An introduction to Tarantism

Or what Bacchic Orphism became

These days if you go to Italy during the summer you can find girls in quaint folk costumes with pretty, smiling faces dancing the tarantella to the accompaniment of tambourines, guitars and accordions for crowds of German and Japanese tourists and at the end of August there is even a large, American-style music festival called La Notte della Taranta or The Night of the Spider.

I don’t know what this shit is, but I can tell you that it sure as hell isn’t tarantism.

This spiritual tradition was already on its way out in the 1950s when Ernesto De Martino assembled his team of specialists from a variety of disciplines to travel to the remote South Italian countryside to document and analyze the remnants of this ancient cult of ecstasy. Comparing what they found to sources from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when tarantism was in its heyday, De Martino and his associates concluded that the phenomenon had grown stagnant and corrupt through increased Christianization. In fact he was quite horrified by the spectacle of the tarantati worshiping in the old run-down church of Saint Paul of Galatina. This was not the first time that a Northern Italian would fail to comprehend the spirit of the Mezzogiorno, nor will it be the last.

The South of Italy is a harsh, cruel and barren land as different from Tuscany and Milan as the Appalachian foothills are from New England and Los Angeles. Since at least the post-Roman era agriculture has proven difficult in this sun-blasted region and most of the population has survived through subsistence farming making struggle and suffering part of the national character here, a fact which enabled them to endure centuries of unimaginable political and religious oppression. The land is also conveniently (or inconveniently, depending on your perspective) located so that anyone who wished to control the Mediterranean and access to the lucrative ports of Africa and the Orient had to control the South of Italy. Consequently Sicily, once the capital of the region, has the distinction of being the most conquered piece of real estate in all of Europe. Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Germans, Arabs, French, Spanish, English, Italians and many others have all vied for rule of the area and it has often been the battlefield in major disputes that originated elsewhere and were of little concern to the resident population, though my people always suffered the consequences of other men’s actions.

Surrounded by such harshness and instability, South Italians had little choice but to turn inwards and seek solace in religion. Even the South’s greatest detractors — and there are many in the North, especially today when economic hardship has some politicians seriously reconsidering the risorgimento — admit that they are an exceptionally pious people, though often that too is held against them. South Italians have a reputation for being excessively passionate, irrational, mystic, superstitious and primitive. Some Northern intellectuals in fact argue that the Mezzogiorno has more in common with Africa than it does Europe, with all of the racist undertones that one might imagine such a statement contains. In fact, in the Post-Reformation era when Catholics were preparing to send out missionaries to Africa, Asia and the New World it was argued by many Northern Italians that they needed to begin with the heathens in their own backyard even though the Mezzogiorno had ostensibly been Christianized since the eighth or ninth century.

This is the matrix out of which tarantism emerged nor can it be understood apart from it. Tarantism is the religion of a people who have suffered immeasurably — that suffering is what fuels its particular form of devotion. It is the faith of a people who cannot escape their pain, for whom deliverance is nothing more than a cruel joke, and so they embrace it, transform it, and exorcise it. Healing in tarantism comes about through intoxication — literally taking into one’s self what is poisonous and sweating it out through the dance. And that poison is the venom that is injected with the spider’s bite.

The first instances of tarantism are recorded in the Apulian region in the middle of the fourteenth century — its name coming from Taranto, once among the most important cities of Magna Graecia and an early center of the cult of Dionysos. Originally it appeared largely indistinguishable from a variety of collective forms of madness characterized by compulsive dancing and ecstasy that swept through Europe in the wake of the Black Death. In various places this phenomenon was associated with different saints such as Vitus, Rocco, Domenico, John the Baptist, etc. but in this region it was a small, unassuming spider that was behind it. Only later did the venerable Saint Paul get dragged into the mix, according to De Martino as an effort to legitimize the cult when the ecclesiastical authorities proved incapable of suppressing it.

The bite of the spider is what initiates one into tarantism, but only certain sensitive souls were susceptible to the malady. Spider bites, after all, were a common occurrence in the rural South where the majority of the population labored in the fields during the height of summer when the creatures were most active. Most people suffered the painful symptoms of the bite such as swelling, infection, necrosis of the flesh, dizziness, paralysis, etc. and upon recovery resumed their normal lives. But for others life would never be normal again.

To begin with the symptoms of the bite could periodically recur even when no subsequent bite had taken place. Sometimes this would happen annually around the time of the initial bite for up to thirty or forty years. It’s also worth mentioning that some people demonstrated these symptoms when no actual bite had happened.

