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Molecules of Witchcraft (pages 223-245)
Over 40,000 to millions of people (mostly older women) were accused of being witches. They were burned at the stake, hanged, and tortured. Before 1350, witchcraft was regarded as a practice of sorcery and a method of trying to control nature in one’s own interest. Witchcraft was a part of folklore and witches were rarely put to death. In the mid fourteenth century, a new attitude toward witchcraft arose, probably due to Christianity. Many women accused of witchcraft were skilled herbalists: the greater your skills were the more likely you were a witch, but the religion believed that magic conducted outside the Church was considered the work of the devil and soon witches were being convicted for supposedly entering into a pact with the devil. By the mid fifteenth century ordinary laws did not apply to witch trials; all you needed as evidence was an accusation. Even natural disasters were blamed on women who were thought to be witches. In some places, like England, torture was not permitted. So, they used the water test instead. The townspeople would throw the accused witch into a pond. If she floated then she was a witch and she was hung, but if she sunk and drowned then she was innocent. By the eighteenth century the execution of witches had stopped.
There are many herbs that “witches” had access to. Some are: the root of wild celery which prevents muscle cramps, parsley which induced miscarriages, and ivy which relieved symptoms of asthma. They also had access to venoms from toads, which were used as arrow poisons in many parts of the world. This means that they also had access to a potent arsenal of toxic compounds. Alkaloids were believed to be the reason that some “witches” confessed to flying or actually believed they could. Alkaloids are plant compounds that have one or more nitrogen atom. Some examples are piperine in pepper, capsaicin in chili peppers, indigo, penicillin, and folic acid. They are often physiologically active in humans, affecting the central nervous system, and are highly toxic. Some of these compounds have been used as medicines for thousands of years because derivatives made from alkaloids form the basis of many of our modern pharmaceuticals. Examples are pain-relieving codeine, local anesthetic benzocaine, and chloroquine, an antimalarial agent. Acrecaidine, an alkaloid found in betel nuts, was used in the East and Africa as a stimulant. Ephedrine is now used in the West as a decongestant and bronchodilator. Reserprine, from the Indian snake plant, was used as a treatment of high blood pressure and as a tranquilizer. Some of these alkaloids however could be very dangerous and poisonous such as, coniine from the hemlock plant and strychnine from the seeds of the Asiatic tree.
Mandrake, belladonna, and henbane were used in greases and ointments supposedly causing flight. The mandrake plant, used as a soporific, restores sexual vitality. The deathly nightshade, or belladonna, was common among women in Italy. They would drops the juice into their eyes and it would dilate their pupils supposedly making them more beautiful. However, greater amounts taken internally would induce a deathlike slumber and large concentrations produced blurry vision, agitation and delirium. Lastly, there was henbane, a pain reliever for toothaches, an anesthetic, and a poison. When the alkaloid hyoscine, a “truth serum”, was mixed with morphine, it created an anesthetic known as twigh-light sleep. Atropine, an alkaloid that dries up bodily fluids acts as an antidote for even more toxic compounds. Nerve gases such as sarin and parathion prevent the normal removal of a messenger molecule that transmits a signal across a nerve junction. This means that the nerve endings are continuously stimulated which leads to convulsions and, if the heart of lungs are affected, death. Swallowing atropine would cause vivid hallucinations and lead to death because it is not soluble in water, but when mixed into an ointment it can be used as a remedy to toxic compounds. Daturas cause hallucinations with animals. When the seeds are smoked and absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream through the lungs, people would experience an alkaloid “hit”. Coca leaves were used as a stimulant and the main alkaloid in the coca tree is cocaine. Extracted and purified it is addictive and dangerous, but half a gram daily, used the same way as it was hundreds of years ado, it is not addictive. The chemical explanation was the witches did not fly on broomsticks, it was an illusion due to the hallucinatory alkaloids. The story was passed down because it was basically the only fun women could have. They worked all day and poverty and disease was always present.
