The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
You’ve heard of the dance called “the monkey”? How about “the pony”? Well, the tarantella means “the spider.”
The tarantella was born in Italy. It was more than a mere dance; the tarantella might more accurately be described as a phenomenon that lasted some 300 years, although depending upon how you interpret its history, the tarantella’s roots may stretch back much further.
Some considered the tarantella an act of magical healing; others described it as mass hysteria, and still others muttered about a resurgence of witchcraft and pagan practices.
The tarantella arose in response to a condition known as “tarantism,” allegedly caused by a spider’s bite. The first victims were workers, predominately but not exclusively female, who manually harvested grain. The initial symptom of tarantism was intense melancholia followed by pain, swelling, vomiting, priapism (involuntary, often painful erections that refuse to abate), and what was described as “shameless exhibitionism.” The end result was delirium and then eventually death. Victims were said to die either laughing or crying wildly.
What is believed to be the first case of tarantism was recorded in 1370 near what was once ancient Tarentum, a formerly Greek settlement on Italy’s southern coast, known in modern times as Taranto. The dance, the condition, and eventually the name of a class of arachnids were named after the town. Tarantulas were named after Taranto, not the other way around.
There was only one known cure for tarantism: a magical dance known as the tarantella. The spider’s victims, known as the tarantati, sought relief via the tarantella—a dance that allegedly flushed the venom from the victim’s body. No drugs or medicinals were used; only music and prolonged, intense, sweat-inducing dance.
Victims were made to dance for three or four hours at a time, then allowed to rest a little before once again resuming. The dance was performed continually for three to four days at a time—a veritable dance marathon!—after which the victims were consistently free from the symptoms with its fatal climax, although some victims would have repeat attacks annually, necessitating repeat performances. Tarantism was seasonal; it wasn’t common during the winter but coincided with the Dog Days of summer and the local grain harvest.
The tarantella is but one of many dances included in what is now described as the dance mania that emerged in Europe and Northern Africa following the Black Death, most notably St Vitus’ Dance. Whether or not the tarantella is related to these other dances is subject to debate. St Vitus’ Dance, and other such dances, was an affliction. Dancers could not stop dancing: similar to the fairy story of the fatal red shoes, the dancer dances to death. The tarantella, on the other hand, allegedly prevented death. The dancer died if she didn’t dance.
While dancing, the tarantati spoke and acted obscenely in a manner considered shockingly out of character for the victims. They are also described as “playing” with branches and swords. It’s unclear who discovered the dancing cure; some suggested that the bites themselves incited them to dance. In other words, the spider made them do it! The tarantella, according to this description, initially emerged as an involuntary reaction to the spider’s bite: the dancer might be understood to be possessed by the spider in the manner that those who engage in ritual possession dance in the manner of the specific spirit that they channel.
Although tarantism was initially blamed on the spider’s bite, the condition was also contagious. It could be spread from one person to another. Although much of the criticism of the tarantati was directed toward women, men as well as women, both young and old, are described as infected with the tarantella bug. Children as young as five years old are reported as dancing. It was not restricted to Italians: Albanians, black Africans and Romanies are also described as afflicted with the illness and participating in the cure. From Italy, the tarantella mania traveled to southern France, Spain, and the Croatian coast.
Originally dancers may have whirled alone, however eventually it became considered unlucky to dance a solo tarantella. The dance evolved into either a couple’s dance or a dance performed by several women. (The dance also differed depending upon region.) Sometimes a man and a woman danced surrounded by a circle of other dancers. Should one of the dancers in the center of the circle tire, someone else would immediately serve as a replacement.
This tarantella was a circle dance and was traditionally accompanied by castanets, mandolins, violins, and tambourines. The music changes tempo, speeding up as the dancers change direction. As the tarantella evolved into a group or couple’s dance, the fun, pleasurable aspects of it began to transcend its origins as a shamanic dancing cure.
The tarantella as a magical healing dance reached its height in the seventeenth century. By the late eighteenth century the hysteria had declined, although the dance remained popular—as it does still. Today the tarantella is considered a romantic, sensuous dance and is often prominently featured during traditional Italian wedding celebrations, although not many recall its origins as a reaction to a spider bite.
Perhaps this is because the aspect regarding the spider bite and the tarantella’s origins remains mysterious and controversial. Despite the dance’s name, the culprit is not a tarantula as understood in the modern sense but is most frequently identified as Lycosa tarantula, the European wolf spider. This ground-dwelling spider doesn’t spin a web to catch its prey but is fleet of foot and so actually chases and captures it instead. It lives in burrows in the ground and spins silk in order to cover the openings of these burrows. It is very plausible that harvesters could have encountered it in the fields and very possible that they could have been bitten. However, modern scientific testing suggests that no serious injury results from the bite of this spider but merely some pain, itching, and swelling. In other words, whatever was happening to the tarantati doesn’t seem to have been caused by this spider.
There are many unresolved questions regarding the tarantella: did anybody actually die if they didn’t dance the tarantella? (If so, it wasn’t simply because of the spider’s bite.) And who invented this cure anyway? In other words, exactly what was going on?
These are not new questions, nor are there definitive answers. Back in 1672, the Neapolitan physician Dr Thomas Cornelius accused the tarantati of being malingerers, half-wits, and wanton young women. He claimed that many, especially the women, simulated being bitten in order that they would be able to dance and rave.
Some historians have suggested that the tarantella actually masked forbidden pagan harvest dances, or secretly surviving Maenad traditions, or even perhaps vestiges of devotions to an ancient spider spirit. (The area where the tarantella first emerged is one strongly associated with stregheria, the Italian tradition of folk magic. It was an area where the Maenads once exerted their presence and where there was a history of devotion to the corn mother Demeter.)
According to Charles Godfrey Leland, an authority on Italian witchcraft, the tarantella was the “awakening dance” of the Italian witch-meetings known as the treguenda (see next entry).
Some historians claim to recognize the tarantella from images on ancient Greek vases and on the wall paintings of Pompeii. This dance wasn’t known as the tarantella yet but was called the Lucia and the Villanella among other names.
Although the hysterical condition became very widespread, the tarantella seems to have been concentrated in a largely female core group. Certain families were strongly identified with the magical dance. Some dancers had annual attacks, typically around the Feast of St Paul.
Although there’s no way to “prove” what happened, the description of normally modest, reticent people suddenly spouting obscenities and engaging in sexually explicit, usually embarrassing behavior corresponds with standard descriptions of spiritual possession, voluntary and involuntary, common to all areas of Earth and innumerable spiritual traditions. (The standard explanation given by anthropologists, for instance those who have studied Africa’s zar, is that these characteristics of possession are the rationale given for women’s occasional breakdowns under excessively repressive societies.)
See also ANIMALS: Spiders; DICTIONARY: Zar; ERGOT; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning.