THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 17th September 2011

Malta was our favourite holiday haunt. Or to be more precise, Gozo the second largest of the Maltese islands was where we would return to whenever we felt in need for some peace and quiet. It’s six years since we’ve been there; six years since my wife’s ‘accident’ that means we can’t contemplate overseas travel. But, if some medical miracle meant she could travel again, we’d go back in a flash.

But though we’ve had half a dozen or so holidays there and I was fortunate enough to make a number of business trips, as well, we’d never really done much in the way of learning about the place. Holidays to us were always about doing as little as possible though I would usually have an afternoon walk while my wife had a rest and, sometimes, those walks would include a visit to an historic site.

But, when I listened to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Excess Baggage’ this morning, I had no idea about the place one of the guests was describing. The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni is an underground Neolithic temple carved out of the bedrock. It has three levels and, as well as being used as a burial chamber for thousands of people, includes a ‘speaking chamber’ from which any noise can be heard throughout the complex and a central chamber where there are small round niches that can only be occupied by someone curled into the foetal position.

It is believed that drums would be played in a regular rhythm in the speaking chamber so that people curled up in these cubicles would hear a sound reminiscent of their mother’s heartbeat heard from the womb.

A rich source of information for archaeologists in an ancient site is the drains and, in the case of the hypogeum, these have yielded traces of some of the alkaloids of the ergot fungus, Claviceps purpurea. Sometimes called ergot of rye, this fungus forms in the ears of cereal crops, most commonly rye but it will form in wheat in the right conditions. Those right conditions involve damp or wet weather and, since Malta is not known for those conditions, it is believed that wheat was especially tended to induce production of the ergot fungus.

The important point about Claviceps purpurea is that it contains a number of alkaloids each producing different effects and often present in different concentrations sample to sample. The best known effects of ergot are uterine contractions, constriction of blood vessels in the extremities, convulsions and hallucinations. The blood vessel constrictions result in a burning pain, known as St Anthony’s Fire, and, if untreated or if the poisoning continues, can result in gangrene.   

According to the radio item, the purpose of the ergot was to induce muscle contractions to assist with achieving the foetal position necessary for getting into the niches as well as inducing hallucinations in response to the drumming in the speaking chamber.

This raised a number of questions for me.

The temple is believed to date from 4000BC and, if the design was for the apparent purpose, i.e. if the builders intended the niches to be used as replica wombs, then they must have been cultivating wheat. The earliest signs of deliberate farming rather than the collection of wild grains date from before 9000BC but I can’t see evidence that anyone understood how to manipulate growing conditions.

Muscle contractions are not a symptom of ergot poisoning I’ve come across before. There are references to convulsions but that implies an active process and goes against the notion that the ergot would be used to help people get in the right position in the niches and, presumably, hold that position for some time.

And, of course, there is the mystery of what the intended purpose of the apparent re-creation of life in the womb was. It implies a more advanced understanding of human development than is thought to have existed.

Further reading, suggests that the inconsistencies in the notion of using ergot fungus for the purpose described are minor against some of the theories surrounding this place. It always seems that anything unusual in our history brings out the weirdness in some people.

The Hypogeum was first discovered, by accident, in 1902 so you would expect any events surrounding it to be properly documented. Yet, there are those who claim that it is the entrance to a tunnel network under the whole of Malta but ‘the authorities’ have sealed it off to make it seem to be a discreet construction because they want the full network to remain secret. There is even a subset of these people who say the tunnel network extends under the Mediterranean and joins a similar network under Italy.

Then there is the ‘missing schoolchildren’ story. According to this, a school party of 30 children plus teachers entered the Hypogeum and were never seen again. No date is given for this event, presumably, because that would make it too easy to disprove and no explanation is offered for there being no reporting of what would have been a national tragedy in any country but especially a Roman Catholic one.

I don’t know what it is that leads some people to come up with such bizarre nonsense and then cling to it against all the evidence. It’s tempting to think they are ‘on something’ but, if they are, I hope it is not Claviceps purpurea because, modern man knows what ancient man didn’t, the ergot fungus is quite capable of causing death. 


Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
Wednesday 15th July 2015
Friday 26th June 2015
Thursday 25th June 2015
Thursday 30th April 2015
Wednesday 29th April 2015
Wednesday 11th March 2015
Tuesday 3rd March 2015
Saturday 28th February 2015
Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014
Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014
Saturday 16th August 2014
Tuesday 5th August 2014
Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014
Wednesday 23rd July 2014
Sunday 13th July 2014
Sunday 6th July 2014
Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014
Tuesday 24th June 2014
Sunday 22nd June 2014
Monday 9th June 2014
Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014
Sunday 18th May 2014
Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014
Saturday 5th April 2014
Thursday 3rd April 2014
Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014
Tuesday 25th March 2014
Friday 21st March 2014
Monday 17th March 2014
Sunday 16th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Thursday 6th March 2014
Wednesday 5th March 2014
Saturday 1st March 2014

February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014
Monday 24th February 2014
Wednesday 19th February 2014
Monday 17th February 2014
Thursday 13th February 2014
Monday 4th February 2014
Monday 3rd February 2014
Saturday 1st February 2014

January 2014

Thursday 28th January 2014
Thursday 23rd January 2014
Friday 17th January 2014
Wednesday 15th January 2014
Monday 13th January 2014
Thursday 9th January 2014
Tuesday 7th January 2014
Wednesday 1st January 2014

December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013
Friday 20th December 2013
Tuesday 17th December 2013
Friday 14th December 2013
Thursday 12th December 2013
Sunday 8th December 2013
Wednesday 4th December 2013
Sunday 1st December 2013

November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013
Wednesday 27th November 2013
Tuesday 26th November 2013
Friday 22nd November 2013
Monday 18th November 2013
Friday 15th November 2013
Thursday 14th November 2013
Sunday 10th November 2013
Thursday 7th November 2013
Wednesday 6th November 2013
Friday 1st November 2013

October 2013

Thursday 31st October 2013
Sunday 27th October 2013
Wednesday 23rd October 2013
Monday 21st October 2013
Friday 18th October 2013
Friday 11th October 2013
Wednesday 9th October 2013
Tuesday 8th October 2013
Monday 7th October 2013
Tuesday 1st October 2013

September 2013

Monday 30th September 2013
Saturday 28th September 2013
Friday 27th September 2013
Monday 23rd September 2013
Sunday 15th September 2013
Monday 9th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

August 2013

Sunday 8th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

Tuesday 27th August 2013
Sunday 25th August 2013
Monday 19th August 2013
Friday 16th August 2013
Tuesday 13th August 2013
Friday 9th August 2013
Friday 2nd August 2013
Thursday 1st August 2013

July 2013

Saturday 27th July 2013
Sunday 21st July 2013
Wednesday 17th July 2013
Monday 15th July 2013
Saturday 13th July 2013
Friday 12th July 2013
Thursday 11th July 2013
Wednesday 10th July 2013
Tuesday 9th July 2013
Saturday 6th July 2013

June 2013

Friday 28th June 2013
Tuesday 25th June 2013
Friday 21st June 2013
Thursday 20th June 2013
Wednesday 19th June 2013
Saturday 15th June 2013
Sunday 9th June 2013
Saturday 8th June 2013
Saturday 1st June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

January 2013

December 2012

November 2012

October 2012

September 2012

August 2012

July 2012 blog

June 2012 blog

May 2012 blog

April 2012 blog

March 2012 blog

February 2012 blog

January 2012 blog

December 2011 blog

November 2011 blog

October 2011 blog

September 2011 blog

August 2011 blog

July 2011 blog

June 2011 blog


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.