Ergot, The Corn Mother, and The Rye Wolf

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft - Judika Illes 2005

Ergot, The Corn Mother, and The Rye Wolf

Mysteries of Corn

Classic Halloween postcards are packed with evocative images of witchcraft. They have to be: the artists were given a very small frame in which to work their magic and so these little cards are studded with images that are the visual equivalent of short-hand, intended to evoke the haunting ambience of Halloween. These images are the iconography of Halloween. Most are familiar and predictable: witches, of course, but also black cats, bats, spiders’ webs, cauldrons, and corn. Witches are depicted engaged in a variety of activities including flying on broomsticks, stirring cauldrons, scaring children, performing divination, reading grimoires, and sitting in cornfields.

Bats, broomsticks, black cats, OK; but what’s the witchcraft connection with cornfields?

The standard modern explanation for the corn connection is that in North America, Halloween corresponds with the corn harvest (pumpkin harvest, too) and so these vegetables have become coincidentally associated with the holiday. This is a superficial explanation however: the connection of corn and witchcraft has deep roots and is hardly limited to North America.

The first mystery of corn may be determining exactly what is under discussion. The word “corn” sometimes causes confusion. In the United States, the only corn is maize corn, sacred to Native Americans, the corn first encountered by Europeans in America.

That colonists were previously unaware of maize is drummed into the heads of American school children, who are then confused to learn that Demeter is the ancient Greek “Corn Goddess.” With no knowledge of corn, how could it have a goddess?

In the rest of the world, “corn” indicates grain of any sort. Thus Corn Mother really means Grain Mother and frequently really Rye Mother, as explored in this section.

In mainstream modern Western culture, animals and humans are commonly acknowledged as living while plants, although theoretically acknowledged as “alive,” are often considered little more than inanimate objects. Most people do not believe that plants have consciousness and emotions, can communicate or that they suffer when picked or harvested.

There is no way to understand the mysteries of agricultural magic and the Corn Mother without accepting that plants are living beings possessing souls and spiritual protection, similar to animals and humans, even if they’re not mobile, even if they’re not alive in the exact same manner that humans and animals live.

The notion of the Corn Mother is predicated on the belief that plants are killed when harvested in the same manner that animals (or people) are killed when they are slaughtered, even if there is no blood, even if the plants show no fear or resistance.

Earth’s earliest peoples were foragers and hunter-gatherers: they lived solely from what Earth gave them. Earth was the mother who provide—when she didn’t, one performed rituals of appeasement to coax more bounty from her and/or one moved nomadically until sustenance was found.

The concept of agriculture, of setting down roots in one spot, of working the land, planting, determining crops and harvesting them—taking what you planted rather than simply accepting what the Earth Mother gave you—was a radical human development, a revolution that caused shifts in spiritual and mental perceptions and even in the human body. The first permanent blood-type mutation (Type A) occurs at this time, apparently in response to this agricultural and dietary revolution.

This agricultural revolution did more than permit people to settle in one place: it stimulated a new way of understanding Earth, and new fears and rituals so deeply imbedded they still permeate our culture even if we no longer understand or completely recognize them.

Previously people avoided digging too deeply in Earth: similar to mining, rooting around in Earth’s female body was uncomfortably close to rape. In the beginning, people were still asking permission. In the beginning, prior to the invention of the plough, agriculture was considered to be a part of women’s mysteries.

Planting and harvesting were accompanied by elaborate rituals requesting permission and of appeasement and self-protection. Priestesses communed with Earth so as to work together with her to reap a satisfactory, blessed harvest.

Among the forms of the early Neolithic Earth goddess is the sow. Pigs are associated with women’s agriculture prior to the invention of the plough. It’s believed that observing the rooting of pigs led to the first sowing and reaping. The pig remains the alter ego of the Corn Mother.

The Earth Mother is the metaphorical mother of people but she is the actual mother of plants. Seeds are placed within her womb to grow. They emerge alive and would theoretically remain alive for their natural lifespan if left unharvested.

In order for the Earth Mother’s human children to survive, however, they must sacrifice what are effectively their own siblings, the plants. Furthermore, this must be accomplished without angering the Earth Mother so much that she withholds next year’s harvest.

