Chiara Ambrosio

Tarantism: Dance, Possession and Exorcism in Southern Italy

One summer ago, during one of my stays in Calabria, a region in the south of Italy where my mother comes from and where I have spent most of my childhood growing up and daydreaming, I remember being invited for dinner at my best friend’s home. Her family are a humble and strong nucleus of hard working folk, constantly pushing back against a difficult life of economic hardships and social struggles, against the backdrop of a tiny insular village straddled somewhere between the mountain and the sea, with its tantalizing, vast horizon always out of reach. I remember the table laid with paper plates and paper napkins, as is customary amongst friends and family on hot summer nights, with the exception for one seat, at the head of the table, that was laid with a ceramic plate and a thick cotton napkin rolled up neatly inside a napkin holder. That was the seat reserved for the head of the family, father and breadwinner. As we started eating food, as always overwhelming in both taste and quantity, I noticed that my friend’s grandmother was sitting away from the table, facing a corner with her black-clad body hunched and turned away from us. When I asked my friend why she sat there alone, she replied saying that it was her usual attempt, as always in her life, not to be of bother. We both giggled, with the melancholy laughter that comes from recognition and deep understanding of a reality that we have both experienced, in different but ultimately similar intimacy: me as the only grandchild dipping sporadically in and out of what felt to me, growing up, as an archaic order slightly removed from my other, more emancipated life in Rome – and her as the trapped lunatic, the black sheep of the family always tearing at the stifling order of things with the long, sharp fingernails of her inquisitive mind, challenging and subverting the tranquility of her environment with her piercing restless gaze that always saw too much, with her tongue that always spoke too much and that, in time, transformed her into the visible sore in the fabric of her family, the threat to the order, the loose cannon that might erupt and shatter everything.

This is not an unfamiliar trait in southern Italian households; I grew up watching my own mother, a modern, independent woman born of respectable and educated upper class parents, a doctor in the lineage of doctors, struggle daily with her expected role in life even when several hundred miles separated her from her father and the south. Her anxiety and disquiet was a constant weight on my grandfather, himself the cause of most of it with his intrusive attempt to organize and ‘resolve’ her life, and in particular what he felt to be a chronic melancholia that had plagued her since early childhood. My grandmother, a stunningly beautiful and smart woman of Albanian heritage, once charming and boisterous, had given up on her desires and hopes supplanted by a life of controlled and precariously managed disappointment in her role of ‘woman of the house’. Sometimes, when deep in conversation with her, I remember her morale lifting, returning her to the lively and eccentric personality that still simmered somewhere deep within her. Every year, usually at Christmas, these tensions would erupt violently, playing out according to repetitive and familiar patterns year after year, causing pain, fear and instability, but also, crucially, clearing the air, as a storm might do, and granting a few hours of shared peace.

Image of lone woman, Calabria. Image by Chiara Ambrosio.

Image of lone woman, Calabria. Image by Chiara Ambrosio.

Repression, compromise, physical and emotional hardship, and above all a capitulation to an order above removed from any personal compassion, dictated by the rules and mores of a hegemonic order that often took no notice of the specific hardships of individuals and their personal traumas, especially those most humble or vulnerable (and women were both), was the backdrop against which Tarantism developed and played out for over nine centuries.

Tarantism, which has been written about in one form or another since the ninth century, but that was extensively researched as a localized and specific phenomenon since the seventeenth century, was a form of dance mania that emerged from the ashes of the ancient mystery cults of Ancient Greece and the Middle East and that bears similarities to both medieval southern European dancing manias and African and Haitian rituals such as Voodoo, but that was distinctly characterized by the specifics of its inception – the bite of a tarantula – and the area where it appeared to thrive, southern Italy and in particular Puglia. The tarantati, mostly peasant women, would go out in the fields, particularly during harvest, where they would be bitten by a spider, the Latrodectus tredecim guttatus, commonly known as the Mediterranean black widow. Once bitten, as the poison began to spread in the body, the victim was plunged into a deep melancholy state, immediately followed by a maniac frenzy erupting in a relentless pattern of dance, accompanied and guided through various ordered stages by the music provided by a local troupe of players that consisted traditionally of violin, accordion and tamburello. The dancing could last up to a week, until the death of the spider or until the grace was granted by St Paul, and it would often impact catastrophically on the finances of the family, who had to pay for the musicians and gather money to offer to the Saint. The tarantato would then set off on a pilgrimage to the chapel of St Paul in Galatina to thank the Saint and deposit his offer. Each year, at the same time, the poison of the spider would renew its effects, or ‘re-bite’, triggering the whole episode anew.

Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Tarantism was approached from an exclusively medical and naturalistic perspective and treated purely as an illness provoked by the effect of the poison injected by a particular kind of poisonous spider, that would create deep restlessness and anxiety in the victim – or at times as a form of psychical imbalance, or hysteria (due to the vast majority of women affected by the condition). Here is an excerpt from Ferdinando Ponzetti’s Libellus de venenis (On poisons, 1521):

Beside the Adriatic sea, near Taranto, are found certain small animals, called tarantulas, which have perhaps taken their name from the place. (…) Tarantulas bite more in summer, because their poison is then more intense; in the winter they withdraw into holes in the earth, lest their heat be extinguished by the cold weather. In summer they have a greater opportunity for biting, when the peasants are carrying the crops which they gather. Their bites or pricks have widely differing effects: some people sing, some dance, some sleep, some get palpitations, and of one peasant, it was said that after being bitten he evermore wanted to give orders and be in charge. Their poison is very earthy and torrid. From a bite or a prick, a small portion of it can penetrate the surface of the skin, where the motive and sensitive nerves are, although their teeth are too small to go as deep as the veins; and then the poison is carried through the nerves (or a branch of them) to the brain. There, because of its earthiness, it sits, and binds the thoughts which relate to the parts of the body which give rise to motion or sensitivity. 

German Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher was another person who wrote extensively about the condition, focusing in particular on the role of music as cure; here is his explanation of an experiment conducted to demonstrate the relationship between the music and the spider, and, conversely, the ritual:

(…) this experiment set up in the city of Andria, in the Ducal Palace, in front of one of our Fathers and the whole court. The Duchess, in order that this wondrous prodigy of nature were displayed more clearly, had the tarantula object of study placed on top of a slender straw, balancing over a vessel full of water. Then she summoned a citharist. The tarantula at first did not betray the smallest sign of motion, but then, as soon as the citharist started to play the sound that had a special affinity with the humor of the spider, not only did the animal appear to be jumping with frequent hopping of its feet and agitation of the whole body, but it seemed to be expressing through its leaping exactly that particular leap that corresponded to the musical rhythm. When the citharist stopped, the spider too stopped leaping. We should add that while the people who were assisting at the experiment in Andria thought this to be an exotic phenomenon, later the inhabitants of Taranto regarded it as something ordinary. (Athanasius Kircher, Magnes: sive de arte magnetica opus tripartitum, 1643, p. 770)

It was only relatively recently, in the mid-twentieth century, that one of Italy’s most groundbreaking and inspired historian of religions, Ernesto De Martino, whose research focused on ancient cultures and religions of the southern Italian regions, set off together with an interdisciplinary team that comprised of an ethnomusicologist, a psychiatrist, and an economist, on a field research to Puglia in search for cases of Tarantism to observe first-hand, with the intention to disprove the traditional literature and divorce Tarantism from its purely medical connotations, exploring it as an autonomous symbol born out of a specific socio-economical and religious identity.

