Today I'm going to tackle a fascinating thing called ergot.
The first time I heard about ergot was as a teen reading the book Firebrand, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In the story, there is a scene when Cassandra and her aunt, Penthesilia, travel through a village with a mysterious illness causing birth defects.
A strange fungus (ergot) growing on the rye turns out to be the culprit.
Ergot can grow most commonly on rye, but occasionally on wheat and barley.
When consumed, it causes a disorder called St. Anthony's Fire, named so because the monks of the Hospital of St. Anthony in the middle ages became a center for treating the malady.
St. Anthony's Fire is also called "ergotism" and the symptoms include a burning sensation in the limbs, delirium, spasm, nausea and vomiting, hallucinations, mania or psychosis. Some can even have their fingers or toes die from gangrene, as ergot is a potent vasoconstrictor (a chemical that makes the blood vessels tighten and restrict blood flow).
Ergot poisoning has been blamed for cases of "bewitchment" in the past.
The "Great Fear" of France in 1789 at the start of the French Revolution has been theorized to be caused by ergot poisoning.
Ergot was first used in 1938 to make LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide).
It is thought that historically, ergot may have been used in cult-like rituals for its hallucinogenic properties. It's been found in the stomachs of the "bog-men" from the Iron age. Some believe that the poem Beowulf (translation: Barley-wolf, related to the German translation for ergot: "tooth of the wolf") is somehow related to such a cult-related ritual.
Considering this colorful history, ergot is curiously found in modern medicine. Ergot derivatives are used to treat migraine headaches (Cafergot). It is also used to treat Parkinson's Disease (Pergolide [withdrawn from US market], Cabergoline).
Please keep in mind this post is for writing purposes only and is not to be construed as medical advice (see sidebar disclaimer).
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