The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Claviceps paspali Stevens et Hall


Paspalum Ergot




Class Ascomycetes, Order Clavicipitales, Family Clavicipitaceae



Claviceps fusiformis-paspali (also refers to a type group)

Claviceps rolfsii Stev. et Hall.

Folk Names


Ergot of paspalum, paspalum ergot, paspalummutterkorn, paspalum staggers


Paspulum ergot is a parasitic fungus that infests and forms its sclerotia exclusively in the spikes of wild grasses of the cosmopolitan genus Paspalum (approximately two hundred species; Gramineae; Poaceae) (cf. Claviceps purpureaClaviceps spp.). Infected paspalum grains contain psychoactive or hallucinogenic ergot alkaloids (lysergic acid amide and its derivatives; Aaronson 1988; Acramone et al. 1960, 1961; Petroski and Kelleher 1978). The bioactive, antibiotic, and nontoxic substances paspaline, paspalinine, and paspalicine are also present (Gallagher et al. 1980; Springer and Clardy 1980). For cattle breeders, Paspalum grasses that have been infected with ergot represent a certain threat for their animals (Hindmarsh and Hart 1939). Ergot-infected grains of the North American Dallis grass (Paspalum dilatatum Poir.), which are dangerous to cattle, have also been found to contain paspalinine (Cole et al. 1977).

The ergot fungi of the following Paspalum species have acquired a certain significance as psychoactive substances:

Paspalum distichum L. [syn. Paspalum paspaloides (Michx.) Scribn.]—knotgrass


Common in North America, knotgrass is now a common wild grass in the Mediterranean region364 as well (Wasson et al. 1985). Ergot infesting this grass produces the ergot alkaloids lysergic acid amide (= ergine, LSA) and lysergic acid hydroxyethylamide, both of which also occur in Ipomoea violacea and Turbina corymbosa. Since it contains only hallucinogenic alkaloids, Wasson et al. advanced the hypothesis that Paspalum ergot was the secret ingredient in kykeon, the Eleusinian initiatory drink (cf. Claviceps purpurea):


“Early Man in ancient Greece could have arrived at an hallucinogen from ergot. He might have done this from ergot growing on wheat or barley [Claviceps purpurea]. An easier way would have been to use the ergot growing on the common wild grass Paspalum. This is based on the assumption that the herbalists of ancient Greece were as intelligent and resourceful as the herbalists of pre-Conquest Mexico. (Wasson et al. 1998, 44)




The cosmopolitan Cyprus grasses (Cyperus spp.) are often infected with the fungus Balansia cyperi, which produces psychoactive alkaloids as metabolites. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633)


If this grass was in fact not introduced into Europe until the modern era—as all of the sources suggest—then Paspalum ergot must be eliminated as a possible candidate for the active constituent in kykeon.

Paspalum plicatulum Michx. and Paspalum unispicatum (Scribn. et Merr.) Nash


In Paraguay, these two grasses are apparently often infested with Claviceps paspali. As a result, a sweet secretion (= honeydew) forms on the spikes and is consumed by wasps and bees. Bees that have visited these grasses inoculate their honey with this secretion. In the language of the Makai Indians, the resulting honey is called fic’e and is recognizable by its pungent aroma. Consumption of large amounts is dangerous, for it can produce dizziness, headaches, and drunkenness; it is said that it can be lethal. This honey is used to brew a beer or mead, certainly a beverage with potent effects. The grass Elionurus muticus (Spreng.) Kunth is used as an antidote for poisoning from this honey or drinks made from it. A cold-water extract made from the lower portions of five plants is drunk both to counteract the effects of the honey and to treat poisoning caused by manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz) (Arenas 1987, 289 f.*).

Paspalum scrobiculatum L. [syn. Paspalum commersonii Lam.]—koda millet, kodrava, kodo


The indigenous people of India, where this grass is common, used it as a type of millet (kodo) for food (cf. DeWet et al. 1983). It is mentioned in the Vedic scriptures, the Puranas, and the Ayurvedic classics (e.g., Sushruta Samhita) under the name kodrava. Ayurvedic writings note that the seeds are “sweetish and bitter, tonic, and antidotal to poisons, useful in the treatment of ulcers; it caused constipation and flatulence, upset the physiological balance of the body and led to hallucinations and dysuria” [painful urge to urinate] (Aaronson 1988, 346). The effects and symptoms described are produced not by the grass itself but rather by Paspalum grains that have been infected with ergot365(Bhide and Aimen 1959). In India, ergot-infected Paspalum was used to treat postpartum pain (Aaronson 1988, 347).

In ancient India, the sclerotia were also used in religious contexts; unfortunately, little is known about such use:


It is said that the monks ate the spikes with the husks, whereupon they displayed symptoms of inebriation and were no longer able to stand. It is said that these effects lasted for several days. (Chauduri and Pal 1978)


During the rice shortage of 1946, many Indians collected and ate spikes of kodo millet. This resulted in numerous cases of LSD-like inebriation. Ergot-infested grains of this Paspalum species were found to contain 0.003% ergot alkaloids (dry weight): D-lysergic acid, methylcarbinol amide, D-lysergic acid amide (= ergine), and ergometrine (= ergobasin, ergotocine, ergostetetrine) (Aaronson 1988, 345 f.; Arcamone et al. 1960).

