St Antony’s demonic attacks were likely due to the contributions of these four factors. On top of being affected by the first three factors Merhoff and Porter provide insight into St Antony possibly having become poisoned from his food source thus causing the perception of demonic attacks. It is an otherwise obscure detail in the account of St Antony’s life that would not garner much merit were it not for medical advancements.
- The first cause of Antony’s demonic attacks is likely from prolonged exposure to the elements. Throughout his life Antony is said to have dwelt in remote and inhospitable places. It seems that Antony struggled to readjust to his new lifestyle for Athanasius writes that early on, the Devil tried to appeal to his carnality to derail him and when this failed the Devil turned to other means. Indeed, the Devil appealing to Antony’s carnality may have just been Antony himself, struggling with the reality of his new materially bankrupt life. As can be noted from his other demonic encounters the nature of the attacks change with time. Later attacks are not so much appeals to carnality as much as they are harmful and terrifying.
- Not only were Antony’s retreats in remote areas but he willfully lived in caves among the tombs. It is among the tombstones that Antony learns of something curious about the demons. For all their horror and terror they are quite powerless. It seems that they can do no more than manifest themselves as images before Antony. This suspiciously bears the markings of a hallucination. But what about the crippling attacks that physically hurt Antony? The answer to this can arguably be found in the fourth factor.
- A third factor is that Antony spent the better part of his life in solitude. While solitude may provide the ideal means to connect with God too much of it can have downsides. It is entirely possible that Antony experienced bouts of stir craze during his prolonged solitude.
- The fourth factor requires that attention be brought to an otherwise obscure detail. During the course of his retreats Athanasius writes that Antony survived by eating only bread and water. Athanasius reveals that it was a custom of the Thebans (St Antony was a Copt) to store bread for future consumption. The loaves of bread were attested to remain fresh for a whole year. Merhoff, and Porter indicate that, “in 1676, it was recognized that epidemic ergotism resulted from eating foods, usually breads or cereals, made from rye which was contaminated with the fungus, Claviceps purpurea.” Consider the account where Antony experiences pain akin to cuts so bad that he ends up crippled on the ground unable to move. While those in the fourth century might chalk such an event to the workings of the Devil, Merhoff and Porter note that, “if ergot ingestion continues, the patient develops dry gangrene which may lead to autoamputation or, less commonly, suppurative gangrene and sepsis. This is frequently proceeded by weeks of intense burning pain known as St Antony’s fire…” (775) It is thus possible that Antony had experienced ergot poisoning in his life due to the loaves of bread he almost exclusively consumed.
Reference: Merhoff, C. G., MD, & Porter, J. M., MD. (n.d.). Ergot Intoxication. Historical Review and Description of Unusual Clinical Manifestations. Retrieved September 25, 2016