Tarantella, Dancers, and Tarantism

The tarantella is an Italian folk dance that can be traced back to the Middle Ages and may have evolved from an even older dance. The instrumental music of the tarantella is a rapid score characterized by brief, repetitive phrases, which escalate in intensity. The modern folk dance is often lead by a singer. It is said to be "unlucky" to dance the tarantella alone--so people dance in couples or groups. There are several local variations in Italy of the dance including Neapolitan, Sicilian, Apulian, and Calabrian.

Historically, the dance was not directly linked to Italian witchcraft. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it has been associated with choremania, a psychological disorder, specifically tarantism, which involved frenetic, spontaneous dancing.

Tarantella means "little spider." According to legend, the town of Taranto in southern Italy was afflicted with an epidemic of poisonous spiders in the 13th century. Supposedly Southern Italy was afflicted with the spider epidemic for 400 years, primarily in the hot summer months of July and August.

Legend also stated that when bitten, a victim would jump up, run outside, and suddenly begin dancing with "great excitement." Other victims, also bitten by spiders, would join in and they would dance to tarantella music in order to nullify the spider poison in their blood. Allegedly, failure to dance out the poison could be fatal.

Some entomologists and historians have speculated what sort of spider could have caused such behavior. Lycosa tarantula, an Italian wolf spider, was typically named as the culprit. However, the bite of this spider was not venomous enough to be life threatening, much less cause the kind of symptoms described. Some speculated that the arachnid might have been the smaller Latrodectus tarantula; though less aggressive and slow moving, its bite was somewhat more toxic. Interestingly, both the Lycosa tarantula and Latrodectus tarantula appear in other regions of Italy, but there are no reports of these symptoms connected with spiders in other regions. Entomologtists state neither of these species could have caused the behavior. Others have theorized that there was another spider, native to Apulia, whose bite might cause headache, fainting, shortness of breath, giddiness, convulsive movements (shaking, trembling, twitching), and possible hallucinations.

Yet, since no such species of spider has been found in the region, some psychiatrists have decided that the symptoms allegedly caused by a spider bite were instead symptoms of a mental disorder, which they specifically named tarantism. They defined tarantism as an epidemic hysteria--a mania in which people infected each other with a compulsion to dance and continue dancing until exhausted. This dancing mania was assumed to be a classic example of hysteria induced by some sort of social stress.

According to this theory of abnormal psychology, the female hysterics would spontaneously dance ever more rapidly, escalating in intensity, to any of the numerous versions of the tarantella. These hysterics would continue their compulsive and spontaneous dancing non-stop for hours or days until they collapsed. The psychologists pointed to references to victims hallucinating visions of Christ and the Virgin.

People, asleep or awake, would suddenly jump up, feeling an acute pain like the sting of a bee. Some saw the spider, others did not, but they knew that it must be the tarantula. They ran out of the house into the street, to the market place dancing in great excitement. Soon they were joined by others who like them had just been bitten, or by people who had been stung in previous years, for the disease was never quite cured. The poison remained in the body and was reactivated every year by the heat of summer.
--H.E. Sigerist, Civilization and Disease, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1943, pp. 218-219

From Italy it spread to ... Prussia, and one morning, without warning, the streets were filled.... They danced together, ceaselessly, for hours or days, and in wild delirium, the dancers collapsed and fell to the ground exhausted, groaning and sighing as if in the agonies of death. When recuperated, they swathed themselves tightly with cloth around their waists and resumed their convulsive movements. They contorted their bodies, writhing, screaming and jumping in a mad frenzy. One by one they fell from exhaustion....

... Many later claimed that they had seen the walls of heaven split open and that Jesus and the Virgin Mary had appeared before them.
--Benjamin Gordon, Medieval and Renaissance Medicine, New York: Philosophical Library, 1959, p. 562

Tarantism was considered to be similar to the choremania outbreak in Germany of Johannistanz (St. John's Dance, also known as Veitanz (St. Vitus Dance).

Something that seems to disagree with the theory of an uncontrolled dancing mania involving a collective disorder of dancers in Italy was the presence of the musicians. These musicians would play mandolins, tamborines, or other instruments while the taranti, or alleged victims, would dance.

In fact, taranti seem to be religious pilgrims practicing a form of devotion involving ritualized dancing. Ritualized dancing often leads to trance and ecstatic states. This explanation does account for reported symptoms of fainting, tremors, and visions. Headache, shortness of breath, muscle soreness, and exhaustion are simply symptoms related to the activity of extended physical exertion. Robert E. Bartholemew in Rethinking the Dancing Mania, Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 24, no. 4, July/August 2000, page 46, wrote, "...taranti would typically commence dancing at sunrise, stop during midday to sleep and sweat, then bathe before the resumption of dancing until evening, when they would again sleep and sweat, consume a light meal, then sleep until sunrise. This ritual was repeated over several days." This description of the taranti was gleaned by Bartholemew from Jean Russells' Tarantis: Medical History, 23:404-425, 1959. This description indicated an organized activity with a clearly defined pattern. The description does not indicate throngs of hysterics participating in uncontrollable and irrational behaviors.

The taranti were apparently participating in a form of dancing worship to petition divine aid, possibly in response to periods of crop failures, epidemics or famine. Some modern practitioners of Italian folk magic, such as Mary Santangello, stated the tarantella is a "spirit dance," which would point back to a religious or spiritual origin.

copyright 2007 Myth Woodling, 3/20/07
All quotes in this essay were taken from the article by Robert E. Bartholemew, Rethinking the Dancing Mania, Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 24, no. 4, July/August 2000.



Just an aside note...

Most bites from most spiders do not result in significant envenoming. Standard modern first aid treatment for a spider bite involves cleaning the wound and relieving pain and local swelling by applying a cold pack. If possible, collect the squished spider for accurate identification. Seek medical advice. If the reaction is severe, consult a physian immediately. Dancing vigiourously for seveal hours will not nullify venom or the effects of venom. Indeed vigorous physical activity would cause muscle movement to pump the toxins more rapidly through the bloodstream and lymphatic system, causing more damage to the whole body.

One first aid techique for certain bites which are from species that have life threatening venom is a pressure immobilization bandage which retards the movenment of venom. According to the CSL Antivenom Handbook First Aid for Bites and Stings website, "Correctly applied, this technique can virtually stop venom movement into the circulation until removed, up to hours later, without any threat to limb tissue oxygenation, which is just one of the major problems in using tourniquets" (http://www.toxinology.com/generic_static_files/cslavh_fa_spiders.html, accessed on 3/22/07 ) However the site also states the pressure immobilization bandage is not advised for first aid treatment in most types of spider bites. As stated before most spider bites do not result in a siginicant amount of vemom which is life threatening. The use of a pressure immobilization bandage is unnecessary and if applied incorrectly can cause other much more severe problems, just as with a tourniquet.

Remember, first aid should do no harm.

For more information about spider bites, check CSL Antivenom Handbook First Aid for Bites and Stings website: http://www.toxinology.com/generic_static_files/cslavh_fa_spiders.html

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