Tarantism had suffered a slow but constant decline since the seventeenth century, when the church had began to assimilate it within the orthodox landscape of its doctrine, undermining the direct function of the ritual and the links that held it closely bound to the rural realities out of which it was born. The official narrative stated that St Paul, on his way back from Malta, had stumbled upon a man in Galatina, suffering from the symptoms of insect poisoning. After having offered him the grace, relieving him from his suffering, he blessed his house and well. From that day onwards the water was deemed miraculous, and the Chapel of Galatina was built on its original location, and consecrated in the late eighteenth century, became the gravitational center for the tarantati, thus shifting the focus towards a catholic devotion to the Saint (and also sparking a semi-clandestine movement, the Sanpaolari, widely perceived as charlatans who would travel around the region peddling holy water to tarantolati). At the time of De Martino’s expedition, Puglia was already widely impoverished of its rituals, and it took him and his team a great deal of searching and good luck before they could find what he had been looking for; the first encounter with Tarantism was through a local town barber, who also played the violin during rituals, and who alerted the team to an episode of Tarantism that was in course, that of Maria di Nardo. This is how De Martino describes the scene of the ritual:

The miserable small room was illuminated by the light coming through the door and through the only window, so small and so high that everything would have been plunged in gloom were it not for the tentative glow of two candles. In front of the entrance was a messy bed, flung against the wall and tilted towards the floor, as though to help someone slide off the bed that either didn’t want to or couldn’t manage by his own strength.

Above it, a couple of portraits of Saints, framed by paper flowers, formed an improvised altar, and on the side table were painted effigies of St Peter and St Paul, next to a jug of the miraculous water of the well in Galatina.

(…) The ceremonial perimeter for the ritual was delimitated by a large white sheet laid over blankets on the floor of the room. The tarantata would appear, dressed in the same white as the sheet, her black hair wildly falling over the olive skin of her face, over her hard features and her half-open eyes, like those of a sleepwalker, while the guitarist, the accordionist, the tamburellista and the violinist-barber played relentlessly. (Ernesto De Martino, La terra del rimorso. Contributo a una storia religiosa del Sud, 1961, p. 66)

Maria was a 29 year old peasant woman. At the age of nine her father had died, propelling her into a decade of familial trauma and dejection. When she was 18 she had fallen in love with a young man whose family had opposed their wedding because of economic reasons. This left her heartbroken, it being her first love, and it was then that, on a hot Sunday at noon, while sitting at the window, she was bitten by a spider and began dancing for the first time. At the same time St Paul appeared to her, a sublimation of her lost love, and invited her to a celestial marriage with him. Propelled into the ritualistic stage of the dance, which she could not afford, circumstances forced her to agree to a marriage of convenience, which established itself as the trope for the reoccurring of the possession on a yearly basis – at once a way to vocalize her frustration towards a husband she did not love, and to rekindle her supernatural ties with St Paul, the emblem of her lost love. Through the direct observation of 35 cases of Tarantism, and extensive research into the history of each individual’s traumatic nodes, De Martino could conclude that its identifying traits were in stark contradiction with the theories that wanted to reduce it to an illness; firstly its spatial / local distribution, that meant that the condition, although widespread across the whole region, seemed to follow the rules of religious immunity, avoiding areas that were under the patronage of Saint Paul. Secondly the selective times in the calendar when the concentration of people affected would rise (usually around the time of harvest (May to August) and around the times of the celebration of St Paul, patron Saint of the Tarantati. Thirdly the overwhelming majority of women affected by the condition, despite the vast number of men working the fields. And finally the symbolically charged time when the first bite always seemed to occur, and that would often correspond to moments of intense personal crisis or trauma, like puberty (a time of ‘heightened fantasies and violent passions’ (Stefano De Renzi, Osservazioni sul Tarantismo in Puglia, 1832)), the loss of a loved one, disappointments in love etc.

Although perhaps impossible to categorically separate from the realities of a spider’s bite, which might have offered the existential matter, or raison d’etre, on which to lay its foundation, it was clear that Tarantism had unquestionably developed its own symbolical autonomy, translating the familiar symptoms and physical behaviours associated to a spider’s bite poisoning into a complex lexicon of latent trauma, opening up the possibility for a journey towards emancipation and catharsis through the performative body.

