This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Alicudi is a small volcanic island off the northern coast of Sicily, in the Aeolian archipelago. “It is hard to find a sadder, more dismal and desolate place than this unfortunate island,” wrote French writer Alexander Dumas during his travels in 1835. “It’s a corner of the earth forgotten by creation, and stuck in the era of chaos.”
The island is rocky, isolated and sparsely inhabited. There are no cars – you reach the only inhabited area of the island by scaling steep stairs, etched in the rock. Residents – mostly fishermen or goat shepherds – rely on donkeys to carry heavy loads up and down from the village. But despite its size and stark landscape, the tiny island has made quite a name for itself – and not for its wild beauty or peaceful solitude.
Between 1903 and 1905, people in Alicudi started having visions – witches banqueting on remote beaches; talking hessian sacks; women growing wings and flying to the island of Sicily to do their shopping; ghosts, clowns and soft pebbles falling from the sky. And experts think all this was to do with the local bread.
Back then, rye was a vital staple of the local diet, used in bread and biscuits. Unfortunately, the rye plant is also susceptible to infection from a fungus called ergot, known scientifically as claviceps purpurea. When infected, the normally beige plant grows small black spikes on its head. Ergot produces an alkaloid called lysergic acid, which is also the basic compound in LSD. In short, eating ergot makes you trip balls.
Historically, the population of the island was quite poor, so food was never something to be thrown away. Known as “tizzonara” or “ashes” in the local dialect, due to its black colour, the infected rye was probably ground up in the town’s mill to make flour. It’s possible it contaminated storage rooms for decades.
“It seems it was the British who brought it to the island,” said Paolo Lorenzi, an anthropologist who spent eight months in Alicudi in 2018 writing his master’s thesis about the story for the Sapienza University of Rome. “They came to these areas to buy [Sicilian] Malvasia grapes to make sherry and absinthe.” The British boats would mainly trade in the bigger ports of Messina and Palermo, and pass by the Aeolian islands on the way.
But Lorenzi said other experts believe the infestation could have started well before the early 1900s and continued for a long time after. Anthropologist Macrina Marilena Maffei, who specialises in myths and legends of the Aeolian Islands, interviewed elderly locals in the 1990s and early 2000s. She thinks ergot could have once been common throughout the archipelago, and believes the infestation could date back centuries.
In the small and isolated community, locals shared their hallucinatory visions with each other – some still believe the witches and ghosts were real to this day. Other superstitions and mysteries from the island have also survived, as noted by the 2007 documentary L’Isola Analogica, or The Analog Island, from the Greek “ana-logos” or against logic. The name of the documentary doesn’t just refer to the locals’ technology-free lifestyle, but also to their complicated relationship with reality, and taste for superstition.
For instance, on one of the island’s highest points sits a church dedicated to Saint Bartholomew, only reachable via 820 steep steps. Locals moved the statue of the saint to another church closer to the village, to make it more accessible. Today, the islanders say that between the 20th and the 24th of August – the days dedicated to celebrating Saint Bartholomew – serious accidents keep happening around Alicudi, including scuba divers drowning and tourists falling to their death. Many attribute these misfortunes to the saint’s dislike of its new location.
The island is also often hit by whirlwinds which can form quickly and catch residents off guard. According to another island legend, there’s a magic spell that allows people to “cut” the whirlwind horizontally in two, dispersing it into the air. The incantation is taught to selected members of the community from one generation to the next, often on Christmas Eve.
“If you’d come here 30 years ago, you would have realised that reality here works differently,” said an unnamed local interviewed in the 2007 documentary. Even though most stories are concentrated in those three years at the beginning of the 20th century, it’s widely believed that generations of people ate contaminated rye products.
Since island residents unknowingly took the psychedelic compound, they weren’t prepared for the hallucinations. This made the experiences feel even more real and intense to them. “To feel in control during an LSD trip, you have to develop some skills – and these skills stayed with them,” added the man in the documentary.
But everything changed in the 1950s, as Lorenzi explained, when the island welcomed its first tourists.
“Due to its mystical and isolated nature, Alicudi became a hotspot for hippies,” he said. They listened to the locals’ stories and recognised the tell-tale signs of an acid trip. “For the islanders it was normal, it was the tourists who made them realise that they had been experiencing psychedelic hallucinations,” Lorenzi explained. “So their stories today are influenced both by scientific explanations, and their own magical perspective.”
Eventually, the local church declared the bread “the Devil’s bread” and people avoided it until it disappeared completely in the 1960s. But years on, older residents still tell the tales of those strange hallucinatory visions.