Magical, Mystical and Medicinal

Ergot – Albert in the Sky with Diamonds

Claviceps purpurea (Fríes) Tulane

Affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated (...) like condition, characterised by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (...), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours. After some two hours this condition faded away.

Hoffmann (1979) LSD My Problem Child: Reflections on Sacred Drugs, Mysticism and Science.

Ergot is a small ascomycete fungus, 1-4 mm long, purple or black in colour. A parasite of several cereal species but particularly damaging to rye, ergot was known in ancient times as a poison, and was mentioned on an Assyrian tablet dated 600 BCE. Ergot often appears in mediaeval archaeological sites in Central and Eastern Europe, and remains have also been found in Neolithic and Roman sites.

Highly toxic, the ingestion of contaminated grains causes ergotism, also called St Anthony´s Fire, which affects humans and livestock. Ergotism had a great impact in North and Central Europe during the Middle Ages, when many outbreaks caused thousands of deaths. It affected mainly poor people who were poisoned by bread made with contaminated flour.

There are two forms of ergot poisoning: convulsive and gangrenous. Symptoms of the former included seizures, hallucinations and convulsions, sometimes causing the affected person to dance compulsively, known as the Saint Vitus dance. The second form causes gangrene accompanied by an intense burning sensation in arms and legs, as well as miscarriage in pregnant women. In mediaeval times these symptoms were often associated with demons and devil, and it is believed that many affected people were accused of witchcraft and condemned to death as a result.

Ergot contains a mixture of alkaloids among which are ergonovine and ergine, responsible for their psychoactive effects, and ergotamine and ergometrine, powerful vasoconstrictors responsible for the gangrenous form of ergotism. The ergot alkaloids with psychoactive properties derived from lysergic acid, the precursor to LSD which was synthesised accidentally by Albert Hofmann in 1938. Considered the most powerful hallucinogen known, it was originally prescribed to treat schizophrenia, alcoholism and depression. However, it was later proved that intake of LSD produces alterations in the perception of reality and hallucinations, personality disorders, memory loss and other physical problems. Long term consumption leads to psychosis and depression.

LSD had a profound effect on western culture in the 1960s, from art and literature to popular music and fashion. The Beatles famously espoused LSD in the 60s. Ergot alkaloids are of limited use in modern medicine, but ergometrine and ergometrine are useful to alleviate symptoms of Parkinson´s disease, to treat migraines and post-partum haemorrhages and to induce labour.