Tarantism is a form of hysteric behaviour, popularly believed to result from the bite of the wolf spider Lycosa tarantula (distinct from the broad class of spiders also called tarantulas). A better candidate cause is Latrodectus tredecimguttatus, commonly known as the Mediterranean black widow or steppe spider, although no link between such bites and the behaviour of tarantism has ever been demonstrated. However, the term historically is used to refer to a dancing mania – characteristic of southern Italy – which likely had little to do with spider bites. The tarantella dance supposedly evolved from this therapy.
It was originally described in the 11th century. The condition was common in southern Italy, especially in the province of Taranto, during the 16th and 17th centuries. There were strong suggestions that there is no organic cause for the heightened excitability and restlessness that gripped the victims. The stated belief of the time was that victims needed to engage in frenzied dancing to prevent death from tarantism. Supposedly a particular kind of dance, called the tarantella, evolved from this therapy. A prime location for such outbursts was the church at Galatina, particularly at the time of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on 29 June. "The dancing is placed under the sign of Saint Paul, whose chapel serves as a "theatre" for the tarantulees' public meetings. The spider seems constantly interchangeable with Saint Paul; the female tarantulees dress as "brides of Saint Paul". As a climax, "the tarantulees, after having danced for a long time, meet together in the chapel of Saint Paul and communally attain the paroxysm of their trance, ... the general and desperate agitation was dominated by the stylised cry of the tarantulees, the 'crisis cry', an ahiii uttered with various modulations".
Francesco Cancellieri, in his exhaustive treatise on Tarantism, takes note of semi-scientific, literary, and popular observations, both recent and ancient, giving each similar weight. He notes a report that in August 1693, a doctor in Naples had himself bitten by two tarantulas with six witnesses and a notary, but did not suffer the dancing illness. Cancellieri in part attributes this illness not only to the spiders but to the locale, since Tarantism was mainly seen in Abruzzo, Apulia, and Calabria. He states:
Quando uno è punto da questa mal augurata bestia, si fanno cento diverse mosse in un momento. Si piange, si balla, si vomita, si trema, si ride, s'impallidisce, si grida, si sviene, si soffre gran dolore, e finalmente dopo qualche giorno si muore, se uno non è soccorso. Il sudore, e gli antidoti sollevano l'ammalato; ma il sovrano, ed unico rimedio è la Musica
When one is in the hold of this ill-wished beast, one has a hundred different feelings at a time. One cries, dances, vomits, trembles, laughs, pales, cries, faints, and one will suffer great pain, and finally after a few days, if unaided, you die. Sweat and antidotes relieve the sick, but the sovereign and the only remedy is Music.
He goes on to describe some specific observations of the malady, typically afflicting peasants, alone or in groups. The malady typically affected peasants on hot summer days, causing indolence. Then he describes how only treatment through dancing music could restore them to vitality; for example:
[...] e trovammo il misero contadino oppresso da difficile respirazione, ed osservammo inoltre, che la faccia, e le mani erano incominciate a divenir nere. E perchè il suo male era a tutti noto, si portò la Chitarra, la cui armonìa subito, che da lui fu intesa, cominciò a mover prima li piedi, poco dipoi le gambe. Si reggeva appresso sulle ginocchia. Indi a poco intervallo s'alzò passenggiando. Finalmente fra lo spazio di un quarto d'ora saltava si, che si sollevava ben tre palmi da terra. Sospirava, ma con empito sì grande, che portava terrore a' circostanti; e prima d'un'ora se gli tolse il nero dalle mani, e dal viso, riacquistando il suo natio colore.
[...] and we found the poor peasant oppressed with difficult breathing, and we observed also that the face and hands had started to be become black. And 'cause his illness was known to all, a guitar was brought, whose harmony immediately that he was understood, began first moving the feet, legs shortly afterwards. He stood on his knees. Soon after an interval he arose swaying. Finally, in the space of a quarter of an hour he was leaping, nearly three palms from the ground. Sighed, but with such great impetus, that it terrorised bystanders, and before an hour, the black was gone from his hands and face, and he regained his native colour.
Interpretation and controversy
The phenomenon of tarantism is consistent with mass psychogenic illness.
Although the popular belief persists that tarantism results from a spider bite, it remains scientifically unsubstantiated. Donaldson, Cavanagh, and Rankin (1997) conclude that the actual cause or causes of tarantism remain unknown.
Many historical and cultural references are associated with this disease and the ensuing "cure" – the tarantella. It is, for example, a key image in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and the spell "Tarantallegra" from the Harry Potter series. It was also mentioned in the novel 39 Clues: Superspecial Outbreak. The mention of the spider "tarantula" and description of its venom and the associated addiction has been depicted in the Indian television show "Byomkesh Bakshi" in episode 4 titled "Makdi ka Ras".
- Anon (1968), p. 175.
- Russell (1979)
- Anon (1968), pp. 173–4.
- Hanna (2006) p. 29. See Anon (1968), passim, for a more detailed description of this custom.
- Rouget (1985) p. 39
- Cancellieri, Francesco (1817). Lettera sopra il Tarantismo, l'aria di Roma, e della sua campagna.
- Cancellieri 1817, p. 6.
- Cancellieri 1817, p. 11.
- Crompton (1954), p. 56f.
- Donaldson (1997)
- Anon (1968). Tarantism: St. Paul and the Spider, in Essays and Reviews form the Times Literary Supplement. London: Oxford University Press, pp.172–183. Originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, 27 April 1967.
- Cancellieri, Francesco (1817). Letters of Francesco Cancellieri to the ch. Signore Dottore Koreff, Professor of Medicine of the University of Berlin, about Tarantism, the airs of Roma, and of its countryside, and the Papal palaces inside, and outside, Rome: with the description of the Pontifical Castel Gandolfo, and surrounding countryside. (in Italian). Rome: Presso Francesco Bourlie.
- Crompton, John (1954). The Life of the Spider. Mentor Books.
- Donaldson, L.J.; Rankin, J. (July 1997). "The Dancing Plague: a public health conundrum". Public Health. 111 (4): 201–204. doi:10.1016/S0033-3506(97)00034-6. PMID 9242030. Archived from the original (PDF [fee required]) on 1 February 2013.
- Hanna, Judith Lynne (2006) . Dancing for Health. Rowman Altamira. ISBN 0-7591-0859-5, ISBN 978-0-7591-0859-2.
- Rouget, Gilbert (1985) Music and Trance : a Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-73006-9
- Russell JF (October 1979). "Tarantism". Med Hist. 23 (4): 404–25. doi:10.1017/s0025727300052054. PMC 1082580. PMID 390267.