Alejandro did not walk forward, he did so on his back. Uncle Blas told his wife: “I already stay like this forever.” The pigs were reeling. “That bread made people drunk. That bread made people drunk”, remembers Antonio amused, “Your head hurt like wine.” He has just turned 99 years old and, together with his 96-year-old wife, he remembers in front of the camera. He recounts an event that occurred in his village of O Barco de Valdeorras, when a neighbor distributed a batch of empanadas made with rye. And the one of San Vito was armed, including pigs. The documentary film Black Purple, which was released in theaters on September 24, explains what happened: the cereal suffered from a fungus, the Claviceps purpurea, cornezuelo in Spanish and caruncho or grao de corvo in Galician. And it was hallucinogenic.
The history of ergot, the LSD of our grandmothers that laid the foundations of the Galician pharmaceutical industry
So hallucinogenic that, in addition to the event in eastern Galicia, it was used by Dr. Albert Hoffman to produce LSD. His own voice tells it in a radio interview collected in the film by Sabela Iglesias and Adriana P. Villanueva –the directors, who sign as a collective Illa Bufarda. It was 1949 and Hoffman claimed that he had managed to “indicate the valid structure of the caruncho alkaloids” and, therefore, of LSD. And to make lysergic acid, initially for medical or even military use, he had used Portuguese ergot. It was a few years before the counterculture adopted it as a key to access parallel worlds and, nevertheless, in a corner of the Iberian Peninsula its use was common.
Black Purple, filmed with delicacy and a certain tenderness towards the materials treated, it is full of unusual, surprising, little-known stories. No voiceover, slow, a mosaic of voices with theremin music. Thus, a woman narrates how in the postwar period, while the Franco regime displayed its version of the State supported by American complacency, fixing ergot in the rye fields was a sensible contribution to family economies. “It was an important stage in the Galicia of the farmers,” he says. Pharmaceuticals knew its properties and paid for it. “After the Second World War, they began to come to the fairs asking about the caruncho,” he says, “and the children saw the sky. Because we had nothing.” They paid 1,250 pesetas (7.5 euros) per kilo, the same as what a calf cost then. “They said he was going to Germany.” Not just Germany.
Zeltia, the company founded in 1939 by the Lugo brothers Fernández López, knew that the dentex alkaloids – another of the Galician words to designate the Claviceps purpurea– they had enormous medical potential. Popular wisdom certified it. Midwives used it due to its oxytocic capacity, which produced the contraction of the uterus, and anti-hemorrhagic. In births and abortions. The Zeltia laboratories, populated by retaliated Republicans, managed to extract the ergometrine from it and created the successful Purpuripán. In the film it is explained by a former employee of the company, now disappeared but whose trace still exists in the industry, now based in Madrid. Gone are its beginnings, those that consign Black Purple: explore the Galician medicinal flora and turn it into legal tender. And commercial.
Plant tungsten and Eleusinian mysteries
There were those who spoke then of “vegetable tungsten”. Its commodification made it a coveted object. But it was not a recent invention. Neither of a last minute discovery. The ergot trail is lost in the mists of time. Medieval medicinal breviaries assign it to witchcraft practices. Professor Karlom López, from the botany department of the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Santiago de Compostela, has investigated this story and tells it on camera. Ingestion of the mushroom, he says, is related to St. Anthony’s fever or ergotism. It was not a joke. “This gangrenous disease caused massive deaths and amputations,” he says. And, in its convulsive version, hallucinations or arterial contractions: the dance of San Vito.
López travels to an even more remote past. Ergot serves, he adds, to understand the Eleusinian mysteries in ancient Greece. These initiation rites, organized in the city of Eleusis, near Athens, honored the goddesses Demeter –of agriculture– and Persephone –daughter of Demeter and Zeus and queen of the underworld. The ceremonies celebrated the return of life after winter and included wild dancing, profusion of obscenities and feasting. None of this was possible without drugs, of course. Modern scholars hold that the main one was the Claviceps purpurea. Eleusis was in an agricultural region, where the cultivation of cereals such as wheat and barley dominated. In which, although less than in rye, ergot also grows.
In the village of Antonio, in the Valdeorras area, they did not dedicate themselves to the Eleusinian mysteries. The neighbor who had baked the contaminated rye bread only wanted to return the help she had received while she was convalescing from an illness. But he hadn’t cleaned up the cereal. “The one who ate of that, was drunk”, says Antonio. And the pigs also made their psychedelic trip because, when the neighbors realized what was happening, they threw the leftovers to the animals. It was in 1936. Ergot fever only began to subside in the 1960s, when pharmaceutical companies were able to synthesize ergotamine in the laboratory.
Black Purple It can be seen in cinemas in A Coruña (Yelmo and Filmax), Santiago de Compostela (Numax), Lugo (As Termas) and Vigo (Yelmo).