Way before Maria Sabina was hosting psilocybin ceremonies in Oaxaca and way, way before you first took shrooms in the forest near your house, there was another magic fungus that was a part of humanity: Ergot.
Ergot’s effect on society cannot be understated – few plants have affected us quite as much. From ergot poisoning destroying Julius Ceasar’s army and leading to the cracking of the Holy Roman Empire and the creation of what is modern-day France and Germany to the discovery of LSD and the birth of a generation of psychedelic explorers, ergot has been present in humanity’s existence for thousands of years, influencing and causing major historical moments, twists, and turns.
What is Ergot?
The word “ergot” comes from the French “argot,” which means “spur.” The general term itself refers to a group of fungi of the Claviceps genus, which contains around 30 to 36 species of fungi, but it most commonly serves to identify the rye ergot fungus, which grows on, of course, rye, wheat, barley, and other plants and grasses. Its existence dates all the way back to the mid-Cretaceous period 100 million years ago. An amber fossil was found in Myanmar containing grass and what appeared to be an ergot-like parasitic fungus. Ergot can be found all over the world– an Assyrian stone tablet from 600 BCE makes reference to “noxious pustules” on grain seeds, believed to be the fungus.
Ergot contains hundreds of different compounds, some of which are psychotropic (LSD) and some of which are poisonous.
Back in the Middle Ages, ergotism was a common reaction and sickness caused by eating food contaminated with the fungus, making it the earliest ever recorded form of toxic mould poisoning and one of the few plant diseases that can cause serious damage to humans, too. 944 and 945 CE brought a massive ergotism epidemic to Paris and surrounding French regions. Ergotism was also known as St. Anthony’s Fire (after the monks at the Order of St. Anthony’s, who cared for those suffering), and it would usually result in vomiting, headaches, diarrhoea, and gangrene in the fingers and toes. Not great, but nothing to worry about now – these days, ergot poisoning is pretty rare because the screening of wheat and grasses is a lot more careful and intense, but it still remains a major crop threat.
The ancient Greeks enjoyed a special brew known as kykeon, stemming from the Greek word for “stir” or “mix.” This ancient concoction had a variety of recipes, some versions being made with mostly water, barley, and other naturally occurring substances, while other versions were made with primarily wine and grated goat’s cheese (weird, we know). Kykeon was enjoyed by everyone, from high Greek society to Greek peasants, who apparently considered it one of their favourite beverages.
It’s long been believed to be a psychoactive brew, drunk to break fast during the Eleusinian Mysteries (a series of initiations held every year in Greece during the time for the cults of Persephone and Demeter, the ancient Greek goddesses of the underworld and the harvest, respectively). This ceremony had been held every fall for nearly 2,000 consecutive years, and, apparently, people who drank kykeon at the Eleusinian Mysteries ceremonies experienced revelations and had “profound” secrets revealed to them. This led some scientists and historians, including Albert Hofmann, to hypothesize that the famed kykeon brew was actually full of ergot. The discovery of ergot fragments in a temple in Spain dedicated to the two goddesses lends some more strength to the theory. Hofmann suggests that the reason the ancient Greeks don’t seem to have suffered from ergotism due to the preparation process of the kykeon, or the use of a different species of Claviceps fungi.
Medicine and the Middle Ages
Despite the constant threat of ergotism and the tens of thousands of people who have died from it, ergot has also historically been used as a form of medicine in Europe. It contains a number of compounds and alkaloids that can help with excessive bleeding and menstrual cramps. The first mention of it being used for medicine comes from 1582, wherein German physician Adam Lonitzer (sometimes spelt Lonicer) noticed that midwives used it as a way to quicken childbirth, induce an abortion if needed, or even stop bleeding after abortion or a particularly painful and bloody birth.
These days, ergot alkaloids are commonly used to treat cluster migraine headaches.
The 17th century brought a host of witchcraft trials and accusations to Norway, where 137 people were tried and two-thirds of those were executed. Many of the trials claimed that witchcraft was “learned” through consumption of it via flour products, milk, bread, beer, or some combination of the above. According to Economic Botany, it’s highly likely that these “witches” were simply suffering from ergotism or ergot poisoning, as many claimed that the milk they drunk (from which the witchcraft was said to be consumed) had black, grain-like substances in it, and “[m]edical symptoms compatible with ergotism were recorded in numerous trials, including gangrene, convulsions, and hallucinations; the latter often explicitly stated to occur after consumption of foodstuffs or drink.”
It’s believed that convulsive ergotism could have played a huge role in the 17th-century Salem witch trials in colonial America as well.
On November 16, 1938, LSD was successfully synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofman for the first time.
Hofmann was working with squill (a medicinal plant used since ancient times for a variety of purposes, from asthma treatment to a laxative) and ergot to find their active compounds and use them for pharmaceuticals. Hofmann was looking at lysergic acid, which is made by the ergot fungus, and its derivates when synthesizing LSD, which had the original intent of being used as a stimulant or analeptic.
It was set aside for five years, after which Hofmann decided to resynthesize it again. This time, he accidentally absorbed some of the drug and took the world’s first acid trip: “At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After about two hours this condition faded away.”
The rest, as we know it, is history.
Ergot is one, if not the most influential fungi that has ever graced the Earth. It’s managed to touch and affect nearly every corner of the globe, from infesting grass and rye in Burma to Europe to the ancient Assyrian Empire. It’s fascinating to see just how much effect ergot has really had – its presence in history has been potentially the cause of the 17th century Salem and Norwegian witch trials, possibly being the cause of the “bewitchment” itself. It’s been drunk by ancient Greeks in ritualistic ceremonies, and, of course, it’s the square root of acid, the psychedelic drug that opened up a world of possibilities for Albert Hofmann and the Western world at large. Social history has forever been changed because of this fungus, and it may not be through with us yet.