Molecules of Witchcraft

Magic and superstition have followed humans since the beginning of time. There are carvings of women having magical fertility powers dating back to the Stone Age and legends of ancient civilizations dealing with deities and other beings. Although magic, sorcery, and superstition have been around for ages, witch-hunts did not begin until the end of the middle ages. Those accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake, hanged, or tortured. Often times, women, in specific, were accused of witchcraft. Alkaloids may have been a factor in this discrimination.

     Alkaloids are a group of molecules that are found in plant compounds that have one or more nitrogen atoms. Alkaloids have many physiological effects, one being that they are highly toxic. Most of the women accused were herbalists, so it is not hard to believe that they used alkaloid-containing herbs. The two main extracts that they often used were Atropine and Scopolamine. Atropine and Scopolamine are hallucinogenic alkaloids. These molecules gave them the sensation of flying or falling, distorted vision, hysteria, euphoria, an out of body feeling, swirling surroundings, and encounters with beasts. Having these symptoms it is no wonder why they confessed to flying accusations. These women genuinely believed that they did have a flying adventure, when it was really their imagination on drugs.

     Another group of alkaloids that is believed to be responsible for the death of thousands are the ergot alkaloids. The effects of these alkaloids could be devastating to a community. This group of alkaloids is found in the ergot fungus, which contaminates rye and other grains. Ergot poisoning occurs when one eats grain infected with the ergot fungus. Symptoms can be mild or very severe. Symptoms include seizures, convulsions, hallucinations, vomiting, twitching, a crawling sensation on the skin, numbness, and eventually a burning sensation as painful as gangrene. Having ergot poisoning in those times almost certainly meant death. A whole town could easily be wiped out with ergotism. Think of the following situation. There is a rainy period that allows the ergot fungus to grow in the rye. Then, poor storage conditions promote further growth. If the town eats the same supply of rye, the whole town could be wiped out. But, how could that poor, lonely woman living just outside town be spared from the disease? Easily. The woman was probably too poor to buy from the town supply of rye and she wouldn’t be infected, because she is not around the townspeople all the time. This scenario happened often and humans being naturally suspicious, automatically pointed fingers at the lucky woman outside of town. Experts have concluded that ergot poisoning was indeed responsible for the Salem witch trials in 1692.

     All ergot alkaloids have a common ground; they are derivatives of Lysergic Acid. Lysergic Acid has a side group, OH, but in ergot alkaloids, a larger side group replaces the OH side group. In 1938, Albert Hoffmann made many derivatives of Lysergic Acid. IT was his twenty-fifth derivative, LSD-25, that created the euphoric drug, ‘LSD’ or ‘acid’.  IN the late 1940s, the Sandoz Company began marketing LSD as an aid in psychotherapy. In the 1960s, it became the popular drug among young people. At one point, a Harvard psychologist encouraged people to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” with LSD.

     Alkaloids have made a tremendous impact on human history. They were responsible for the deaths of thousands of people throughout Europe until the 18th century. Although they were persecuted, those people kept the knowledge of medicinal herbs alive. If you think about it, where would we be without those herbs? Without them, there would have been many more deaths and illnesses. These alkaloids also encourage people to think deeper before writing chemistry off. In this case, a group of molecules changed the lives of thousands, ultimately changing history.

     I think that alkaloids have changed. Alkaloids as a whole have changed, because we really don’t rely on medicinal herbs as our main source of aid anymore. But, with modern day technology, we have pills and other medicines that ultimately use organic compounds, such as alkaloids. And if the medicines don’t use organic compounds, they have an alternative, which was based off the need for the original compound. LSD, in specific, has changed too. What started off as an alternate treatment to psychotherapy has changed into an illegal, addictive drug that will stay in your system for months at a time. LSD also has varying side effects. In some cases it is moderate, but in extreme cases, some people end up with mental issues after having a ‘bad trip’. Ultimately, alkaloids have changed over the centuries.

     I think that the authors’ points do make sense. Ergot poisoning has most definitely been responsible for some witch-hunts. The authors provided plenty of evidence to back up this point. For example, experts have concluded that Ergot Poisoning was the reason for the Salem Witch Trials. There was a particularly rainy spring and summer in 1691, so the opportunity for the fungus to grow on the town’s supply of flour was there. Also, the victims displayed the typical symptoms of ergot poisoning.  The authors’ point on the women using herbs with hallucinogenic alkaloids also makes sense. The women truly believed that they were flying, so when it came time to confess, they told the ‘truth’. Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson hit the points spot on and made a solid, strong argument. 

Categories: Uncategorized | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Molecules of Witchcraft

  1. huynhvicky

    Oh, goodness, Madison! It is apparent you worked hard on this, which is totes awesome.
    I would love to see a little more on the chemistry and why it works as it does (like why did it create those symptoms; what part of the body do these alkaloids attach to).
    You went thorough with the timeline of these molecules of witchcraft, in an organized structure, so it was easy to read. I love that you agree with the author by not just saying it, but also supporting it.
    Sweet post!

  2. gabbyrueff

    Hey Madison!!! Great blog! Awesome historical context!! This was enjoyable 🙂

  3. jakebeatty123

    Great job Madison! I think you had some very good points in this blog. I really like how you described how you felt about the author’s points and ideas.

    • emeryedington

      It was nice to see someone else’s opinion on this chapter, great job!

  4. madisonstephens15

    Thanks guys! (:

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