Ergotism—Saint Anthony’s Fire—Food Poisoning

By Dominique Jacquin via Wikimedia Commons
Claviceps purpurea on barley. By Dominique Jacquin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Burning extremities; lost limbs; stinking, erupting pustles; delerium and death—ergotism is a form of food poisoning caused by fungal growth on grain. Among the effects are hallucinations and the alkaloids within are related to the psychoactive drug LSD.

The cause of ergot poisonings was not known in Europe for almost a thousand years. From its rise before the end of the first millennium until the identification of the ergot fungus as the cause of bread poisonings in the seventeenth century, it killed tens of thousands at a time in waves of epidemics.

Ergot is a group of Claviceps fungi that grows in the field in ears of rye, and to a lesser extent, barley and wheat, among other grasses. It was a long-known thing in some parts of the world where rye had long been cultivated: ergot may have been used deliberately among prehistoric cults, and for the psychoactive effects 4,000 years ago in the Greek Eleusinian mystery cult. It was used in China as a medication before 1000 BC and in the Middle East almost a thousand years before that. But rye was only introduced into Europe in the Middle Ages, and Europeans had no experience with the ergot.

In one stage of its growth, it sticks prominently out of an ear of grain. Back then, that purple-black growth on some ears of grain was so common it was assumed to be part of the plant. When the winter was cold and the summer was wet, there was more of it. Black, elongated and shriveled, it was clearly not a normal seed, and one could see an ergot amidst lighter-coloured grains, and pick it out. But since Europeans didn’t know it caused problems, it might be left in low quality grains. When ergot-infested grain was ground into flour, baked into bread, and eaten by many people, ergotism occurred in epidemics.

Ergot symptoms come in two forms, depending on the alkaloids in the ergot. One includes painful spasms, itching, psychosis (including delirium and hallucinations), nausea and vomiting, and spontaneous abortions. Those are the “convulsive” central nervous system effects of severe poisoning, and was (apparently) more common in Germany.

The “gangrenous” form (caused by blood vessel constriction) includes skin swelling, blistering, burning pain, numbness, and gangrene. Limbs could dry and fall off, and death could result. It was more common in France.

Advanced ergotism. By Matthias Grünewald, about 1515.
Advanced ergotism. By Matthias Grünewald, about 1515.

It would make famine worse. We don’t think much about famine these days, but so much could go wrong back when your sole food source grew around you: bad weather meant a poor harvest which meant that by early summer of the next year everyone would be out of food and the next harvest wouldn’t be ready yet. Bad weather favoured the ergot fungus, and ergot infections increased with cold winters and wet summers, the same conditions that also ruined crops and harvests, and stretched the resources and resilience of people. Growing on many types of grass, ergotism also affects cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry, causing weight loss, abortions, and other symptoms, including gangrene and death, and is passed in mother’s milk.

When people were reduced to eating anything they could, that meant literally scraping the bottom of the barrel, eating poorest quality grain, and flour bulked up with roadside adulterants.

Full section of the outer wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece, depicting The Temptation of St Anthony. Matthias Grünewald, about 1515.
Full section of the outer wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece, depicting The Temptation of St Anthony. Ergotism lower left. Matthias Grünewald, about 1515.

The condition was known as Saint Anthony’s Fire, with the “Fire” part referring to the intense burning in the hands and feet. Ergotism was actually one of the causes of a group of symptoms known as “Saint Anthony’s Fire.”1

The Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony was founded in 1095 by a French nobleman whose son (we are told) was cured by relics of Saint Anthony. Monks of the brotherhood were devoted to treating victims of the condition. In 1676 it was shown that ergot was the cause of bread poisoning, which reduced the incidence as it was now kept out of flour. Ergot was subsequently used as a medicine in Europe for hundreds of years up until the 1930s to induce abortions or childbirth by contractions of the uterus, and it’s still used to treat migraines.

Ergotism still occurs today, but is controlled by careful monitoring of rye, which is the main commercial host of ergot. It’s probably still in your bread. Flour is limited in the maximum amount of ergot contamination legally allowed. With the synthesis of LSD from ergot, came the separation of a psychoactive material from the dangerous consequences of ergot consumption. Our relatively benign attitude to LSD can’t be extended to ergot. It appears to be too dangerous and unpleasant to be an historic entheogen without some unknown and un-heard-of preparation.

A Few References:

Schiff, P. L. (2006). Ergot and Its Alkaloids. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 70(5), 98.