The Lodha of West Bengal either collect the wild grass or harvest the cultivated grass. The seed coats are used as a “ritual hallucinogen” (Pal and Jain 1989, 468). Unfortunately, we have no details about this ritual. Seeds that have had their coats removed are used to distill a type of alcohol (Aaronson 1988, 346).


The ergot fungus (Claviceps) can assume quite different forms on different host plants. Left: Claviceps purpurea from rye (Secale cornutum); middle: Claviceps paspali from a Mediterranean Paspalum grass; right: a spike from a Paspalum species. (Photograph: F. Ratek, with permission of LEK, Slovenia)




See also the entries for Claviceps purpureaClaviceps spp., kykeon, and ergot alkaloids.


Aaronson, S. 1988. Paspalum spp. and Claviceps paspali in ancient and modern India. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 24 (2, 3): 345–48.


Arcamone, F., C. Bonino, E. B. Chain, A. Ferretti, P. Pennella, A. Tonolo, and L. Vero. 1960. Production of lysergic acid derivatives by a strain of Claviceps paspali Stevens et Hall in submerged culture. Nature 187:238–39.


Arcamone, F., E. B. Chain, A. Ferretti, A. Minghetti, P. Pennella, A. Tonolo, and L. Vero. 1961. Production of a new lysergic acid derivative in submerged culture by a strain of Claviceps paspali Stevens et Hall. Proceedings of the Royal Society (London), series B, 155:26–54.


Bhide, N. K., and R. A. Aimen. 1959. Pharmacology of a tranquilizing principle in Paspalum scrobiculatum grain. Nature 183:1735–36.


Chaudhuri, R. H. N., and D. C. Pal. 1978. Less known uses of some grasses of India. Bulletin of the Botanical Society of Bengal 32:48–53.


Cole, Richard J., Joe W. Dorner, John A. Lansden, Richard H. Cox, Courtney Pape, Barry Cunfer, Stephen S. Nicholson, and David M. Bedell. 1977. Paspalum staggers: Isolation and identification of tremorgenic metabolites from sclerotia of Claviceps paspaliJournal of Agric. Food Chem. 25 (5): 1197–1201.


DeWet, J. M. J., et al. 1983. Diversity in kodo millet, Paspalum scrobiculatumEconomic Botany 37 (2): 159–63.


Gallagher, Rex T., Janet Finer, and Jon Clardy. 1980. Paspaline, a tremorgenic metabolite from Claviceps paspali Stevens et Hall. Tetrahedron Letters 21:235–36.


Hindmarsh, W. L., and L. Hart. 1939. Poisoning of cattle by ergotized paspalum. Veterinary Report of New South Wales 1938:78–88.


Pal, D. C., and S. K. Jain. 1989. Notes on Lodha medicine in Midnapur District, West Bengal, India. Economic Botany 43 (4): 464–70.


Petroski, Richard J., and William J. Kelleher. 1978. Biosynthesis of ergot alkaloids. Cell-free formation of three products from L-tryptophan and isopentenylpyrophosphate and their incorporation into lysergic acid amide. Lloydia 41:332–41.


Springer, James P., and Jon Clardy. 1980. Paspaline and paspalicine, two indole-mevalonate metabolites from Claviceps paspaliTetrahedron Letters 21:231–34.


Wasson, R. Gordon, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Ruck. 1998. The road to Eleusis. 20th-anniversary ed. Los Angeles: Hermes Press.


Claviceps purpurea (Fries) Tulasne






Class Ascomycetes (Sac Fungi), Order Clavicipitales (Ergot Fungi), Family Clavicipitaceae

Forms and Subspecies


This species is composed of numerous races, which are distinguished primarily by their constituents and the differing composition of their alkaloids (Hofmann 1964, 5). Varieties, e.g., Claviceps purpurea var. glyceriae, are occasionally listed; these are not, however, botanically accepted (Teuscher 1992, 912).



Clavarius clavus nom. nud.

Claviceps microcephala (Wallr.) Tul.

Claviceps sesleriae Staeger

Claviceps setulosa Quél.

Clavis secalinus nom. nud.

Cordyceps purpurea Fries

Fusarium heterosporum nom. nud.

Sclerotium clavus DC.

Secale cornutum nom. nud.

Spacelia segetum Leveillé

Folk Names


Achterkorn, acinula davus, afterkorn, blé, bléavorté, blé cornu, blé noire, bockshorn, brandkorn, calvi siliginis, centeio espigado (Portuguese), charbon de seigle, chiodo segalino, clavaria clavus, clavus, clavus secalinus, cockspur, cockspur rye, conichuelo, cornadillo (Spanish), cornezuelo del centeno, cornichos, cravagem de centeio, cuernecillo de centeno, dürrkorn, ergot, ergota, ergot de seigle, ergot of rye, ergotum secale, esparo de centeio, espolón de centeno, esporão de centeio, faux seigle, fungus secalis, giftkorn, grano allogliato, grano cornuto, grano speranota, grano sperone, hahnensporn, horned rye, horn seed, hungerkorn, kindesmord, kornmuhme, kornmutter, kornzapfen, krähenkopf, kriebelkorn, kriekelkorn, madre segal, mascarello, mater secalis, mehl-mutter, meldrøje, mjyöldrya, mother of rye, mutterkorn, mutterkornpilz, mutterzapfen, rey ergot, rockenmutter, roggenbrand, roggenmutter, roter keulenkopf, rye smut, schwarzkopf, schwarzkorn, sclerotium clavus, secale clavatum, secale corniculatum, secale cornutum, secale luxurians, secale maternum, secale temulentum, secale turgidum, secalis mater, segala alloglioto, segale cornuta, seigle ergoté, seigle ergotisé, seigle ivre (French, “drunken grain”), spawn, spermoedia clavus, sperone di gallo, spiked rye, spur, spurred rye, tizón de centeno, todtenkorn, tollkorn, wolf(s)zahn, zapfenkorn



