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The Tarantula-Possessed Women Who Could Only Be Cured By Dance

A map of southern Italy, decorated with tarantulas, from Giorgio Baglivi’s Opera omnia medico-practica et anatomica, 1723. (Photo: Angelica Calabrese) 

On a hot day in the summer of 1728, Anna Palazzo was working in the vineyards surrounding her hometown of Campi Salentina when a tarantula bit her on the elbow. The young woman collapsed, and the farmers working beside her rushed to her side as the situation deteriorated: her face and stomach swelled, her breathing became ragged and deep. Worried that she was on the verge of death, her husband and the other farmers hurried to bring the poor girl into town, “slung over the back of a donkey and tied up as if she were a cadaver,” according to local physician Nicola Caputo. She was nearly unconscious when they dropped her into her bed and called the only people who could still save her: the musicians. 

Anna wasn’t suffering from the average spider bite: she had been bitten by the tarantola, a creature of local myth and legend. She had become a tarantata

Soon, the tambourines, mandolins, guitars, and harmonicas crowded into her small room in the center of town and began to play. They played one melody, and then another. But the woman barely stirred. “At the third melody, or maybe the fourth, the young woman in my presence awoke and began to dance with so much force and fury that one might have called her crazy,” writes Caputo, in his 18th century study of the infamous tarantula and its victims. “After two days of dance, she was free and healed.” 

Salento is a region of Italy in the southernmost part of the Apulian peninsula, the “heel of the boot.” The region has long been associated with magic, music, and dance: from the Middle Ages until just a few decades ago, physicians, travelers, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists documented the regional phenomenon of tarantismo, or “tarantism.” Young women, and occasionally men, bitten by tarantulas or other venomous insects like scorpions, would be stricken by an apathetic unresponsiveness, from which they could recover only through hours, and often days, of lively dance. 

“As she dances, she becomes the spider that bit her,” describes mid-20th century Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino in The Land of Remorse, one of the most extensive studies of the phenomenon. Scientifically speaking, this spider could be one of two species: the lycosa tarantula, or wolf spider, a large and frightening spider with a painful but innocuous bite, or the latrodectus tredecimguttatus, or European black widow, a smaller spider with a dangerous but rarely fatal bite associated with muscle spasms and vomiting.

But the scientific names and classifications of these spiders were of no interest to the women suffering from tarantism–and many believe that spider venom had little to do with what the women endured. Rather, it was a kind of possession: when she heard melodies of the musicians, the tarantata dragged herself across the floor, crawled on her hands and knees, climbed up the walls, jumped and pounded her feet on the ground, as if she had become a spider. 

A 1749 study of the tarantula’s anatomy to try and understand tarantism, from De tarantulae anatome et morsu. (Photo: Angelica Calabrese) 

The musicians’ had to intuit the melody that might make a sufferer dance. With their tambourines and violins, they played lively folk music called the pizzica-pizzica, in reference to the “pizzico,” or bite, of the tarantula. After her frenetic dance, the tarantata would eventually collapse, freed from possession by the tarantula and healed. But for many, this freedom was only temporary.

“My dear, the tarantulas are haunting me,” wrote Anna, an older woman who had suffered a tarantula bite in her youth, in a letter sent in the early 1960s to Annabella Rossi, a friend and young researcher. “I can’t eat because my plate is full of fat scorpions, I can’t drink because my glass is full of tarantulas too, and last night my bed was packed with the creatures.” It was late June, the peak of the agricultural year, and Anna had fallen victim to the tarantula again, as happened to many tarantatasEvery year, on June 29th, the Feast of St. Paul, the tarantatas would congregate in Galatina, a city in the south of the Salento, to ask St. Paul for mercy from the terrible tarantula.  

Some scholars argue that the roots of tarantism can be traced to back to ancient Greece, when groups of men and women worshipped Dionysus in ecstatic, trance-like dances, but there are few–if any–documents that attest to such origins. Officially, tarantism first appears in a 14th century text by a physician from Padova describing how to treat bites or stings from venomous animals and insects. 

Later doctors, like Ferdinand Epifanio in the 17th century, and Nicola Caputo in the 18th, studied the phenomenon, documenting cases and effective treatments. Epifanio offers a recipe for a homemade brandy that could be used to treat tarantismo; it included not only “tender oak leaves,” “blessed thistle,” and “dried red roses,” but also sage, marjoram, lavender, wormwood, rosemary, bay leaves, juniper, cinnamon, and other local spices. Another notable recipe suggests that the venomous tarantulas themselves be ground into a powder and mixed into a hearty glass of wine. However, Dr. Epifanio concluded that “in Apulia, there is no remedy more effective and immediate than music.”