Ergot of rye. Schumann, G.L. 2000. Ergot. The Plant Health Instructor. DOI: 10.1094/PHI-I-2000-1016-01. Updated 2005.

Ergot of Rye – I: Introduction and History. (Web)

  1. “St Anthony’s Fire” actually included similar conditions which we now recognize as having other causes – such as shingles and erysipelas. []

The first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in European medical literature

Psilocybe semilanceata

It’s to be understood that when “Science” announces a discovery, that it doesn’t mean it wasn’t known long ago. It just means “Science” has discovered it, and most importantly publicly announced and included it among the compendium of things known to humanity. They also reserve among themselves the right to name it and forever attach their names to it as discoverer.

This is the way it is with plants. The natives may have known about it for generations, but they don’t count. Same with archeology. All the local children probably know about a cave and cave drawings, and all anyone ever had to do was go ask a child about the neat stuff in his neighbourhood.

So when we talk about the first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in Europe, we qualify it by saying “the first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in European medical literature.

The following is a transcript of the first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in European medical literature, but whether or not it was known previously, we don’t know. It seems likely that it was, but nobody published it.

In 1799 a man picked some mushrooms for his family’s breakfast in London’s Green Park. He’d picked them from the same spot before and they’d eaten them with no effects, but this time, they got stoned on what turned out to be Psilocybe semilanceata mushrooms.

The father sought help, and received it from the eminent physician Everard Brande who was at hand. Doctor Brande treated them as best he could, without knowing what they had taken, and he subsequently had the mushrooms identified and submitted a letter to the London Medical and Physical Journal about it.

That made it official – the first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in European medical literature.

London's Green Park. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
London’s Green Park. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Despite our breezy tone, Doctor Brande’s letter is formal, accurate and thorough, and illustrates typically high standards. He had the father go back to the site to get more mushrooms, and Doctor Brande had them identified at Oxford and they identified them in collaboration with Mr Sowerby who was a highly regarded illustrator of natural history and the patriarch of generations of well-respected naturalists. Mr. Sowerby added an illustration to his exhaustive Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms which is excerpted, below (any errors in transcription are ours). The Agaricus mushrooms named are now known as as Psilocybe semilanceata. Even though you get to name a new species, that doesn’t mean someone won’t come along and change it, so even for scientists, the future is uncertain.


Doctor Brande’s letter to the Editors of the Medical and Physical Journal:


Mr. E. Brande on a poisonous Species of Agaric.

To the Editors of the Medical and Physical Journal

If the following account of the deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric not hitherto generally suspected to be poisonous, appears to you likely to prove useful or interesting to the public you will oblige me by its insertion; should its length be any obstacle to this, I beg you will omit whatever you may think superfluous. I remain, Gentlemen, Your’s, most obediently EVERARD BRANDE. No. 10, Arlington street. Nov. 16th, 1799.

JS gathered early in the morning of the third of October, in the Green Park, what he supposed to be small mushrooms; these he stewed with the common additions in a tinned iron saucepan.1 The whole did not exceed a tea saucerful, which he and four of his children ate the first thing, about eight o clock in the morning, as they frequently had done without any bad consequence; they afterwards took their usual breakfast of tea, &c. which was finished about nine, when Edward, one of the children, (eight years old,) who had eaten a large proportion of the mushrooms, as they thought them, was attacked with fits of immoderate laughter, nor could the threats of his father or mother restrain him To this succeeded vertigo, and a great degree of stupor, from which he was roused by being called or shaken, but immediately relapsed. The pupils of his eyes were, at times, dilated to nearly the circumference of the cornea, and scarcely contracted at the approach of a strong light; his breathing was quick, his pulse very variable, at times imperceptible, at others too frequent and small to be counted; latterly, very languid, his feet were cold, livid, and contracted; he sometimes pressed his hands on different parts of his abdomen, as if in pain, but when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question evidently without any relation to what was asked. About the same time the father aged forty, was attacked with vertigo, and complained that every thing appeared black then wholly disappeared; to this succeeded loss of voluntary motion and stupor; his pupils were dilated; his pulse slow, full, and soft; breathing not affected; in about ten minutes he gradually recovered; but complained of universal numbness and coldness great dejection, and a firm persuasion that he was dying; in few minutes he relapsed, but recovered as before, and had several similar fits during three or four hours, each succeeding one less violent and with longer intermissions than the former.

Harriet, twelve years old, who had eaten but a very quantity, was attacked also at the same time with slight vertigo.

