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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index


Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History

Matossian, Mary Kilbourne (1989)
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press


ISBN:0-300-05121-2 paperback
0-300-03949-2 hardcover


Description: Paperback, xiv + 190 pages.

Contents: List of figures, list of tables, preface, 12 chapters divided into 4 sections: 1. Introduction, 2. Contributions to a Health History of Europe, 3. Contributions to a Health History of Colonial New England, 4. Reflections, notes, index.

Note: This book is primarily about the effects of molds on food supply, health, fertility, population, etc. Chapter 9 "Ergot and the Salem Witchcraft Affair" and Chapter 10 "Great Awakening or Great Sickening?" are most appropriate for this chrestomathy. Advocates of the Wassonian thesis that the origins of religion lie in encounters with psychoactive plants will find support for their position here.

Excerpt(s): In the chapters to come I will extend my argument that the presence of mycotoxins in the food supply of a population may have caused episodes of bizarre behavior. Indeed, it is my position that ergot poisoning was entirely responsible for the appearance of abnormal nervous system symptoms in the communities examined in this book. (Of course, ergot poisoning had nothing to do with how those symptoms were interpreted as bewitchment, say, or as divine inspiration.) The psychotic symptoms of fungal poisoning are well documented. Now we must ask whether these same symptoms match the description we have of symptoms in the past, before dietary change occurred. (pages 20-21)

In summary, in Early Modern Europe witchcraft persecution occurred at a time of widespread impairment of the health of people and animals. The distribution of illness, often interpreted as a sign of bewitchment, mimics the pattern of the incidence of ergotism: it was most common in alpine areas and those with summers in the 17.4o 18.9o C temperature range; a majority of the victims were children and teenagers; and rye was a dietary staple in the areas affected.

Why did witchcraft persecution peak in the period 1560-1660? Perhaps the weather was to blame. This was a cold century. The Thames River froze over in 1565, 1595, 1608, 1621, 1635, 1649, and 1655; it has not done so as often in any one hundred year period since. Cold winters traumatize rye and increase the risk of ergot alkaloid formation. Such alkaloids may have caused the symptoms of bewitchment. When the incidence of these symptoms increased, so did the incidence of witchcraft persecution. We today should avoid the mistake made by the witch-burners of long ago by not overlooking a physical cause for events that mystify us. (page 80)

ERGOT AND THE SALEM WITCHCRAFT AFFAIR The Salem witchcraft affair of 1692 was peculiar. In terms of the number of people accused and executed, it was the worst outbreak of witch persecution in American history, affecting not only Salem Village but eight other communities of Essex County, Massachusetts, as well as Fairfield County, Connecticut. The timing of the outbreak was strange, too forty-seven years had passed since the last epidemic of witch persecution in England. No one has been able to explain why it occurred in 1692 and not some other year, or why it happened in Essex and Fairfield counties and not in other counties. (page 113)

... Ergot is the source of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and it may include natural alkaloids that act like LSD. People under the influence of this compound tend to be highly suggestible. They may see formed images for instance, of people, animals, or religious scenes whether their eyes are open or closed. These hallucinations can take place in the presence or absence of social cues. (page 116)

There can be no doubt that rye was cultivated in Salem Village and in many other parts of Essex County in the late seventeenth century. The animal cases could have resulted from ingestion of wild grasses such as wild rye or cord grass, found in Essex County and vulnerable to ergot infection. It was recently discovered that ergot alkaloids are ubiquitous in tall fescue pastures in Georgia, and that ergotism-like toxicoses may be caused by fungi other than Claviceps purpurea.

Was there ergot in the rye of Essex County in 1691-1692? That is a critical issue. As explained in Chapter I, rye bread made from bolted (white) flour with an ergot content of 3 percent or more is cherry red in color. Three Essex County women who attended a witch sacrament in the meadow of Reverend Parris (Salem Village) declared that the sacramental bread was red. ... If this red pigment was ergot, it might serve to bring on hallucinations during the sacrament. Such evidence of the presence of ergot in itself is not conclusive, but given the epidemiological evidence it is interesting at the very least. (pages 117-118)

After 1692 rye consumption increased and there was cold weather aplenty, but there were no more witch trials in Massachusetts the authorities forbade them. The disturbing symptoms continued to occur but another interpretation, not wholly new, was culturally mandated. ...

