The Tarantula-Possessed Women Who Could Only Be Cured By Dance, the Pizzica
ON A HOT DAY IN the summer of 1728, Anna Palazzo was working in the vineyards surrounding her hometown of Campi Salentina when a tarantula bit her on the elbow. The young woman collapsed, and the farmers working beside her rushed to her side as the situation deteriorated: her face and stomach swelled, her breathing became ragged and deep. She was nearly unconscious when they dropped her into her bed and called the only people who could still save her: the musicians.
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 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.
After her frenetic dance, the tarantata would eventually collapse, freed from possession by the tarantula and healed. But for many, this freedom was only temporary.
Every year, on June 29th, the Feast of St. Paul, the tarantatas would congregate in Galatina, a city in the south of the Salento, to ask St. Paul for mercy from the terrible tarantula.
Some scholars argue that the roots of tarantism can be traced to back to ancient Greece, when groups of men and women worshipped Dionysus in ecstatic, trance-like dances, but there are few–if any–documents that attest to such origins.
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.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, both men and women, rich and poor, fell victim to tarantism. However by 1959, when Ernesto de Martino and his team traveled to Salento to document the “relics” of tarantism, they found that the phenomenon largely affected women–women who had been abused, who had been forced to marry men they didn’t love, who had lost their husbands, or who found themselves at the margins of society in other ways.
De Martino, and later researchers like Luigi Chiriatti, argued that tarantism was an expression of this marginality: a way for these women to manifest their social suffering, have that suffering recognized, and relocate themselves within a community, rather than outside of it. When a woman, young or old, was struck with tarantism, it was an opportunity for the community to come together.