Witches have long used fungi in their potions in Europe, and
sorcerers and magicians in other cultures have also employed
fungi. Species include the hallucinogenic Panaeolus papilionaceus,
and Witch's Hat (Hygrocybe conica). The Austrian name
for Fly Agaric is Witches' Mushroom.
By a strange coincidence, a fungus sealed the fate of many hapless
souls in both the Old and New Worlds who were falsely accused
Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, people in rural
areas of central Europe would exhibit strange symptoms from
time to timedementia, facial distortions, hallucinations,
convulsions, and paralysis. Cattle would stop producing milk,
and other farm animals would also behave strangely. On many
occasions these people were persecuted by religious zealots,
tried as witches, and subjected to the cruellest of tortures.
Thousands were executed in the name of Christianity.
We now know that these people were not possessed by evil spirits,
but were exhibiting signs of ergot poisoning, after eating bread
made from rye contaminated with the fungus Claviceps purpurea.
Most 'bewitchments' took place in the cool, damp river valleys
of southwestern Germany and southeastern France, where conditions
were perfect for ergot to thrive and rye was a staple cereal
Nearly 300 years after the notorious witchcraft trials in Salem,
Massachusetts of 1692, there is compelling evidence that the
accused in this case were also suffering from ergotism. The
symptoms were again consistent with poisoning. Damp and rainy
weather conditions recorded at the time were also ideal for
ergot. The weather the following summer was drierand the
bewitchments abruptly ended.