Hallowe’en is just around the corner and the stores are filled with hideous masks for children, and not only children to wear. I thought it might be of interest to readers who didn’t know about it to see where these commercially made monsters originated, and how they connect with today.
It all began with ergot. This is a fungus that grows on rye, under certain circumstances. It needs a special set of weather patterns for this to occur. These include a rainy spring, so that it can germinate on the young rye, a windy summer so that the spores can be blown around the fields, and a damp harvest time to fix the ergot on the grain.
Smut is the name that farmers give to the fungus. Chemists have found it to be a wonderful source of very powerful drugs. The farmers’ Smut gave us histamine to induce labor, hydergine to invigorate the senile, methergine to control uterine hemorrhage, and many others.
In 1943 Dr. Hofmann of the Sandoz Laboratory in Switzerland was working with lysergic acid, which is another Smut derivative. He accidentally spilled on his fingers some of the 25th amide in the amide series that he was investigating. He was stoned out of his mind for a long time, though he absorbed it only through his skin. He named it LSD.
The mind-bending, and consciousness-expanding hallucinations of pure LSD, given under controlled conditions are one thing. The crescendo of horrors created by the impure LSD and a mixture of several other powerful hallucinogens also found in ergot, is quite another. And these horrors are quite an important part in the history of some countries as it happens, and they had a spectacular effect on a popular part of our own history too.
The Vandals and the Visigoths brought rye to Europe during the Dark Ages. For centuries it was almost the only food of the poor. They were ill-nourished, prey to scurvy, rickets and ringworm (the good old days), but they always had the August harvest to look forward to.
It was bad years that produced the saying, "The wolf is in the rye." But custom compelled everyone to eat bread made from the first reaping. If the weather conditions earlier in the year had been those I mentioned previously, the whole town or village would have an attack of overwhelming horrors pretty quickly.
There were two kinds of ergotism, as it was called later. They were acute and chronic. In the acute phase the person afflicted suffered from back pain and mental lassitude. Then the hands and feet became alternately unbearably hot and icy cold, and the skin became yellowish.
After that the feet went black, and the blackness spread sometimes up as far as the knees. When the fire and ice stage was over the disease became painless, and when legs or feet fell off at the joints, as was not unusual, no pain was felt. The acute phase was not uncommon in France.
In Germany it was usually the chronic phase that occurred. It looked like epilepsy, except that it continued for months at a time and the victims were conscious.
Now for some history nearer home. The spring of 1691 was very damp in Salem over here. The summer was windy and the harvest period was damp. By October there were 19 witches hanged and 150 people had been accused of witchcraft. An examination of the trials certainly suggests that accusers and accused had the symptoms of chronic ergotism. The evidence is made stronger by the fact that Samuel Putnam paid his debts in grain from his barn that year, and the pattern of madness exactly follows the pattern of his creditors. The people who received his grain were the accusers and the accused.
In my own lifetime there was a case of ergotism in France. It happened in 1951 when I had just returned from a teaching stay in France and was still interested enough to read the French newspapers.
In Poitiers there had been a damp spring, windy summer and damp harvest time and there was a lot of poor grain around in August. Early in the month, a farmer M. Guy Bruere found that one of the sacks of wheat he had delivered was actually rye, complete with moths and some gray powdery stuff. He exchanged it for good wheat with his friend M. Maillot a local miller. The miller did the peasant frugality thing, and mixed it up into sacks that he sent to the enormous grain distributor, Union Muniere.
The Bruere flour was sent to the three bakeries in the La Villette district of Pont St. Esprit, about 300 miles south of Poitiers. The bakers found the flour to be awful, but that was what they had to use, so they baked with it. The bakers, their families and about 300 other people ate the stuff. The dogs wouldn’t eat what was left, but many cats, chickens and geese did. In a few hours the town was full of screaming animals, many of which became paralyzed and died.
Next day many of the people had cramps, colic, diarrhea, itchy skin and the shivers—rather unusual in the August heat. And they were talking incessantly. The bakers immediately thought of mild food poisoning, called back the remaining bread and sent it to Union Muniere with a complaint.
That night NONE of the 300 or so people who had eaten the bread slept at all. In fact they kept on talking day and night without stopping for nearly a week, feeling high all the time. Those people who weren’t sick became a bit apprehensive, as the 300 stood around in little groups, talking day and night and smelling like dead mice.
Exactly one week after the bread was eaten, the disease called St. Anthony’s Fire, hit the town. People were in convulsions, screaming about being filled with snails, or being burned alive. People were running from imagined animals, and some exhibited supernatural strength when restraint was attempted. One man jumped from a second story window and shattered both his legs on the sidewalk. Undeterred, he ran two blocks on compound fractures until he could be detained.
Delirious patients filled the local hospitals and suffered mental agonies as walls crashed in on them, and fireballs spun around them. Periodically the convulsions and horror gave way to visions of angels singing and flowers pouring out of the sky.
After three more sleepless nights the malady began to leave some of the sick, though for months many had recurrent attacks. The victims sued Union Muniere, but ergot did not legally count as a poison; there was no legal precedent, so the usual happened. The great multi-million dollar corporation easily defended itself in the French courts against the victims.
