burning. This form was prevalent in Western Europe.
Convulsive ergotism causes hallucinations, painful muscular contractions resembling those of epilepsy, violent cramps, purging (diarrhea and vomiting), delirium, psychosis, the skin feels as if it’s crawling, the body feels as if it’s burning, and periodic loss of consciousness, generally for six to eight hours. This form was prevalent in Central and Northern Europe.
Both forms of ergotism are accompanied by visions or hallucinations.
Among the effects of ergotism are reduced fertility (including infertility and miscarriage) and tremors, sometimes to a severe degree (“the shakes”), hallucinations, and death.
Ergotism is also known as St Anthony’s Fire. This condition is not named for Anthony of Padua, the miracle saint invoked in so many magic spells, but the sainted third-century Egyptian hermit tempted by Satan, whose diabolical tools included visions and hallucinations. The Temptation of St Anthony was a favorite topic of medieval painters, especially Hieronymus Bosch, who vividly depicted Anthony’s feverish hallucinatory visions. Ergotism was known as St Anthony’s Fire because of the burning sensation felt by victims, described as feeling like being burned at the stake.
St Anthony’s Fire devastated Europe. It was untreatable: The Order of the Hospitallers of St Anthony was created to offer refuges for victims. The affliction was not necessarily associated with ergot; instead victims were believed possessed by demons or afflicted by witchcraft.
Ergot contains potent chemical constituents. When heated (cooked) ergotamine transforms into lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), as occurs when flour made from ergotized grain is baked in an oven.
LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by Swiss chemist Dr Albert Hofmann during a research project devoted to ergot alkaloids; its hallucinatory effects were unknown before 1943 when Hofmann returned to work on it and apparently accidentally absorbed a microscopic quantity through his skin. When LSD was first made, it was made directly from ergot although it is now made from synthetic ergotamine.
A common folk name for ergot spores is “Mother Rye.” The power of ergot was understood as the long arm of the Rye Mother. Associations with maternity were no coincidence: midwives used ergot to hasten long labors as well as to provide abortions.
Awareness of ergot’s relationship with fertility is apparently ancient. The Mesopotamians seem to have associated ergot with miscarriage. Ancient Greek references to “diseases of sterility” are now understood to refer to ergotism.
Ergot is difficult to use intentionally because it’s hard to control the dosage. It seems to cause abortion only in the later stages of pregnancy when abortion by nature is most hazardous. It cannot be safely self-administered but can be a potent herbal drug in the hands of a skilled, knowledgeable practitioner familiar with its quirks and effects. Even today ergot rye is sold as a folk medicine in herb markets around the world.
Ergot was an early component of women’s pharmacology.
In communities where “wise women” existed, ergot’s effects were known properties.
In the hands of trained, supervised shamans, ergot was a visionary tool.
Set loose in a community without comprehension and an inclination to see visions as evil, ergot is scary and dangerous.
Ergot’s associations with grain goddesses established its link with Paganism. Where traditional midwives and shamans existed, ergot was a known quantity; in communities ambivalent to midwives, abortion, and/or shamanism, ergot was a forbidden and perhaps eventually forgotten topic—with potentially disastrous consequences for the community.
People were discouraged from learning about ergot because of what that knowledge could provide; however lack of knowledge (and once witches and shamans were eliminated, there might be no one to pass down this information) led to epidemics of ergotism, which, in a vicious cycle, led to witch panics.
Some historians suggest the entire witchcraze phenomenon stems from ergot; others suggest ergot is responsible for specific outbreaks, notably that of Salem Village.
Descriptions of victims allegedly attacked by witchcraft sometimes correspond to symptoms of ergot poisoning. Other historians argue that this is oversimplifying a complex historical situation: it is very likely one among many factors.
The German folk name for ergot is Mutterkorn or “Mother Corn,” the reverse of Kornmutter or “Corn Mother.” Other folk names include Tollkorn (German for “mad corn”) and the French seigle ivre, “drunk rye.” Other German nicknames include
Roggenmutter (Rye Mother)
Roggenwolf (Rye Wolf)
Roggenhund (Rye Dog)
and sometimes plain old Wolf or Wolfzahn (wolf’s tooth).
Some historians suggest that ergot wasn’t recognized as a fungus until the scientific revolution in the mid-nineteenth century. Before that, people allegedly thought that these were “sunbaked kernels.” This may indeed have been true in communities that eliminated wise women, midwives, and visionary shamans. However, awareness of ergot is ancient: ancient Greeks and Mesopotamians seem to have been familiar with it.
Passages in cuneiform texts indicate that plagues, infestations, and recovery periods were predicted by tracking weather patterns. Ergot flourishes during cold winters and follows certain seasonal patterns. In order to grow, ergot must have optimal weather conditions: it must be cold in winter and spring and warm in the summer. Northern Europe is thus particularly conducive to the growth of ergot.
Some scientists believe that ergot may be responsible for periods of population decline in Western Europe occurring between the 1430s and 1480s and between 1660 and 1739. Climatic conditions during this period were favorable to ergot alkaloid production. Researchers have found statistical correlations between 1660 and 1739 of optimum weather conditions for ergot combined with low birth and high mortality rates.
Although ergot may have been forgotten in certain regions or specific communities, it was clearly not forgotten elsewhere because it remained part of pharmacopoeia.
Although authorities sometimes forbid the use of ergot (e.g., Hanover, in 1778), by the beginning of the nineteenth century it was recognized by official medical authorities for its use in stimulating labor.
1582: use of ergot-infested rye for the purpose of assisting in childbirth or terminating pregnancy is first (officially) reported by Adam Lonicer in the German herbal Krauterbuch
1807: reports in the United States of ergot used medicinally for (legal) abortion
1824: ergot is recommended for control of postpartum hemorrhage in the United States
1832: English sources report that ergot is used regularly by midwives in Germany
1836: ergot is admitted to the London Pharmacopoeia for its use in stimulating labor
Further Reading: an analysis of how and why traditional medicinals once commonly associated with reproduction were eventually suppressed or forgotten may be found in John Riddle’s Eve’s Herbs (Harvard University Press, 1997).