Did ergotism cause werewolf scares?

I’m naturally skeptical and I’ve hear this claim now and then and it sets off my BS a little. Here is why:

I’m skeptical as to how much ergot would need to present in bread to cause hallucinatory visions.

I’m skeptical that people suffering from ergot poisoning wouldn’t have known the true cause of the symptoms, at least to some extent. People have been using psychoactive plants to achieve altered states and have suffered from various food poisonings since time immemorial. They were able to make connections between the cause and effect quite well. Why wouldn’t have middle-age Europeans, who (contrary to pop-culture depictions) were quite sophisticated in realms of agriculture and natural science, have been able to make the similar connections?

What I’ve read of ergotism is that the hallucinatory symptoms are only a small part of the sickness that started with severe diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and vomiting. All of which would scream “food poisoning” to people of any time and culture.

I’m skeptical that even if the eventual hallucinations did occur in some sick people that they would all see werewolves or some other such manifestation. Though I know to some extent hallucinations and following interpretations are colored by the individual psyche, which would be effected by certain cultural expectations.

I’d also like to know at what temperatures ergot, or the alkaloids present in ergot that cause hallucinations, would be chemically altered to no longer have this effect on people. In other words what effect does baking the fungus have on its psychoactive properties.

It just seems a stretch to me, one that is more readily accepted because it gives an answer that is more physically concrete than the explanations involving the complexities of human culture and psychology.

But maybe my ignorance needs fighting.

It’s a cute theory but I’m underwhelmed. I agree that the poisoning sorts of symptoms would predominate over the hallucinogenic ones.

The main hysteria and hallucinations likely occurred in the general population scared of werewolves more than the victims accused of being werewolves.

What about hirsutism as the cause…? :smiley:

Werewolf scares started whenever there was a particularly nasty wolf about. Something that seemed extraordinarily smart, powerful, or vicious. When Europe still had large chunks of wilderness, this sort of wolf would pop up now and again. They then would scapegoat whoever they didn’t like in town.

Ergotism was well-known in the middle ages, they called it St. Anthony’s Fire. While I can’t say that victims were never misdiagnosed as victims or perpetrators of supernatural misdeeds, they would have recognized it as a mundane disease most of the time.

Where did you hear this hypothesis? Are you confusing werewolf with witch? The Witches Curse

I’ve heard it alternately with werewolves and witches, other supernatural horrors as well. Yes I’ve also heard the Salem Witch ergot theory as well, and I find it equally unconvincing. Much easier explanation is that those girls were just a bunch of manipulative bitches who started a mass hysteria. Or perhaps as I outlined in a high school essay on The Crucible; the accused were real witches and they deserved to be hung.

I haven’t a clue about the werewolf thing, but:
-According to Roger’s Mushrooms, there are abundant reports of Ergot poisoning - so when it’s known to have happened, arguing about whether or not it’s possible is somewhat moot.

Also, that site describes the symptoms as having two different forms - one involving lots of physiological discomfort, the other involving psychosis and hallucination.

Ergot toxins are not destroyed by cooking

That’s “hanged”, dear, hanged. But after reading John’s line for an entire class read-through of that horridly-written junk (IMHO, of course), I was all for his hanging myself.

OK, ergot user checking in here. I have cluster headaches and so far, ergot is about the only thing that will abort them. The problem is, it occasionally takes a LOT more than the recommended dose to get rid of the pain. On one really horrible occasion I wound up taking over 20mg.

The thing about taking a lot of ergot is that your hands and feet get very cold within about 15 minutes. A little more and you get numbness. Even more, and you get massive pins-and-needles in your extremities. In the Middle Ages when this was supposed to be a problem, the victims must have taken truly enormous doses of ergot in their bread and the symptoms I mentioned above would have been severe. Given that situation, I don’t see how the people back then could have mistaken it for anything else.
Take it for what it’s worth, but I don’t see a victim of ergot poisoning being mistaken for a witch/vampire/werewolf and I suspect that he or she wouldn’t have been listened to if they accused others. The symptoms would have been unmistakable for anything other than ergot poisoning.