The history of ergot is presumably as old as that of rye (Secale cereale L.), which is the primary host for this parasitic fungus. Rye seems to have been largely unknown in ancient times (Germer 1985*). Apparently it was cultivated in central Europe in the first millennium B.C., during the Hallstatt (early) Iron Age. It first arrived in Greece in the fourth century A.D. (Renfrew 1973, 83*). For this reason, neither rye nor ergot is mentioned by the authors of antiquity (cf. the discussion in Rätsch 1995a, 250 ff.*).

The ancient Hebrews knew of a son or sonin, a “degenerate wheat of black color and bitter taste.” Consuming this was said to have both inebriating and lethal effects, depending upon the dosage. Berendes (1891, 108*) has interpreted this as grain infected with Claviceps purpurea. The Bible makes mention of “rust-infected grain”; some (e.g., Moldenke 1986*) have suggested that this “rust” was the uredinial species Puccinia, while others have pointed to ergot.

Shelley (1995) has attempted to demonstrate that ergot was the soma of the Aryans, the haoma of the Parsis, the initiatory drug of the Mithraic mysteries (cf. Peganum harmala), and the elixir or philosopher’s stone of the alchemists. Gordon Wasson believed that ergot was the secret psychoactive ingredient in kykeon (cf. Claviceps paspali).

In his work On Nature, the Roman poet Lucretius (ca. 94–55 B.C.) described a disease that can be interpreted as ergotism:


Grains on an ear of rye (Secale cereale) are infected with ergot (Claviceps purpurea).



Saint Anthony, the patron saint of those afflicted with ergotism, with his attributes: the ignis sacer (“holy fire”), the swine, and the tau-shaped walking stick. (Woodcut, fifteenth century)


Suddenly this new and devastating air of plague descended

down upon the water, or it nested in the fruits of the field . . .

the entire body was reddened by burning sores,

as when the “sacred fire” [ignis sacer] spread over the limbs.

Throughout the inside of a person, so that it burned all the way down to the bones, burned in the stomach as brightly as the fire in the interior of the earth. . . .

Completely confused condition with fear and melancholia,

darkened brow and a sharp, even angry look in the eyes;

moreover, a fearfully excited hearing and buzzing in the ears.

(6.1125, 1166 ff., 1183 ff.)


During the Middle Ages, a devastating epidemic called ignis sacer, “holy fire,” struck. The French physician Gay Didier, who worked in the service of the Antonite hospital in Saint-Antoine du Viennois, wrote about Saint Anthony’s “fire” in his Epitome Chirugieae:


The fire consists of a mortifying gangrene of a limb, it is also known as Saint Antonious’s or St. Martialis’s fire. It is remarkable to note that such pain and such heat arise with this disease that it is tantamount to a real burn. (In Bauer 1973, 22)


Saint Anthony’s fire (ergotism) was an epidemic disease that swept through central and southern Europe in the sixteenth century (Ruffie and Sournia 1993). The etiology of this devastating disease, which is the result of ergot poisoning, was not discovered until the seventeenth century. Since Claviceps purpurea infests primarily rye, the disease usually appeared in those areas where the populace lived primarily on rye and were constantly forced to eat the “bread of dreams” or “devil’s bread” (Camporesi 1990; Gebelein 1991, 298 f.*; Matossian 1989). It was not until the seventeenth century that the connection between Saint Anthony’s fire and ergotism was recognized. At the time, it was believed that ergot was a creature of the devil. Those afflicted by ergot regarded Saint Anthony as their patron saint, for he himself had once successfully resisted the hallucinatory temptations of the devil—which the victims now faced themselves—in the Egyptian desert (Athanasius 1987). Saint Anthony was long venerated as the healer of ergotism (Kolta 1987; Müller-Ebeling 1985).

The German common names rockenmutter [rye mother], afterkorn [anal grain], todtenkorn [death grain], tollkorn [mad grain],366 and mutter-korn [mother grain] are all indicative of the effects and usages of this fungus. Since the Middle Ages, midwives have used ergot to induce labor. The first written source that directly referred to ergot in this context was Lonicerus’s Kräuterbuch (seventeenth century). During the late modern era, ergot was the most important agent for inducing contractions (Schneider 1974, 1:335*). The first scientific report on ergot as a uterotonic agent appeared in 1808. In 1824, the American physician David Hosack recommended ergot to accelerate childbirth.

In 1918, Arthur Stoll isolated and described ergotamine, the first ergot alkaloid to be identified. Later analyses of ergot by Albert Hofmann uncovered the structures of numerous other ergot alkaloids and also resulted in the “accidental” synthesis of LSD. These studies also produced several preparations that are still in use today (e.g., methergine and hydergine).



