A migraine is a neurological magic-carpet ride. Migraines aren’t “headaches” but electrical storms in the brain. Aside from the pain and discomfort they can cause, the migraine can deliver awe-inspiring changes in consciousness and perception that leads me, a person who experiences migraines, to choose the word “migrainaut” instead of “migraineur” to define a person who has these experiences. We are mind-travelers to other realms.
Some of the more amazing experiences (symptoms) frequently reported by migrainauts have been catalogued by the Migraine Aura Foundation’s website:
And this site also includes a thorough description of the migraine’s similarity to religious revelations and mystical states:
Food of the Gods
I’ve experienced migraines for ten years now, and I’m still learning a lot from these inner travels – I experience vivid visual perception changes that are similar to astounding real-life Van Gogh paintings, and I also often receive intense insights into the deeper meanings of everyday things like passages from books or even pop songs (with many inspirations appearing on this blog).
But I’ve come to a realization from my study of folklore that I don’t think has occurred to anyone before: many foods/medicines that are by tradition considered to be associated with the spirit world are also well-known migraine triggers. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Here are some of the most obvious: alcohol, tobacco, chocolate, and coffee.
Referred to as “spirits” for a good reason, alcohol makes people feel possessed. Then they forget what they did and said while “under the influence.” Alcohol is one of the strongest and most common triggers of migraine attacks, also. Prior to the modern age when alcohol was consumed recreationally and as a stress reliever, it was in prior ages drunk only as part of a social ritual to “inspire” divine revelation (i.e. poetry), or as a hygienic means of purifying drinking water (banishing evil from the human body is a common function of friendly spirits). No doubt a migrainaut, who was far more sensitive to the drug, would have been considered especially blessed by the gods and given better and longer lasting “inspiration” and “revelation.” (Never mind that a lot of pain goes along with it, the ancient gods were known to have powers that were simultaneously beneficial and harmful.)
A strong migraine trigger, tobacco was revered by the native inhabitants of the Americas as a drug to summon the spirits. Along with alcohol, tobacco is still a common offering to gods and spirits in most folk religions, and is still smoked in ritual to invoke spirits. (Not a food of course, but it is orally ingested).
As an interesting anecdote, I had a friend who once tried to quit smoking tobacco by using the nicotine patch, a common smoking cessation aid that delivers smaller quantities of nicotine into the bloodstream through a dermal patch. The warning label on the package told him not to sleep while wearing the patch. He thought that was odd, until one day he accidentally nodded off while watching television. He reported he had intensely vivid and bizarre dreams. We later found out tobacco has this reputation of stimulating dreams, yet another contact with the spirit world. Migrainauts have the advantage of being able to dream while still awake!
“Migraine sufferer, actually . Blinding flashes, aural hallucinations, seizures. Probably ate chocolate before leaving for Damascus. . . chocolate, a Snickers for the road. Fucking tempting, innit?” (Speaking of Saint Paul’s vision as reported in the New Testament)
– Alan Hope (Newsgroups: rec.arts.prose, alt.surrealism, Subject: various comments on g.v.w.’s posts to alt.surrealism, April 12, 1999)
Literally called the “food of the gods” by the Aztecs, and scientifically named Theobroma cacao (which also means “cocoa the food of the gods”), this delicious substance contains theobromine, an alkaloid similar to caffeine and which is often reported to induce euphoria. Also a major migraine trigger, the Aztecs believed chocolate was a gift given to them by their wisdom and culture god Quetzalcoatl, and that he was punished by the other gods for giving puny humans such an important substance. Chocolate became such an important ingredient in religious ritual in the Americas that traces of large quantities of it have been found in the ruins of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Chaco was one of the largest and most important religious centers of the New World in its heyday, and importing chocolate all the way from the rainforests of Mesoamerica was a great feat of international trade and power.
In a more general sense I am talking about caffeine here, although most of us get our highest caffeine intake from coffee, and caffeine is named after coffee. Caffeine is the alkaloid that gives coffee its stimulant effect, and is also found in chocolate. When coffee was first widely consumed in Arabia and North Africa, it was believed to be an intoxicant, and coffee-houses were condemned as dens of drunkenness. Besides being a huge migraine trigger, coffee/caffeine can cause excessive talkativeness and racing thoughts.
The World of Fairy
Now my theory here is that, while all these foods would be aids in attaining spiritual states for anyone, they would have stronger effects on the migrainaut, who would already be recognized by the tribe or village as a spiritually gifted person, one “chosen by the gods.” So these foods would have a pronounced reputation, and would probably be forbidden to ordinary people or to be consumed outside of ritual events. (This seems to be true from what we know in historical accounts of the way these foods were used in traditional societies.)
In folklore (I am most familiar with this theme in British and American sources), we have numerous stories of people who have encountered spirits or fairies or elves or whatever they were called, and were carried off by them. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say a person in the throes of a migraine, who was seeing and hearing and experiencing the world very differently from everyone around him/her, might be described as having been “abducted by fairies and taken to fairyland.” These folktales also often relate that the kidnapped are invited to eat the food of the fairies, with the result that a full return to normal life was never again possible.
I’ll mention another personal story connected with this. A friend of mine has a husband who suffers from a mental disorder that causes fugues. She tells me this episodes are so often triggered by eating certain foods that she has him on a strict diet. In a fugue episode, he wanders out of the house and is the next day found in a random location with no recollection of how he got there or what he was doing. (Abducted by fairies, anyone?)
I also hypothesize that migrainauts were considered to be fairy or elf-like themselves, either through association or tutelage or even as changelings. In Norse folklore, for instance, it is often stated that elves and fairies cannot tolerate daylight; in fact, sunshine is euphemistically called “elfsbeam” for this reason. Migrainauts are also very averse to bright light when experiencing migraine.
According to Wikipedia, elves in medieval Europe were believed to inflict illness on people, notably “stabbing pain,” even describing a person so afflicted as “elf-shot,” as though pricked with an elven arrow, a good description of a migraine! Elves were also thought to cause nightmares, and sleep disturbances and nightmares are frequent complaints of migrainauts (and people who fall asleep wearing nicotine patches, of course).
I am surprised to see that Wikipedia also mentions a medieval belief in a connection between elves and epilepsy, because epilepsy and migraines are very similar neurological disorders, and are sometimes confused.
For a similar post on food and the supernatural, see The Wild Man of the Swamps