COMMON NAMES: Achterkorn, Ergot, Centeio Espigado (Portuguese), Cockspur Rye, Cornadillo (Spanish), Seigle Ivre (French, ‘drunken grain’),
Claviceps purpurea is a fungus that infects grains of rye and related grasses. Once a grain is infected, the fungus forms a dark, compact mass called a sclerotium where a grain would normally develop. One or several of these pellet-like sclerotia may be seen in an infected grain spike, typically extending out from the bracts (glumes). When separated from the grain spike, the sclerotia superficially resemble rat droppings (rat pellets). C. purpurea sclerotia contain many potent, potentially harmful alkaloids (Hofmann et al. 1992, 39).
In late spring, when rye plants are in bloom, the overwintering sclerotia from the previous year’s crop produce stalked ascocarps resembling microscopic fungal fruiting bodies. The head of each ascocarp contains many embedded perithecia. The perithecia contain numerous saclike asci, each with eight ascospores. The ascospores infect the young, developing grains (ovaries) of rye plants, eventually replacing them with purplish-black sclerotia. Because it produces ascospores within saclike asci, Claviceps is placed in the fungal Class Ascomycetes. C. purpurea is found worldwide as a grass and cereal grain parasite (Hofmann et al. 1992, 39).
TRADITIONAL USES: During the Middle Ages, tens of thousands of people in Europe were afflicted with ergotism, a malady characterized by gangrenous extremities, convulsions, madness, delirium and hallucinations, and death. Although no one knew the cause at the time, these people had consumed rye bread infested with ergot fungus, which several peptide alkaloids of the ergotamine group (including ergotamine, ergosine and ergocristine) that affect blood vessel function. Since they are potent vasoconstrictors, these alkaloids can cause gangrene if ingested in sufficient dosages (Hofmann et al. 1992, 102-103).
Known as “St. Anthony’s Fire,” ergotism was a dreaded disease in Europe. Between 990 and 1129, more than 50,000 people died of this disease in France alone. The disease became so devastating that in 1093 in southern France the people formed an order to take care of the afflicted, and they chose St. Anthony as the patron saint. One of the symptoms of the disease was an intense burning sensation in the hands and feet, hence the name St. Anthony’s Fire. It wasn’t until 1597 (500 years after the first epidemic of ergotism) that physicians finally associated this horrendous disease with ergot on rye (Hofmann et al. 1992, 104).
It is widely hypothesized that barley infected with ergot alkaloids was used as part of the entheogenic drink known as Kykeon that was consumed during the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece. However, no definite information regarding what the Kykeon mixture really was has yet been discovered (Wasson et al. 1998).
In 1943 chemist Albert Hofmann was studying ergot fungus in search of alkaloids that might be beneficial to the burgeoning field of modern medicine. While working with the alkaloid ergine, he synthesised LSD-25 (d-lysergic acid diethylamide). The substance was initially considered unremarkable, but several years after the initial synthesis, Hofmann worked with the compound again and absorbed some of it through his fingers. He then became aware of the potent psychoactive nature of the compound, and its fame spread rapidly, first among the medical community, and then among the youth of the hippie movement of the 1960’s and ’70’s. Hofmann later discovered that the substance ergine is also found in the seeds of two species of Mexican morning glory vine (I. violacea and R. corymbosa) which are still ingested by native peoples in Mexico as part of medicinal and spiritual rituals (Hofmann 1980).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: It has been suggested that C. purpurea was used as part of the Kykeon mixture of the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries. Although it is uncertain how exactly the mixture was made, according to the Hymn to Demeter the Kykeon was composed of barely, mint and water. Certain scholars believe that this barely was infected with C. purpurea, which resulted in the entheogenic effects that were reported from consuming the Kykeon. The ergot was likely boiled with wood ash to convert the toxic compounds found in the fungus into the more manageable ergine and isoergine. Excess basicity may have been counteracted by the addition of vinegar or by letting the mixture sit for several days before drinking (Wasson et al. 1998).