Another group of alkaloids responsible for witch burnings is found in the ergot fungus that infects many cereal grains but especially rye. Alkaloids such as ergotamine and ergonovine cause blood vessels to constrict and induce spontaneous abortions in humans and livestock respectively. Ergotism or ergot poisoning can cause convulsions, seizures, diarrhea, lethargy, maniac behavior, hallucinations, distortion of limbs, vomiting, twitching, crawling sensation on the skin, numbness in hands and feet, and a burning sensation. Large numbers of townsfolk could be struck by ergotism but only a small percent of ergot in flour is needed to cause ergot poisoning. As more people became sick, blame was placed on witches and it was said the village was bewitched. Ergot poisoning was ultimately responsible for over 250 accusations of witchcraft against people during 1692 in Salem. Experts say that ergotism was the most probable cause for the Salem witch hunts. The extract of ergot was used to hasten childbirth or produce abortions. Today it is used for migraine headaches, to treat postpartum bleeding and as a stimulant for uterine contractions in childbirth.
In 1938 LSD was first created, though it was not used until 1947. It became popular among young people in the 1960’s. This drug causes visual hallucinations, babbling, fear of choking, the feeling of leaving one;s body, and the illusion of perceiving sounds visually. How was this drug different from “that experienced by women accused of witchcraft a few hundred years before?” Atropine and ergot alkaloids did not cause witchcraft, but the effects they produced led people to believe in it.
This seems like an interesting topic to read. All the remidies that they came up with without technology. Today everything is about the risks but alot of this chapter prooves that back then, they just wingged it to see what would and wouldn’t work. The more we find out about problems, the more paranoid the world seems to be.
i think witchcraft is interesting because it played such an important role back then. i never realized that alkaloids were the reason why some witches said they could fly and do unknown things. i do not agreed with women being blamed but it seems like a great chapter in the book.
i really like the way you outlined the topic. i also read this one, and i think you briefly touched everything in the chapter very well.
From the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, witchcraft was believed to be amongst the world. Although women, men, and children were often accused of practicing this horrible act, women were always most often suspected. About 90% of accused witches were women. People were burned, hanged, or tortured when accused of being a “witch”. After various studies, scientists have concluded that certain molecules are responsible for this discrimination against women practicing witchcraft.
Many of the women accused of practicing witchcraft were herbalists (skilled in the use of plants to cure diseases and provide relief from pain). Because of this, whenever people would heal, others would assume that witchcraft was apart of it; however it was really the molecules that did all the healing. “In 1795, William Withering used extracts of foxglove to treat congestive heart failure” (228). Also, cardiac glycoside molecules were found in other plants, which help to cure heart issues as well. Along with plants, animals contain other molecules that serve the opposite purpose than the molecules in plants. These molecules are more like poisons, not medicine. Toads and frogs contain molecules that have been used as arrow poisons. Besides cats, toads are the most common animal associated with witchcraft. Bufotoxin is a molecule found in toads that is a cardiac poison. People supposed that witches had access to these toxic compounds. Several Alkaloids were also indirectly responsible for thousands of witch burnings. The Ergot Alkaloid (Claviceps purpurea) was responsible for causing entire communities to suffer. Ergot Alkaloids can cause convulsions, seizures, diarrhea, manic behavior, vomiting, and much more. It was very easy for these Alkaloids to form. Sometimes, rain just before harvest would cause fungus to grow on rye. Also, poor storage of the cereal in damp conditions would cause further growth. More and more people would become exposed to this and the easy conclusion was that their town had been bewitched. Right away, “the blame would be placed on an innocent elderly woman, who could no longer have children, and who has no family support” (241). It is believed that ergotism is a reason that the Salem Witch Trials occurred. The ergot alkaloids did not cause witchcraft; however their effects caused people to believe that witches were among them.
In 1943, Albert Hofmann discovered an acid known as LSD. It is a hallucination but many people believed that it was not the drug that caused the hallucinations. It was witchcraft. LSD can be transferred very easily (just from the touch of a finger to the mouth) and Hofmann accidently transferred it my placing his finger (which had the drug on it) to his tongue. Later on, “Hofmann decided to deliberately take LSD to test his assumption that this was the compound producing the hallucinations” (243), and he was proved correct. LSD is still used around the world today and is one of the most popular hallucination drugs.