Claviceps purpurea occurs worldwide as a parasite on grasses (June grass [Poa pratensis L.], orchard grass [Dactylis glomerata L.], meadow foxtail [Alopecurus pratensis L.]), and cereal grains (rye, barley, wheat). The fungus is found as a parasite on four hundred species of the Family Gramineae (= Poaceae) (Teuscher 1992, 912).



Ergot is reproduced through a process known as rye inoculation:


To effect this, the blossoming rye spikes are infected using a conidial [spore] suspension obtained through in-vitro culture. This can occur by spraying or by injection, the latter being more effective. Today, inoculating machines that make it possible to efficiently infect large fields using the injection method are used for large-scale industrial production. (Hofmann 1964, 7)


To produce ergot for pharmaceutical purposes, large fields of rye are now inoculated in Chechnya, Hungary, and Portugal (Teuscher 1992, 914).



The sclerotium of Claviceps purpurea is dark purple. On rye (Secale cereale L.), the conelike sclerotium is dark violet to black, can grow up to 6 cm in length, and resembles a long, slender tooth.


Botanical illustration of ergot sclerotia. (Engraving from Pereira, De Beginselen der Materia Medica en der Therapie, 1849)



Ergot, or secale cornutum, is an ancient agent for inducing labor and still finds use today in homeopathy.


“The ‘sacred fire’ ate into the flesh of the people, so that it fell from the bones in burning shreds, made the earth delirious, and turned humans into beasts.”




Psychoactive Material


—Secale cornutum (ergot)


Only the sclerotia (fruiting bodies) of ergot infecting rye (Secale cereale L.) are used (Teuscher 1992, 912).

Preparation and Dosage


The sclerotia are collected when the rye is ripe and dry and are then dried and crushed. The resulting powder can be used to produce alcoholic extracts and cold-water infusions. Because ergot preparations are almost impossible to standardize and exhibit considerable variations in alkaloid concentration and in the proportions of the constituent alkaloids, one seldom finds information about dosages. The older literature often notes that four ergot grains are sufficient to speed up the process of labor. Such statements, however, should not necessarily be taken at face value. Alcoholic extracts can be very dangerous, as they dissolve the toxic alkaloids. It is only with cold-water extracts that the poisonous alkaloids remain undissolved. There is no data available concerning cold-water extracts. Self-experimentation is absolutely not recommended!

It has been conjectured that ergot was an ingredient in the Delphic incense (cf. Hyoscyamus albusLaurus nobilis) and in witches’ ointments. The recipe for a “lotion for prophetic dreams” (from Piobb) contains ergot (as the primary agent) as well as turpentine, the yolk from the egg of a wild duck, diascordium (?), red roses, goat’s or mare’s milk, ivy (Hedera helix), alchemilla, ironweed (Verbena?), shavings from deer antlers, monkshood (Aconitumspp.), and whale blubber. All of the ingredients are boiled in alcohol with camphor (cf. Cinnamomum camphora); mixed with coral syrup, black salisify (radix consolid.), balsam, and ammoniac; and finally dissolved in Malvasian wine. Three drops are added to a liter of water. The resulting solution is smeared onto the hands, feet, head, and abdomen before sleep (Spilmont 1984, 142 f.).

Ergot is also a component of many homeopathic preparations, e.g., Secale Pentarkan, which consists of secale cornutum, glonoine, Ignatius bean (see Strychnos spp.), magnesium phosphate, and nux-vomica (Strychnos nux-vomica).

A variety of plants were utilized to treat Saint Anthony’s fire, including mandrake (Mandragora officinarum; cf. Gebelin 1991, 299*). The precious spice saffron (Crocus sativus) was also regarded as a magical antidote. Plants used to treat the epidemic are depicted on the Isenheim Altar together with Saint Anthony (Seidl and Bauer 1983, 64). They are easily identified as common plantain (Plantago majorL.) and aconite (Aconitum napellus). During the Middle Ages, plantain was known as herba proserpinacia, “plant of Proserpina [= Persephone]” (Storl 1996, 101*). Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, was kidnapped by Pluto/ Hades, as a result of which the Great Goddess ultimately established her mysteries (cf. kykeon).

Most (1842, 457*) lists rhubarb (Rheum spp.) as a remedy for ergot poisoning. Rhubarb is one of the many plants associated with soma.

Ritual Use


If ergot was in fact an ingredient in haomasoma, or kykeon, then its ritual use as a psychoactive substance is rooted in prehistoric times.

In ancient central Europe, it may have been used in the ritual transformation of a person into an animal: “The werewolf crouches amidst the grain,” it was said, and “amidst the grain” is where ergot grows. Here again, the best we can do is to speculate.

Ergot or preparations containing ergot appear to have been used for divinatory purposes in French occultism (Spilmont 1984).

Today, ergot-infected grains are used in Peru by Indian soothsayers in conjunction with the coca oracle (cf. Erythroxylum coca).



An ancient Celtic coin features what may be the oldest representation of an ergot-infected grain (Lengyel 1976). A woodcut in the Kräuterbuch of Lonicerus (1679) is usually regarded as the earliest illustration of a grain of ergot-infected rye.

