Tarantism: St. Anthony’s Fire – review

This was exactly what it was like while I was waiting for my bus to work.

The Kingdom of Rainfall, Dampness, Stuffiness, and Grimness reigns supreme all day long today without a ray of sunshine peering through the heavily downcast gray sky so lowly hung in the celestial ceiling of the Atlas that it almost looks like collapsing to earth. While basking myself in the typical Atlantic grayness of this somber weather, I could understand why the legendary lost Roanoke Colony was doomed to fail in the late 16th century; it was primarily due to this grim and damp weather condition only congenial to mosquitoes and other kinds of pest that thrived on the unpleasant sogginess. In the reign of the somber weather, to come upon an article in this month’s National Geographic History called “Killer in the Rye: St. Anthony’s fire,” which was also related to the gloominess of the weather seemed a tad pat.

“The Beggars” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is said to have portrayed the victims of rye poisoning, most likely of St. Anthony’s Fire, as shown herein.

Between the middle ages and the 17th century, inhabitants living in the proximity of the Rhine (Austria, Germany, and Flanders) where damp climate affected the crops adversely were frequently subject to a diabolical malady caused by a consumption of infected rye with symptoms of seizures, hallucinations, and infected limbs with excruciating agony that was said to be similar to the spiritual torment suffered by St. Anthony of Egypt. Hence the naming of the agricultural disease ensued. It all started with eating grain infected with a fungus called claviceps purpurea, black growths resembling a rooster’s spurs. This heinous fungus became ergot, toxic alkaloids cutting off the blood supply to the body’s extremities, which caused the hellishly burning sensations to the limbs. Since the cows were not immune from this fungus by dint of eating the infected crop as a staple diet, large parts of the population were exposed to the risk of contracting St. Anthony’s Fire.  In fact, this rye poisoning was multifariously diabolic in the saintly names, such as “St. John’s Dance” and “St. Vitus’s Dance”; the victims displayed tantrums of bodily movements – also known as tarantism – as if they were possessed by demons. Although the rye poisoning began to die out in the Western Europe as wheat replaced rye in the kitchen, the most recent cases of the rye-poisoning disease were seen in the early 20th Soviet Union and Ethiopia and India in the late 2oth century.

Sun, Sun, Sun!

Indeed, to happen on the article such as the aforesaid while I was sulking in the unpleasant conditions of damp weather gave it an extra fillip. Maybe I am being grumpy about one of those lousy weathers that may be beneficial to the others on the other hand, such as farmers needful of precipitations for their parched land or vendors and manufacturers of umbrellas and rain boots whose businesses hinge on the whims and caprice of Mother Nature.  But as the aforesaid historical records evidence, when dampness and cloudiness in partnership reigns supreme, it turns the world grim and dreary, listless and lethargic. And that is why the ancient civilizations began and prospered in the places where the gods of sun Ra, Apollo, and Helios claimed their sovereign powers among the dominant high gods and goddesses and retained their divine radiance.


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Stephanie Suh

I write stuff of my interest that does not interest anyone in my blog. No grammarians, no copy editors, no marketers, no cynics are welcome.

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