Saturday, August 8, 2015

'Sacred Fire'

by E S Moxon

After publishing Wulfsuna, the first in my Wolf Spear Saga series, in January 2015 I took a break for a few months before embarking on the planning for my next book. Writing often sparks the necessity for research when we happen upon a circumstance and need more detail. However at other times research can spark ideas for writing. For this reason I enjoy researching for my novels, hoping to find something unusual that provides inspiration for part of the current work in progress. My research comes from many places: books on my shelves, libraries, reenactors and the World Wide Web. My gem of a find this time was an article entitled ‘St Anthony’s Fire’ courtesy of Pearson College, CA and a website called ‘iamshaman’ both from 2004.

Known as ‘Sacred Fire’ and ‘Invisible Fire’ the claviceps purpura fungus, or ‘ergot’, germinates on rye in warm, damp conditions but is dormant in severe cold. Growth is therefore more prevalent in a wet summer following a harsh winter. The fungus is poisonous and manifests in several ghastly forms:
  • -          Gangrenous
  • -          Convulsive
  • -          Hallucinogenic

Each of these has particularly vulgar symptoms. For instance the gangrenous strain produces areas of the body that become numb to touch or pain, known in medieval times as ‘witch spots’. Vein and artery walls contract, stemming blood flow and limbs literally break off at the joints! If the central nervous system becomes infected the body is thrown into violent convulsive fits and twitches (the convulsive form) and the ergot component lycergic acid (also in LSD) gives the sufferer hallucinations.

As you can imagine, in medieval times the causes of these symptoms would have been beyond the comprehension of most and assumptions of witchcraft were attributed. Both the afflicted and those attempting to heal (family members or healers) were accused. The sick were either seen as witches themselves who were being punished by god for spell casting, or as the victims at the hands of others’ dark deeds. Other factors that did little to assuage these accusations were the illness of cattle and other animals (falling ill as a result of grazing on infected rye) and that ground infected rye turns red, blood being a further sign that witchcraft was involved.

Consequently, witch trials increased during outbreaks of ergot poisoning and many met their deaths unjustifiably, as a cause of the ergot fungus. As a writer of historical fiction, with elements of magic and fantasy running through my sagas, I could not help but be intrigued by this phenomenon that can exist today where humid, wet summers and poor grain storage create the right conditions. Unable to resist using this newly acquired information, it is now part of a plotline in my next novel!


Elaine (E S Moxon) is currently writing Book 2 in her Wolf Spear Saga series. Her debut novel Wulfsuna is published by SilverWood Books and is also available from most retail outlets. You can find out more about E S Moxon and her novels from her website here

1 comment:

  1. Ergot did have a medicinal purpose. After childbirth, it was used to stop bleeding by causing the uterus to contract more quickly. The line between poison and medicine can be thin indeed.


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