Chapter 10: The Walls of Heaven
Mora (1963, pgs.436-438) writes that tarantism and dance manias used rituals as psychotherapeutic attempts to cope with either individual or societal maladjustments which fostered mental disturbances. Henry Swinburne, who traveled to the 'country of the tarantula' in the 1770's, was one of the first and only foreign observers to hint at the true character of the phenomenon. He concluded that the tarantella was probably a form of pagan bacchanalia, a flight from the toils of agrarian life, that now operated 'under cover' of the Spider and devotion to St. Paul (Melechi, A. University of York, 2005). Sigerist held a similar view. An abnormal psychology text written by Robert Carson of Duke University and his colleagues (1998, pg.37) cites Sigerist to support the view that St. Vitus's dance and tarantism were similar to ancient Greek orgiastic rites which had been outlawed by Christian authorities, but were secretly practiced anyway. While still only a wild hypothesis, that anonymous text in the Benedictine library hinted at the existence of a pagan shrine on the mountain of Montserrat in southern Catalonia consecrated to Venus.
The name of the route we took from the upper station, St. Michael's path (Rifa, M. Montserrat Official Guidetext, 1998) would tend to confirm this, suggesting aggressive Christianization. I was starting to seriously doubt the icon had simply been abandoned on the mountain by that 'fleeing gothic bishop' - conveniently fingered in the church's official account. She had been here all along, since before the Christian faith existed and despite the Roman Church's every attempt to bring her under the yoke of their patriarchal dogma, she was still here in the heart of a web spun over countless generations, at the heart of her holy mountain reigning in undisputed dominion over an invisible empire.
Quite possibly the original icon rested in the locked chapel before us and the one on display in the basilica was the replica rather than it being the other way round as some would have it. Equally plausibly the sepulchral chamber, in which we now stood, might have the original site of her worship, rather than the somewhat shallower (barely an overhang!) grotto indicated by the guidebooks, indicating Her kinship with Kybele / Kubaba / Magna Mater / Meter Orie (mountain mother), the goddess of caves and caverns, who was worshipped on mountaintops and deep within the lightless hollows of the living earth long before there were words or language to tell of it.
As with Baptists touched by the Holy Ghost, the devout Mexican Catholics in the presence of the Virgin of Guadelope, or the Haitian Voodooists at Saut d'Eau during the feast of the Virgin of Mount Carmel, it is not hard to imagine the primal state of ecstasy that might have gripped Her followers in the proximity of the original icon, in the 'Pla de les Tarantules' - 'the place of the dancers'...
Modern historians assume that these "secret gatherings... probably led to considerable guilt and conflict", which triggered collective hysterical disorders. Dance frenzies appeared most often during periods of crop failures, drought and social upheaval, leading Rosen (1968) to conclude that this stress triggered the hysteria, prompting desperate attempts at divine intervention through ritualized dancing, and often producing trance and possession states. Many symptoms associated with tarantism are consistent with sleep deprivation, excessive alcohol consumption, emotional excitement and prolonged physical activity. A German chronicle reports that during a dance frenzy at Strasbourg in 1418, "many of them went without food for days and nights" (Rust 1969, pg.20).
Viewed with the eyes of faith, however, it is a different matter. I put it to you, my brothers, that these episodes were not 'spontaneous', but highly structured and involved unfamiliar quasi-Lovecraftian sects engaging in strange customs and religious practices, that were defined as behavioral abnormality only by those who were incapable or unwilling to see any sense or value in their actions. 'Gibberish' as opposed to 'algebra', you could say.
The ringleaders of this merry mayhem did not reside in the principalities in which the epidemics occurred, but hailed from other territories, traveling through various Christian and Muslim communities as they sought out shrines and graveyards to perform in.
The largest and best documented dance plague, that of 1374 involving throngs of "dancers" in Germany and Holland, was precipitated by "pilgrims", who traveled, according to Beka's chronicle, "from Bohemia, but also from Hungary, Poland, Carinthia, Austria, and Germany. Great hosts from the Netherlands and France joined them" (Backman 1952, pg.331).
Radulphus de Rivo's chronicle Decani Tongrensis states that "in their songs they uttered the names of devils never before heard of... this strange sect." Petrus de Herenthal writes in Vita Gregorii XI: "There came to Aachen... a curious sect." The Chronicon Belgicum Magnum describes the participants as "a sect of dancers". The chronicle of C. Browerus (Abtiquitatum et Annalium Trevirensium) states: "They indulged in disgraceful immodesty, for many women, during this shameless dance and mock-bridal singing, bared their bosoms, while others of their own accord offered their virtue" (pg.290).