Today, ergot alkaloids are still very dangerous; however types of ergot alkaloids can be taken. Ergometrine and methylergometrine can be used to reduce blood loss. They are often used during abortions or in the third stage of labor. Years ago Ergot alkaloids were used to help uterine atonia, postpartum bleeding, migraine, orthostatic
circulatory disturbances, senile cerebral insufficiency, hypertension, hyper-
prolactinemia, acromegaly, and Parkinsonism, but more recent research has shown that using this as a drug can be (in most cases) more harmful than beneficial. There is still a continued effort towards the search for new ergot alkaloid molecules with the hope of finding just one that will have an effect that is completely beneficial. Scientists still find this molecule the same way it was found years ago during the witch trials. It is located on rye and some other moldy items. Although there are too many molecules to count, scientists believe that they will soon find the “just- right” ergot Alkaloid.
Over the years the molecules have kept the same reputation. They are dangerous and not suggested to be taken. I think that witchcraft is a very interesting topic. Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson made very interesting points. It is amazing how narrow-minded people used to be by automatically assuming that witchcraft was the reason for healing and hurting when in fact, it was because of hundreds of different molecules.
The chapter entitled Molecules of Witchcraft seems very interesting. This year we read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in english class. The book showed how innocent people were accused of practicing witchery. Unfortunately, many of these people were not given a fair trial and were immediately hanged (unless they confessed). As Carly mentions, many of the accused citizens were women. Having this background information regarding the art of witchcraft made reading Carly’s blog very easy and interesting. Essentially, this blog has given me a deeper understanding of the influences of witchery in history.
Specifically, I learned that many of the accused witches were herbalists. Therefore, they would use parts of plants to cure illnesses. For example, “In 1795, William Withering used extracts of foxglove to treat congestive heart failure” (228). Also, people used cardiac glycoside molecules to cure heart issues.
Unfortunately, people also used parts of animals to attempt to cure illnesses as well. Many of the used animals contained poisonous molecules. For example, toads and frogs contain molecules found in arrow poisons. This presented a problem because besides cats, toads are the most common animal associated with witchcraft. Therefore, although trying to save lives, many people were unfairly accused of practicing witchery.
Unfortunately, chemistry caused many people to be accused of practicing witchcraft. In fact, several Alkaloids were indirectly responsible for thousands of witch burnings. For example, The Ergot Alkaloid (Claviceps purpurea) was responsible for causing entire communities to suffer. Ergot Alkaloids can cause convulsions, seizures, diarrhea, manic behavior, vomiting, and much more. These Alkaloids form extremely easily when in the presence of water. As more and more people became exposed to these alkaloids, people turned to witchery to explain the problems. Unfortunately, many lonely elderly women were unjustly accused of practicing witchcraft. There are many other similar stories as well. For example, the effects of LSD were also blamed on witches.
Unfortunately, blaming others for problems is still an extremely common practice. Many people take the easy way out by unjustly accusing others. As a community, we must be careful of using scapegoats. Accusing innocent people only leads to further dangers.
Hey car! i thought this topic is very interesting. Whenever i would think of witchcraft my mind would go write to the picture of harry potter. Now i have a whole other perspective on the molecules of witchcraft. Numerous facts were new information that i enjoyed reading about and would definitely would like to eventually read about this. Some new things that i learned was that whenever people would heal, others would assume that witchcraft was apart of it. Little did they know that they were wrong because it was really the molecules that did all the healing. Very interesting!
Oleculesmay Foay Itchcraftway
This chapter in the book was mainly about alkaloids (“plant compounds that have one or more nitrogen atoms, usually as part of a ring of carbon atoms” (237)) and their relationship to witchcraft.
Most witches who were convicted of witchcraft were woman, especially old widows who were herbalists. The old widow thing makes sense because when people think of a witch they think of an old woman on a broom stick. Yet, the herbalist part of witchcraft might not click right away. That is why the book goes on to discuss some of the healing and harmful aspects of plants and how these aspects maybe interpreted as witchcraft.
Many chemicals, like the one in the sea onion: cardiac glycoside molecule, could be a heart tonic or a rat poison depending on the dosage. In the 15th century, people were more ignorant then they are today. People in the 15th century frequently mistaken medicines as potions; subsequently, making the person who made the potions a witch. Another reason for people calling a person a witch could be explained by ergot alkaloids. This is an alkaloid found in the ergot fungus, which could also grow on grain if it were too damp or improperly stored. The effects of this alkaloid would be horrible pain, and could eventually lead to gangrene. If everyone in the village ate from the same grain (which they did) the entire village would get sick. Now think about the poor herbalist on the out- skirts of town? If everyone would get stick but not that one person, it is reasonable to understand why that person was accused of being a witch! These kinds of instances could easily explain why some people would call a person a witch. However, it would not explain why the “witch” would admit to being a witch and would profess to be flying around everywhere. Yet, this too, can be explained through ergot alkaloids. The chemical structures composing ergot alkaloids are very similar to the chemical structure of Lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD-25 or, more commonly known as, LSD. It is possible that if the “witch” did eat enough ergot alkaloids, one might experience the same sensation as if they were doing LSD, but not as strong.
Witches have a very strong impact on today’s society. Look at Harry Potter number 1 selling book next to the Bible, and it is all about witches. On Halloween, little kids dress up as witches all the time. So, witches did impact our society. Yet the chapter in this book, although well written, is really factual. It does not give a clear cut answer to any of the questions it asks throughout the chapter. The chapter was more of a history book chapter rather than a chemistry book chapter. There should have been more of a focus on “why.” Such as, why is a chemical good in low dose but bad in high doses. What in the molecule does that? If the chapter had more of a science explanation to it instead of just history and a quick overview of the chemistry behind it, it would be a well written chapter about chemistry and its relation to witchcraft.
I like how you used both examples from the book and from real life to explain the importance of these molecules in the modern world. especially with the Harry Potter reference.
I like your last paragraph. Harry Potter references rock.
I like how you brought in references from pop culture and our lives. Also, how you analyzed the chapter as a whole and what you liked and would have liked to see. You obviously read and analyzed well. Good Job!
I think that your connections with the real world make this reading much more meaningful. I did not realize before reading your summary that witches impact our society a lot more than we think they do.
Molecules of Witchcraft
The topic of witchcraft may seem silly in this time period because witches don’t seem scary to most people. However witchcraft (which was a common topic from the 14th century to the 18th century) played a large role in killing off thousands or even millions of innocent people. Or so the people in that time period thought. In fact, while there was no magic involved in the witch trials, there was something happening on a much smaller scale. That’s right, a few key molecules led to the ultimate demise of many, many people.
Due to the comparatively new religion of Christianity beginning to spread into greater, more popularized areas of the globe, witchcraft began to become highly frowned upon, and eventually anyone who practiced this art of witchcraft was considered a minion of Satin. Any claim, even without proof, about a witch in the town was enough “proof” to condemn this person into the horrible fate of being a witch. It was that serious.
Many explanations for the phenomenon of “black magic” have been discovered since the witch trials actually took place. Many of the women who were accused of being witches were herbalists, or people who make plants into potions and such. Celery roots prevented muscle cramps, parsley supposedly induced a miscarriage, and ivy somewhat magnified the symptoms of asthma. However many of the “symptoms” of witchcraft were realistically effects from the plants used in the potions. Some potion ingredients were found to contain toxic molecules, which were dangerous if not fatal. For example many of the potions made by witches contained parts from amphibians. Little did they know, that the molecule bufotoxin is a toxin commonly found in the common European toad Bufo vulgaris. Because of this, witches had a large collection of toxins that negatively affected the heart.
However witches were also accused of flying on broomsticks to meet with each other. There would not be much proof of this, if not for the fact that most of the so-called witches admitted to actually flying on broomsticks. Now why would they do that if they knew confessing would lead to their demise? The only reasonable explanation for this would be that they actually think that they flew on broomsticks. Before you ask why they might think that, there is a chemical explanation that backs up their incorrect memories.