Although the limitations of surviving records make certainty impossible, the balance of the available evidence suggests that witchcraft accusations in 1692 in New England were prompted by an epidemic of ergotism. The Salem witchcraft affair may have been a reflection of a largely unrecognized but endemic health problem in the New World. (page 122)

GREAT AWAKENING OR GREAT SICKENING? During the Great Awakening, a religious revival that reached a peak in New England in the fall of 1741, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people experienced fits, trances, and visions. Although individuals and even whole communities had experienced such symptoms before, in 1741 the number involved was greater than at any time previous. No satisfactory explanation has been proposed.

I do not intend in this chapter to interpret the Great Awakening as a whole, nor to explain why central nervous system disturbances were regarded as divinely inspired. By drawing attention to the unusual symptoms and their epidemiology, I hope to explain only why the Awakening occurred when and where it did. There are two questions at issue here, and they need to be kept separate: what caused the symptoms, the focus of the concern in this chapter, and what caused the interpretation given those symptoms? ...

A clue to the diagnosis of the symptoms of the Great Awakening of 1741 may be the fact that in the summer and fall of that year certain parts of New England were suffering from what was perceived as an epidemic disease: nervous fever, as it was called then. Is it possible that this disease, and the physical and nervous symptoms associated with the Great Awakening, may have had one and the same cause namely, ergot poisoning? ... (pages 123-124)

The weather in 1741 was clearly favorable to ergot infection. The winter of 1740-1741 was extremely cold the worst within memory of New England. Thirty snowfalls occurred, as compared with twenty-six in 1697-1698, the worst winter previous. Long Island Sound was frozen solid over three leagues across, so that people from the mainland could ride across every day. As late as April 1 the ice on the Connecticut River was so hard it could be crossed on horseback. On July 9 people were making punch with ice from a chunk, as big as two carts could draw, floating at the tail of a sawmill in the Connecticut River.

Tree-ring data from Nancy Brook, New Hampshire, shows the growing season of 1741 to have been usually cold. There, and in northern New England generally, it may have been too cold during the growing season for ergot alkaloid formation. Only in Durham, New Hampshire, on the coast, where the ocean moderated temperature, did any strange symptoms appear. Symptoms were concentrated, that is, in southern New England. (page 132)

For the historian, an understanding of epidemic central nervous system symptoms may illuminate the conflict between ministers and physicians for leadership in their communities. Not all ministers saw such symptoms as evidence of divine intervention and conversion, but many were carried away with enthusiasm for the harvest of souls that sometimes resulted. This was more likely to occur where churches were not yet well organized and financed; such communities might be induced to offer a minister a secure position. When ministers realized that excitement was destabilizing for the community, that it just as easily served the purposes of rebels against established leadership, they joined with physicians in interpreting the symptom naturalistically, as those of disease. In this way they delegitimized the "converted." (page 141)

SOCIAL CONTROL OF MASS PSYCHOSIS Illness upsets society in many ways. An epidemic of central nervous system symptoms may disturb existing political arrangements. It may disrupt the ways in which a community controls the behavior of individual members. It may enable some to settle old scores by finding scapegoats, and others to rise in the pecking order by claiming they have divine inspiration. ...

In the past the principal screens of interpretation were:

  1. The negative supernatural interpretation. The person experiencing nervous disorders was described as being possessed or seized by an evil or mischievous supernatural being demon or god or afflicted by the magic of a witch, sorcerer, or the like. The expression, convulsive seizure, literally seizure by an evil spirit, is a fossil of this way of thinking. ...