The chronicles would seem to indicate on closer reading that these 'hysterical disorders' or 'outbreaks' were in fact highly structured displays of worship, that occasionally attracted locals. Radulpho states, "persons of both sexes, possessed by devils and half naked, set wreathes on their heads, and began their dances"; Johannes de Beka's Canonicus Ultrajectinus et Heda, Wilhelmus, Praepositus Arnhemensis: De Episcopis Ultraiectinis, Recogniti, states that in 1385, "there spread along the Rhine... a strange plague... whereby persons of both sexes, in great crowds... danced and sang, both inside and outside of churches, till they were so weary that they fell to the ground".
Far from being a random unprovoked eruption of repressed sexual energy, the epidemic seems to have been deliberately spread by the cult's strolling players, the original Pandaemonium Carnival in all its motley glory. This is evident in a first-hand account recorded on September 11, 1374, by Jean d'Outremeuse in his chronicle La Geste de Liege, who states that "there came from the north to Liege... a company of persons who all danced continually. They were linked with brightly coloured clothes, and they jumped and leaped and fiercely clapped their hands."
Whether this 'white Voodoo' hailed from Africa, the East, or if its roots sprang from the shamanic ur-religion of our cro-magnon ancestors is impossible to tell with any clarity from the available texts and perhaps impossible to ever truly know. That its characteristics are seemingly identical in many respects to the secret traditions of the Haitian Bizango and Makanda societies is beyond question. The Voodoo societies trace their roots back to Guinea, Benin and places south, but also incorporate aspects of western esoteric mysticism such as the pentagram and the Masonic notion of the 'Great Architect'. The standard textbook definition of Voodoo (which simply means 'faith' in local parliance, a broad church by any standards) as essentially an Afro-Caribbean tradition brought over by the slave trade and over written with the images of Christian saints as a result of their forced Christianization doesn't even begin to cover all the bases.
Medical historian Jean Russell states that 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. A pattern immediately familiar to anyone who has witnessed the great annual Voodoo festivals of Souvenance, Saut d'Eau, Plain du Nord or Soukri, in which this ritual is usually repeated over four or five days, and sometimes for weeks on end, requiring a degree of organization and crowd control that would put Glastonbury to shame. German magistrates contracted musicians to play for participants and even serve as dancing companions. The latter were intended to reduce injuries and mischief during the procession to the St. Vitus chapel (Hecker 1970 , pg.4). Hecker states that the dancing mania was a "half-heathen, half-Christian festival", which incorporated into the festival of St. John's day as early as the fourth century, "the kindling of the 'Nodfyr,' which was forbidden by St. Boniface".
This ritual involved the leaping through smoke or flames, which was believed to protect participants from various diseases over the ensuing year. A central feature of the dance frenzy was leaping or jumping continuously for up to several hours through what they claimed were invisible fires, until collapsing in exhaustion.
This has echoes not only of Zoroasterism but of the original pagan folk traditions of Central Asia, suppressed by Islam but still practiced in parts of Afghanistan and Northern Iran to celebrate 'Noruz', the Muslim New Year. Coins and sweets are given out so that one might start the year with a sweet taste in one's mouth and participants make wishes by secretly tying knots in blades of grass before jumping over a bonfire while chanting what roughly translates as: "I give you my yellow and take your red" (ie: I get rid of all the crap in my life and take on the energy of the fire). Sometimes a fish, herbs or an egg are placed on the fire as an offering, the painted egg possibly being the pagan origin of our modern Easter egg.
Not only were episodes scripted and directed by the ring leaders, but as the dance processions were swollen by spectators so the festivals began to take on the typical characteristics of any great rock event, a chaotic, swirling life of its own, the crowd including children searching for parents who were among the dancers, and vice versa (Haggard 1934, pg.187). Some onlookers were threatened with harm for refusing to dance (Backman 1952, pg.147). While many took part out of loneliness and carnal pleasure, others were curious or sought exhilaration (Rust 1969, pg.22). Hecker remarks that "numerous beggars, stimulated by vice and misery, availed themselves of this new complaint to gain a temporary livelihood", while gangs of vagabonds imitated the dance, roving "from place to place seeking maintenance and adventures". Essentially stealing your cameras and credit cards from the tents while you were out thrashing to Iggy and the Stooges.
Ergot poisoning (pronounced "er-get") has been blamed by the more mechanically minded for the hallucinations and convulsions that accompanied the dance mania. Nicknamed St. Anthony's Fire, ergotism coincided with floods and wet growing seasons, which fostered the growth of the fungus claviceps purpura, which thrives in damp conditions and forms on cultivated grains, especially rye.
