An introduction to Tarantism

An introduction to Tarantism
by Sannion

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 Washington, D.C. 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 complimentary 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.