At nine o clock I first saw them and ordered a solution ten grains of tartar emetic, in four ounces of water, to be immediately given to each in proportioned doses. It soon the desired effect on the father and on Harriet, both of whom felt themselves much relieved by its operation. As soon as the stomach of the former could bear it, I ordered him an ounce of castor oil, and half an hour afterwards, vinegar and water, of each two ounces. He took three such doses, at intervals of half an hour, when he had a stool, and voided large quantities of urine, and although not perfectly recovered, did not appear to require any thing more.

To Harriet, who had had two or three attacks of slight vertigo, with some languor, I gave, (after the operation of the emetic,) on the suggestion of my friend, Dr Burges, who happened to be present, thirty drops of sal volatile [smelling salts], in a table spoonful of water. This relieved her exceedingly. and by repeating the dose twice in the course of an hour, she was perfectly cured.

From the difficulty with which Edward was made to swallow any thing, and from the large quantity required, it was eleven o clock before he had taken enough of the emetic solution to excite vomiting; by this time the poison had produced so powerful an effect upon his system, that he did not appear in the least relieved by it. I now ordered him a stimulating injection, applied a blister to his neck, and by degrees made him swallow some small quantities of sal volatile diluted with no more water than was absolutely necessary; his feet were frequently rubbed with and wrapped up in warm flannels; in half an hour the injection was repeated; this soon procured two stools, when he was sensibly relieved, knew the voice of his father and mother, and complained of coldness and insensibility about his stomach. His whole abdomen was well rubbed before a fire with some camphorated strong volatile liniment, which, at his own request, was repeated two or three times; he continued also to take the sal volatile, and some castor oil. By four o clock every violent symptom had left him, drowsiness and occasional giddiness only remaining, both of which, with some head ache, continued during the following day.

Charlotte, a delicate little girl, ten years old, naturally of a most mild and tractable disposition, who also had eaten a large proportion, was suddenly attacked in the presence of Dr. Burges and myself, about half after ten, with vertigo and loss of voluntary motion; her pupils were very much dilated, and sight greatly impaired; these symptoms soon gave place to a degree of delirium, in which she refused to take any thing,, forcibly striking whatever was offered to her. A blister was applied to her neck; and having given her a strong dose of the emetic solution, immediately on the first attack, which, though late, operated violently, she became composed as the sickness went off; and after taking a few doses of the sal volatile, was perfectly well, and wholly unconscious of any thing that had passed since the commencement of the symptoms; her pulse, which hitherto had not been much affected, was now irregular, and continued so , though in a less degree, during the whole of the day.

Martha, aged eighteen, who had eaten a small proportion, was attacked about eleven o clock with symptoms exactly the same as those of Harriet. She was treated in the same manner with similar success.

From the evident utility of determining the species to which these agarici belonged, I desired the man who had gathered and partaken of them to bring me some of the same; and on inquiry found he had for several years been in the habit of gathering, in the same place, what he was confident were the same sort. Part of those which he brought me, I sent to Dr. Williams, Botany Professor of Oxford, to whom I had related the cases. In a note which he had the kindness to send me, he says, “Having since passed a short time in company with Mr. Sowerby,2 he has compared them with the Fungi and plates in his Museum. Mr. S. has no doubt respecting the species; it appears to be a variety of the Agaricus glutinosus of Curtis, (Flora Londinensis) the same with Dr, Withering’s Agaricus semiglobatus, yet no notice is taken either by Curtis or Withering of its deleterious quality. This may seem irregular as its effects were so strongly marked, unless any mistake has been made by the person who collected the specimens.”

I have also examined some of the same parcel with Mr. Wheeler, Demonstrator of Botany of the Apothecary’s Company, whose testimony concurring with the above, leaves no room to doubt their authority.

As some of your readers may not readily have an opportunity of referring to either of the authors already mentioned, I shall add Curtis’s description of the species Agaricus glutinosus.

“Stalks generally single, sometimes clustered, from two to four inches in height, the thickness of a goose quill, thread shaped, whitish, almost solid; the tube being very small, glutinous; ring, a little below the cap, scarce perceptible.”

“Cap, from one to two inches in breadth, of a brown colour; in the full grown ones, hemispherical, always convex, and more or less glutinous; wet with rain, it becomes browner and transparent, so that it sometimes appears striated.”

“Gills numerous, single, of a brownish purple colour, clouded; whole ones about twenty, horizontal, three shorter ones placed betwixt them; they throw out a powder of a brownish purple colour.”

“With respect to the use of it, he only says, “There is nothing acrimonious or disagreeable in its taste. yet its appearance will not recommend it to the lovers of mushrooms.”

