The Story of Alicudi, Italy’s LSD Island

The Story of Alicudi, Italy's LSD Island

Ever wonder what would happen if someone did dose the water supply? Well, far from society, off the coast of Sicily, the tiny island of Alicudi found out. 

The most isolated of the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily, this remote, dormant volcano has been surrounded by mysterious tales of magic since being settled. It took generations to understand why, as one local said “life reality worked differently” on Alicudi.

What Caused the Entire Island of Alicudi to Hallucinate?

Ergot Fungus and LSD Bread

Alicudi has always been isolated. Before the 1970’s only small boats could reach the island. Because of this, the islanders had to rely on rye grown on the island to make their bread. The humid conditions of the island made the growth of fungus rapid. Rye can be infected by a fungus that grows spikes that resemble horns or ears, giving the infected grain the name “horned rye” or “crazy rye.” 

Crazy Bread from Horned Rye

Local historian Pino de Grace explained to CNN that when the local harvest was poor, even food infected with fungus would have been a precious resource, and eating spoiled food may have been necessary. Pinc de Grace explained the events were a result of ignorance from isolation and poverty, creating bad dietary habits and hygiene.

Ergot Fungus and LSD Bread

Crazy Bread from Horned Rye

The fungus, ergot, is the source of LSD, one of the most potent hallucinogens known to man.

It’s hard to pinpoint the tipping point. Historian Macrina Maffei told Vice, the villagers may have been ingesting crazy bread for centuries. Another anthropologist, Paolo Lorenzi, suggested that the British brought the fungus in the same Vice article. Other sources say the strange events lasted only two years – from 1903 to 1905.

What is certain is that crazy bread would shape Alicudi’s reputation forever, even well after the bread stopped being consumed, which most sources agree happened in the 50s or 60s.

Psychedelic Stories from Alicudi Island

For generations, Alicudi’s roughly 100 residents have told supernatural folk tales of local men controlling the weather with rituals. Even in the 21st-century, residents swear the old stories are true, and travelers still come to hear them. However, at some point, the belief systems of Alicudians reached extremes.

Flying Women of Alicudi 

Flying Women of Alicudi 

Alicudi changed when the local population began to have visions.

The entire island started seeing flying women and people transform into animals. CNN reported that even a nearby Church Bishop confirmed the events and decided that certain local people had “made a pact with the devil” to access powerful magic.

However, the Bishop’s condemnation did nothing to stop the mounting stories of ghosts, women sprouting wings, talking inanimate objects, and sorceresses sinking boats became normal.

Despite hints, something was off, notably CNN’s report of women reportedly falling out of their windows trying to fly, residents accepted witches were a reality on their island. After all, the entire community had witnessed the paranormal events, and seeing is believing, right?

Mariara” Sorceresses of Alicudi

"Mariara" Sorceresses of Alicudi

The flying women of Alicudi became known as “Mariara,” meaning sorceress in local Aeolian. 

Italian blog Axis Mundi reports the mariara could fly to the mainland Mediterranean city of Palermo to shop and take part in urban life. Flying as far away as the African coast was part of some stories and backed by proof of treasures brought back to the island that no one on Alicudi had ever seen.

Witches became part of life, and the stories of witches’ gatherings are still repeated today. On a beach below cliffs inaccessible to ordinary folks, mariara dressed in black would gather to drink a bitter brew and recite secret spells that gave them their powers. 

Other tales had the sorceresses both saving boats or other times sitting on the ships’ bows to sink them. The sorceresses would also lure fishermen into their gatherings, feeding them their potions and allowing them to have fantastic visions.

The Tale of Alicudi’s Storm Cutters

The Tale of Alicudi’s Storm Cutters

The Mariara easily blended into the existing mythology of the island as magic had never left Alicudi. Axis Mundi explains that the Aeolian Islands are named after the god of wind Aeolus, and the mythology is kept alive by the fisherman known as “cutters.”

Like Aeolus, fishermen of Alicudi claim to have the ability to control the wind. Whether this is an ancient tradition or a side effect of crazy bread isn’t clear. Still, even today, fishermen never venture too far from their island without someone trained in how to “cut” Mediterranean whirlwinds known as “sea trumpets.” 

The storms can arise quickly, but many claim to have seen fishermen initiated into the skill whisper the secret phrases from the bow of a ship and shoot an invisible thread from their fingers to cut a sea trumpet in two.

The Ghost Clown of Alicudi 

The Ghost Clown of Alicudi 

In the documentary about Alicudi, “L’isola Analogica,” residents describe a huge man appearing on the island. The first sighting was when a man noticed a figure he did not recognize squatting in the bushes. But, because he assumed this man was going to the bathroom behind a bramble bush, he minded his business.

However, the next day, in a casual conversation with his neighbor, he mentioned the strange person. The neighbor immediately exclaimed, “Did you see him too?!”

As time passed, the man began to be seen by others on the island, becoming known as “clown.” No one ever touched him, and residents claim he was only a “shadow” or a ghost. One resident claims his mother saw the clown for years until the day of her marriage.

Stones Raining from the Sky on Alicudi

Types of Tolerance to Drugs

Another tale from L’isola Analogica revolves around a man and his brother-in-law who shared a piece of farmland. When the brother-in-law fell ill, the community thought he was possessed because of his strange behavior. He could not be helped and eventually died.

Following his death, stones began to rain from the sky on the land he had worked. The stones were big but weighed almost nothing, and when they landed on the locals caused no harm. 