It has frequently been suggested that the pictures of Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450–1516) were inspired by ergot-induced hallucinations (Brod 1991; Dixon 1984; cf. Datura stramonium). In particular, those pictures that have the temptation of Saint Anthony as their theme have been interpreted as representations of the ghastly visions induced by Saint Anthony’s fire (Müller-Ebeling 1983). The famous Isenheim Altarpiece of Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1470–1528) is directly related to ergot:


On the contrary, this altar stood in an isolated place, before a strange and isolated community: in a hospital church in Isenheim (Alsace) belonging to a cloister of the order of Saint Anthony. Saint Anthony was the patron saint of the lepers, those unfortunates who were afflicted by an epidemic known at the time as “hell fire” or “burning sickness.” This devastating epidemic, from which thousands died, had been moving through the West since the tenth century. The cloister at Isenheim was a house for the afflicted, a hospital for people suffering from this disease. The altar was intended for those wretched individuals who were doomed to this slow, suppurating death. It was the great shrine of their church. (Fraenger 1983, 11 f.)


The right wing of the second opening of the retable depicts the temptation of Saint Anthony. A “human figure, upon whose body fester all of the devastations of the epidemic” (Fraenger 1983, 46), is visible on the bottom left (Seidel and Bauer 1983). The afflicted person is unconscious and appears to be hallucinating the wild scene. On the bottom right of the same panel is a tree stump, from which polypores (cf. “Polyporus mysticus”) are growing. Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) dramatized the creation of the altar in his opera Mathis der Maler [Matthias the Painter] (1935) by having his painter experience visions like those that had once tempted Saint Anthony.367 The scene was also set to music in “The Temptation of St. Anthony” by the psychedelic rock group The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (1972).


This illustration of an ear of grain infected with ergot is from an antique Celtic coin and may be the oldest representation of its kind. (From Lengyel, Das geheime Wissen der Kelten, 1976)


In later centuries, the pictorial motif of the temptation of Saint Anthony was a popular device for depicting hallucinatory states or visionary experiences (Müller-Ebeling 1989, 1997). A poem of the same name by Gustave Flaubert (1821– 1880), which appears very “trippy” from today’s perspective, should also be mentioned in this context. In his horror novel Die Elixiere des Teufels [The Elixirs of the Devil] (1815), E. T. A. Hofmann (1776–1822) described a “wine of Saint Anthony,” the consumption of which produced extreme hallucinations (Hofmann 1982*; cf. Vitis vinifera). The novel The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire (Fuller 1968) is based upon a purported epidemic of ergotism in Pont-St.-Esprit (France) that produced mass hysteria and collective hallucinations (Latimer 1981, 119).

In his novel St.-Petri-Schnee [Saint Peter’s Snow] (1933), Leo Perutz (1882–1957) strangely anticipated the discovery of LSD from ergot (cf. ophiussa). He describes an experiment in which a chemist is attempting to isolate from a cereal fungus a drug of the gods that would make mystical experiences possible:


This Dionysos [Areopagita] relates in his writings that he imposed a two-day fast on the members of his community who longed for the true presence of God, after which he served them “bread prepared from sacred flour.”—“For this bread”—he wrote—“leads to union with God and enables one to comprehend the infinite.”—. . . Like all priests, the Roman priests of the fields knew the secrets of the drug that placed humans into that state of ecstasy in which they “became able to see” and “recognized the power of God.” The white frost—this was not a type of grain, but a disease of the grain, a parasite, a fungus that penetrates into the grain plant and nourishes itself on its substance. . . . In Spain, it is known as “the Magdalena lichen,” in Alsace as “the dew of poor souls.” The “doctor’s book” of Adam of Cremona described it under the name “misericordia grain”; it was known in the Alps as “St. Peter’s snow.” In the area around St. Gallen, it was called the “mendicant,” and in northern Bohemia “St. John’s rot.” Among us here in Westphalia, where it occurs particularly often, the farmers call it “the fire of the mother of God.” (Perutz 1960, 119, 120, 121)


The American Beat poet Dale Pendell (b. 1944) immortalized the discovery of LSD from ergot in a poem (Pendell 1997; cf. Pendell 1995*).

The internationally famous American author Marion Zimmer Bradley (b. 1930) is known especially for her romantic fantasy and sciencefiction novels. Psychoactive drugs are featured remarkably often in her novels and stories. In a recent novel, Bradley demonstrates that she has carefully considered Gordon Wasson’s thesis that ergot was used in Eleusis.368 This historical novel, titled The Firebrand, tells the tale of the Trojan War from the (feminist) perspective of the young seeress Cassandra (Bradley 1987). She was consecrated to Apollo, raised in Colchis, and trained by Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons. At the conclusion of her training among the Amazons, Cassandra was initiated into the mysteries of the Great Goddess. The ritual, presided over by older women, is conducted in a temple. The female initiates are given a drink made of ergot:


She thought, till she touched her lips to the brew, that it was wine.

She tasted a curious slimy bitterness which made her think of the smell of the blighted rye Penthesilea had bidden her remember; as she drank she thought her stomach would rebel, but with a fierce effort she controlled the queasiness and brought her attention back to the drums. (1987, 135)


The drink quickly manifests its effects, which are described as follows:


Strange colors crawled before her eyes, and it seemed for a moment that she was walking through a great dark tunnel. (135)


After this typical psychedelic tunnel experience, Cassandra perceives the voice of the Great Goddess:


Share with Earth’s Daughter the descent into darkness, a voice guided her from afar; whether a real voice or not she never knew. One by one you must leave behind all the things of this world which are dear to you, for now you have no part in them. . . . This is the first of the gates of the Underworld; here you must give up that which binds you to Earth and the realms of Light. (135, 136)


“On the grain cone, Latin Clavi Siliginis: One often finds in the heads of rye or grain long, black, hard, narrow cones growing out betwixt and between the grain, that is in the heads, and which stand out and look like long little nails; they are white on the inside like the grain, and they are entirely harmless to the grain. Such grain cones are regarded by the women as a great aid and proven medicine for the rise and cramping of mothers when one ingests and uses three of these several times.”