  2. Positive supernatural interpretation. People who experienced pleasant hallucinations or euphoria, at least part of the time, might claim to be favored by God. On the basis of this claim they might seek to obtain greater influence within the community. If they gained wide enough credibility as seers, prophets, the elect they might challenge the established power structureThis was what happened in Westmoreland and Cumberland in the 1650s, when the Quakers left the Anglican Church. The same thing occurred after the Great Awakening of 1741 in New England, when the Separatists split from the Congregational Church. Some such mechanism may have been involved in the history of heretical sects in the medieval period and of some radical Protestant denominations in the Early Modern Era.

  3. The naturalistic interpretation. The ruling elite might see behavioral disturbances as independent of any supernatural intervention or of human action, magical or otherwise. They might define those who experienced them as sick; the pattern of symptoms, as a disease. ...

  4. The pragmatic approach. Those who became the leaders of sects permitted individuals, when the Sprit came upon them, to behave in deviant ways, but not to the point of disrupting the functioning of the group. ... (pages 146-147)

The positive supernatural interpretation appeared in Germany at this time. During the 1520s, when the weather in Germany was wetter than that in the rest of Europe, the symptoms were probably more prevalent than elsewhere. The winter of 1517 in western Europe was severe, and it was followed by an outbreak of gangrenous ergotism in Strasbourg (upper Rhine Valley). Following the severe winter of 1534 epidemic hallucinations and convulsions appeared in the Anabaptist (radical Protestant) city of Munster. Central nervous system symptoms were most prevalent among Anabaptists in regions that were normally cold and wet and given to rye cultivation: the valleys of the Austrian Tirol, northeastern subalpine Switzerland, the upper Rhine Valley, Swabia, Hesse, West Thuringia, and Moravia. Anabaptism did not thrive in drier East Thuringia and the Elbe River Valley.

Symptoms were not reported in large numbers among mainstream Protestants. The Reformation began at a time when such symptoms were relatively uncommon; indeed, the mainstream Reformation may have become viable in part because it was not excessively enthusiastic. It is not clear, however, why John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, two of the three most important early Protestant leaders, were most successful in Switzerland. A clue may be that this country was dependent on rye crops that were highly vulnerable to ergot infection on account of alpine climatic conditions. Nor has it ever been explained why the Rhine Valley, from Basel and Strasbourg to the Netherlands, was an early focus of radical Protestant activity. Here, too, rye crops were especially prone to ergot infection because the elevation was low, winters were colder and summers wetter than in neighboring areas. Epidemics of bewitchment also occurred in the same general areas: the alpine districts and Rhine Valley. ...

The anti-Quaker writer Francis Higginson reported that during Quaker meetings men, but more often women and children, fell into quaking fits. They would faint as though struck with epilepsy or apoplexy and lie, either struggling or quiet, their lips quivering, flesh and joints trembling, belly swollen, foaming at the mouth and sometimes purge as if they had taken Physick. Such fits lasted one to two hours. Sometimes the Quakers let such afflicted individuals lie; other times they took them home and put them to bed. Higginson claimed that Quakers became strangely distracted for prolonged periods in that state. ...

No matter how the symptoms were interpreted, their geographic distribution was within the area that included Scotland, England, France, the Low Countries, Germany, northern Italy, and northern Spain. In Ireland and Wales, where dairy products were very important in the diet and hardly any rye was grown, the symptoms were absent. The symptoms were rare in Scandinavia, where the summers were too cold to favor alkaloid formation. They were uncommon in central and southern Spain and Italy, where wheat and barely were the dominant crops.

During the nineteenth century, as rye consumption declined, epidemics of spasms, tremors, chorea, panic, and hallucinations also became rare. Medical textbook writers gave ergotism little attention. So obscure did this disease become that in 1976, when Linnda Caporael published an article linking the disease with the Salem witchcraft affair, most educated people had never heard of it.

Today our food supply seems safe enough that we rarely consider food poisoning as a possible cause of bizarre behavior. We no longer need food poisoning as an explanation, but such an explanation may be highly appropriate for past bizarre behavior. This is why I have called attention to forgotten and overlooked forms of food poisoning. (page 153).



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