Witches, dressed in black, flying through the night skies on broomsticks, casting spells and conjuring mayhem for mere mortals down below. It’s a big part of Halloween—as well as supernatural—lore, for sure. But how exactly did this legend come to be?
In a word: bread. In Europe, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the doughy stuff was usually made with rye grain, which, under the right—or, rather, wrong—conditions can become a host for ergot, a fungus that grows on rye in damp weather. When consumed in high doses, ergot can be downright fatal. In smaller doses, it acts as a potent hallucinogen. (Witness LSD, which is a derivative of ergot.)
Records from 14th to 17th century Europe mention an affliction with “dancing mania,” with groups of people dancing through streets, often babbling gibberish, and foaming at the mouth until they collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Those who experienced this “mania”…
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