Ergot back patch
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The colossal sorceress looming over this quaint New England village is symbolic of the ubiquitous paranoia spawned from the witch-hunts in Colonial America. Amidst a god-fearing, Puritan society, the mere suggestion that a witch abounded was enough to breed widespread hysteria. Villagers became paranoid and were quick to accuse one another of witchcraft, a denunciation that often ended at the gallows.
It is only within the past 40 years that researchers have shed new light on the possible catalyst of this historic frenzy, revealing the true culprit as Ergot-poisoning. A harmful fungus that infects rye and similar grains, Ergot (Claviceps purpurea) produces alkaloids that, when ingested, can cause severe hallucinations, spasms, delusions, vomiting, and crawling sensations on the skin. Prolonged consumption of Ergot is known as Ergotism and, in extreme cases, culminates in gangrene or death.
Although the Ergot hypothesis is debated amongst witchcraft scholars, more and more evidence is stacking up in support of this scientific theory. Agricultural records of the past reveal that damp growing seasons preceding the witch-hunts presented the ideal climate conditions required to breed Ergot. In addition, Ergot was often overlooked, as it was mistaken for discolored grains, and subsequently found its way into the villager’s main food source— bread. An abundance of bread was traditionally baked after the harvest, in preparation for a long, cold winter. In the case of Salem, Massachusetts, the witch hysteria began in the winter of 1692, coinciding with the consumption of the villager’s winter food supply which was most likely infected with Ergot. Lastly, recent studies reveal that different strains of Ergot, as well as varying soils, have contributed to new alkaloid compounds which could explain the diverse manifestations of Ergotism from case to case. This attribute also unveils how Ergot managed to go by unsuspected as a factor in the witch-hunts for so many centuries.
Though this theory debunks the more exciting notion that witches were behind the frenzied happenings, it still holds mystery in the fact that Ergot has been linked to witchcraft for centuries prior to the witch craze. Grains infected with the fungus were often an ingredient in the infamous witch’s flying ointment, a psychoactive paste used to aid in night flight and astral travel. Hedge witches and folk healers of the time would have been aware of Ergot and its effects on the human mind. They knew full well that an outbreak of Ergotism would magnify paranoia and suspicion, successfully turning Puritans against one another. Could it be, perhaps, that Ergot, itself, were the true curse of the witch? After all, she is clever in her ways!
Ergot is original artwork drawn and screen printed by Adrienne Rozzi.
Measures 10" x 14.5"
Black ink on tan fabric
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