Convulsive ergotism can cause funky behavior and perhaps even premature enlightment, but chronic ergotism more commonly results in the loss of fingers and toes from gangrene, a feature not associated with dance manias (Donaldson et al. 1997, pg.203). Neither did outbreaks coincide with floods or wet growing or harvest periods. Quite the opposite. Tarantism was thought to occur only during July and August and was triggered by real or imaginary spider bites, hearing music, or seeing others dance and involved structured annual rituals.
Also, while rye was a key crop in central and northern Europe, it was uncommon in Spain and Italy. Quite possibly a few participants were hysterics, epileptics, mentally disturbed, or even delusional from ergot, as some holdouts stubbornly insist, but the large percentage of the populations affected, and the circumstances and timing of outbreaks, suggests otherwise. Episodes were pandemic, meaning that they occurred across a wide area and affected a very high proportion of the population (Lidz 1963, 822; Millon and Millon 1974, 22). Besides if the 'Tarantula Cult' drew the emotionally disturbed, the unstable and those suffering from poisoning or other physiological disorders, it was because they sought the strange piping music as the cure rather than the cause of their symptoms. "As there is scarce a disease to which the body is subject but what they think proceeds from the bite of the tarantula, this method of cure is practiced and with so much success that it seems miraculous and is esteemed the effect of the music" (Turnbull, H. Report to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, 1771).
'Miraculous' events of this order were as much of an affront to Enlightment philosophy as is evidence that would tend to support the defacto existence of magic and alchemy to clinical psychiatry and medicine today. In fact, modern psychiatrists and orthodox social historians routinely classify 'tarantism' as a form of hysteria due to its 'psychological' character and often erroneously claim those affected were mostly female (Sigerist 1943, pg.218; Rosen 1968, pg.204). This typically sublimated Freudian patriarchal cognicentricity in the guise of so-called 'rational thought' informs our view of the 'medieval' period and its attendant phenomena, best illustrated by the seemingly endless series of 'nunsploitation' movies kicked off by the breakthrough success of Ken Russell's The Devils (1971).
Based on Huxley's The Devils of Loudon, Russell's modish misreading of the possession phenomenon wraps its misogyny in the crushed velvet cloak of pop psychology. Male supremacy is reasserted through the notion that all the witchy 'freaking out' (if not all 'religion' in toto) is a symptom of female sexual hysteria, that could probably be put right by healthy recourse to a bit of the ol' in-out in-out with a 'real man' like Ollie Reed.
The slew of imitations that followed in its wake include such 'gems' as Walerian Boroczyk's Behind Convent Walls (1977), Joe D'Amato's The Nuns of Saint Archangel (1973) and Bruno Mattei's The Other Hell (1980), originally titled L'Altro Inferno or The Other Inferno, in a gloriously misguided attempt to pass itself off as a semi-sequel to Argento's own Suspiria sequel. Listing the titles of these potboilers alone would require more patience than I have, let alone sitting down to review them, but of The Devils' spawn one title stands out as a workable compendium of the sub-genre's pathological underpinnings: Flavia the Heretic (Gianfranco Mingozzi, 1974), aka Flavia - High Priestess of Violence!, aka Flavia The Muslim Nun, aka The Rebel Nun.
Set in 15th century Italy, the pic concerns a suitably 'frustrated' nun played by Florinda Bolkan (star of Don't Torture a Duckling! and Lizard in a Woman's Skin) incarcerated in a Byzantine monastery decorated with images of Saint George. She finds temptation not in the form of Ollie but in the unlikely Jewish scribe come handyman, Abraham, played by hunky Claudio Cassinelli (The Scorpion with Two Tails), leading to the usual series of visions and her defection to the Muslim cause. Along the way a naked nun emerges from the carcass of a dead cow, people get impaled and Flavia is eventually tied to a tree and skinned alive for her sins by the resurgent Christians thus restoring patriarchal order to the community. The demented pot pouri of elements includes the arrival of a black Madonna by boat as a cover for a Muslim sneak attack on unsuspecting Europeans and the appearance of the only 'Tarantula Cult' ever to have been named as such on screen.
And what of the real life Tarantula Cult? What are we to make of it on the basis of the available evidence?
An examination of a representative sample of medieval chronicles would tend to indicate the so-called 'medieval dancing epidemics' were in fact the work of a heretical or openly pagan sect, that briefly gained a mass following as its adherents made pilgrimages through Europe during years of turmoil. The symptoms (visions, fainting, tremors) are predictable for any large population engaged in prolonged dancing, emotional worship, and fasting. Their actions have been "mistranslated" by contemporary scholars evaluating the participants' behavior at a remove from its original cultural and temporal context and either unwilling or unable to deal with the possibility of the 'supernatural' existing in the first place, let alone playing an active or causative role in human affairs...