No one could understand the source of the stones, locals claiming it was impossible for anyone to throw them or that they fell from some location. When things became too strange, the local sergeant even investigated the land, but when no one could explain the events, locals assumed that the possessed brother-in-law’s spirit had “melted into the land.”

When Everyone’s on Acid

Supernatural tales were not only for the witches and fishermen, though. CNN, Vice, and Axis Mundi provide a long list of abilities given to the local people of Alicudi, like growing wings turning into animals, specifically crows, cats, donkeys, and pigs.

Spells seem to be common knowledge and are often used against enemies along with ghosts. Many of the stories seem typical of small places entertaining visitors. Yet, the clown’s story suggests the residents of Alicudi had access to a bit more creativity than usual.

Ergot, LSD, and Albert Hoffman

LSD chemical structure
LSD: chemical structure

It was not until the 1940’s that ergot was isolated into LSD by chemist Albert Hoffman. He also accidentally ingested his newly made compound for the first “official” acid trip.

LSD then was a promising drug to help mental illness, yet when it became a recreational drug used on a mass scale, it was deemed too disruptive to be legal. Only recently has LSD been accepted for its potential to treat mental health, while it is the disruptive pattern of mass use that seems to cause problems. 

However, in the end, recreational LSD use ended up being beneficial to the Alicudi Islanders. Most sources agree that in the 1950s, a group of hippies, attracted to the odd stories, visited Alicudi. The LSD experienced visitors realized the island’s legends sounded precisely like an acid trip and solved the mystery.

Mass Hallucinations on LSD Island?

Today, what happened on Alicudi would probably be termed “mass hysteria” as the existence of mass hallucinations is hotly contested. Usually, allegations of mass hallucinations are regarding a single event like UFO sightings, but because LSD usually isn’t part of those debates, one wonders if Alicudi was a special case. 

However, we have modern explanations of LSD that hint at what LSD island might have been.

Recent research has shown LSD makes people more prone to suggestion. This means under the influence of LSD, outside ideas more easily influence people. The study also outlines how creative ability appears enhanced on LSD. Superstition is a part of Alicudi’s history, so believing the local legends got out of hand with ergot in their systems.

Psychedelic drugs have been described as “amplifiers of the unconscious” by Stanislov Grof, who studied LSD-assisted therapy in the 60s. The stories told on Alicudi were passed down for generations and deeply embedded in people’s minds. It is possible stories then came to life through LSD, bringing these archetypes to the surface.

Were Alicudi’s Residents Getting High On Purpose?

Were Alicudi’s Residents Getting High On Purpose?

Accidentally eating hallucinogenic bread for generations makes for a great story- but the Axis Mundi blog has questioned if the event was an accident at all. 

Was the Church on to something when it accused folks of intentionally consuming the “Devil’s bread”?

Rye infected with ergot has a very distinctive look. In a community of many farmers, ergot fungus would be common knowledge. The local population actually had a specific name for the fungus, calling it “embers” because of its powdery, ash-like consistency. 

Some stories even describe the local sorceresses gathering to drink bitter potions enabling them to fly. Ergot has been documented to be used for thousands of years in medicine, and even during certain European plagues, it was known the fungus was the problem.

Ergotism Throughout History

Ergotism Throughout History

While an entire island tripping might seem unlikely at first, consumption of ergot by entire populations has been happening for a long time. Poisoning after consuming too much is called “ergotism” and can affect the nervous system, causing gangrene and eventually being fatal.

Ergotism is also known as “St. Anthony’s Fire” and caused many plagues throughout European history. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when large numbers of people were alleged to have experienced mass hallucinations from ergotism, witchcraft was determined to be the cause. Even the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 are now suspected to be caused by ergotism.

The Eleusinian Mysteries

Knowledge of ergot’s psychedelic effects could have been learned from nearby Greece, where participants in the Eleusinian Mysteries drank kykeon, thought to be a psychedelic drink likely containing ergot. There is also archaeological evidence that ergot was consumed in Greece outside of this secret ritual.

The theory presented by Axis Mundi is that this knowledge was at some point available to the witches of Alicudi who “flew” through visions to other places as if often reported on high-dose psychedelic journeys. 

Reflecting on the insistence of certain Island community members that the stories are true makes one wonder what Alicudi experienced.

Alicudi Today

While many of the elders on the island don’t want to share stories, the witches are still part of the island’s culture. Murals of witches are seen when arriving on the island, and some make a living telling the old stories. 

Some who will talk explain the truth to the stories, with one local telling CNN, “Anyone can exit the body and travel by astral means through the air.” Others lament by relating to the boredom and desperation of locals who had no other choice but to “fly” to escape the island’s situation.

Alicudi Tourism: Should You Travel to Alicudi Island?

The stories drive tourism to the tiny island, but some locals can be a bit hostile, wishing only to be left alone and put the past behind them. However, filling rooms at the local inn and selling t-shirts with mariara on them will likely keep Alicudi on the map. If you’re planning a trip to the Aeolian Islands of Sicily, don’t forget to visit Alicudi. Alicudi has a unique charm (or magic) that you shouldn’t miss. 

The Take-Away

LSD island shows, for not the first time in history, the dangers of mass consumption of psychedelics. The stories of Alicudi are valuable data that we could never acquire ethically today. And with good reason. Magic becomes real, reality becomes distorted, and a worldview long forgotten by modern people reemerges.

 

 

 

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