“The variety, however, in question, (which is almost constantly to be met with on pasture land during autumn,) differs from this description chiefly in being of a conical form, as will be perfectly well seen in No 19, of Mr. Sowerby’s English Fungi to be published on the first of January, next; for the useful purpose of shewing which Mr. S. has expressly added figures 1, 2, and 3, of Table 248.”

P. 41.
The Medical and Physical Journal, Volume 3
R. Phillips, 1800 – Medicine


Mr Sowerby’s addition to Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms, based on the samples sent to him:

Sowerby J. (1803). Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms. 3. London: J. Davis. Table  248.
Sowerby J. (1803). Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms. 3. London: J. Davis. Table  248.
Sowerby J. (1803). Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms. 3. London: J. Davis. Table  248.Sowerby J. (1803). Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms. 3. London: J. Davis. Table  248.

  1. Doctor Brande’s footnote: This accuracy may seem trivial, but I have met with people who supposed the following symptoms might have risen from the use of a copper vessel. []
  2. [James Sowerby’s 1803 book] Author of Coloured Figures of English Fungi [or Mushrooms]. []

What is an entheogen?

What is an entheogen?

From Wikipedia:

‘An entheogen (“generating the divine within”) is any chemical substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context that often induces psychological or physiological changes.

Entheogens have been used to supplement many diverse practices geared towards achieving transcendence, including meditation, yoga, prayer, psychedelic art, chanting, and multiple forms of music. They have also been historically employed in traditional medicine via psychedelic therapy.

Entheogens have been used in a ritualized context for thousands of years; their religious significance is well established in anthropological and modern contexts.’

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[It’s a quite recent term coined because nobody had a good enough reason until regular people started licking toads to find God. The Wikipedia entry notes the term arose partly to differentiate from licking toads for fun. Yes, people do lick toads. We had a puppy who licked a toad. He died. We don’t know if he saw God. He probably went to heaven since he was a puppy, and if there is a heaven, it’s full of puppies, so sure—he saw God.]

Crazy bread—it was in the month of July that famine was at its worst

[In England around the year 1000 it was in the month of July – just before the harvest – that famine was at its worst. The previous year’s storage was gone and the coming year’s had yet to ripen. Weakened from hunger and already half stoned from eating fungus-infected rotting grain, people scavenged for anything to eat to bulk up what remained. This is when they ran the risk of picking psychoactive plants.]

“This hallucinogenic lift was accentuated by the hedgerow herbs and grains with which the dwindling stocks of conventional flour were amplified as the summer wore on. Poppies, hemp and darnel were scavenged, dried, and ground up to produce a medieval hash brownie known as “crazy bread.”

Lacey, Robert, and Danny Danziger. The Year 1000: What Life Was like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman’s World. 1999. Print.

We know about poppies and hemp. Wikipedia says about darnel:

‘Darnel can be infected by an endophytic fungus of the genus Neotyphodium, and the endophyte-produced, insecticidal loline alkaloids were first isolated from this plant. The French word for darnel is ivraie (from Latin ebriacus, intoxicated), which expresses the drunken nausea from eating the infected plant, which can be fatal. The French name echoes the scientific name, Latin temulentus “drunk.”‘

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God cursed women, so suffer dammit

[God cursed women, so he objects to efforts to relieve their suffering. That’s the position of the author(s) below, and we don’t doubt that was the position of the patriarchy of the time, whatever God’s opinion might be. We thought compassion was godly. But the position of the patriarchy was more general – if God has gone to the trouble of inflicting suffering on His people, man or woman, then it is wrong to do anything to alleviate it.]

“When James Simpson proposed to relieve women’s labor pains with the newly discovered anesthetics, chloroform and ether, there was a great outcry from the clergy, who called it a sinful denial of God’s wishes. According to Scottish clergymen, to relieve labor pains would be “vitiating the primal curse against woman.” A New England minister wrote: “Chloroform is a decoy of Satan, apparently offering itself to bless women; but in the end it will harden society and rob God of the deep earnest cries which arise in time of trouble, for help.” With the usual half-concealed sadism of patriarchal morality, he was really saying that female screams of pain gave God pleasure, and men must see to it that God was not deprived of this. The matter was resolved when Queen Victoria allowed her doctor to give her chloroform during delivery of her eighth child, and publicly hailed the new pain-reliever as a great blessing. All at once the clergymen were silenced, in effect conceding to the Queen the right to overrule God.”
p. 665.

