Witchcraft wasn’t always thought of as an intricate universe of fantasy written by J. K. Rowling. From about 1350 to the 18th century, witchcraft earned a reputation of Satanism, and many old women who fit the stereotypical idea of a witch were killed with or without trial by a Roman Catholic Church court, called the Inquisition, with too much time on its hand. Within the course of a century standard beliefs transformed from witches casting spells to help people and crops to witches eating babies and flying on broomsticks because the devil owned their souls. Although the surfeit amount of superstition that really jump-started the inhumane witch trials can only be attributed to the people and the church, the actual idea of witchcraft and sorcery can give credit to certain hallucinogenic chemicals and mold.
Many so-called witches were just knowledgeable of the healing and/or hurtful powers of certain plants. For example, extracts from foxglove, lily, and ranunculus plants have been known to affect the heart by slowing the heart rate, regularizing the rhythm, and strengthening the heartbeat. The molecules of these extracts, known as cardiac glycosides, all have a five-membered lactone ring attached to a steroid ring system with a hydroxide molecule in between the C and D rings. The foxglove extract, digoxin, which lacks the extra OH and is attached to three sugars, is prescribed as a drug based on folk medicine in the U.S. more than any of the other extracts. Toxic heart-affecting molecules do not contain sugars, and can be found in amphibians, which have been associated with witches more often than any other animal in folklore. A major part of witch culture involved the accusation of witches flying on broomsticks to sabbats, which now has been determined to be hallucination due to alkaloids. Alkaloids are compounds from plants that contain one or more nitrogen atoms in a ring of carbon atoms. Using “flying salves” to fly was something women would actually confess to doing, with or without torture, because they actually thought they had flown. Flying salves are ointments containing extracts of mandrake, belladonna, and henbane plants. These three plants contain two main alkaloids called hyoscyamine (aka atropine) and hyoscine, which are very similar in molecular makeup. When applied to the skin, “flying salves” served as hallucinogens that allowed lonely old women living hard lives to catch a break and have some fun, only to confess to sinning and performing witchcraft later and get killed for it. These hallucinogens included a flying sensation, encounters with beasts, distorted vision, euphoria, and more. A group of alkaloids, found in the ergot fungus, was also responsible for mass homicide of supposed witches, but not because these alkaloids were hallucinogenic, in fact they were much more devastating. Ergot fungus infects cereal grains and rye, causing lethal ergotism, the symptoms of which include convulsions, seizures, diarrhea, vomiting, distortion of limbs, twitching, and more. Many of the women accused of witchcraft were too poor to buy the infected grain, and so never got sick while the majority of the town did. This caused false accusations of lonely old ladies bringing the town to ruin, and lead to the widely accepted stereotype of gross old women as witches.
This long period of witch hunting is a great part of history in many different cultures. The burning at the stake, testing women by throwing them in the water and seeing if they drown or float, the Salem with hunt of 1692, has all had a great impact. What has probably had the greatest impact on history itself is the ergot poisoning of rye and other grains. Julius Caesar’s army was affected during a campaign in Gaul, a possible obstruction to Rome’s expansion, Russia’s attempt to gain a port on the Black Sea was stopped short when Peter the Great’s army became ill and 20,000 troops died, and the Salem witch hunts were initially caused by the ergotism epidemic that washed over in 1691. It was also said that Napoleon’s army came down with ergotism on its campaign to Russsia in 1812.
These molecules of witchcraft have definitely lead to some impacts in modern times, although the actual impact has changed since the time when witches were thought to be real. Digoxin, a molecule in herbs that ‘witches’ used is now widely prescribed as heart medicine. Alkaloids, aside from causing witches to go on medieval acid trips and get falsely accused for causing plague on towns, are found in many other substances, including pepper, indigo, penicillin, and more. Many alkaloid derivatives are used in medicine, because alkaloids are physiologically active in humans. This activity has also led to the creation of the modern drugs cocaine and LSD. The evidence of the uses of these molecules along with the countless other uses I haven’t mentioned leads me to agree with the authors in that these molecules of witchcraft are of a fair amount of importance in the shaping of history. When the effects of these molecules in history and society in the past is observed compared to now, our progress in the knowledge of science and our general knowledge as a whole can be seen. That is, nowadays if you get caught with LSD, you would get arrested, a big step forward from the late middle ages when a woman would get tortured and killed if someone just said they thought that woman was a witch, which really meant she was just doing old timey drugs. This disparity can be ascribed to our advancement in technology, so now we know the difference between drugs and witchcraft. (We also know that witchcraft isn’t even real in the first place.) Jay Burreson and Penny Le Couter said, “the very same women who were persecuted kept alive the important knowledge of medicinal plants… Without these herbal traditions we might never have produced our present-day range of pharmaceuticals.” I have to agree with this rather vague statement based on the evidence given that indeed many substances whose molecules were not found until recently were known to have staggering effects on people many, many years before.