LSD, Ergotism and Witchcraft

* Alex Grey Painting of Albert Hoffman holding a 3D LSD molecule.


As “the grain of the poorest of the poor”, ergot infected rye was an “ethnic cuisine” very “popular among Jews of Eastern Europeans,” and its consumption throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Eastern Europe had been coincidental with the emergence of a range of religious and mystical movements in that area.

According to researcher Sharon Packer: "Curiously, three major mystical movements of Judaism erupted at the same times and places as these ergot epidemics, while these sects were largely ignored, if not outrightly scorned, in areas free from endemic ergotism…It is possible that the simultaneous occurrence of the mystical movements and ergot epidemics peaks was no coincidence…"

In Spain it was called Mary Magdalene’s Plait, in Alsace it was known as Poor Soul’s Dew. In Adam of Cremona’s Physician’s Book it was called Misericord Seed, and in the Alps it was called St Peter’s Snow. Perhaps St. Peter's Snow helped a few Swiss open up the pearly gates.

In the St Gallen area it was known as the Mendicant Friar (poor friar), and in northern Bohemia as St John’s Rot. In Westphalia, Germany where it appeared especially often, the peasant’s called it Our Lady’s Fire, perhaps another reference to the Magdalene cults of Europe, often associated with Demeter and the Eleusinian mystery school which used ergot in communion.

In Salem, Massachusetts, ergotism is the likely cause behind the hysteria known as the Salem Witch Hunt. The Puritans made bread with rye which may have been infected with ergot, causing the strange behavior exhibited by witnesses and accusers alike. Some may have used it on purpose. In any case, about 150 people were imprisoned on witchcraft charges as a result and nineteen were convicted and hanged as witches.

Of course, today the purification of ergotamine from ergot is known simply as LSD. Willis Harman, a senior social scientist at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), claims this refinement process began in 1935 - prior to Albert Hoffman's discovery - by followers of Rudolf Steiner, a German mystic.

According to Harman, "By 1938 they [Steiner's Theosophical group] had synthesized psilocybin, LSD and about thirty other drugs from vegetable substances due to their use in all the world's major religious traditions."

We might now see Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters of the 1960's as yet another cult in the long history of cults born from St. Anthony's Fire.