What is Tarantism? It is an affliction which the Apulians ascribe to the bite of the Tarantula spider, and which reoccurs in regularly repeating yearly cycles in those bitten. The symptoms include "...falling to the ground, a feeling of prostration, anguish, a state of psychomotor agitation with a beclouding of the sensory apparatus, difficulty in remaining standing, stomach ache, nausea and vomiting, various paresthesias and muscular pains, a heightening of sexual desire...".
The research team found out that - even though the symptoms vaguely resembled those of spider poisoning - Tarantism could be reduced neither to the bite of an actual spider nor to other causes, such as sunstrokes or psychic illness. On the contrary, in the course of the investigations Tarantism acquired the meaning of a mythical-ritual symbol, culturally conditioned in its functioning and efficacy.
The spatial and temporal distribution of 'spider's bites' made it highly unlikely that actual spiders were responsible for the phenomenon. There was an overwhelming prevalence of pubescent female participation in Tarantism, and the phenomenon afflicted certain families only. Once bitten, the victim would be affected in the summer for several years, the phenomenon obeying a strict calender. Furthermore, certain locations associated with specific Saints - such as the town of Galatina, of which the St. Paul church is featured in the film - provided immunity from the spiders' bite.
The spider which was held responsible for tarantism was a mythical creature which did not correspond to any arachnid of modern zoology. Instead, the Taranta assembled the characteristics of several different species of spider into a mythical whole. Different colors were attributed to the spiders - principally red, green and black - and the 'bite' of each respective spider caused different behaviour in the victim. Those bit by red spiders displayed martial, heroic behaviour; those bit by green spiders displayed eroticized behaviour; and those bitten by black spiders were fascinated by funerary paraphernalia. Furthermore, each color spider had its own repertoire of musical figures and dances: for example, those bitten by a green spider would only dance to a Tarantella tune associated with the green spider. Finally, the victims of the spider's bite were fascinated by pieces of cloth with the appropriate color. Thus, during the course of an exorcism different Tarantella tunes were played and different colors of clothes were given to the victim in order to determine which spider possesses her. Only the appropriate Tarantella tune, the appropriate color and the appropriate dance would cure the victim - at least for the time being, until the affliction re-occured a year later. Music serves at once as diagnosis and therapy.
Rather than the result of the bite of an actual spider, Tarantism was a mythical-ritual experience which was modeled on the medical symptoms of the actual bite of a poisonous spider. Examining parallels in ethnography and folklore, De Martino found structural similarities between Tarantism and Afro-Mediterranean and Afro-American (Vodou) possession cults. Furthermore, De Martino found antecedents to this religious formation in classical Greek mythology and rituals.
De Martino interprets Tarantism primarily as a form of psychological therapy. For his, the Tarantella is an exorcism, as a ritual eviction of the spider which possesses the victim. The spider symbolizes a traumatic event in the biography of the victim (specifically frustrated eros), and it is the memory of that traumatic effect which causes the affliction of Tarantism with its attendent symptoms. This memory is cast out my music, color and dance - the Tarantella. For De Martino, the symbol of the Taranta is a "mythical-ritual horizon of evocation, release and resolution of unresolved psychic conflicts (...). As a cultural model, the symbol offers a mythical-ritual order for settling these conflicts and reintegrating individuals into the group. The symbol of the taranta lends a figure to the formless, rhythm and melody to menacing silence, and color to the colorless in an assiduous quest of articulated and distinct passions, where a horizonless excitation alternates with a depression that isolates and closes off."
(A short aside on formlessness. That De Martino associates the spider with formlessness certainly struck a chord with me: for Georges Bataille, the spider was an almost formless creature, an invertebrate that is not like anything: "To declare (...) that the universe is not like anything, and is simply formless, is tantamount to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spittle." (Documents 7, 1929). The relation between Bataille's thought and formlessness is the polar opposite of the relationship between De Martino's thought and formlessness.)
Gilbert Rouget, whose 1985 ethnography "Music and Trance. A theory of the relations between music and possession" was featured before on this blog, was highly critical of De Martino's interpretation of Tarantism. Rouget writes that De Martino's analysis makes one lose sight of the most obvious aspect of Tarantism: the identification of the afflicted with the spider. Rouget: "One of the dance figures of the tarantulees - the best known - consists, as we know, in imitating the spider's movements: back to the ground, body arched to a great or lesser degree, the tarantulee moves about like a spider on all fours. One can see this very clearly in D. Carpitella's film, and the sight is striking." (Rouget is mistakingly referring to La Taranta as Carpitella's film: Carpitella merely recorded the music). Rouget reproaches De Martino for making himself an heir to a Christian tradition which abjects possession and possessing divinities and thereby misinterpreting Tarantism. Rouget: "Despite appearances, the divinity responsible for the possession is not the one that is excorcised. On the contrary, it is the divinity concerned who, by allowing the possessing person to identify with him or her, provides the means of ecxorcising the illness - real or imagined - from which the person is suffering."
Whatever the case may be, De Martino's book is highly interesting for those who are interested in possession - whether for scientific reasons or because possession can function as a model for countercultural practices. In De Martino's book, possession is not the exotic practice of an exotic people in an exotic land: La Terra Del Rimorso presents ethnographic and historiographic material on a possession cult which takes place in Europe itself. What's more, Tarantism has its roots in the very soil from which Western civilization sprang: in classical Greece. We were already possessed in the cradle.
Here is an indepth review of De Martino's book (link).