Below is one of the most mesmerizing things I’ve ever watched. In my life.
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.
On the Atlas Obscura site, there is a short clip from an (also) short documentary made in the early 60’s, based on de Martino’s work. The full version – only 18 minutes – is also online, here. I don’t understand a word of it, but I couldn’t stop watching. It’s hypnotic, strange, mysterious and sad, thought-provoking and intriguing. It includes images from a “session” (for lack of a better word) inside a home, then moves to the village of Galatina and its chapel:
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.
Everything about it is fascinating: the afflicted (?) women’s behavior (including climbing around the chapel…), the postures and expressions of their friends and families, and the crowd behavior.
Most haunting to me is the brief scene around the 8-minute mark of the woman kneeling in front of the little boy holding the image of St. Paul. I would love to know what she is saying, but it seems unintelligible, even if you understand Italian.
You wonder what is embodied in her gesture.