Alkaloids can be found in plants and have one or more nitrogen atoms, and usually a ring of carbon atoms. Because plants cannot hide from predators due to their immobile bodies, a chemical defense is necessary for their survival. Alkaloids happen to be natural fungicides, insecticides, and pesticides. In history, alkaloids have been used in small quantities to heal or to be used as medicine. In larger quantities however, these alkaloids are toxic molecules that can poison and kill even humans. Two alkaloids atropine and scopolamine are particularly nasty due to their hallucinatory effects. And in this time where witchcraft and flying were considered evil, it is not surprising that some of these hallucinatory effects made the users think that they actually flew. A certain type of alkaloids called the ergot alkaloids all contained a common chemical feature. They are all derivatives of a molecule called lysergic acid. This molecule later became known as LSD, the chemical we know today to cause hallucinatory effects. It is no surprise that after being exposed to these molecules, common people began to think that they could fly, eventually leading up to their death after being condemned as a witch.
Molecules In Witchcraft
Chances are that you have heard of the Salem witch trials, or many other witch hunts and trials, and you may think, how is it possible for these people to have been burned at the stake and hanged because other people in their community legitimately thought that they were witches? How is it possible that people actually believed that these witches could cast spells and fly? Well there is one very logical answer for this madness: molecules.
People around the time of the mid-fifteenth century started to target others in their towns (mainly old women) and calling them out as being witches. This wasn’t originally a horrendous crime, until the connection was made between the witchcraft and the devil. Once it had been decided that these “witches” had made pacts with the devil they started to be put on trial and killed when proven guilty. What had originally had said to have consisted of using nature to one’s liking had now been synonymous with orgiastic rituals, sex with demons, child murdering, flying through the sky on broomsticks, and baby eating. Suddenly any problem in the towns, any disaster, was blamed on these so-called witches, who were basically just very skilled herbalists. These herbalists would make medicines and such using different parts of plants, however without proper knowledge of the plants, one could make a deadly mixture, which could not help them prove not to be witches.
The reason for these plants being able to help and hurt comes from the molecules that they are made with. When some of these molecules are joined together they can form a helpful or deadly concoction. The extract Digitalis from the flower foxglove can be used to have an effect on the heart. In 1795 William Withering, a British physician, used these extracts to treat heart failure, and over a century later chemists were able to able to isolate the molecules used in this. A three-sugar unit and a steroid ring system, which are found in the molecule digoxin, common to Digitalis. Another plant used to make a heart tonic was the sea onion, used by ancient Egyptians and Romans. When using the sea onion a heart tonic can be made, but if the dose it too much it makes a rat poison, and just like digoxin these have a steroid system with an extra OH.
Now, back to the witch trials, why were all of these people suggesting the ludicrous actions of these women? Well, a good chemical explanation for this feat is compounds called alkaloids. Alkaloids are generally very toxic and affect the central nervous system; some current examples are codeine, and benzocaine (an anesthetic). One might ask, how do these compounds have anything to do with the witch trials? Well these alkaloids are present in plants, these supposed witches used plants to make ointments, and some of these plants include mandrake, belladonna, and henbane. These plants are all from the same family: Solanaceae and they all have similar alkaloid structures. When the “witches” made these plants into ointments and applied them to their skin they were brought to a hallucinatory state where they could have thought they were actually flying.
Not only the accused could be blamed for thinking that they had flown and were witches for the townspeople could very likely have been infected with ergotism. Ergot alkaloids infect cereal grains and sometimes rye, when infected with the ergotism some symptoms can include convulsion, seizures, manic behavior, hallucinations, a crawling sensation on the skin, and numbness. These townsfolk who were infected could have thought that the infection was from a “witch”, and they were basically crazy from the ergot alkaloids so that could have been the start of the witch craze. There are other times when ergot alkaloids have been said to affect history; including, but not limited to, a campaign in Gual, an epidemic among Julius Caesar’s legions, and in 1722 with Peter the Great’s Cossacks.
These ergot alkaloids are quite dangerous and are used today just as they were in the past. They have been used to produce abortions, and now they are used to make medicines for migraine headaches, to treat postpartum bleeding, and as a stimulant for contractions in childbirth. All of the ergot alkaloids have a similar structure even though they do different things. There is a lysergic acid part of the molecules, and because there are many ways to use this acid it can be made into many different compounds. Albert Hofmann, a chemist working for the Swiss company Sandoz, learned that this lysergic acid could be used to make lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25; commonly known now, of course, as just LSD. In 1943 Hofmann accidentally experienced the first acid trip by taking some LSD-25. He, of course, noticed the hallucinogenic effects of the LSD continued to experiment with it. It took a while for the people to realize that LSD could have some unwanted, dangerous side effects.
