The Rye Wolf - Ergot, The Corn Mother, and The Rye Wolf

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Rye Wolf
Ergot, The Corn Mother, and The Rye Wolf

The werewolf sits amid the grain…” or so says a German proverb. A German synonym for werewolf is Roggenwolf, “Rye Wolf.” Rye wolf is also a folk name for ergot.

Throughout Europe, but especially in France, Germany, and various Slavic regions, a benevolent spirit in the form of a wolf guards the grain fields. This spirit is known as the Rye Wolf or Corn Wolf. He’s the wild watchdog of the grain. When the wind sets the grain stalks moving in a wavelike motion that means “the wolf is moving through the rye.”

The rye wolf is the ally or familiar of the Rye Mother. In German folklore, packs of rye wolves (Roggenwolf) run with the Rye Mother (Roggenmutter), also known as the Tittenwif whose long breasts tipped with ergot sclerotium are filled with poisoned (ergot-infested) milk. She offers them to children to drive them wild.

Hollywood movies approach werewolves literally: when the full moon rises, Lon Chaney Jr. or Professor Lupin transform into wild wolves with no self-control. Notably they are aggressive; real wolves are shy and prefer to hide from people rather than attacking them. But then, why would these films be any more realistic about real wolves than about werewolves?

The reality of werewolves may sound absurd and contradictory but these realities exist.

If one does not expect literal transformation, then there are other ways of considering the werewolf. One theory suggests that werewolves were members of wolf-shamanic societies in the same manner that some Native American shamanic healing societies are “Bear Societies.”

Conversely, werewolves may be understood as priests or devotees of lunar and grain goddesses. Wolves are associated with many witchcraft goddesses, notably Diana, primary goddess throughout a broad swathe of Europe. Wolves are also the primary allies of the Rye Mother. These possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Wolf-shaman societies would meet under the full moon; many were visionary societies associated with Amanita muscaria, but ergot may also have been among their tools. (See BOTANICALS: Amanita muscaria, San Pedro.)

Among the responsibilities of wolf-shamans was protecting the grain from other magical practitioners who might wish to drain or divert its aura of power for private use rather than for the benefit of the community. These competing magicians (or shamans) might be independent practitioners or rival shamanic societies from other communities.

Remnants of these societies and their traditions may be witnessed in the Benandanti and Kresniks (see DICTIONARY). Some trial testimony deriving from the European werewolf craze that ran concurrently with its witchcraze, notably that of Thiess, the Livonian werewolf, also suggests the survival of these ancient traditions.

Traditionally, people escape from werewolves by running into rye fields or into barns packed with rye straw. The standard explanation for this practice is that werewolves have an aversion to rye. Another possibility is that rye fields are the sacred precincts of the Rye Mother and her familiars and are thus zones of safety.

Many folk names for ergot identify it with werewolves, the rye wolf or with wolves in general. The implications are innumerable.

In East Prussia, peasants once watched for real wolves coming through the rye at harvest time, not to shoot them but to foretell the future:

Image If the tail was held high, one could expect poor weather and poor crops next year

Image If the tail was down low, one could anticipate fertility and a good crop next year

Odin, the Nordic shamanic-warrior deity, was the spiritual sponsor of the dread warriors known as Berserkers or “Bear Shirts.” These men eschewed battle armor and, sometimes, even weapons—who needs anything else when you’re armed with the spirit of the bear?

They were incredibly feared and allegedly pretty invincible. Ordinarily normal men went berserk: they made such an impression that the word still lingers and is easily understood. The berserkers fought under Odin’s protection, these shaman warriors who channeled the spirits of bears, so that it was the bear who fought inside a man’s body. It is now commonly believed that the berserkers fought under the influence of hallucinatory substances, notably Amanita.

However, not all Odin’s warriors were berserkers. Another branch, now less famous, was the Wolf Warriors. These men channeled the spirits of wolves so that, temporarily, they were wolves within, men without: werewolves. They too were fierce, crazed, and may have used visionary substances to induce their condition; it’s believed possible that among the ingredients of their wolf-potion was ergot.

See ANIMALS: Wolves and Werewolves; DIVINE WITCH: Diana, Odin.