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The woman’s encyclopedia of myths and secrets
by Walker, Barbara G. Published c1983

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[We don’t have the original source for these quotes, so take them with a grain of salt. We found them quoted on the Internet, referencing Helen Ellerbe (whose book lacks original sources – a main criticism). Ellerbe quoted Walker who quoted Pearsall (Pearsall, Ronald. Night’s Black Angels) at which point we lost interest. The above is from Walker’s “The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.”

As anyone who tries to verify information on the Internet must soon find, a lot of stuff is lifted out of its context and quoted to suit the writer’s prejudice. Other quotes when traced just vanish into thin air, or are misattributed. We’re not disputing the information quoted here; we just get disturbed by the fact that we looked at a web page and three texts and still didn’t get to the original source.

Spoiled as we are in this day of easily-available online content, we wonder that people write books on subjects limiting themselves to other books on the same subject, never looking at the source materials. Of course they were writing pre-Internet, sitting at tables at their local libraries while the necessary source material was in collections overseas and it was their original perspective which justified the re-hash, but how could they or any subsequent reader know that they weren’t simply repeating errors?

Oh well, we don’t read Greek or Latin either, and it’s not like we have editors, so take what we say with a grain of salt too. Do your own research, and don’t get riled up because bigoted old men ganged up on women, supported by the same religious hatred that justified their hatred of Jews (their justifications were that Jews rejected and killed Jesus and women brought on the curse of God and ejection from the Garden of Eden). With clear reason, they hated each other too, united though they were in their comfortable, smug paternalism against everyone else. Okay, do get riled up. Europe “was” a war-like paternalistic society full of ignorance and fear and old men crawling over each other for power over others. It was no place for Christianity without compassion, and even if God and Satan approved, we don’t think Jesus would have. Can we blame Faust for trying another way?]

Moses and the Burning Bush

[Thousands of years ago, watching the sheep, somewhere in or near the Sinai peninsula, Moses hears God calling out to Moses from a burning bush. God tells Moses to go and get the people of Israel out of Egypt and take them to the promised land. In trying to find a mundane explanation for this, and riveted by the mention of Acacia, which potentially possesses vividly psychoactive DMT, some have speculated that Moses got stoned and consequently saw God (or did God get stoned and see Moses?). Following is the actual passage from the Bible (Exodus 3:1….)]

Exodus 3:1-4:17. Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA)

3 Now Moses fed the sheep of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Madian: and he drove the flock to the inner parts of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, Horeb.

2 And the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he saw that the bush was on fire and was not burnt.

3 And Moses said: I will go and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

4 And when the Lord saw that he went forward to see, he called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: Moses, Moses. And he answered: Here I am.

5 And he said: Come not nigh hither, put off the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

6 And he said: I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses hid his face: for he durst not look at God.

7 And the Lord said to him: I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of the rigour of them that are over the works:

8 And knowing their sorrow, I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land into a good and spacious land, into a land that floweth with milk and honey, to the places of the Chanaanite, and Hethite, and Amorrhite, and Pherezite, and Hevite, and Jebusite.

9 For the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have seen their affliction, wherewith they are oppressed by the Egyptians.

10 But come, and I will send thee to Pharao, that thou mayst bring forth my people, the children of Israel out of Egypt.

11 And Moses said to God: Who am I that I should go to Pharao, and should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?

12 And he said to him: I will be with thee: and this thou shalt have for a sign, that I have sent thee: When thou shalt have brought my people out of Egypt, thou shalt offer sacrifice to God upon this mountain.

13 Moses said to God: Lo, I shall go to the children of Israel, and say to them: The God of your fathers hath sent me to you. If they should say to me: What is his name? what shall I say to them?

14 God said to Moses: I AM WHO AM. He said: Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS, hath sent me to you.

15 And God said again to Moses: Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me to you: This is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.

16 Go, gather together the ancients of Israel, and thou shalt say to them: The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared to me, saying: Visiting I have visited you: and I have seen all that hath befallen you in Egypt.

17 And I have said the word to bring you forth out of the affliction of Egypt, into the land of the Chanaanite, the Hethite, and the Amorrhite, and Pherezite, and Hevite, and Jebusite, to a land that floweth with milk and honey.

18 And they shall hear thy voice: and thou shalt go in, thou and the ancients of Israel, to the king of Egypt, and thou shalt say to him: The Lord God of the Hebrews hath called us: we will go three days’ journey into the wilderness, to sacrifice unto the Lord our God.

19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go, but by a mighty hand.