Grain, the crop that stimulated the agricultural revolution, is harvested in autumn, often in late October, corresponding to what is now Samhain/Halloween. Corn, sacrificed so that can people can live, was traditionally cut with a scythe or sickle, harvest tools still associated with the Grim Reaper.

A complex system of agricultural magic developed, some involving the entire community, others exclusively women’s mysteries. Among the most prevalent components of traditional agricultural magic are:

Image Offerings of menstrual blood

Image Ritual sex in the fields

Image Ritual dancing involving leaping (flying) to encourage the plants to grow

Image Ritual dancing involving broomsticks (women) and pitchforks (men)

Image Shamanic battles to protect the harvest

Many of these traditions, often long divorced from their agricultural origins, remain significant components of witchcraft, its traditions, and myths.

Sacrifices were offered to the Earth Mother as reciprocal gestures: she was expected to sacrifice her botanical children. Every harvest thus is a sacrifice. As agriculture changed from an exclusively female art the nature of reciprocal sacrifices changed too—menstrual blood, once so holy and powerful that it was secret and not publicly discussed, transformed into something rarely discussed because it was perceived as shameful and dangerous. If menstrual blood is the preferred offering, however, agricultural power is squarely in the hands of women.

Moving away from menstrual blood offerings also changes the nature of the sacrifice: menstrual blood was once understood as potential children. (Lack of menstruation during pregnancy was interpreted as menstrual blood being used to form the child’s body.)

Women’s potential children were given as offerings of thanks and appeasement for the harvest. Menstrual blood is the only blood that can be offered without injury or death: substitutes inevitably involved animal or human sacrifice—someone’s real child was offered as gratitude and appeasement.

Earth, like a woman, was understood to have her own menstrual blood: iron ore. Ironworking placed the equivalent of menstrual power in men’s hands. The creation of iron agricultural tools changed the power structure of agriculture: it became heavy labor suited to men’s physical strength. Iron knives also changed the nature of sacrifice—different types of blood sacrifice became available, yet still, because of iron, tangentially related to menstruation.

Tension between men and women, anxiety about exactly where power lies, would also lead to fears of malevolent witchcraft. If women have the power to stimulate growth, then presumably they have the power to stunt it as well. Among the primary accusations of malevolent witchcraft throughout history is causing blight and harming the harvest.


Corn Mother

The classic attribute of the Corn Mother is that she simultaneously destroys and creates. In the act of killing, she gives life and vice versa. Even the most terrifying Corn Mother—and some are truly monsters—provides nourishment; even the most benevolent is potentially a killer. Nourishment generously given can also be inexplicably withheld and vice versa.

Image The Corn Mother is the loving, devoted mother who provides for her children’s needs.

Image The Corn Mother is the mad, raging, out-of-control mother (see Ergot, page 426).

Her aggressive act of grinding transforms grain into meal. Destruction and sustenance emerge from the identical source.

Mother was intended literally. In Assyrian, bar means both “son” and “corn”—a concept also reflected in classical Greek where stachys refers to a spike of wheat but also implies a child. Their identification as mothers is intrinsic to the identity of many Corn Mothers including Demeter, Isis, Ezili Dantor, and the Virgin Mary.

Virgo is the constellation identified with the Corn Mother. The astrological sign’s modern image remains based on its ancient Babylonian depiction: a woman carrying a sheaf of corn. Originally, this sheaf was understood to simultaneously indicate a child.

The Earth sign Virgo is thus represented by a Virgin (originally meaning an independent woman) holding her child, which is simultaneously a human infant and a stalk of wheat. This is the basis of many mystery religions: the child is the mystery; the mother is the deity.

By the Middle Ages, European Corn Mothers were scary cannibal hags who lay in wait in the cornfields to seize unwitting children, perhaps attempting to take sacrifices (payment) no longer offered. Sometimes these Corn Mothers are explicitly identified as witches: witches, too, are feared (or respected) as potentially dangerous but also are potential sources of wisdom, healing, protection, and joy.