Alkaloids may be in some dangerous compounds like LSD and cocaine, but it has also helped beneficiate medicine. And it may have caused some horrible events in the past, but we would not know as much about these molecules if it wasn’t for the witch trials and other historical events where the alkaloids caused the problems that they did.
Molecules of Witchcraft
This chapter focuses on possible causes of the witch hunts in Europe and America. It examines possible molecules that affected the accused witches and the towns they inhabited. The witch hunts spanned from the fourteenth century up until the late eighteenth century affecting hundreds of thousands of innocent people. No true record was kept of how many supposed witches were actually killed but estimates range from forty thousand to millions. The hysteria spread through almost all of Europe and into America. Anyone was at risk of being accused and many confessed. Men, women, children, and all social classes were accused, even clergy. What we know now is that no sorcery or magic were occurring, only reactions between plants and humans. The whole affair was caused by microscopic particles.
Before the witch hunts we all know, sorcery and magic were commonplace and relied upon for medicinal and protective purposes. People sought out witches for problems and venerated as magical and supernatural. They were held above others. The change in attitude was an effect of the rise of Christianity in Europe. The Church aimed to rid the world of such work, unless it was regarded as a miracle and not controlled by humans. The Church caused magic to become viewed as work of Satan and not something to be welcomed in society. Inquisitors were sent out around 1233 to condemn potential witches and seize their properties and assets. Soon witches were viewed as evil-doers to be blamed for all wrongdoing in their region, such as sickness, death of a child, flooding, crop failure, etc. As will be explained shortly, some of these events can be explained with chemistry.
Many of the accused witches were herbalists and skilled in the use of plants to cure disease and help the townspeople if they need a potion, or spell, or a hex lifted. The herbalists were knowledgeable of not only incantations and rituals that might work, but supplied potions that cured diseases and actually helped. The more successful the herbalist, the greater a chance they would be branded a witch.
Some molecules we rely on today in heart medications were once used by witches. These molecules are called cardiac glycosides. They are extremely powerful and can be deadly in the wrong hands. They reduce heart rate, regularize heart rhythm, and strengthen heartbeats. One such cardiac glycoside is digotoxin, which can be found in foxglove plants, and is composed of three sugar units and a steroid ring system. This molecule was and still used to treat congestive heart failure. Many heart helping plants were easy to find to herbalists and witches who knew what to look for. All cardiac glycosides have a five-membered lactone ring attached to the end of a steroid system and an extra OH between the C and D rings of the steroid system.
Molecules that affect the heart are not only found in plants, but animals. Many of the animals witches are associated with have some effect on the heart. Toads and frogs both can contain venoms fatal to humans. Toads are often associated with witches’ potions and spells. One of the most toxic molecules known is an active component of the common European toad. This toxin is called bufotoxin and is structurally very similar to cardiac glycosides. As you can see, witches had access to many toxic compounds that could be added to their “potions”.
Another thing associated with witches is their ability to fly on broomsticks. This too can be explained with chemistry. In history, some witches confessed before torture to flying on a broomstick to sabbats. The accused witches who confessed to this would often truly believe they flew, but in reality were only experiencing a reaction between molecules giving them a “high” that would give them the feeling of flying and going on crazy adventures. These experiences are all results of alkaloids. Alkaloids are plant compounds that have one or more nitrogen atoms, which are usually a part of a ring of carbon atoms. They usually affect the central nervous system, and are generally highly toxic. They have been in medicines for thousands of years though. Many alkaloids would be put into the “flying salves” or ointments needed in order to fly. The alkaloids would come from plants like mandrakes, belladonna, henbane, and deadly nightshade, to name a few. Deadly nightshade, if taken in great enough doses, would induce a death-like slumber. These death-like slumbers are seen throughout records of witchcraft as symptoms of being in contact with a witch, when really the victims only needed to ingest enough of a plant. The main alkaloids in these plants were hyoscyamine and hyoscine. Hyoscine is referred to as truth serum. People would go to witches for truth serums, yet no one knows if the person who ingested it babbled the truth or simply babbled.