Dr. Hoffman, who discovered LSD in the first place testified that the malady was definitely ergot poisoning, and that the bread should be tested for ergot immediately because ergot alkaloids deteriorate quickly in the air. On hearing that the corporation at once began an orchestrated delay in the analysis of the bread, a delay that lasted for months. Corporations are the same in any country.
Finally the concentration of ergot was found to be 1 in 1000. It took more months to persuade the court that this was still a potent amount of ergot and that the original concentration must have been much higher. In 1964 the victims won a technical victory after 10 years of procedural delays by the lawyers of Union Muniere. To win damages, under French law, the victims would have to start again at the beginning. So they decided to give up the fight.
So it looks as if the spooky parts of the Hallowe’en season aren’t just for kids. They are replicas of what was going on in the heads of many at that time of year in the Europe of our ancestors.
This is not to discount the spiritual traditions of the Thinning of the Veil, or the Day of the Dead, based on the cycle of the year. But it does throw a new light on the visions of some of the saints. The history of ergot poisoning is bound up with religious practices, as are the scurvy based hallucinations due to mediaeval winters without vitamin C.
St. Anthony’s famous fights with demons coincided so aptly with those of ergot victims that St. Anthony’s Hospitals functioned for over a century, until climatic changes altered the incidence of ergot poisoning. Now it is rare.
Now that’s where the folk memory of monsters roaming around at Hallowe’en probably originated, but that is not the reason for the season as the Christians say at Yule, the pagan festival which they call Christmas.
The proper name of Hallowe’en is Samhain, pronounced Sowenn. This is not a magic word. Just look up November in a dictionary of the infuriating Irish Gaelic, and you will see that Samhain means November…or the end of summer.
It was a Celtic festival centuries before the Christians invaded the British Isles and began appropriating every pagan festival as their own. October 31st is exactly midway between the Autumn Equinox and the Summer Solstice. Such important midway points were also times when sensitive people could experience being midway between the worlds of the living and the dead.
This was the day when those that had died during the year were invited back to visit the living if they wanted to. Places were set at table for them, and just before daybreak they were escorted back to the graveyard by people dressed as ghosts and carrying lanterns to show the way. Very friendly.
In Mexico this day is El Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead and a time for communicating with dead relatives. In Wales, the day is Nos Calan Gaeaf, which literally means ‘the first day of winter.
Since the veil between the worlds is thinnest at this date it became the time for divination. Young woman would engage in many different domestic rituals to see who they were going to marry.
This was also the time of year when Harvest time was celebrated and the flocks and herds were brought in to be wintered or slaughtered as winter provisions, it was a time when there was a lot of fruit and nuts around. Many of the domestic rituals involved apples and nuts for this reason, and still do, though without the memory of the reason for the season.
The young woman previously mentioned might put hazel nuts close to the fire. Each nut would represent one of her possible husbands. Then, in England she would chant, "If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die."
Or she would use my own mother’s favorite method of forecasting visitors. She, the young woman, would peel an apple without breaking the peel and throw it over her left shoulder. It would hit the ground and form the initial of the name of the lucky fellow. My mother, who incidentally was born on October 31st used to surprise me regularly when she sensed that we were going to have a visitor and did this to find out who it was going to be, so that she knew what food to have ready. It never failed. And for the skeptics, we didn’t have a telephone, or even electricity. She was just plain psychic. It was what Amy did, as the family would say.
If you cut an apple straight through, horizontally you see the sacred pentagram. This may be why the Celts honored the apple, as many pagans did, and the Christians tried to bad mouth it by saying that it was an apple that Eve ate in the Garden.
The Romans had a day for the dead arouond the same day and their goddess of the period was Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees. Their festivities blended in easily with those of the Celts when they came to Britain.
Today we are supposed to burn candles in lanterns carved from pumpkins with scary faces, to scare away witches and ghosts. Way back then the lanterns were to show the dead the way back to their previous home so they could have a social evening with their old families again.
The Christians took over this festival, as they did Yule and Oestara, by making it a day to remember the dead who were so numerous that they could not have a single day as a saint’s day attributed to one person, so they called it All Saints Day and the evening before was All Hallows Evening, from which we get Hallowe’en.
What about the carved pumpkins, now called Jack O’ Lanterns. Well this originated in a typical Irish story about a man who couldn’t get into heaven because he been a notorious miser, and he couldn’t get into hell because he had played jokes on the devil. So his destiny, like the Wandering Jew or the Flying Dutchman was to roam around the world until the Judgement Day, in his case with a lantern. In Celtic Europe they didn’t use pumpkins as much as winter vegetables like turnips and potatoes to make the lanterns.
The other day on which the veils grow thin is Beltane, around the first of May the festival of fire, without monsters, real or dietary. Summer began in old Europe when the constellation The Pleiades came over the horizon in May, and ended when The Pleiades went below the horizon in November. It was all connected with the Earth cycles in the days of yore, so to speak. It was even the day when the May tree bloomed, before the calendar was changed. Now the cycles of change of the Earth have become sale’s cycles of the commercial world. I look forward to that day in May when summer begins for this born again pagan.
The greatest bard/magician of the Celtic world, Taliesin, who was a teacher of Merlin, once said where he came from, A’m gwlad gynnevin Yw bro ser hevin, which means, My original country is the Region of the Summer Stars. And the summer stars were the Pleiades. Yet another reason why I prefer May to November.
It reminds me of Taliesin, the chief bard of Britain and of King Arthur.