The frequent associations of Corn Mothers with iron betray their affinity with certain spiritual traditions, witchcraft, and women’s ancient blood magic.

Corn spirits aren’t only fierce, raging hags; sometimes they are beautiful, benevolent grand goddesses. Sometimes they are both, as in the Greek spirit who epitomizes the Corn Mother, Demeter.


De” refers to divinity, as in deity, dei or deva; “Meter” is literally mother, and so Demeter is the Divine Mother or the Deified Mother. Another suggestion is that her name derives from deai, the Cretan word for barley and thus her name would mean Barley Mother. (Barley was among the very first grains cultivated in that region and frequently the most successful; Crete was a particularly early area of cultivation.)

Demeter’s votive imagery shows her holding wheat in one hand, poppies in the other while snakes writhe around her. Sometimes she brandishes a pomegranate too. She famously has golden hair like a field of ripe wheat. Her sacred animals include pigs, horses, and snakes.

Demeter is not an Earth goddess; she is specifically the spirit of cultivation and crops. Her most famous myth is the saga of the kidnapping of her daughter Persephone.

Instead of residing in Olympus, Demeter prefers to live on Earth. Although she has liaisons (notably with her brother Zeus, Persephone’s father), she is an independent, unmarried woman. She raises her daughter herself.

One day, Persephone, usually identified as the Spirit of Spring, spots an unusual and beautiful black narcissus. It’s a trap. When she plucks it, Earth breaks open beneath her feet. Hades, her uncle, Lord of the Dead, rides up in his chariot, grabs Persephone and pulls her down to his realm. In a moment, Earth closes up, as if this incident never occurred.

Persephone just has time to scream; Demeter hears her and comes running but is unable to locate her. Persephone has been playing with various maidens but not one has witnessed her kidnapping.

Demeter proceeds to behave like any parent who has lost a child; she runs around hysterically searching, with absolutely no success. She continues to search; she beseeches help from her fellow gods. Only Hecate, lunar Spirit of Witchcraft, offers her assistance.

Demeter searches all over Earth on a fool’s quest looking for Persephone, who, of course, is nowhere on Earth. She’s down below, locked in gloomy Hades, Realm of the Dead.

Demeter’s search for Persephone is a lengthy epic saga; she has many adventures and encounters many characters. She eventually receives information from two sources: a young swineherd, the sole witness to the crime; several of his pigs fell into the chasm together with Persephone. Hecate also brings Demeter to Helios the Sun, witness of everything that occurs during the day, who confirms that Hades has kidnapped Persephone.

Demeter demands that Zeus, King of the Gods, force Hades to return Persephone. This is when she discovers that technically Hades didn’t kidnap Persephone—or at least not from his perspective, as Persephone’s father Zeus gave her to him. Neither bothered to consult with mother or daughter/bride. Hades refuses to send her back; Zeus isn’t interested in attempting to force him.

In response, beautiful, golden Demeter transforms into the Corn Mother’s shadow side. She abruptly withdraws her gift of fertility from Earth: nothing grows. She begins to wander in the guise of an old, gray, bitter, gloomy, humorless, and dangerous hag; she still has her goddess powers; she is still grand. It is during this period that she founds the Eleusinian Mystery religion. A reaped ear of corn (wheat) was displayed as the central mystery at Eleusis.

Another myth involving Demeter suggests that she was the very last Greek deity to stop accepting human sacrifice.

People begin to starve. Customary offerings to the gods are no longer forthcoming and so the gods begin to starve too. Eventually the protests of the other gods, as well as the potentially disastrous weakening of their powers normally fueled by offerings, finally forces Zeus to order Hades to return Persephone to Demeter. Hermes is sent to fetch her.

Meanwhile in Hades, Persephone has been raped and set on the throne as the queen of Hades. In a parallel action to her mourning mother, she has been on a hunger strike. However, she has consumed six seeds from one of Hades’ pomegranate trees and so Hades refuses to let her leave with Hermes. By eating the food of the dead, she has joined their ranks.