The bite of the spider — whether literal or metaphorical — changed the person. In addition to the above mentioned symptoms the sufferers of this malady often experienced extreme states of psychological distress. Some experienced a torpor bordering on the catatonic, others fell into violent rages and had to be physically restrained (often with great difficulty as the victim seemed to possess almost supernatural strength and resistance) while others still were filled with blasphemous mockery or insatiable sexual desire and some found themselves trapped in the thoughts and emotions they had been experiencing at the time of the bite. All medical, psychological or religious treatments that were attempted on these individuals failed to provide them with any relief. The only thing that helped were the ceremonies of tarantism.

Originally these ceremonies were performed outdoors in natural settings reminiscent of those sought by the Bakchoi — in forests and stream-fed grottoes and up in the mountains. Later on the ceremonies were performed indoors around basins of water with the floor and walls strewn with greenery, especially ivy. Even when the location was moved to the church the tarantati often brought the vegetation in with them.

As important as this element was in the cure, a far more important role was played by the hired musicians. The spider’s venom responded to certain musical tones, favorably and otherwise depending on the temperament of the spider. When the right notes were struck the victim’s body would begin to convulse in the dance, even if they were unconscious or restrained. Some would be dancing already — and indeed could not be stopped from doing so until exhaustion or death overtook them — but completely changed the type of dancing they were performing when the musicians happened upon the particular melody of their spider. Conversely there were melodies that were totally antithetical to their spider and when they were subjected to these the victim experienced excruciating torment and would respond with violence. Likewise color and scent played an important role in the cure and as part of the diagnosis the victim was presented with a variety of objects so that the nature of their spider could be discerned through their reaction to these things.

The cure often lasted for days or weeks on end, the poor musicians forced to play for hours at a time, stopping briefly to rest, eat and drink wine before resuming. The tarantist would often continue dancing even during the lull, or pace around in a state of angry agitation, or fondle the complementary objects and spit on, smash or revile those that were inimical to them or else they would crawl around on their backs in a grotesque mimicry of spiders.

The relationship of the tarantati to their spider was complex. After the bite the individual remained bonded to the spider for as long as it lived and sometimes even beyond as their enslavement could be passed down to the spider’s descendants in rare cases. This bond was primarily a spiritual one as it was possible to become infected without a bite, simply by having looked at a spider or in some cases without even that degree of ephemeral contact. Even if the person never saw the spider again they remained bound to them, for the venom was in their veins and controlled them. Some had a hostile relationship with their spider and sought to drive its influence out of their body through dance. One person that De Martino interviewed explained that when they danced they imagined that they were stomping the spider into the ground with their feet. Others maintained a devotional or romantic relationship with the spider even when they weren’t suffering directly from the malady. For them they experienced the harsh symptoms of the disease only when they were resisting its influence, otherwise the experience was extremely pleasant, liberating and even erotic. Most were somewhere in the middle and could fluctuate between extremes of emotion depending on where they were in the cure cycle. 

Interestingly none of this ambiguity was resolved by Christianization.

Although Saint Paul was brought in to alleviate the suffering of those with this malady, because he was viewed as having power over the spider people naturally inferred that he was then also responsible for sending the spider out to bite the individual and in time he came to be identified with the spider itself. Several of those who had romantic relationships with their spiders recounted receiving marriage proposals from the good saint and were punished severely if they refused or family members forced them to wed someone else.

Although this was often a sincere form of spirituality comparable to ancient Mainadism, some forms of shamanism, the Middle Eastern Zār cult and various African Traditional Religions it served a variety of functions within the culture of Southern Italy. For the participants it could also be a way of relieving pent up tensions since their lives were so often brutal and unglamorous — a benefit also experienced by the spectators who gathered to watch the exotic and bizarre ceremonies and would often feast and dance and enjoy the music themselves. For people with few resources and even less leisure such spectacles provided some much needed entertainment. One can also imagine the psychological benefits of being the focus of attention and being given the liberty to express radical notions without being held accountable for them because “the spider made me do it.” Others no doubt got a thrill from participating in or merely observing transgressive acts within the territory of the sacred, as when the throngs of tarantati danced, howled and shrieked, climbed up on the altar and did other sorts of questionable things in the church of Saint Paul of Galatina on his feast day — activities that were only permissible because the ecclesiastical authorities had gotten themselves into a bind by so thoroughly wedding the saint to the phenomenon.

Unfortunately it is this aspect of it that spelled the demise for the authentic tradition of tarantism. Because the festivity and license surrounding the dances was so popular they became disassociated and independent from the spiritual malady that had called them into being. People stopped gathering to watch the musicians help alleviate the suffering of those who had been bit by a spider and began gathering just to listen to the musicians instead. The victim was forgotten, carted off to the sanitarium so that it would be even easier to ignore them and the dance and music morphed into a folkway and thence into a tourist attraction. The tarantella of The Godfather is a far cry from what Ernesto De Martino witnessed during his trip through the Mezzogiorno — and even that differs significantly from what Athanasius Kircher and his contemporaries recorded.

But some of us still remember and honor the Spider.