At particularly critical moments in life – like puberty, harvest, mourning, romantic rejection, unhappy family life and so on – the ‘crisis of the poisoned’ would occur, reconfiguring the bite as a symbolic event that would trigger a crisis in the possessed (laced by the victim’s own particular disappointments, fears or frustrations, his real life poisoning by the particular hardships of his life) that, and channel it into a physical frenzy that could be controlled and resolved through an exorcism by music, dance and colour. Far from being a psychosis, Tarantism appeared, on the contrary, as a search for order, a practical way for both the single and the collectivity to let its crisis out to be cured and released through a culturally conditioned and monitored symbolical ritualistic order (music, dance and colour), fixed and predictable, and most importantly recurring, thus granting the possibility of creating a balance between times of crisis and times of peace throughout the year.

The tarantula that is identified as the trigger for the episodes, although modeled on a real spider, had itself evolved into an autonomous symbol; as such it could be configured as a quasi-mythical creature that best embodied the role of catalyst, of ‘that which bites’, and was often an amalgamation and collision of several characteristics borrowed from different creatures. In De Martino’s words:

Firstly the Taranta, to live up to its role as symbol, needs to evoke and configure, to bring to life and channel out all the darkest impulses of the subconscious that threaten to drown consciousness with their coded wilderness. Therefore the taranta can have different sizes and colours, it dances to different melodies and rhythms and its bite imbues the victim with corresponding choreutic, melodic and chromatic sensibilities. 

The Taranta carries the name of a woman Rosina, Peppina, or often simply Signora Tarantola and releases a poison in the veins that will last as long as it lives, together with its lineage; it bites in the summer, but it is possible that the following summer it might bite back, a clear sign that the spider is still living, and that it has passed down its malevolent inheritance to daughter, nieces and other relations. To make it die the victim must imitate the dance of the little spider, or better still become the spider that dances, alternating moments of irresistible identification with others of fight, forcing the spider to dance to the victim’s own rhythm, chasing it with the dancing foot that beats furiously on the floor following the rhythm of the tarantella. (Ernesto De Martino, La terra del rimorso. Contributo a una storia religiosa del Sud, 1961, p. 62)

The bedroom where the exorcism took place was decorated carefully with a variety of multi-coloured rags, as each different spider would react better to a specific colour, in many cases to green and red (which were attributed respectively, according to medieval colour-coding, to first love and dark passions). Next to the rags were freshly cut branches and foliage, a large bucket of water, fragrant herbs and gifts for the possessed, occasionally a sword to assist during the fight, a mirror, often precious scarves or shawls, costumes that the tarantato would wear and that would aid the ritual. The music, and in particular the regular, repetitive rhythm of the tamburello, was the life-line that guided the tarantato through the various stages of the dance: the victim would start from a state of apathy, or deep melancholia, a physical manifestation of the crisis of her identity. From there she would slowly transition into the realm of movement, usually electing one of the instruments as the primary stimulus, following its routine and structure in the attempt to recompose and reintegrate her crumbling identity through physical movement, entering into a new order, symbolized by the continuity and strength of the melody and the dance. Song, too, played a big part in the exorcisms, working as a vocalized spell that affected the tarantata both through the meaning of the words and their rhythmical sound. After a few cycles of the dance, in its various states of repose, frenzied imitation of the spider and lifted detachment and chase of the spider, the tarantata would begin to converse with the Saint, beginning to negotiate the condition of her grace. The release would come in the form of a collapse, after which both the dancer and the musicians, by now in a state of intense exhaustion, would abandon themselves to well deserved rest. Shortly after the release, at a time that would often coincide with the celebration of St Paul in Galatina on the 29th of June, the tarantata would set off on a pilgrimage to the chapel, where she would act again an abridged version of her exorcism together with all the other tarantate that had converged there for the day (this time without the aid of the music, as it was banned from the chapel), then drink a glass of the miraculous water and officially offer her thanks to the Saint, depositing all the money she had managed to gather during the length of her exorcism.