A compromise is reached: Persephone will spend half the year with her mother on Earth, half with her husband in Hades. The time spent with Hades corresponds to the period following the harvest when crops are dormant; she emerges on Earth with the first breath of spring. When she is in Hades, her mother mourns and nothing grows; when Persephone emerges in springtime, her mother rejoices and crops are abundant.

This story is ages old; countless interpretations exist, the most obvious that Persephone, daughter of the Corn Mother, is a metaphor for grain.

Hidden undercurrents, however, lie beneath the tale of Persephone’s kidnapping and Demeter’s subsequent grief, desolation, and rage. It is more than the tale of one mother’s loss and more than just an allegory of the harvest.

Image If Persephone represents grain then the story may also be understood as a metaphor for the transfer of power over agriculture and its rituals from women to men with different spiritual orientations. Persephone is now a prize to be violently taken without consulting the Corn Mother.

Image Who owns the child? Previously the child belonged to its mother; Zeus asserts father-right, a radical concept at one time. Hades does not actually kidnap Persephone—her father gave her to him. The two men (father and prospective husband) negotiated the deal without input from mother or daughter, a scenario that replays daily in much of today’s world.

Image Demeter the Corn Mother lives humbly on Earth, not in the palaces of Olympus. Her traditional offerings included raw grain, raw honeycombs, and unspun wool—simple offerings that indicate that Demeter was a deity of the ordinary people. If Persephone is a metaphor for grain, then who owns the grain? Among the underlying themes of the saga are class and property issues very relevant to emergent agrarian societies: rank exists in all societies but peasants don’t exist among hunter-gatherers.

See ANIMALS: Pigs, Snakes; BOTANICALS: Opium Poppy; DIVINE WITCH: Hecate, Hermes, Proserpina; MAGICAL ARTS: Necromancy.

Among Earth’s many Corn Mothers are the following:


In a Canaanite myth, Baal, Spirit of Rain, Lord of Grain, is the brother and consort of Anat, fierce goddess of war, sex, and fertility. During a drought, Baal becomes weak and depleted. Mot, Lord of Death, takes advantage of his condition and kills Baal. He hasn’t reckoned on Anat: in a fury, Anat cleaves Mot with her sickle. She scorches him, winnows him in her sieve, personally grinds him up in a mill, and scatters what’s left over Earth.

Baba Yaga

In some legends, Baba Yaga lives in Russian rye fields while they ripen. Because she is fierce, unpredictable, and dangerous, her very presence protects the fields: she’ll eat anyone who dares damage her grain. However, during the harvest, in order to even have a harvest, she must be driven into an unharvested area or away into the forest. Sometimes, a small patch at the very end of the field was braided, ornamented, and left uncut as an offering—or resting place—for Baba Yaga. (See DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga.)


The word “cereal” derives from her name. This Etruscan goddess has now become almost completely identified with Demeter but was originally an independent deity closely allied with Tellus, the Earth Mother. Tellus is the Earth herself; Ceres, her closest companion, is the Spirit of Grain and Cultivation. They shared a festival, the Sementivae, from January 24th through 26th, during which they were petitioned to protect seeds and their sowers.

Ceres had a temple on Rome’s Aventine Hill not far from that of Diana. She was originally associated with women’s mysteries. By the third century BCE, her worship in Roman territory was heavily influenced by Demeter and the Eleusinian Rites, and she was identified as the mother of Proserpina.

Priestesses originally led her rites, but in the Roman republic few women were allowed positions of spiritual authority. Eventually the official Roman state cult of Ceres would be supervised by the male flamen cerealis. Perhaps in protest, the names of paternal relatives were never pronounced in the precincts of Ceres, unusual in intensely patriarchal Rome.

Ceres’ attributes include a scepter and a basket overflowing with flowers and fruits. She is adorned with garlands of grain. Her sacred animal is the pig. Pigs were kept in grottoes beneath her Italian temples, and sleeping among these pigs was a sacred method of incubating dreams. (See ANIMALS: Pigs.)

Corn Mother

The Arikara Corn Mother, from North America’s Great Plains, emerged through Earth in order to teach people how to cultivate corn/maize. In addition, she taught them astronomy, astrology, and the mysteries of sacred medicine bundles. She charged humans with the obligation of making regular offerings to the deities.

