The Story of the First Psychedelic Witch Hunt
During a cold, wet New England winter in 1692, something peculiar began to happen. In the town of Salem, which sits on the Massachusetts coastline about 16 miles north of Boston, people started acting strangely. Specifically - young women. Two of them in particular; the 9 year old daughter & the 11 year old niece of a prominent Reverend, began having fits. They threw tantrums, made bizarre noises, contorted their bodies in odd ways…they were incoherent. The puritanical town of Salem immediately suspected they were possessed by something supernatural. Under pressure from local magistrates - the two young girls blamed three women for ‘afflicting’ them - a Caribbean slave, a homeless beggar and an elderly impoverished woman. All three women were put in jail. The Salem Witch Trials had begun.
Over the next 12 months, mass hysteria would engulf this dreary seaside town. Odd behavior, most prominently (but not exclusively) among young women, continued. Neighbors turned on each other. The quickest way to deny being a witch was to turn one in…regardless of having any evidence to support your claim. Nearly 200 people were accused of practicing ‘the Devil’s magic’. Of those, 20 were executed. 19 were hung in the gallows, and in one particular display of cruelty - a 71 year old man was executed by being pressed to death with heavy stones. It wasn’t until the Governor of Salem’s wife was questioned for witchcraft that the trials & executions stopped.
What could have caused these women to behave in such a bizarre way? This was a religious town. They feared God & lived by a strict moral code. This would be the last place on earth one would expect to find young women acting so erratically. Could it have been a supernatural occurrence? Or just a religious panic? No.
The answer lies in a grain fungus called Ergot. Ergot is incredibly similar to LSD. Unlike LSD, however, there are no good trips on Ergot…only bad ones. The consumption of Ergot results in mania, delirium, paranoia, troubling visions, convulsions & troubled speech (sound familiar?). And, Ergot thrives in wet, cold years…which 1692 in Salem was. Lastly - women, especially young women, are more susceptible to Ergotism (the sickness that is the result of consuming Ergot). The people of Salem had no idea that the peculiar behavior emanating from its citizens was the result of digesting a powerful hallucinogenic. So they assumed it was the Devil’s work & persecuted folks accordingly.
In the years following the infamous trials & executions - apologies were made, the trials were classified as unlawful and those who were wrongly accused of witchcraft have had their names restored. Far from reciprocity, but an acknowledgement of wrongdoing nonetheless.
The Salem Witch Trials provide a relevant cautionary tale for the modern world. The Psychedelic Renaissance is in full swing…more & more people will be taking Psychedelics in the coming years. A rise in the popularity of these medicines will coincide with a rise in the risks they pose. To the people of Salem - the effects of consuming Ergot were so severe that some type of sorcery must have been involved. LSD, 5-MeO-DMT & Ayahuasca all take you on a journey to altered states of consciousness, and one can never be sure what is lurking there. We would be wise to heed the lessons of Salem. Psychedelics offer so much good - love, empathy, kindness, a connection with nature…but they aren’t without risks. We should always give these medicines the respect they deserve by taking them under the supervision of a Shaman or Therapist, with a clear intention, in the right headspace.
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