20 For I will stretch forth my hand and will strike Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst of them: after these he will let you go.

21 And I will give favour to this people, in the sight of the Egyptians: and when you go forth, you shall not depart empty:

22 But every woman shall ask of her neighbour, and of her that is in her house, vessels of silver and of gold, and raiment: and you shall put them on your sons and daughters, and shall spoil Egypt.

4 Moses answered and said: They will not believe me, nor hear my voice, but they will say: The Lord hath not appeared to thee.

2 Then he said to him: What is that thou holdest in thy hand? He answered: A rod.

3 And the Lord said: Cast it down upon the ground. He cast it down, and it was turned into a serpent: so that Moses fled from it.

4 And the Lord said: Put out thy hand and take it by the tail. He put forth his hand, and took hold of it, and it was turned into a rod.

5 That they may believe, saith he, that the Lord God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared to thee.

6 And the Lord said again: Put thy hand into thy bosom. And when he had put it into his bosom, he brought it forth leprous as snow.

7 And he said: Put back thy hand into thy bosom. He put it back, and brought it out again, and it was like the other flesh.

8 If they will not believe thee, saith he, nor hear the voice of the former sign, they will believe the word of the latter sign.

9 But if they will not even believe these two signs, nor hear thy voice: take of the river water, and pour it out upon the dry land, and whatsoever thou drawest out of the river shall be turned into blood.

10 Moses said: I beseech thee, Lord. I am not eloquent from yesterday and the day before: and since thou hast spoken to thy servant, I have more impediment and slowness of tongue.

11 The Lord said to him: Who made man’s mouth? or who made the dumb and the deaf, the seeing and the blind? did not I?

12 Go therefore and I will be in thy mouth: and I will teach thee what thou shalt speak.

13 But he said: I beseech thee, Lord send whom thou wilt send.

14 The Lord being angry at Moses, said Aaron the Levite is thy brother, I know that he is eloquent: behold he cometh forth to meet thee, and seeing thee shall be glad at heart.

15 Speak to him, and put my words in his mouth: and I will be in thy mouth, and in his mouth, and will shew you what you must do.

16 He shall speak in thy stead to the people, and shall be thy mouth: but thou shalt be to him in those things that pertain to God.

17 And take this rod in thy hand, wherewith thou shalt do the signs.
Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA)

[Seeking “rational” and alternative explanations for events in the Bible can either support or discredit literal understandings of the Bible. It’s all part of trying to make sense of it – to challenge existing beliefs, and to reach new perspectives. Examining one’s faith is a consequence of seeking knowledge, with the ever-present danger that one will consequently lose that faith. Presumably that happened to Faust. Looking for evidence of drug use in the Bible is a phenomenon of our modern-day drug culture which – evolving out of a culture of prohibition and denial – realizes the potency of drug experiences, and imagines how it might have shaped a religion.]

Flying ointment, also known as witches’ flying ointment, green ointment, magic salve and lycanthropic ointment

“Flying ointment, also known as witches’ flying ointment, green ointment, magic salve and lycanthropic ointment, is a hallucinogenic ointment said to be used by witches in the Early Modern period (first described by Alice Kyteler in 1324).”

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[But did anybody really use this stuff? Or was is just fable? The ingredients sound plausible. We don’t suppose anybody thought they bodily flew to a witch’s sabbath (ie. returning with souvenirs) but entered into an intoxicated mental state, in which they communed, transformed, and visited. Perhaps we err in stressing the “flying” aspect?]

‘Decoctions of hallucinogenic plants such as henbane, belladonna, mandrake, datura, and other plants of the Solanaceae family were central to European witchcraft. All of these plants contain hallucinogenic alkaloids of the tropane family, including hyoscyamine, scopolamine, and atropine—the last of which is unusual in that it can be absorbed through the skin. These concoctions are described in the literature variously as brews, salves, ointments, philtres, oils, and unguents. Ointments were mainly applied by rubbing on the skin, especially in sensitive areas—underarms, the pubic region, the forehead, the mucous membranes of the vagina and anus, or on areas rubbed raw ahead of time. They were often first applied to a “vehicle” to be “ridden” (an object such as a broom, pitchfork, basket, or animal skin that was rubbed against sensitive skin). All of these concoctions were made and used for the purpose of giving the witch special abilities to commune with spirits, transform into animals (lycanthropy), gain love, harm enemies, experience euphoria and sexual pleasure, and—importantly—to “fly to the witches’ Sabbath”.’