The seasonal symbolism of the ritual, that for the great majority of cases would always manifest itself in the summer, related closely to the strict seasonal patterns that dominated rural life. Summer was a crucial time, the time of harvest, a time when the destiny of all peasant families would be measured against the produce reaped for the year. It could mean a year of bounty or a year of bitter deprivation, and therefore the state of anxious expectation at this time of year was an inescapable reality for all. It was a moment of confrontation, and as such it offered a fundamental scaffolding over which to lay another, deeper form of confrontation, that with an unresolved past, temporarily hidden away in the subconscious, and that could now come back to ‘bite’, and then ‘re-bite, or bite back’, year after year, always on the same yearly occasion. This meant that, alongside the rigid choreutic structure that governed the ritual, this strict adherence to a seasonal calendar would offer another precious way to contain and discipline the moments of ‘crisis’, allowing them to pour out all at the same time and within a contained period, leaving the rest of the year ‘purified’ from any manifestation of emotional turmoil.

Tarantism appeared as an attempt to reintegrate, discipline and control the darkest, most feared impulses and motions of the subconscious (the crisis), allowing them to exit the body and the mind of the possessed, granting them a temporary relief, which in turn safeguarded the structure required by rural communities, and the women amongst them in particular, to deal with a very hard and bitter existence, often one of repression and invisibility, addressing what De Martino refers to as the ‘crisis of presence’, the terrible fear of not being, of not existing, of not having any consequence, brought upon by chronic social injustices and identified as a widespread latent trauma across rural communities of the south. It is particularly cruel to consider then how the intervention of both nineteenth century Italian positivist thought, that condemned everything that was perceived as an archaic cult and superstition in a vertiginous and blind race towards progress, and the Catholic Church, with its obtuse and imperialistic attempt at religious syncretism, resulted into a severing of the primal, dynamic connection between the ritual and its symbolic purpose, transforming Tarantism into a chaotic, tortured agony, deprived of the exorcising potential of the symbol, leaving a crisis with no horizon and a hoard of multitudes shipwrecked within it together with their unresolved traumas.

What De Martino found in 1959 was perhaps not too different to what I see today, given the slow pace at which Italy evolves. A land of immense beauty and potential, adrift on a leaking raft that badly serves the purpose of floating over a sea that, like the subconscious, clamours to be let in and addressed, eroding that ill-shaped and inadequate vessel plank by plank. Our empty rituals today, severed more than ever from their original cathartic function, in the same way as the people are severed from a sense of their natural existences, celebrate a psychotic split between a collective past that is still ambiguously edited and re-scripted according to the current needs of whatever ruling power, and an individual understanding of the present that relies on the philosophy of the shipwrecked to survive – each for themselves, a sadly familiar modus operandi in the history of Italy. In this splintered and decadent landscape the image of Tarantism rises before my eyes as a welcome ghost, a testament to our innate understanding of the matters of life and of our immense, instinctive power to cure our maladies, in whatever state of oppression or duress, through a physical act of subversion, through an eruption that is at once transforming the real, and injecting it with the visceral poison of truth and expression, making it undeniably and irrevocably present. A loud scream, like my friend’s desperate cry at night from the window of her house in the south, that with its pure and untempered rawness, releases us all.

The symbol of the taranta lends a figure to the formless, rhythm and melody to menacing silence, colour to the colourless, in an assiduous quest for articulated and distinct passions, where a horizonless excitation alternates with a depression that isolates and closes off: it offers a perspective from which to imagine, hear and see all that for which we are blind deaf and without imagination, but that nevertheless demands to be imagined, heard and seen. (Ernesto De Martino, La terra del rimorso. Contributo a una storia religiosa del Sud, 1961, p. 63)

You can find Chiara’s latest short film, ‘Time to Go’, which explores themes related to her talk on Tarantism, here.