A form of hyoscyamine called atropine, and hyoscine, which was also called scopolamine, were commonly used in the witches’ “flying salves”. These slaves would be rubbed on certain areas of the body and would induce intoxicating sensations, such as flying, leaving the body, and encountering various wild beasts. The hallucinations would be so vivid and life-like that the accused witches actually believed they rose out of chimneys and flew around on broomsticks. These women did not know that by confessing to witchcraft they were adding fuel to an already out-of-control fire, causing it to bring down many others’ lives.
Another alkaloid related to atropine was found on the coca tree in South America. The main alkaloid in this plant is cocaine. Cocaine has been used as a stimulant for hundreds of years. It used to be prescribed by doctors as a treatment for morphine addiction, before the discovery that cocaine was an extremely addictive substance too. The high from cocaine causes such a deep depression, when it ends that the user needs another high, just to get out of the sinking depression, leading to a major addiction, just as is seen in modern society.
Evidence witches were murderous people was caused by an alkaloid that would cause an extreme and rapid sickness and killed large amounts of people. This alkaloid was found in ergot fungus, which can grow on grains during a rainy harvest or while being poorly stored. It is called ergotamine, and causes blood vessels to constrict. Another alkaloid that causes ergot poisoning or ergotism is ergotovine and induces spontaneous abortions in humans and livestock and causes neurological disturbances. Ergot poisoning would painfully kill someone while driving them mad. The mental symptoms would make the victims seem possessed leading to the conclusion that witchcraft was involved. Also since so many people would come down with ergot poisoning at around the same time, people assumed it must be a spell from some witch. Ergot poisoning occurred throughout history from as early as 600 B.C., but only around the time of witch hunts did the blame fall on innocent people with little to no connection to the real cause. Some moments in history when ergot poisoning changed the events to follow were when during a campaign Caesar’s troops came down with ergot poisoning and lost too many men to succeed, and when Peter the Great’s troops got ergot filled rye and the numbers were decimated so their attack on the Turks was aborted. Ergot poisoning was clearly not the work of evil-doing people, but it was a major cause for accusations of witchcraft, such as in 1691 in Salem, Massachusetts when all the “victims” of witchcraft had symptoms extremely similar to those for ergot poisoning, yet the hysteria of sickness caused some 250 people to be convicted of witchcraft.
A popular drug not too long ago, and still into today, gets its high from an alkaloid too. This drug is LSD or lysergic acid diethylamide. It causes a “trip” of bright, swirling colors and pictures. The chemical make-up of LSD is similar to ergotamine and ergotovine in that it is the same thing, but with the larger side groups replaced by and OH.
The alkaloids mentioned above did not cause witchcraft in anyway. Instead, they provided so-called evidence against the accused. When an outbreak of sickness occurred it was blamed on witchcraft. Once the word of witchcraft got out, women started confessing to flying to sabbats, since they honestly thought so. The alkaloids in this chapter simply provided “proof” witchcraft occurred.
