Tarantella: listen to the dance of the spider’s bite

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By | From the Collections

Following on from the phenomenal success of our YouTube channel, the Library now has a new outlet on SoundCloud, an audio distribution platform that allows users to listen, share, and download audio recordings.

Each track is visualised as a waveform; an iconic feature of the platform that has engendered dedicated audio streams devoted to the graphs. Uniquely, SoundCloud also enables users to add comments at specific moments in the recording.

The Library’s sound archive is somewhat smaller than its film counterpart, and hasn’t benefitted from the same level of exposure to date. That said, it is full of hidden gems – from a rare brown wax cylinder recording of Florence Nightingale addressing the British public, to a BBC recording of Sir Alexander Fleming warning prophetically of the dangers of antibiotic resistance back in 1945.

Another track with an unassuming title but rather fascinating history is La terra del rimorso (The Land of Remorse). It was produced to accompany Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino’s seminal ethnographic study of the same name on the phenomenon of ‘tarantism’; a bizarre syndrome attributed to the poisonous bite of the tarantula. To clarify, not the huge hairy creatures from South America (Theraphosidae) but an unrelated breed of wolf spider, named after the city of Taranto in its native region of Apulia, southern Italy.

The condition was first described in the 11th century and persisted until well into the 20th century, but really took off during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Those who believed they had been bitten – usually women – complained of sickness and fatigue before falling into a catatonic state. At this point, musicians were called in an attempt to rouse the victim by playing lively repetitive melodies with increasing tempo, known as tarantella (an example can be heard on the recording from 0:33). As soon as the ‘correct’ rhythm had been established, he or she rose and began dancing in a frenzied manner. The process could go on for days, during which time the original patient would be joined by numerous others.

Tarantism was considered a serious and potentially fatal condition unless treated with music in this way. Some believed that vigorous dancing helped dispel the venom from the body.

In the summer of 1959 De Martino, together with an interdisciplinary team comprised of a psychiatrist, psychologist, medical doctor, ethnomusicologist and cultural anthropologist, set out to research the condition. He aimed to demonstrate that tarantism was a cultural rather than a medical phenomenon.

The recordings were collected as part of their fieldwork in Apulia, timed to coincide with the feast days of Saints Peter and Paul on 28 and 29 June. Curiously, this was when the spectacle reached its apex, with large numbers of victims converging on the chapel of St Paul in the village of Galantina. From 9:42 you can hear shouts and invocations recorded in the chapel, in which musical exorcism was forbidden. To compensate for the lack of rhythm, the women try to recreate the tarantella by singing and drumming with their hands.

The fact that so many were affected simultaneously was the first of six indicators identified by the team suggesting that tarantism was due to cultural conditioning rather than poisoning. Once healed, victims would set off in pilgrimage for Galantina, where the illness was mysteriously absent. The preponderance of female victims – despite the fact that male agricultural workers were far more likely to come into contact with the spiders – provided further weight to the team’s hypothesis. Finally, De Martino noticed that the initial illness often coincided with the onset of puberty or another highly stressful period in the victim’s life. Those affected relapsed annually, usually on the anniversary of the first crisis.

Today, tarantism is widely considered a form of mass psychogenic illness (MPI). The disorder tends to affect isolated groups, particularly women and teenagers, and is characterised by symptoms with no obvious physiological cause.  MPI typically occurs at times of acute stress or anxiety, consistent with De Martino’s findings on the highly specific timing of the first ‘bite’. The tarantellas themselves may have contributed to the spread of the illness by triggering associations and rousing victims into a frenzy.

MPI is by no means limited to women or southern Italy. Psychologist Graham Davey suggests that, at times of unrest, generalised anxiety may be projected onto a specific, externalised danger, in this instance the bite of a spider (Davey, 1994). In the fourteenth century wolf spiders were thought to be in plague proportions (Russell, 1979). When coupled with frequent, incomprehensible outbreaks of plague, famine and war, it is perhaps no surprise that the creatures became a locus for fear.

Despite the supporting evidence, De Martino concluded that attributing tarantism purely to mass hysteria ignored its ritual function as a therapeutic, safe, and socially sanctioned means of giving voice to female suffering in one of the most deprived parts of the country.

Author: Sarah Bond is Assistant Curator of Moving Image and Sound at the Wellcome Library.

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