***

According to Ernesto De Martino, Tarantism was originally an independent expression of popular peasant religion that had probable roots in and strong parallels with the ancient ecstatic cults of Dionysos that once flourished in Magna Graecia, or what is today Southern Italy and Sicily. When the church’s attempts to suppress Tarantism proved unsuccessful they began taking a different approach in the 16th century by grafting Catholic tradition onto it and bringing it under the auspices of Saint Paul. De Martino feels that this was a disastrous step which resulted in the corruption and degradation of Tarantism and he points to the difference between the home remedies carried out in the countryside and the nightmarish spectacle that transpired every year on the feast day of Ss. Peter and Paul in the church of Galatina. He also remarked on the confusion caused by the syncretic blending of Saint Paul and the taranta whose symbolic bite caused depression, madness and violent, unsociable behavior which could only be cured through music, dance and color. Sometimes Paul was represented as the enemy of the taranta, fighting against it to liberate his devotee from its malign influence. Other times Paul punished people by sending the taranta to bite or sting them. And in still other situations Paul was the taranta, appearing in spider form and compelling the victim to dance uncontrollably. Some tarantati had extremely unconventional relationships with the good Saint.

For instance, Maria of Nardò, who experienced her “first bite” at the age of thirteen, had an apparition of Saint Paul during which he joined with her in mystical marriage and forbid her to wed a mortal. Against her wishes she was compelled to marry a boy from the village and as could be expected things went badly for her thereafter. The jealous Saint reproached her, commanding that she abandon her household chores and new husband and come out with him into the fields. Whereupon he stung her and she danced non-stop for three days before finally being reunited with her family. Though she remained unhappily married to the village boy, every summer without fail the Saint would come back for her renewing their relationship and forcing her to dance for him. There was also a popular song that the tarantati sang in the church of Saint Paul of Galatina:

Santu Paulu meu de le tarante
che pizzichi le caruse ‘nmezz’all’anche
Santu Paulu meu de li scorzoni
che pizzichi li carusi int’i balloni

[My Saint Paul of the tarante, who stings the girls between their hips
My Saint Paul of the scorzoni* who stings the boys in their pants.]

During the 17th century a similar couplet was recorded:

Deu ti muzzicau la tarantella?
Sotto la pudìa de la vannella.

[Where did the little spider bite you?
Under the hem of my skirt.]

Somehow I don’t think that the dour author of 1 Timothy and Corinthians would appreciate how his image has been co-opted in this way! But on the other hand, it does make a certain kind of sense for Saint Paul to be made the patron of the tarantati. The common symptoms that De Martino and his associates found among the inflicted include:

… falling to the ground, a feeling of prostration, anguish, a state of psychomotor agitation with a beclouding of the sensory apparatus, difficulty in remaining standing, stomach ache, nausea and vomiting, various paraesthesia and muscular pains, a heightening of sexual desire.

Which brings to mind Paul’s strange encounter on the road to Damascus:

Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you?’ And the reply came, ‘I am the Lord Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. (Acts of the Apostles 9.3-8)

Another incident towards the end of Acts probably contributed to this identification as well:

After we were brought safely through we learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all as it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of vinewood sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, the Goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a God. (28:1-6)

Nicola Caputo of Lecce recorded in the eighteenth century a popular tradition which explained how Saint Paul came to be associated with Tarantism in the region:

It is said among the citizens of Galatina – whose belief has no support other than the testimony of uninterrupted tradition – that one night the apostle St. Paul, who sailed our seas after Peter’s preaching, was passing by the promontory of Santa Maria of Leuca and came to Galatina incognito for fear of persecutors, with the aim of visiting neophytes. He was welcomed there and received information at the home of a devotee. which still exists today and for this reason is called the House of St. Paul. The citizens of this town tell various things in relation to the legend, but the most important thing they say is that to reward the piety of this religious man, St. Paul obtained the power to heal for him and his descendants, a power obtained from God through the merits of Jesus Christ; they could heal by making the sign of the cross on small wounds of those who had been bitten by poisonous animals, such as scorpions, vipers, phalangids and the like, making them drink water from a well of the House of St. Paul. It is said that when the descendants of this devotee had died out, some victims of the bite of the taranta, scorpion or viper came to the well – it, too, is still visible – while the poison was in action, and asked to be healed by St. Paul, whence they were immediately cured after drinking the water; they returned home with glad hearts and gave thanks to their benefactor. This is the tradition of the citizens of Galatina, who relate various healings of this sort. Whether or not the story is to be believed in its entirety is not for us to judge, but it is too great a contrast with the faith of these citizens to maintain it is an entirely false story and that all of these events are to be attributed to the natural virtues of the water.” (De Tarantulae anatomie et morsu pg. 229)

Sadly, in De Martino’s day this well with its miraculous curative properties had to be closed down by the department of health because it was deemed “dangerous, filthy, and contaminated.” But what’s a little brackish water when you’ve got a Saint on your side?