Cassandra passes the test and walks through the gate. A second psychedelic tunnel now opens up to her:


This is the second Gate of the Underworld, where you must give up your fears or whatever holds you back from traveling this realm as one of those whose feet know and tread the Path in My very footprints. (136)


After experiencing her death, she reaches the third gate, whereupon she is reborn. The culmination is the discovery of the Great Goddess:


She hung senseless in the darkness, shot through with fire, surrounded by the rushing sound of wings.

Goddess, If I am to die for You, at least let me once behold Your face!

There was a little lightening of the darkness; before her eyes she saw a swirling paleness, from which gradually emerged a pair of dark eyes, a pallid face. She had seen the face before, reflected in a stream . . . it was her own. A voice very close to her whispered through the drumming and the whining flutes:

Do you not yet know that you are I, and I am you?

Then the rushing wings took her, blotting out everything. Wings and dark hurricane winds, thrusting her upward, upward toward the light. (137)


At the conclusion of the ritual, Penthesilea warns her:


Hush; it is forbidden to speak of the Mystery. (138)


As of 1994, 440,000 copies of the German translation of Firebrand had been sold. Assuming that every copy sold is read by at least two people, this means that the book has been read by almost one million people in Germany alone. Certainly, more people have learned of the ergot mysteries from this book than from all of the scientific or nonfiction discussions in the academic literature (Rätsch 1996).

The experimental music group Psychic TV released a song titled “Eleusis” on its album Dreams Less Sweet. It was clearly influenced by Wasson’s theory (Sony/Some Bizarre, SBZ CD 011, 1992).

Medicinal Use


Since medieval times, ergot-infested grains have been used in folk gynecology as a means of inducing contractions, hastening childbirth, and treating postpartum complications (Mühle and Breuel 1977). In the eighteenth century, ergot was used in Thuringia (Germany) as a hemostatic agent. In the nineteenth century, ground grains of ergot were known as pulvis parturiens; they were administered to treat palsy and to induce abortions (Most 1843, 457*).

Today, ergot is no longer used in allopathic medicine, as it is almost impossible to standardize the drug (Teuscher 1992, 918). Preparations made from it are used only in homeopathy (Secale cornutum hom. HAB1, Secale cornutum hom. HPUS78) to treat particular symptom pictures, such as uterine cramps, spasm disorders, and migraine headaches (Teuscher 1992, 921).

Some of the substances that have been derived from ergot alkaloids (e.g., methergine, dihydergot, and hydergine) are still prescribed frequently.

Constituents and Effects


Depending upon the host plant, climate, and location, the ergot fungus can produce alkaloids (the ergot alkaloids ergotamine, ergotine, ergocristine, ergokryptine,369 ergocornine, ergometrine; also ergoclavine, histamine, tyramine, choline, acetylcholine) that have varying effects (cf. Horwell and Verge 1979). Some of these are toxic; others are psychedelic. The harmful alkaloids produce two different forms of ergotism (ergot poisoning, Saint Anthony’s fire):


Gangrenous ergotism began with vomiting and diarrhea, with itching in the fingers and inflamed appearances that were accompanied by severe burning pains. After a few days, the symptoms of gangrene then appeared. Starting with the fingers and toes, the limbs began to take on a blue-blackish color and to mummify. In cases of severe poisoning, it could even occur that the arms and legs would fall from the body without any loss of blood whatsoever. The gangrenous form of ergotism was referred to by such names as “mal des ardents,” “ignis sacer,” and “heiliges feuer” [sacred fire]. The convulsive form, which began with symptoms similar to those of the gangrenous, was characterized primarily by severe nervous disturbances. Painful muscle contractions, especially in the extremities, occurred, which ultimately led to epilepticlike spasms. (Hofmann 1964, 8)


Ergot from wheat, barley, and rye contains essentially the same alkaloids (ergotamine and ergotoxine groups, ergonovine, and occasionally traces of lysergic acid amide). In contrast to the dangerous toxins, the hallucinogenic substances lysergic acid amide, lysergic acid hydroxyethylamide, and ergonovine are water soluble and can therefore be separated from one another. Unfortunately, reports about the effects of ergonovine and methylergonovine are quite unsatisfactory (Ripinsky-Naxon 1993*). Further ethnopharmacological research is required.


Plantain (Plantago), the “plant of Persephone,” was used to treat Saint Anthony’s fire (ergotism). (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)






“‘I will bring you the strong tea. Drink it quickly. The ergot has overwintered. It is dissolved.’ Taking small, hasty sips, Medea hurried to wash down the fungus. The pustules on the ears of rye were dark violet. The color of her flowers. Pain and happiness. The parasite rushed into her body and worked its way through her. Not a convolution was neglected. Medea lay with her legs and arms spread out, so that the poison could quickly find its way.”




