ergot fungus

Why do witches ride brooms?- The real reason why witches are often portrayed as broom-riding old hags comes down to a popular hallucinogenic drug used by people from the 14th century and onward. The drug comes from a fungus called Ergot, and when consumed, it gave the user unpleasant side-effects such as vomiting, nausea and headaches.

Then, a certain class of women known for dabbling in unusual potions and magic aka Witches, started to spread the word that there was a much easier way to get this recreational drug into the blood stream. Rubbing a small amount into the armpits or the fleshy membrane of female genitalia (no lie) could give you enough of a buzz without the bad come-down. So to distribute ergot with maximum effectiveness, witches borrowed a technology from the home: A broom. Specifically, the handle of the broom. And then … you get the idea. And that’s the main origin of the popular image of a witch on a broom.

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In the Spring of 1692, the town of Salem, Massachusetts was thrown into a state of near frenzy when a group of young girls (who were suffering from spasms, and convulsions) claimed they were being possessed by demons cast on them. The girls claimed that several local women of witchcraft. The Salem Witchcraft Trials which ensued claimed the lives of 19 women and accusations cast on over 150 other men and women over the course of several months.

In an effort to explain by the strange afflictions suffered by those who were believed to be possessed, on study suggests the fungus ergot (found in rye, wheat and other cereals) afflicting the crops is to blame. Toxicologists indicated ergot can cause symptoms such as delusions, vomiting and muscle spasms, which would be consistent with the initial claims of the young girls.

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This is really incredible. I went to the Mark Ryden public gallery opening on Saturday and I found fungi symbolism among Ryden’s preliminary sketches.

I was so excited when I noticed his inclusion of ergot fungus. Ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) infects rye grain and after consumption, causes Ergotism. This deadly disease is also known as St. Anthony’s Fire. Many people died from it during the North European Renaissance. A month ago, I made a post about a Bosch painting where St. Anthony is the subject and the ergot fungus is personified as a little fungus man.

I’m taking a North Renaissance art history course right now and I noticed that in general, there are many parallels between the North Renaissance style and Mark Ryden’s style. If you’re familiar with his work, his landscapes and figures are very Hieronymus Bosch-like and he has incredible attention to detail like Jan van Eyck.

I might be the only one who noticed the fungus symbolism because I’m probably the only one who obsesses over fungus. I’m still surprised I’m able to find fungus everywhere I go! Another instance of my observational selection bias!