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Chapter 9: Kiss of the Tarantula

Who knows where it began? A single walking man in a battered felt hat wending his way across Europe bearing a strange, long-necked guitar? A troupe of strolling players from Africa or the east with painted faces and bare breasts, whose songs 'contained the names of devils never before heard of', and whose dark eyes glowed as they danced to curious serpentine rhythms in the glow of the bonfire...

Or did it start with the kiss of the Tarantula ?

The origins of the Tarantula Cult are lost in the toxic fug of time. To penetrate those anterior mists and scry a little closer to the bone you've got to ask yourself which came first - not so much the arachnid or the egg as the spider or the dance? Was the tarantella named after the eight-legged beastie because of its jerky, frantic motions or was the tarantula named because of the movement of the dancers? The two are intertwined, seemingly inseparable, held together by a kiss...

"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... Music and dancing were the only effective remedies, and people were known to have died within an hour or in a few days because music was not available." (Sigerist 1943, 218-219)

Symptoms included headache, giddiness, breathlessness, fainting, trembling, twitching, appetite loss, general soreness, and delusions. Sometimes it was claimed that a sore or swelling was caused by a tarantula bite, but such assertions were difficult to verify because the bite resembled those of insects. The dance symptoms resemble typical modern episodes of epidemic hysteria, in addition to expected reactions from exhaustive physical activity and excessive alcohol consumption. The 'dancing frenzy' that has come to be known as 'tarantism' was reported almost exclusively during the hot summer months of July and August.

One of the oldest surviving treatises on 'tarantism', Fernando Ponzetti's Sertum Papale De Venensis (1362), suggests that the victims of shade-dwelling spiders were hostages to the music of the tarantula's bite, to its 'cantum tempore'. His contemporary, William de Marra, scoffs at Ponzetti's ignorance in believing that the tarantula actually sang as it bit down with those venefic fangs, yet despite his skepticism even he was forced to admit the tarantella held all classes of Apulian society inexplicably in thrall, from peasant to noblewoman. None were exempt from its insidious power.

While early medical observers theorized that a venomous species of tarantula, found in the Italian state of Apulia, was capable of producing sporadic 'tarantism' symptoms, tests on spiders in the region have failed to substantiate these suspicions (Gloyne 1950, 35). Latrodectus tarantula is a nonaggressive, slow-moving spider common in Apulia that can produce psychoactive effects in people it bites. In severe cases, it may temporarily mimic many tarantism symptoms, including twitching and shaking of limbs, weakness, nausea, and muscular pain (Lewis 1991, pg.514).

Ironically, Lycosa tarantula was typically blamed for tarantism symptoms, as it is larger, more aggressive, ferocious in appearance and has a painful bite. Yet neither spider can account for the predominantly symbolic and psychogenic character of tarantism attacks. Latrodectus tarantula is also found in other countries where tarantism does not occur (Russell 1979, pg.416), including the United States (Lewis 1991, pg.517).

There is no evidence that a venomous species of tarantula, native only to Apulia, may have existed during this period and later died out. As Sigerist (1943, pg.221) remarks: "The same tarantula shipped to other parts of the country seemed to lose most of its venom, and what remained acted differently." It is also doubtful that some insect or other agent was responsible for causing "attacks", as most participants did not even claim to have been bitten, and would only participate in tarantism episodes at designated times.

Clearly most cases were unrelated to spider bites. Other psychological aspects include the only reliable cure: dancing to certain types of music. "Victims" would typically perform one of numerous versions of the tarantella, a rapid tempo score characterized by brief, repetitive phrases, which escalate in intensity. Such performances also allowed "victims" to exhibit social behavior that is prohibited at any other time. Dancing persisted intermittently for hours and days, sometimes lasting weeks. Participants would eventually proclaim themselves "cured" for the remainder of the summer, only to relapse in subsequent summers. Many "victims" believed they had been infected from those who had been bitten, or from simply brushing against a spider. All that was needed to "reactivate" the venom was to hear certain strains of music.

A variation of tarantism spread throughout much of Europe between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, where it was known as the dancing mania or St. Vitus's dance, on account that participants often ended their processions in the vicinity of chapels and shrines dedicated to this saint. Like its Italian counterpart, outbreaks seized groups of people who engaged in frenzied dancing that lasted intermittently for days or weeks. These activities were typically accompanied by symptoms similar to tarantism, including screaming, hallucinations, convulsive movements, chest pains, hyperventilation, crude sexual gestures and outright intercourse. Instead of spider bites as the cause, participants usually claimed that they were possessed by demons who had induced an uncontrollable urge to dance. Like tarantism, however, music was typically played during episodes and was considered to be an effective remedy.

Detailed accounts of many episodes appear in a classic book by German physician Justus Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages (1844). He considered the origin of these "epidemics" as due to "morbid sympathy", since they often coincided with periods of severe disease, such as widespread pessimism and despair after the Black Death (Hecker 1844, pg.87). This epic pandemic, which by some estimates killed half of the population of Europe, subsided about twenty years prior to 1374, the year that most scholars identify with the onset of the dance mania.

Benjamin Gordon, in Medieval and Renaissance Medicine (1959, pg.562) describes the onset of the dance mania:

"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."