Just my 2 cents.


I assume you’re talking about taking some refined pharmaceutical extract of Ergot? - the raw fungus contains a cocktail of several different active toxins/compounds, each of which has its own set of effects.


Absolutely! The thought of munching infected rye does little for me. It’s just Cafergot, commonly available in most places.
My objection to the werewolf idea is that I don’t think people back then were all that dumb. Granted, they were extremely religious and actually believed in ghosts, demons, angels and other delusions but ergot takes effect quickly. Even on a full stomach it would take effect within the hour. When someones uncle eats rye bread and then starts dancing and howling within an hour I’d expect people to realize that; “hey, maybe he ate something.”



You’re more right than you know. Witchcraft WAS practiced at Salem, as several respectable histories have demonstrated in the past couple of decades. I don’t believe that it acted the way people in the trials did, or that any of the malicious intent was supernaturally effected, but people were demonstrably fooling around with occult means.

It’s hard to read many of the witchcraft accounts and believe that all of the accusers were manipulating and faking it. There’s a broad spectrum of people, of course, and some of them seem unquestionably to be gaming the system, but many of the afflicted seem to have been genuinely afflicted by something, be it ergotism or hysteria (Chadwick Hansen’s hypothesis – the girls’ cases match the descriptions of Charcot’s hysterics extremely well) or some other cause.

Did egotism cause werewolf scares?

I suppose if you encountered an unusual number of hirsute egotists…

Well, people did make the connection , although not until the seventeenth century or so, but that didn’t stop outbreaks happening for a number of reasons - failure to detect infected grain, for example.


I wasn’t aware that it was during the 1600s before they made the connection. That is much later than I would have expected. I have read (sorry, no cite) that people deliberately used ergot to induce abortions, something I suspect it would do. If this is true, I wonder how early it was. My point with the abortion business is that if they were using it to induce abortions they would also know what they were using and what kind of effects it could have.
As far as further outbreaks go, that doesn’t surprise me at all. I don’t know the percentage of ergot in the fungus but I wouldn’t think it would take a lot when you consider a person might be harvesting an entire field of rye.



What evidence do we have that there actually were werewolf scares? God knows people were hanged for witchcraft, and there’s assorted stuff in the historical record about vampirism, but I don’t remember ever reading anything about werewolves that preceded the movies.

(Not that I’m claiming to be a historian of the occult – if there’s actual evidence, I’d be glad to learn about it.)

There was folk belief in werewolves previous to Hollywood. Keep in mind that werewolves were believed to have gotten their powers from occult means (usually dealing with the devil), so they were usually just a subsets of witchcraft.

And then you get into the really weird stuff. Carlo Ginzburg describes the benadanti, who believed they were essentially werewolves for God, who took off at night to kick the asses of witches and devils. The Inquisition wasn’t quite sure what to make of them.

I’ve heard it theorized that early serial killers might have been responsible for the legends. Villagers would come across the body of a man or woman who’d been ripped to shreds by a maniac and think to themselves, “Surely, no human could have done this.”

I suspect, tho I’ve little to back this up, that the tendency to blame ergot for werewolf scares is a response to the belief that “No one could really believe something as irrationally stupid as werewolves. They must have been stoned.”
Take it as a given that there were no werewolves, but that people reported and feared werewolves, and that everyone in the middle ages were as educated and logical as the people working for Discovery Channel, it stands to reason that simple hysteria and superstition couldn’t be to blame.

“They” keep trying to find a reasonable excuse for vampire legends, too.

I was under the impression that people who had ergotism often had the ergot fungus actually growing from them. I saw something that said the antibiotics that killed it was the start of modern medicine.

Anyone have any light to shed on this?

I think you must be mixing it up with something rather different, or just reading something that was wrong, because:

-Ergot grows exclusively on cereals
-Antibiotics don’t kill fungi.