Ergotism, Religion, LSD, & Art.

Jan Mandijn, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (circa 1550) oil on panel, height: 61.5 cm (24.2 in). Width: 83.5 cm (32.9 in). (image courtesy Wikimedia commons). [Note the ergot laden rye bursting through the roof.]

Hyperallergic has an absolutely fascinating article on St. Anthony’s Fire and the effect of ergotism on art in general, but specifically in dealing with depictions of St. Anthony. There’s a lovely comparison between Athanasius’s account of Anthony’s temptation and an excerpt from Leary’s classic manual.

So why is St. Anthony associated with ergot? The devout will often look towards the legend of Anthony’s temptations when faced with mental or emotional anguish. This is because the devil is said to have tempted Anthony with mirages of jewels, and dressed up as seductive women to deter the hermit from his asceticism. As the devil was tormenting Anthony, the saint was said to be wandering through the Egyptian wilderness. The events of Anthony’s story as recounted by his original hagiographer, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, also read as hallucinatory, with a blend of imagery, ecstasy and madness. From Life of Saint Anthony by St. Athanasius:

For when they cannot deceive the heart openly with foul pleasures they approach in different guise, and thenceforth shaping displays they attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers. But not even then need ye fear their deceitful displays. For they are nothing and quickly disappear, especially if a man fortify himself beforehand.

The notion that the harmful hallucinations will cease if the subject is fortified beforehand, is a reoccurring theme not only in Life of Saint Anthony, but also in the instructions for tripping on LSD given in The Psychedelic Experience: 

At this time you may see visions of mating couples. You are convinced that an orgy is about to take place. Desire and anticipation seize you, You wonder what sexual performance is expected of you. When these visions occur, Remember to withhold yourself from action or attachment. Humbly exercise your faith. Float with the stream. Trust the process with great fervency. Meditation and trust in the unity of life are the keys.

This simple comparison between the texts of a third-century hermit and the megalomaniacal ‘60s drop-out prototype, Timothy Leary, is not enough to clearly demonstrate a correlation between Anthony and psychedelia. What this investigation does make clear is why the hagiography became important to those in the 17th century suffering from symptoms similar to LSD effects in the time before modern medicine first discovered the cause of ergotism.

There’s also a compelling argument for ergotism being an influence on Bosch, not necessarily directly, but there are elements in many of his paintings which point to a definite knowledge of ergotism, and one of the primary cures for it, which involved the distillation of mandrake root. Ergotism was not at all uncommon, it had a high death toll, and when people managed to not die from it, they often found themselves minus one or more limbs, due to gangrene. The visions caused by ergotism would be well known, and would certainly lodge in the head of any artist, because these would be fantastical and amazing things to bring to life.

Myself, I’m not one who buys into the “Bosch had to be on drugs, man” argument. Much of Bosch’s work was subversive and sly, and seeing, hearing, and reading accounts of ergotism could well answer for much of the peculiarity of many of his works. Then again, artists haven’t always had a history of steering clear of altered states. In this case though, Bosch would have been well aware of the dangerousness of ergotism. I doubt many artists would risk their limbs for the sake of a painting or three.* The argument included in the Hyperallergic article also included a most wonderful link to the Bosch Project, allowing you to see his work very up close.

Back to St. Anthony, who was rather obviously under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen. What you may or may not see while under the influence of a hallucinogen is highly dependent on who you are and how you see things. St. Anthony had a very strong religious filter through which he perceived the world, so under the influence of a hallucinogen, naturally he saw seductive women, demons, and devilish beasties.

*A book about the 1951 outbreak in a French Village, The Day of Saint Anthony’s Fire, [John G. Fuller] describes some of the episodes:

…there is the afflicted man who thought he was an airplane and jumped out the asylum’s second floor window with outstretched arms expecting to fly, telescoped both his legs upon landing, and then ran 50 meters at full speed on shattered bones before being wrestled to the ground by eight other men.

That’s one hell of a price to pay, if you’re looking to an altered state for a bit of internal inspiration. I imagine most artists were onlookers, not users. And while ergotamine is still in use today as a migraine remedy, it is at miniscule doses, and often combined with caffeine, so a dual tab would be 1mg ergotamine with 100mg caffeine. Ergot’s effectiveness as a vasoconstrictor is what caused all the gangrene back in the day. It would be quite difficult, I think, to tread the line between happy hallucinations and deadly side effects.

It’s a fascinating read, and there’s more to see too, so click on over to Hyperallergic.


  1. says

    I am not aware of any historical documentary sources (Runs off to shoot an email to dad) but psychedelic mushrooms would have been a potential part of the “take” during wild mushroom harvests. Nowadays commercial mushroom growers don’t mix strains and use clean technique, but I always wondered whether people who thought they were werewolves, or talking to demons, or whatever, were just cruising on ‘shrooms. Back in the day I used to grow them occasionally (for a friend who used them medically) and one time -- just one time -- I ate a whole fresh cap. A heroic dose of mushrooms could definitely trigger that kind of visions.

    Stories of people jumping out of windows trying to fly while tripping are very common, but documented incidents are not. Personally, I think they are lies -- I’ve never met anyone, or been around anyone, or been so disoriented that that would ever seem like an idea. Alcohol, maybe, could have that effect.
    The one well-documented incident of a person jumping out a window while tripping was the poor bastard that the CIA dosed with 4 hits of LSD without telling him as part of a brainwashing experiment (yay, psychologists!) -- he thought he was losing his mind and wanted to end it all, and he did.

  2. says

    I doubt it was mushrooms back in the day, some, sure, but such hallucinations, flying and so on, were more likely if you went tripping with belladonna. It was a common ingredient in many medicines, and it was also found in a lot of cosmetics. Later on, it was believed that witches used it to be able to fly.

    I have no particular reason to doubt the accounts in the book, but it was written 18 years after (1968), and I’m sure people were prone to exaggeration. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know about the particular sources. People can do some damn weird things, especially if they were poisoned with ergot. Ergot is some mean-assed shit, and the high death toll was from people eating bread made with contaminated flour and so forth, so they would have been seriously dosed, this wasn’t something people did for fun. It really doesn’t take a whole lot of ergot to poison the fuck out of yourself, but all that said, there isn’t any agreement about Pont-Saint-Esprit, and there are a couple of conspiracy theories around it.

  3. says

    I doubt it was mushrooms back in the day, some, sure, but such hallucinations, flying and so on, were more likely if you went tripping with belladonna. It was a common ingredient in many medicines, and it was also found in a lot of cosmetics. Later on, it was believed that witches used it to be able to fly.

    And don’t forget Datura! (which grows in huge hedges on the edge of one of my fields; or did, until I sprayed it when my neighbor started lodging his cows there. I did it for the cows. I also had a bit of belladonna. I used to joke about setting up a Poison Garden because it’d be the one thing the deer wouldn’t chomp flat. Bastards!

  4. says

    Oh good old stramonium! Yep, that answers for a lot. It grows wild all over SoCal. Ages ago, one of Rick’s old high school buddies got himself a bunch of fresh Jimson weed, ingested it without a thought. He was blind for three days. Fucking idiot.

    It was used as a medicine for a very long time, and it’s still used in homeopathy, but at least there’s nothing in those. I have a full bottle (50 pills) of Stramonium, 0.15 gram (2.5 grains), from Davies, Rose & Co out of Boston. There’s a nifty warning on the label about federal law prohibiting dispensing without a prescription.

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