Most Canadians know about the Salem Witch Trials. These infamous hearings and prosecutions took place in Salem Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. They resulted in the execution of twenty people. Numerous more were imprisoned and all in all it was not a good time to be a woman or an outcast.
What the average Canadian may not know is that witch and werewolf trials didn’t start in Salem. There’s a long history of werewolf and witch trials in Europe. Thousands of people in Europe were tried as witches or werewolves between 1520 to 1630 and more than a few were executed.
So what was happening? Today, people understand that magic, witches, and werewolves aren’t real. But something was convincing the people of Massachusetts and across Europe that these things were a real threat.
One of the big differences is, that during the time, magic, witchery, and the power of satan was believed in literally. In fact, many religious people argued that not believing in demons, spirits, and witches meant not believing in God. Which at the time, was a pretty dangerous declaration to make. On top of that, people may not have been thinking straight in general. A variety of fungus that attacks rye — which was a fundamental part of the diet of poor European peasants and the residents of Salem — may have been a contributing factor.
Ergot fungi, like some varieties of mould, produce mycotoxins. These toxins can cause a variety of interesting effects in humans (as well as other mammals). First of all, the mycotoxins in ergot are hallucinogenic. In fact, the drug LSD was first synthesized from chemicals found in ergot. Hallucinogenic bread could explain why people were seeing things they couldn’t understand or thought were magical in nature. Between have a literal belief in monsters and suffering hallucinations from the food they were eating, it’s logical to assume fingers would start getting pointed as scared peasants tried to find the cause.
It’s also worth noting that the symptoms described by those cursed by witches in Salem and the symptoms caused by ergot poisoning are very similar. The victims of the witches described symptoms such as creepy crawling sensations in the skin, tingling fingertips, vertigo, tinnitus, headaches, disturbances in sensation, hallucinations, painful muscular contractions, vomiting, and diarrhea. All of these symptoms are also caused by ergot poisoning. Other psychological symptoms of ergot include mania, melancholia, psychosis, and delirium. This could explain the general histeria and craziness that was affecting those taking part in witch and werewolf hunts.
Historians and anthropologists are still arguing over the likelihood of ergot’s role in the trials at Salem and throughout Europe. Perhaps ergot played a large role, but perhaps it was only a small part of the insanity. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, and it’ll be hard to ever really know.
What does matter is that over the centuries a lot of people have died from coming in contact and consuming mycotoxins like the ones found in ergot and mould.
So while we spend Halloween handing out candy or taking our kids door-to-door, let’s spare a little thought for the origin of Halloween as All Hallows’ Eve and remember the tried witches, werewolves, and all people who weren’t (and aren’t) fortunate enough to live in a time and area where mass ergot outbreaks don’t happen.