Molecules of Witchcraft
From the 1300’s to the 1700’s, witchcraft became a prominent problem in society. Since society itself grew naturally more “Christian,” with the growth of the Church and spreading of religious faith, witches and other abnormalities were seen mostly as a total rejection form what is generally practiced and what is “right.” These witches mostly were not truly at fault of practicing devil-worshipping activities; through literature and testimonies a common act of blame and pointing-fingers is often shown. Since true solid evidence was not required in order to satiate the sometimes sick appetites of the witch hunters, thousands of women and men were executed and hunted down for the sake of cleansing the earth of pollution. Since many of the Christians and non-Christians in the earlier years were quite superstitious, and not much was solved through scientific fact, accused witches were often taken for the accuser’s word. These superstitious believes were sometimes taken to irrational extremes; from baby-eating to flying on broomsticks to sabbats (orgiastic rituals), and they were also believed. Sometimes, natural disasters were blamed on witches, which would almost always result in mass burning at the stake. The torture and punishment of witches was also horrendous. One popular was of determining if a woman or man was a true witch, they would throw them into a body of water. It was a lose-lose situation for the accused. If he or she floated, the judges would determine it a sign that Satan was making him or her float on the water. Then the person would be dragged to be burned at the stake. However, if they sunk (and died) then they were innocent – and too bad for them! However, many of these accused witches were only herbalists – people who healed others in the more or less primitive times. They were the closest things to doctors in some areas. Sometimes, the better herbalist one was, the more chance they were of being called a witch. Those who could harness more power than those around them were often under suspicion as well. These supposed witches must have been relatively intelligent, however, to utilize such ingredients in an unstable condition such as cardiac glycosides, which effect the heart palpitations. A certain respect must be garnered for the accused herbalists who figured out many different combinations for certain herbs for healing or destruction and were then executed for it. An example of a more destructive aspect of herbalist study stems from the myth that witches have toads as their friends. This may not be much of a myth, since the venom in toads contained a molecule called “bufotoxin,” which meant an herbalist could not only heal with herbs but also cause serious damage with her venoms. Something else that could be used by witches were alkaloids – found in several plants like mandrakes, deadly nightshade, and henbane, could cause some harm to individuals – up to the point of death. They were sometimes used for obtaining some sort of high, but they are also fatal in any amount. Cocaine was also a well-known alkaloid of coca trees. It came to be considered a drug which produced great hallucinogenic effects, if extracted and purified. In the future, a certain Albert Hofmann would discover an extremely potent hallucinogenic drug called LSD. It became promoted as a drug for helping the sick in controlled proportions. Through the use of alkaloids and other chemicals like bufotoxin, many women and men were accused of witchcraft.
In my opinion, the impact that these chemicals had on the earlier world were significant. They caused the deaths of thousands of people – many of whom did not deserve to die. Perhaps the judges could have learned a scientific thing or two from these herbalists. These chemicals, due to a mixture of superstition, their amazing properties, and certain individuals’ ingenuity, resulted in a massacre which reached around many regions.
The author clearly makes a point: that “The atropine and ergot alkaloids did not cause witchcraft. Their effects, however, were interpreted as evidence against large numbers of innocent women…” And I wholeheartedly agree with that opinion. His point that the chemicals did not induce witchcraft stood out. They did not start it, they merely were misinterpreted.
I researched witchcraft as well and I think that you made very valid points. I also believe that the judges should have learned from the herbalists and that way thousands of lives could have been spared. I did not discuss the ways that people would determine if someone was a witch so I found it very interesting reading about how people would be thrown in the water and based on whether they would float or sink determined if they were a witch or not.
From the middle of the 1300s to the 1700s, a certain group of molecules have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. Since the Stone Age, women have mostly been the victim of witchcraft because of the ability to give birth. Witchcraft used to be known as sorcery, or one’s want to control nature. In most places witchcraft was only considered a crime is there was any harm as a result of it. In Christianity, magic done outside the church was considered an act of Satan. By the late 1700s, execution for witchcraft was ceased but people of the church still hated the witches.
• Salicylic acid from the willow tree and the meadowsweet plant was used as today’s aspirin
• The root of celery was prescribed to prevent muscle cramps, parsley was believed to induce a miscarriage, and ivy was used to relieve some symptoms of asthma
• Digitalis, an extract from the foxglove plant, is known for affecting the heart. It can reduce your heart rate, regularize the rhythm, and strengthen the heartbeat.
Molecules that are toxic to humans can be found in animals too, not just plants. The molecules don’t contain a sugar, just heart stimulants. Most amphibians have toxic skin which people would use to make poisonous blow darts and they would hunt with them.
• Alkaloids are compounds that have a nitrogen atom part of a carbon ring
o Appear as natural fungicides, insecticides, and pesticides
Alkaloids were found in plants because they cannot run away from danger, they must protect themselves. So they would produce a toxin in very small amounts in order to ward off predators. Some of these alkaloids are very poisonous to humans and can cause hallucinations and temporary paralysis.
These molecules were not the cause of witchcraft and aren’t really used today. They can cause certain diseases but otherwise have no cure.
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