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Ergot – the real reason behind Halloween

As Halloween approaches and all things and witches take to the skies could the root of this myth be found in Rye bread? In Europe, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, bread was usually made with rye grain, which, under the right conditions can become a host for ergot, a fungus that grows on rye in damp weather. When consumed in high doses, ergot can be deadly but in smaller doses, it acts as a potent hallucinogen.

Nowadays ergot is routinely removed from grain during the milling process and the standards of keeping rye grain have improved immeasurably so that contamination through water happens less and less.

The most common form of ergot is Claviceps pupurea – the rye ergot fungus – which grows on rye and related plant producing alkaloids which can cause ergotism in humans and other mammals who consume grains contaminated with its fruiting structure (called ergot sclerotium).

Records throughout history from the 14thto the 17thcentury mention an affliction with “dancing mania” where groups of people would dance through the streets often speaking gibberish and foaming from the mouth until they collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Often those afflicted with this mania would later describe the apparently wild and wonderful visions that accompanied it.

In time resourceful types figured out how to use ergot for hallucinatory, see-the-pretty-colours purposes. One of the downsides to taking ergot orally is the nausea and vomiting and so the resourceful types figured out the best way to consume ergot was through the skin. Makeshift pharmacists developed salves which could be rubbed into the sweat glands in armpits and the mucus membranes of the genitals.

They would put the salve onto broomstick handles which is perhaps where the famous witches broomstick came from.

However the chances of getting ergot poisoning from rye bread are almost impossible now.