Commercial Forms and Regulations


In Germany, pharmaceutical preparations of ergot may be obtained only from a pharmacy. All preparations of ergot alkaloids require a prescription from a physician (Teuscher 1992, 920). Only homeopathic dilutions of D3 and below are freely available.



See also the entries for Claviceps paspalikykeon, and ergot alkaloids.


Athanasius. 1987. Vita Antonii. Graz: Verlag Styria.


Bauer, Veit Harold. 1973. Das Antonius-Feuer in Kunst und Medizin. Historische Schriftenreihe, vol. 2. Basel: Sandoz.


Bove, Frank James. 1970. The story of ergot. Basel and New York: S. Karger.


Bradley, Marion Zimmer. 1987. The firebrand. New York: Simon and Schuster.


———. 1972. Darkover landfall. New York: Daw Books.


Brod, Thomas M. 1991. Hieronymus Bosch and ergot hallucinations. Paper presented at the 144th annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, May 11–16, 1991.


Camporesi, Piero. 1990. Das Brot der Träume. Frankfurt/M.: Campus.


Dixon, Laurinda S. 1984. Bosch’s “St. Anthony Triptych”—An apothecary’s apotheosis. Art Journal, summer: 119–131.


Ferraro, G. E., S. L. Debenedetti, and J. D. Coussio. 1978. Isolation of α-ergokriptine from an Argentine ergot. Lloydia 41:179–80.


Fraenger, Wilhelm. 1983. Matthias Grünewald. Munich: C. H. Beck.


Fuller, John G. 1968. The day of St. Anthony’s fire. New York: Macmillan.


Haas, Ursula. 1991. Freispruch für Medea. Frankfurt/M.: Ullstein.


Hofmann, Albert. 1964. Die Mutterkornalkaloide. Stuttgart: Enke.


Horwell, David C., and John P. Verge. 1979. Isolation and identification of 6,7-seco-agroclavine from Claviceps purpureaPhytochemistry 18:519.


Kolta, K. S. 1987. Der heilige Antonius als Heiler im Spätmittelalter. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Medizin 31 (38): 97–101.


Latimer, Dean. 1981. Mutterkorn und Roggenbrot. In Der Hexengarten, ed. H. A. Hansen, 109–46. Munich: Trikont-Dianus.


Lengyel, Lancelot. 1976. Das geheime Wissen der Kelten. Freiburg: Bauer.


Mannhardt, Wilhelm. 1865. Roggenwolf und Roggenhund. Ein Beitrag zur germanischen Sittenkunde. Danzig: Ziemssen.


———. 1868. Die Korndämonen: Ein Beitrag zur germanischen Sittengeschichte. Berlin: Dümmler’s.


Matossian, Mary Kilbourne. 1989. Poisons of the past: Molds, epidemics, and history. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Mühle, Erich. 1953. Vom Mutterkorn. Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft.


Mühle, Erich, and Klaus Breuel. 1977. Das Mutterkorn, ein Gräserparasit als Gift- und Heilpflanze. Lutherstadt: Wittenberg.


Müller-Ebeling, Claudia. 1983. “Die Versuchung des Heiligen Antonius” als Identifikationsmodell der Maler des Fin De Siècle. Master’s thesis, Hamburg.


———. 1985. Was hat der hl. Antonius mit dem Wilden Mann zu tun? In Namaste Yeti: Geschichten vom Wilden Mann, ed. C. Rätsch and H. J. Probst, 89–98. Munich: Knaur.


———. 1989. The return to matter—the temptations of Odilon Redon. In Gateway to inner space, ed. C. Rätsch, 167–78. Bridport, Dorset: Prism Press.


———. 1997. Die “Versuchung des hl. Antonius” als “Mikrobenepos”: Eine motivgeschichtliche Studie zu den drei Lithographiefolgen Odilon Redons zu Gustave Flauberts Roman. Berlin: VWB.


Pendell, Dale. 1997. Das Mutterkorn: The making of Delysid. In Entheogens and the future of religion, ed. R. Forte, 23–29, San Francisco: Council of Spiritual Practices.


Perutz, Leo. 1960. St.-Petri-Schnee. Vienna: Paul Zsolnay Verlag.


Przybyszewski, Stanislaw. 1979. Die Synagoge Satans. Berlin: Zerling. (Orig. pub. 1900.)


Rätsch, Christian. 1996. Die Mutterkornmysterien im Roman von Marion Zimmer Bradley. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 1995 (4): 331–34. Berlin: VWB.


———. 1997. Eine kurze Bibliographie zum Mutterkorn. In Schutzschrift für Das Mutterkorn, als einer angeblichen Ursache der sogenannten Kriebelkrankheit, by Rudolph Augustin Vogel, 67–73. Berlin: VWB.


Ruffie, Jacques, and Jean-Charles Sournia. 1993. Die Seuchen in der Geschichte der Menschheit. Munich: dtv/Klett-Cotta.


Seidel, Max, and Christian Bauer. 1983. Grünewald: Der Isenheimer Altar. Stuttgart: Belser Verlag.


Shelley, William Scott. 1995. The elixir: An alchemical study of the ergot mushrooms. Notre Dame, Indiana: Cross Cultural Publications Inc.


Siemens, Fritz. 1880. Psychosen bei Ergotismus. Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten 11 (1–2): 366–90.