One way that I differ from the traditional Italian tarantati is that I have a purely devotional relationship with my taranta (whereas they can fluctuate between fondness and violent antipathy – sometimes even during a single session) and I worship her alongside Dionysos and Hermes. Indeed in my experience Spider has a very close relationship with both of these Gods. Although I usually discuss Spider in a Dionysian context, she belongs just as much within the sphere of Hermes, especially with regard to a lot of the work I do with her which involves dreams, luck, magic, and communication with spirits. In fact it was Hermes that initially introduced us and for a while I predominantly considered her a Hermetic animal, only discovering the Dionysian associations later on. In a very weird way, this kind of parallels traditional Tarantism.

After all, consider the two Saints that are most frequently invoked in this context: Peter and Paul. Peter’s name derives from the Greek petros meaning rock or stone after Jesus said (Matthew 16:18) “You shall be called Peter, the rock that will serve as the foundation upon which I build my church.” The earliest representations of Hermes were a pile of stones meant to mark off boundaries (it’s actually thought that his name derives from these hermai) and further he is a God of the foundation and doorway, a protector of the home alongside Hestia and Hekate with whom he is frequently paired in cultus. In folk Catholicism Peter is said to have been given the keys to heaven and the ability to judge the dead and escort them to their final destination – a function that perfectly parallels Hermes as psuchopompos.

But the fascinating parallels don’t end there, for Hermes has even more in common with Saint Paul. Paul had a variety of what he termed “the gifts of the spirit” including the ability to travel to other worlds and commune with heavenly beings. He was also an eloquent speaker – to the point where he was actually mistaken for Hermes himself:

And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, ‘The Gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. (Acts 14.11-12)

No doubt it wasn’t just Paul’s cleverness that led them to this assumption. The crowd probably had in mind the legend of Baucis and Philemon which had taken place nearby and begins, in the words of Ovid:

Long ago the region of Phrygia was visited by mighty Jupiter, together with Mercury his nimble-witted son, who first had laid aside his rod and wings and put on human form. As weary travelers over all the land they wandered, begging for their food and bed; and of a thousand houses, all the doors were bolted and no word of kindness given – so wicked were the people of that land. At last, by chance, they stopped at a small house, whose humble roof was thatched with reeds and straw; and here a kind old couple greeted them. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.626ff)

This is where things get really interesting. For you see, Lycaonia is “wolf country” from the word lykos and Hermes has some interesting connections with the animal. As a pastoral deity he was invoked to protect the flocks against wolves (just as he was said to have power over guard-dogs in a more domestic context) and in Hellenistic Egypt he was frequently equated with both Wepwawet and Anubis, to the point where he was depicted with canine features as Hermanubis. Diodoros Sikeliotes mentions these two as a pair of heralds (and Hermes is the God of heraldry) who marched in the army of Osiris-Dionysos:

Now Osiris was accompanied on his campaign, as the Egyptian account goes, by his two sons Anubis and Makedon, who were distinguished for their valour. Both of them carried the most notable accoutrements of war, taken from certain animals whose character was not unlike the boldness of the men, Anubis wearing a dog’s skin and Makedon the fore-parts of a wolf; and it is for this reason that these animals are held in honour among the Egyptians … Makedon his son, moreover, he left as king of Makedonia, which was named after him. (Bibliotheca historica 1.18ff)

A feature that is curiously paralleled much later on in Nonnos of Panopolis’ epic on the Indian conquest of Dionysos, for he speaks of Satyroi Hermeides:

With Pherespondos walked Lykos the loudvoiced herald, and Pronomos renowned for intelligence – all sons of Hermes, when he had joined Iphthime to himself in secret union. To these three Eiraphiotes entrusted the dignity of the staff of the heavenly herald, their father the source of wisdom. (Dionysiaka 14.105ff)

Now, this is relevant to our discussion of Tarantism for two reasons. First, Tarantism bears some interesting similarities to lycanthropy or werewolfism. And secondly, and much more importantly, one of the species of spider that is frequently credited with causing Tarantism is Lycosa tarentula or the wolf-spider. (Though, in truth the taranta seems to combine qualities from both Lycosa tarentula and Latrodectus tredecimguttatus and most cases of Tarantism are not traceable to actual spider-bites – rather it seems to be a psychospiritual phenomenon that mimics and utilizes the symptoms of latrodectism for its own symbolic purposes.)

All of this is fairly random and conjectural and I’m not sure that these “coincidences” mean anything on their own – but when you take all of them together the implications are quite fascinating. What’s even weirder is that I didn’t learn about most of these connections until I’d already made them on my own and been doing this stuff for a while.

* While it is most common for the taranta to be a spider, they can also be scorpions, snakes or any other poisonous creature, as mentioned here.

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