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Figure: Witches flying to the Sabbath

Also from Wikipedia:

‘The ointment contains a fatty base and various herbal extracts, usually including solanaceous herbs that contain the alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine. The herbs’ essential oils are extracted when heated in the base. These oils are poisonous when ingested; when applied to the skin, the alkaloids are absorbed more slowly into the body. Typical ingredients in alleged recipes include hemlock (Conium spp.), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), wolfsbane (Aconitum spp.), and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), usually in a base of animal fat.

It was said that witches were able to fly to the Sabbath on their brooms with help of the ointment.”


“The interaction between belladonna and poppy was made use of in the so-called “twilight sleep” that was provided for women during childbirth beginning in the Edwardian era. Twilight sleep was a mixture of scopolamine, a belladonna alkaloid, and morphine, a Papaver alkaloid, that was injected and which furnished a combination of painkilling and amnesia for a woman in labor.

There is no definite indication of the proportions of solanaceous herbs vs. poppy used in flying ointments, and most historical recipes for flying ointment do not include poppy.’

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“In the past, witches were believed to use a mixture of belladonna, opium poppy and other plants, typically poisonous (such as monkshood and poison hemlock), in flying ointment, which they applied to help them fly to gatherings with other witches. Carlo Ginzburg and others have argued that flying ointments were preparations meant to encourage hallucinatory dreaming; a possible explanation for the inclusion of belladonna and opium poppy in flying ointments concerns the known antagonism between tropane alkaloids of belladonna (to be specific, scopolamine) and opiate alkaloids in the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum (to be specific, morphine), which produces a dream-like waking state. This antagonism was known in folk medicine, discussed in eclectic (botanical) medicine formularies, and posited as the explanation of how flying ointments might have actually worked in contemporary writing on witchcraft. The antagonism between opiates and tropanes is the original basis of the twilight sleep that was provided to Queen Victoria to deaden pain as well as consciousness during childbirth, and that was later modified, and so isolated alkaloids were used instead of plant materials. The belladonna herb was also notable for its unpredictable effects from toxicity.”

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Attitudes change….attitudes toward drinking

[Attitudes change. Post-temperance movement we may be more inclined to view drinking harshly. Similarly, our attitude to other drugs have changed over time and are still changing. In considering other cultures and times, we can try to be careful about applying our own prejudices and expectations, but it remains difficult to imagine the unimaginable.]


‘During the early modern period (1500–1800), Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, the leaders of the Anglican Church, and even the Puritans did not differ substantially from the teachings of the Catholic Church: alcohol was a gift of God and created to be used in moderation for pleasure, enjoyment and health; drunkenness was viewed as a sin (see Christianity and alcohol).

From this period through at least the beginning of the 18th century, attitudes toward drinking were characterized by a continued recognition of the positive nature of moderate consumption and an increased concern over the negative effects of drunkenness. The latter, which was generally viewed as arising out of the increased self-indulgence of the time, was seen as a threat to spiritual salvation and societal well being. Intoxication was also inconsistent with the emerging emphasis on rational mastery of self and world and on work and efficiency.

In spite of the ideal of moderation, consumption of alcohol was often high. In the 16th century, alcohol beverage consumption reached 100 liters per person per year in Valladolid, Spain, and Polish peasants consumed up to three liters of beer per day. In Coventry, England, the average amount of beer and ale consumed was about 17 pints per person per week, compared to about three pints today; nationwide, consumption was about one pint per day per capita. Swedish beer consumption may have been 40 times higher than in modern Sweden. English sailors received a ration of a gallon of beer per day, while soldiers received two-thirds of a gallon. In Denmark, the usual consumption of beer appears to have been a gallon per day for adult laborers and sailors.

It is important to note that modern beer is much stronger than the beers of the past. While current beers are 3-5% alcohol, the beer drunk in the historical past was generally 1% or so. This was known as ‘small beer’ and was drunk instead of water which, unboiled, was prone to carrying disease.

However, the production and distribution of spirits spread slowly. Spirit drinking was still largely for medicinal purposes throughout most of the 16th century. It has been said of distilled alcohol that “the sixteenth century created it; the seventeenth century consolidated it; the eighteenth popularized it.”‘

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Rather than drinking the water…small beer contains very little alcohol

[Rather than drinking the water, people – including children – in past times preferred an alcoholic drink. But that does not mean they drank excessively. Drunkenness became more of a problem with the introduction of distilled drinks such as whiskey after the fifteenth century.]