The Corn Mother

In Austria, the Corn Mother is an old witch who sits in the cornfields. She’s black, naked, and has red-hot iron fingers with which she will prick, sting, and hurt children if she can. These fingers may be ergot. Given the opportunity, she’ll roast and eat children, too, just like ears of corn. Parents invoke her presence to keep children from entering cornfields.

Ezili Dantor

The fiercely devoted single mother of the Vodou pantheon, Ezili Dantor has a dangerous, unpredictable temper and is skilled with knives. Like Demeter, she has one daughter. Although not an ancient grain goddess, she is often identified as a Corn Mother as she epitomizes the effects of the traditional Corn Mother who, in the act of destruction (slashing at the corn with her daggers), simultaneously transforms death into nourishment (grain is ground into meal).

Corn is also a conduit to the sacred: in Vodou tradition, vèvès, the sigils created to celebrate the lwa and communicate with them, are often drawn with corn meal.

Ezili Dantor’s sacred animal is the black Haitian pig. Her traditional offerings include fried pork, corn sprinkled with gunpowder, and omelets filled with corn and peppers. Ezili Dantor is syncretized to Black Madonnas, especially Our Lady of Czestochowa, although Ezili’s devotees perceive the child in the traditional image of the Madonna and child as a daughter.

See also ANIMALS: Pigs; DICTIONARY: Lwa, Vodou; MAGICAL ARTS: Sigils.

The Iron Woman

This old hag who lives in the grain fields of Ukraine is sometimes explicitly identified as a witch. She has pendulous iron breasts. With her iron hook, she captures children who wander into the fields and throws them into her iron mortar to grind them up and eat them. She bears a strong resemblance to Baba Yaga; if they are not one and the same, they are cut from the same cloth.


Isis has so many facets that she transcends classification, however at the very root and basis of her myth she is identified as a Corn Mother.

Isis, according to legend, was the first to discover wild barley and wheat. At her festival, stalks of these grains were carried in procession.

After Isis’ discovery of grain, her brother/lover Osiris traveled around Egypt (and eventually the ancient world) introducing the concept of its cultivation. Because of these actions, Osiris is credited in Egyptian mythology as the founder of civilization.

To complicate matters, Osiris does not just teach about grain: he is the grain and thus is eventually cut down in his prime, his body is chopped up and scattered throughout Egypt. Although Isis mourns him, she is also actively involved in the process of the harvest: she unearths each piece of Osiris’ body, collecting it in her winnowing sieve. Isis’ actions may have served as role models for later harvest rituals. Harvesting was a solemn occasion; one mourned for the grain even though it was necessary to cut it down, winnow, and grind it. At harvest-time, when ancient Egyptian reapers cut their first stalks, they beat their breasts in lamentation while calling upon Isis.

The Mamayutas

These Andean Corn Mothers, Spirits of Fertility, transmit generative powers to women, their descendants. They are perceived as the ultimate female ancestors—the first, primordial female ancestor, founder of the female (or matrilineal) line.

Descriptions of rituals conducted for the Mamayutas may be found in witchcraft and idolatry trial transcripts of the Spanish Inquisition, operating in the Department of Arequipa, now Peru. Women presented the Mamayutas with offerings of their aborted fetuses and still births. Inquisitors were horrified by what they labeled witchcraft, unable or unwilling to comprehend the emotional resonance of this spiritual transaction.


The Virgin Mary is often interpreted as a Corn Mother with Jesus as her fruit, cut down in his prime, sacrificed, and then resurrected. In votive imagery, Mary is often depicted holding her infant in the same manner that ancient Corn Mothers hold stalks of wheat.

This relationship is also insinuated through the sacrament of Holy Communion, wherein Jesus’ body is consumed in a wafer made from wheat. (And the Vatican is adamant that communion wafers be made from wheat; attempts by the family of an American girl with wheat allergies to obtain a wheat-free communion wafer have been consistently rejected.)

