Of Spiders, Saints and Dancing Cures – Tarantism in Italy

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Italian women dance the tarantella, 1846 - via Wikipedia

There was a time, actually not long ago, when Italy used to be a land of mysterious events and rituals that are now quickly disappearing under the assaults of science and modernity. People used to believe in monsters and spirits, and above all, they used to believe in saints and demons. There was a time when women in Southern Italy frequently reported to have been bitten by a venomous spider commonly called by peasants taranta, and that because of such thing, they had to be treated in a special way, with a sort of exorcism based on music that was somewhere in between magic and faith, medicine and popular beliefs.

The most famous study of Italian tarantism is probably that of Dr. Ernesto De Martino, an Italian anthropologist, historian of religions and musicologist, that in his fascinating book La Terra del Rimorso (The Land of Remorse) narrates his field research done in Salento (Apulia region) in the Fifties, and illustrates his discoveries and reflections about such interesting phenomenon, which usually involved young women, and more rarely young men. He believed that tarantism was the culturally-laden, symbolic way in which people dealt with stressful psychic unconscious conflicts, in order to avoid neurosis.

People periodically transformed such conflicts in a symbolic way with violent crises in which they had to follow a dancing ritual. This allowed them to avoid excessive psychological damage. After each crisis, a period of relative psychic balance ensued.

Even if tarantism was spread in the entire population, the victims, called tarantate, were usually peasants that lived and worked in the countryside, where spiders were extremely common and aggressive – especially in the hot season, when harvest work was very stressful and tiring. In addition, De Martino noted that most victims were bitten in coincidence with troublesome moments of their life – be it social or personal events, such as their first period or puberty, during difficult or unhappy love stories, or while dealing with a family problem.

Sometimes, the real spider bite and its consequences in terms of pain and poisoning gave way to the typical disturbs of the syndrome associated with tarantism itself, which presents a number of symbolic elements that are linked to the time and place of the spider attack, to the victim’s need of dancing, the connection between spider and a certain color, and so on.  Tarantism could then be read as a therapeutic way of letting steam out.

After the encounter with the spider, people reported to feel sick and very tired, and in a few days they would fall in an altered state of consciousness, which required the intervention of a full team of specialists, who would test the victim in a specific ritual way, setting a circle and playing various types of music with violins, percussions and/or guitars, and presenting the white-clad woman with various objects, like sacred images, mirrors, ropes or a swing (to imitate the spider), aromatic herbs and ribbons of different colors, until she would finally react to one of them, and rise and dance for hours –up to six days in a row!- to chase away the tarantula, that was believed to possess her.

Different spiders would provoke a different set of emotions and problems to the victim, and they would make her react to a certain type of music and to a certain color only. The explanation of such preference is to be found in the most ancient book on tarantism, the Sertum Papale de Venenis, written in 1362. According to a popular belief, the spider would sing while biting a human being; this is why music has such prominent role in the exorcism – when hearing a melody similar to the one emitted by the spider, the victim would feel better. Generally, and not surprisingly at all, everyone would feel better hearing the notes of the typical Tarantella
As each spider was believed to be linked to a color it would also be linked to a certain desire or emotion. For example, some spiders would react to red and provoke aggressive behavior in his victim; some others would react to yellow and provoke depression. During the whole session, the victim would maintain a state of trance, and would alternate dance with rest. While resting, dialogues with either Saint Paul or the spider itself would take place – some tarantati (victims of the taranta) would be able to report them in detail, while some others couldn’t remember them at all.

Once healed by the Saint, the victim would have to go as soon as possible in pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Saint Paul in the village of Galatina, usually bringing the offers gathered during the exorcism and drinking some of the (so believed) miracle water taken from a sacred well. The possession was in fact linked to the cult of Saint Paul, who was believed to have a central role in  the whole ritual, as he was, interestingly,  the one who sent the spider (often to punish some sin, fault or offense against him), and the one who had to be prayed to obtain the grace. Saint Paul was also considered the protector of people bitten by spiders and poisonous animals, and was believed to communicate with the victims of his spiders, telling them how and how long to dance, and inviting or even coaxing them to go in pilgrimage to his chapel in Galatina.

Every year, the healed victim would actually relapse, and fall again in catatonic state, usually in the anniversary of the first bite. The whole dancing ritual was then to be prepared again, and again the person would have to dance and dance to reach health.

The family of the victim had many troubles once each crisis was over, as the economic damage provoked on a modest family by the whole exorcism was of course extremely serious. In fact, not only the musicians had to be paid and fed (sometimes they had to come from another city, so the trip had to be put in the expenses list as well), but the family had also to renounce to many days worth of wage, as the person couldn’t work at all during the crisis, and also for some days after it. The pilgrimage to Galatina was expensive as well. Add to all this the offers to be given to the sanctuary, and some  gifts for the musicians, repeat such expenses every year, and you get an idea of the financial loss of each family.

Modernity and Tarantism

With modernity, tarantism had been reduced to schizophrenia, depression or nervous breakdowns, and more importance had been given to the toxic effects of spider bites, that provoked in the victim a series of needs and strange behaviors due to poisoning. More often than not, it was affirmed that the syndrome was a mix of psychotic disorders and poisoning.

While some scholars proposed a medical interpretation of the phenomenon, some others were actually convinced that tarantism was something created by people, and especially by women, to safely react, in a traditional and socially justified way, against society and against harsh life conditions of one of the poorest regions of Italy. With Enlightenment, such phenomena were further relegated to the realm of useless myth, and all the links to natural magic were dissolved, saving only the medical elements (poisoning symptoms). Christianity also attempted to absorb such rituals and to make them similar to miraculous healings, forbidding musical and dancing performances. Moreover, the socioeconomic reality was dramatically changing.Tarantism as was known before could simply not survive to this last blows.

Tarantism today

So is tarantism definitely gone? Not really, if nowadays its musical component, the so-called pizzica, is back in Italian folklore and touristic offer – each year, thousands of people participate to the summer event of Notte della Taranta (taranta night) in Puglia. It is a huge event where many artists play pieces dedicated to tarantella and pizzica music, that is now a powerful symbol of the whole region, where people of all ages dance and dance until morning as if they were, again, under the influence of those naughty and frightening spiders.

Many Italian artists are inspired by pizzica and try to create new melodies, often with very pleasant and catchy results. The Sud Sound System, for example, is a much appreciated group that mixes hip-hop and reggae style with traditional music, singing in dialect.  They are maybe among the most famous Italian artists that are interested in the revaluation of such interesting and fascinating musical tradition.

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