The Psychedelic Nightmare of Ergotism

Matthias Grünewald's "The Temptation of St Anthony." Note the character in the bottom left corner, said to represent the symptoms of ergotism. DeAgostini/Getty Images

Imagine an entire town overcome by a collective waking nightmare. It's the stuff of fantasy to be sure. Just read Brian McNaughton's "The Return of Lrion Wolfbaiter" or play a little "Skyrim." You'll get there.

But is it also the stuff of history? Is there a scientific explanation for events such as the Salem Witch Trials, when a sleepy, repressed new England town erupted into an orgy of superstitious accusations, urine cakes and heart-wrenching persecution?

It brings us to ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus (Claviceps purpurea) that contains toxic compounds similar to LSD. When it infests grains it sometimes makes its way into contaminated bread. And if everyone gets their bread from the same baker, then you can imagine how bad things get.

It happened all the time in the middle ages and as recently as 1951 an entire French village suffered from its ravages. Humans suffer from two varieties of ergotism and here are the associated symptoms, according to this 2007 Medicina article:

  1. Gangrenous ergotism (AKA ignis sacer or holy fire): nausea, limb pain pain. Extremities may turn black and mummified, causing infected limbs to spontaneously break off at the joints.
  2. Convulsive ergotism: painful seizures, spasms, convulsions. Hallucinations, mania or psychosis may occur.

As Oliver Sacks points out in his excellent book "Hallucinations," some historians attribute ergot poisoning as a possible factor in the Salem Witch hysteria -- and it may explain the dancing plague reported between the 14h and 17th centuries as well. Either way, it's all a sobering (and horrifying) example of how something as simple as the wrong loaf of bread can alter our perception of reality.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.