These early descriptions of the venomous bite and the associated music and dance make no reference to Christianity. But in the late 17th century, as the Church sought more uniform control of its subjects, tarantism became one of the many traditions co-opted by Catholicism. St. Paul, patron saint of the city of Galatina and of those bitten by venomous animals, emerged as the protector and savior of the tarantata

In the late 1700s, a chapel dedicated to St. Paul was built in Galatina, next to a well whose water, as the legend goes, had been blessed by St. Paul during his travels across the Mediterranean. If local musicians were unsuccessful in curing a tarantata in her home, she would be brought to St. Paul’s chapel in Galatina, where she would plead with the saint for mercy from the spider’s venom and often drink the blessed well water. In addition to the suite of musicians, the family would also bring monetary offerings for the saint and the church. For many tarantatas, this trip to Galatina became a yearly pilgrimage: in June of each year, her symptoms would return, and she and her family would work to collect the money to fund the trip and the pay the musicians that would accompany her.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, both men and women, rich and poor, fell victim to tarantism. However by 1959, when Ernesto de Martino and his team traveled to Salento to document the “relics” of tarantism, they found that the phenomenon largely affected women–women who had been abused, who had been forced to marry men they didn’t love, who had lost their husbands, or who found themselves at the margins of society in other ways. 

De Martino, and later researchers like Luigi Chiriatti, argued that tarantism was an expression of this marginality: a way for these women to manifest their social suffering, have that suffering recognized, and relocate themselves within a community, rather than outside of it. When a woman, young or old, was struck with tarantism, it was an opportunity for the community to come together.

Inside St. Paul’s Chapel in Galatina, tarantataswould beg St. Paul, protector of those bitten by venomous animals, for mercy. (Photo: Angelica Calabrese) 

In the stricken women’s home, often just a single room, the family would lay a white sheet on the floor, and as the musicians would play, the tarantata would begin her dance: arching, running, climbing, crawling, barking, resting, and doing it all over again to the melodies played by the tambourines and violins. Community members would gather in the room, bringing food or a few coins for the family, observing in curiosity and wonder, but also in solidarity. When the woman collapsed, four hours or four days later, exhausted from her dance and freed from the tarantula, she found herself surrounded by family, friends, and community members expressing their support and enthusiasm. 

One morning, in the early 1990s, a family brought their elderly grandmother into a mental health clinic in Poggiardo, a small town in southern Salento. The family presented her to the psychiatrist in the clinic, asking him to treat her for psychotic episode. But the psychiatrist, who had studied traditional medicine and healing in addition to his formal medical education, knew that drugs would not help the old lady. 

“‘That little grandma was a tarantata,’ he told me,” recounts Giacomo Toriano, a sociologist and musician who worked in the clinic at that time. “The family didn’t understand what was happening. They didn’t know that she needed music.” In that moment, Toriano understood that tarantism was dead. “The cultural context in which the phenomenon had existed for centuries had disappeared.”

In the years after de Martino and Chiriatti studied tarantism, modernization, industrialization, and emigration led to an abrupt abandonment of the fields stretching across Salento. Entire systems of knowledge and ways of life–including those that had led to the abuse and mistreatment of women–were abandoned in turn.

Early in the morning on June 29th, the Feast of St. Paul, crowds would gather to watch the tarantatas as they frenetically danced and howled for St. Paul’s mercy. (Photo: Angelica Calabrese) 

The tarantatas slowly disappeared: the musicians stopped being called to homes across Salento, and on the mornings of June 29th, the street in front of St. Paul’s chapel in Galatina was empty. Though a folk revival has rescued the melodies of the pizzica-pizzica and local dance companies have created dances inspired by those of the tarantatas, there are few people left who might recognize a true tarantata’s suffering and treat it appropriately: with a community-wide event filled with music and dance. 

Luigi “Gigi” Stifani, one of the most famous musicians of the tarantatas, once claimed that the chemicals and pesticides used since the industrialization of the early 1950s led to the demise of the tarantatas:  “With all those herbicides, pesticides, and anti-parasites that they are dumping in the fields, there aren’t any more tarantulas.” 

But it wasn’t just the tarantulas that had caused tarantism. The entire culture that had conjured, as well as cured, the tarantate was gone.