Spilmont, Jean-Pierre. 1984. Magie. Munich: Heyne.


Stoll, Arthur. 1943. Altes und Neues über Mutterkorn. Mitteilungen der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft, Bern 1942: 45–80.


———. 1951. Die spezifischen Wirkstoffe des Mutterkorns und ihre therapeutische Anwendung. Aulendorf: Editio Cantor.


Teuscher, Eberhard. 1992. Claviceps. In Hagers Handbuch der Pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 4:911–22. Berlin: Springer.


Vogel, Rudolph Augustin. 1997. Schutzschrift für Das Mutterkorn, als einer angeblichen Ursache der sogenannten Kriebelkrankheit. Reihe Ethnomedizin und Bewußtseinsforschung—Historische Materialien, vol. 9. Berlin: VWB. (Orig. pub. 1771.)


Claviceps spp.


Ergot Fungi




Class Ascomycetes (Sac Fungi), Order Clavicipitales (Ergot Fungi), Family Clavicipitaceae


There are thirty-five to fifty species of ergot fungi (Claviceps spp.). The name ergot refers to the overwintering stage (sclerotium) of sac fungi that parasitically infest various cereal grains (rye, wheat, barley, millet), wild sweet grasses (Gramineae = Poaceae; e.g., bearded darnel, Lolium temulentumPaspalum species), and rushes (Juncaceae) and sedges (Cyperaceae; cf. Cyperus spp.) (Dörfelt 1989, 92**).

It is possible that sleepy grass (Stipa spp.) is also infested with Claviceps species and consequently may be psychoactive. All ergot fungi produce psychoactive and/or toxic alkaloids (ergot alkaloidsindole alkaloids).

Claviceps gigantea Fuentes—diente de caballo (“horse’s tooth”), giant ergot


This fungus apparently infests only maize (Zea mays), a New World grass (Moreno and Fucikovsky 1972). It contains ergot alkaloids of unknown composition and is regarded in Mexico as poisonous (Guzmán 1994, 1438**). Many Indians regard this fungal infestation as a disease of the maize plant (Rätsch 1989).

When the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico was conquered by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, Franciscans came into the country, compiling various reports and dictionaries. One of the three most important lexicons that have been preserved is now known as the Wiener Wörterbuch [Vienna Lexicon] (Andrews Heath de Zapata 1978). Compiled around 1625, it contains several extremely unusual and interesting comments related to Saint Anthony and to Saint Anthony’s fire, the malady named after him (cf. Claviceps purpurea):


metnalil kak: fuego de San Antón, “ ‘Hell’ fire: Saint Anthony’s fire”

he metnalil kake humpati uinic lic yulel: Esta enfermedad mata sin remedio, “This hell fire burns all people in the same manner: This affliction kills without remedy.” (WW 306)


These entries clearly indicate that the author of the Wiener Wörterbuch interpreted certain manifestations and terminology of the Indians as Saint Anthony’s fire (ergotism), which he knew from Europe. Since the link between the disease and ergot had not yet been discovered, and because it is possible that the ergot fungus was not present in the Yucatán at that time, fuego de San Antón may have referred to another, similar phenomenon (cf. Datura innoxia). However, the entries in the Wiener Wörterbuch suggest that in the Yucatán there may also have been epidemics of some types of affliction that resembled gangrenous ergotism. The reports of two Spaniards, Diego Lopez de Cogolludo and Fra Diego de Landa, demonstrate that Saint Anthony was being venerated in Yucatán during the early colonial period (Hermanns and Probst 1994). It may be that fuego de San Antón was exactly that which it refers to, a form of poisoning due to the giant ergot that infests maize, Claviceps gigantea.


Giant ergot (Claviceps gigantea) infests chiefly ears of maize. (Photographed in southern Mexico)



The spikes of the dune grass Ammophila maritima, which lives in a symbiotic relationship with Psilocybe azurescens, are often infested with ergot (Claviceps sp.).


Claviceps glabra Langdon

Infests numerous wild grasses.


Claviceps nirgicans Tul.

Infests numerous wild grasses.


Claviceps paspali

Infests only grasses of the genus Paspalum.


Claviceps purpurea

Infests preferentially rye but also wheat and barley.


Claviceps sp.

Infests the dune grass Ammophila maritima, which lives in a symbiotic relationship with Psilocybe azurescens (Stamets 1996, 95**).



See also the listings for Claviceps paspaliClaviceps purpurea, and ergot alkaloids.


Andrews Heath de Zapata, Dorothy. 1978. Vocabulario de Mayathan por sus abecedarios. Mérida: Area Maya.


Hermanns, Barbara, and Heinz Jürgen Probst. 1994. Bericht über die Dinge von Yucatán (1572). In Chactun—Die Götter der Maya, ed. C. Rätsch, 2nd ed., 175–211. Munich: Diederichs.


Moreno, M., and L. Fucikovsky. 1972. Effect of position and number of sclerotia of Claviceps gigantea on maize germination. Fitopatologia 5/6:7–9.


Rätsch, Christian. 1989. St. Anthony’s fire in Yucatán. In Gateway to inner space, ed. C. Rätsch, 161–65. Bridport and Dorset: Prism Press.


———. n.d. Das Antoniusfeuer in Yucatán: Eine ethnopharmakologische Spekulation. Unpublished manuscript, Hamburg.

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