Ergot sclerotia may be collected when infected rye is dried and crushed. The powder is used to create alcoholic extracts and water infusions. It is almost impossible to standardize ergot preparations, and the alkaloid content is never consistent, so it is difficult to comment on dosage. Alcoholic extracts can be very dangerous, since they dissolve the toxic alkaloids contained in the grains as well as the psychoactive ones. Water infusions are safer, as the dangerous alkaloids remain undissolved. Self-experimentation with ergot can be extremely dangerous to the health of body and the psyche, and is absolutely not recommended under any circumstances (Voogelbreinder 2009, 130).
MEDICINAL USES: In the 19th century a tincture of ergot and sodium phosphate was given to women with nervous temperaments and was said to produce slight intoxication, laughter and loquacity. This preparation was said to only be effective in women, while men were thought to be “too used to alcohol” for the substance to work properly (Voogelbreinder 2009, 130).
In more recent years, a number of important medical discoveries have come from the study of ergot fungus and ergotism. In 1935 the alkaloid ergonovine was isolated from ergot. Since it causes strong muscular contractions, it has been used to induce labor and to control hemorrhaging. Indeed, older literature mentions that four ergot grains will speed up labor. The alkaloid ergotamine has been used extensively to relieve migraine headaches through the constriction of blood vessels. Thousands of pounds of ergot sclerotia are harvested each year from Midwestern rye farms, and are used to create various prescription drugs (Voogelbreinder 2009, 130).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: There are three main groups of ergot alkaloids, the clavine type, the water-soluble lysergic acid type, and the water-insoluble lysergic acid type or peptide ergot alkaloids. The clavine type of alkaloids, such as agroclavine and elymoclavine, are generally regarded as precursors to the other groups of ergot alkaloids in the biogenetic pathway. These alkaloids are among several of the ergot alkaloids also isolated from higher plants, particularly the seeds of Ipomoea violacea (Morning Glory) and Rivea corymbosa (Ololiuqui), both members of the Convolvulaceae family. These alkaloids are not used pharmacologically, but agroclavine is a powerful uterine stimulant, and many of the ergot alkaloids are prolactin release inhibitors (Hofmann 1980).
While working with a sample of the now infamous LSD in his laboratory, Hoffmann accidentally ingested some. He described his experiencing as follows:
“On a Friday afternoon, April 16, 1943, while working in the laboratory, I was seized by a peculiar sensation of vertigo and restlessness. Objects, as well as the shape of my associates in the laboratories, appeared to undergo optical changes. I was unable to concentrate on my work. In a dreamlike state, I left for home, where an irresistible urge to lie down and sleep overcame me. Light was so intense as to be unpleasant. I drew the curtains and immediately fell into a peculiar state of ‘drunkenness’, characterized by an exaggerated imagination. With my eyes closed, fantastic pictures of extraordinary plasticity and intensive color seemed to surge towards me. After two hours, this state gradually subsided and I was able to eat dinner with a good appetite.”
The following Monday, to confirm that he had indeed ingested some of the LSD, Hoffmann prepared a solution containing 250 μg of LSD and deliberately ingested it. After 40 minutes, he found he had “difficulty in concentration, visual disturbances, marked desire to laugh” and left for home. On the ride home he says this; “I had great difficulty in speaking coherently, my field of vision swayed before me….I had the impression of being unable to move from the spot.”
The symptoms continued for six hours after Hoffmann reached his home and he described how “all objects appeared in unpleasant, constantly changing colors, the predominant shades being sickly green and blue…A remarkable feature was the manner in which all acoustic perceptions were transformed into optical effects.” Hoffmann had taken approximately five times the “normal” dose of LSD and had experienced the first “bad trip” (Hofmann 1980)
The effects of consuming the Greek Kykeon beverage, which very likely contained ergot, reportedly including “trembling, vertigo, cold sweat, and then a sight that made all previous seeing seem like blindness, a sense of awe and wonder at a brilliance that caused a profound silence, since what had just been seen and felt could never be communicated”. This is very similar to descriptions of modern day LSD experiences (Hofmann et al 1992, 102).
Hofmann, A. “LSD – My Problem Child.” Psychedelic Library, 1980. http://www.psychedelic-library.org/child.htm.
Hofmann, A., Ratsch, C., Schultes, R., Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.
Wasson, R.G., Ruck, C.A.P., and Hofmann, A. The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. 2nd ed. Hermes Press, 1998.
Webster, Peter. 2000. Mixing the Kykeon. Eleusis: Journal of psychoactive Plants and Compounds. New Series 4.