Despite the Inquisition’s perception of this practice as intentionally and malevolently sacrilegious, use of communion wafers in Roman Catholic folk spells are almost always intended for purposes of agricultural benefit or healing—the equivalent of scattering a sacrificed Pagan grain god’s ashes over the land. The desire was not to further injure Christ, as the Inquisition charged, but to benefit from the power of his body.

Mary, too, is associated with the astrological sign Virgo, although obviously the concept of the virgin is understood in its modern, literal, physical sense.

See also Anat, Isis; CREATIVE ARTS: Literature: Hammer of the Witches.


Among her guises, Perchta also serves as the guardian of cornfields. If they are left unattended, she afflicts humans and/or their livestock with plagues.

Masked dancers known as Perchten dance in the fields of the farmers providing the harvest field. Presumably once upon a time these were genuine devotees of the goddess Perchta. Some dancers impersonate beautiful Perchten; others represent hag-like, ugly ones. Their goal is to drive off any lingering malevolent spirits.

Perchta also supervises and guards barns that store grain.

See CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Perchtentanz; DIVINE WITCH: Perchta.

Poludnica, The Noon Woman

This Russian Corn Mother (known as Psezpolnica in Serbia) resides in rye fields. She may appear as an adolescent girl, a beautiful woman or an old hag but she only makes appearances at noon. She wields a scythe, steals children, and tickles people to death. She leads children astray in the fields.

Poludnica makes appearances in the fields where she stops people to ask questions or engage them in conversation. If they are impolite or perhaps give the wrong answers, they are immediately struck with illness, cut down as if with a scythe. The Wends are familiar with her as well but say she carries shears, an emblem of death. (The Fates use shears to cut the thread of life.)

She is responsible for the heat stroke that strikes healthy people down at noon, when the sun is most powerful. Archeologist Marija Gimbutas describes her as the personification of sunstroke.

Rugiu Boba

“Grandma Rye” is the Baltic Corn Mother. She is present in the last sheaf of the harvest. Her breasts may be filled with poisoned milk, dangerous to children (see page 426, Ergot).

Saning Sari

This Rice Mother from Sumatra is so closely identified with rice that it is sometimes called by her name. Rituals dedicated to her are performed at planting and harvest.

Before sowing, in this community, rice is traditionally germinated and allowed to sprout. The finest sprouts are identified as Saning Sari and are then planted in the very center of the paddy. Rice grows around her and so when it’s time for harvest, she must be located once more. (She may not have stayed in one spot; the spirit of the Rice Mother may have moved around.)

A witch is traditionally sent to find her; alternately the eldest woman of the family searches. The unharvested rice is observed: the first stalks seen to bend in the wind identify the Rice Mother. These stalks are carefully tied together and left uncut until after the first fruits of the harvest have been served as a festive meal for people and animals alike, because Saning Sari wishes animals to enjoy her bounty too. Finally that last sheaf is cut and carried carefully under an umbrella and accompanied by an honor guard to the barn where it will be kept in order to protect and enhance stored crops.


This Andean Corn Mother (also spelled Zaramama) is the daughter of Pachamama, “Earth.” Images of Saramama in the shape of an ear of corn were carved from stone. She was also adored in the form of a doll (huantay-sara) made from stalks of corn following the harvest.

Other Andean Grain Mothers include Quinoa-mama, Coca-mama, and Axomama, the Potato Mother.


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.

Image Ergot is sometimes identified as the Rye Mother or, specifically, her nipples

Image Ergot is a tool of healers, midwives, witches, and shamans

Image Ergot causes deadly, frightening epidemics

Image 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:

Image Gangrenous ergotism attacks the extremities causing wasting (atrophy) of the limbs accompanied by sensations of burning. This form was prevalent in Western Europe.

Image 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.

Image In communities where “wise women” existed, ergot’s effects were known properties.

Image In the hands of trained, supervised shamans, ergot was a visionary tool.

Image 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

Image Roggenmutter (Rye Mother)

Image Roggenwolf (Rye Wolf)

Image 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.

Image 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

Image 1807: reports in the United States of ergot used medicinally for (legal) abortion

Image 1824: ergot is recommended for control of postpartum hemorrhage in the United States

Image 1832: English sources report that ergot is used regularly by midwives in Germany

Image 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).

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.