“Small beer (also, small ale) is a beer/ale that contains very little alcohol. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favoured drink in Medieval Europe and colonial North America as against the more expensive beer with higher alcohol. Small beer was also produced in households for consumption by children and servants.”

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“Small beer was likely consumed when fresh water was not easily available. It was not uncommon for workers (including sailors) who engaged in heavy physical labor to drink more than 10 imperial pints (5.7 litres) of small beer during a workday to slake their thirst. Small beer was also drunk because it contained precious calories, and might even have bits of wheat or bread suspended in the drink.”

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The Romantic period in England was toward the end of the Eighteenth century

[The Romantic period in England was toward the end of the Eighteenth century – three hundred years after Faust and two hundred after the first known manuscript and Marlowe’s 1590-ish rendition of the tale. But those early years were the beginnings of it. Marlowe’s time was England’s “Age of Discovery” when they explored the Earth. They also sought after God, expecting to find Him in through Christian devotion and in His workings on the Earth and in the heavens.

Today we also look for God internally, but through unorthodox spiritual exploration, including through drug use, which when used for that purpose, we call entheogens – a very recent term. In Faust’s time, God was to be found through Christianity and they didn’t possess entheogens like opium, nor would they necessarily expect to find Him that way.

The Faustian creatures that sought knowledge through drug use were of later years. In fact, while the Romantic period was the beginning of that, our own age is the continuation of it. Today people scour the world and the pharmacopeia looking for more drugs… and more drugs… and more…. It seems a strange and frankly unlikely way to find God from history’s perspective.

Anyway, the Romantic period was the start of our own Age of Discovery into the workings of the mind – or is it the brain? While Faust turned to magic, would Faust be a drug user today? ]

From Wikipedia:

“The Romantic era in Britain was not only a time of growth for literature and poetry, but also a time of increased opium use. Interspersed among importation of opium from the Middle and Far East countries, Britain produced a meager amount itself and utilized it, at least initially, as a medicine and also an ingredient in patent medicines to treat a variety of pains and diseases. Given opium’s euphoric and psychologically reinforcing properties, users eventually began using it for recreation instead of healing purposes. Its hypothesized effects on visions and the subsequent products of the Romantic poets who used opium have been met by many theories, but three milestone literary criticisms about opium usually emerge–M. H. Abrams’ claim that opium opened up a creative channel, Elisabeth Schneider’s argument that opium did not inspire visions, but only a day-dream like trance, and Alethea Hayter’s position that opium’s influences were a combination of the previous two claims.”

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“Dr. Charles Alston was the first person in Britain to create opium in the 1730s. In one of his papers he describes the biology or botany of the poppy plant, how he created opium, and the experiments he conducted on animals. One section of his paper describes how opium was believed to treat pain, cause sleep, increase perspiration, raise the spirits, and relax the muscles. With these things in mind, it was recommended for pain and any sort of irritation to the nerves or motions of spirits. Opium became a popular “aspirin-like” product of the early nineteenth century. George Crabbe was prescribed opium in 1790 to relieve pain, and he continued to use it for the rest of his life. At the time of George Crabbe’s first prescription, the East India Company began hiring Indian Villages to cultivate large quantities of opium. Medicinally, it had been used as a reliable cure since the beginning of the medical field. William Cullen and John Brown, two well-known physicians at the time, claimed it cured things such as typhus, cancer, cholera, rheumatism, smallpox, malaria, venereal disease, hysteria, and gout in the eighteenth century. However, some individuals recognized the dangers that opium held. Some wrote into newspapers, such as The Times, and emphasized the dangers of giving a child medication such as the “Syrup of Poppies” or other patent medications, which contained an unspecified amount of opium known to be dangerous to give to infants. A deeper medical analysis revealed that opium created and uplifted spirit and happy disposition, which was then followed by symptoms of a very opposite effect which includes the mind “becoming gradually dull and languid, the body averse to motion, little affected by customary impressions, and inclined to sleep.” Following a larger dose, “all these symptoms continue to increase; and tremors, convulsions, vertigo, stupor, insensibility, and deprivation of muscular action appear.” Regardless of the mixed reviews in the public sphere, during the time of increasing imports and the unconcern of doctors (especially demonstrated by certain journals documenting how to cultivate the poppy plant and create opium), there were more hard drugs in England than any time before or any time that followed. Eventually, the drug moved beyond medicinal use as its imaginative powers attracted attention—the descriptions accompanying the effects of opium moved from drowsy effects to those of its power over the imagination and thought process. This was especially true within the circle of Romantic poets, specifically Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey, who suffered from addiction to opium.”

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