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Dances with Spiders: Crisis, celebrity and celebration in Southern Italy

Ludtke, Karen (2009): “Dances with Spiders: Crisis, celebrity and celebration in Southern Italy” New York, Oxford Berghahn Books. 254 pages. Series: Epistemiologies of Healing

Reviewed by Simona Nirensztein Katz. MA Tavistock School of London. MT, AD Jerusalem. “Shir”: Psychodynamic Music Therapy Association, Florence Italy.

In her book “Dances with spider”, Karen Ludtke, DPhil in Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford, guides us in the world of past and present Tarantism with passion but without losing the perspective of a contemporary scholar.

The author’s poetical, yet not rhetorical, prose gives the book’s ambitious project a fluent and realistic description that makes you feel as if sitting among the olive trees in Salento or admiring the baroque stuccos of Galatina. These enchanting images are mixed with the ones of perspiring bodies of exhausted dancers and with the pounding sounds of drums and violins. As a reader one is impressed by how respectful and rigorous is the author’s description of the homes of the “Tarantati” and by her attempt to reach their psychic sufferance. At the same time she is fascinated by the “neo-Tarantati” and their search for a generic well being through rhythm and performance.

The book edited by Bergham Books is part of a series titled “Epistemology of Healing” which addresses issues of medical anthropology.

The author’s remarkable passion for the subject has led her on a seven year long field study which constitutes the core of the book. The essay maintains an overview on how Tarantism has been considered, practiced and studied throughout the centuries. Personally, I have found the analysis on the cultural and anthropological aspects of the phenomena, the newest and most stimulating part of the research.

Before entering a more detailed description of the essay it might be useful to define Tarantism. We speak about it as a phenomenon documented since medieval times in Salento in Puglia (the heel of the Italian boot) where a spider called “Tarantola” was supposed to bite and provoke, mostly in women, a complex series of psychic and neuro-vegetative symptoms which could be alleviated only by certain kinds of music.

The principal symptoms included loss of balance, nausea, anxiety, psychokinetic agitation or catatonic depression, closure, variations of appetite, libido and mood.

The spider’s bite, which has rarely been proved, occurred normally in the harvesting period during the long and hot summers. The” bitten” person often was going through a difficult moment of her life which could be a sad love affair, a family crisis, an imposed wedding, or an unwanted pregnancy.

At the propitious moment for the curative ritual a real setting would be prepared; the musicians (tambourine, voice, violin and accordion), the patient, and often a public would gather around scenographical and symbolic elements such as mirrors, colored cloths and sacred images. The musicians would play until they found the appropriate music for the white-dressed patient, and for her “spider”; tarantulas could be of a singing, dancing, frenetic, erotic, but also slow weeping and even funereal kind. At the moment of the musical matching, the patient reacted with a movement of recognition that could be a spasm or fainting or the classic “hysteric arc” where the whole body would become stiff from head to feet. Following this moment usually there was an ecstatic dance until final collapse and then, after a long sleep and rest, there was an improvement of the symptoms.
To ultimate the ritual and bring healing, St Paul’s mercy was necessary, and annually the cured women would go and give thanks in the saint’s chapel. The crisis often would recur in June in the days near St Paul’s day.

Let us now go for an overview of the four parts of Karen Ludtke’s book.

The first part “Past and present spider webs” sets the scene with a tribute to St Paul. The author brings us to Galatina, cross roads of ancient and new “Tarantati”, and asks how come both the myth and the music of the Taranta have been both preserved and reinvented. The narration fluctuates between an objective, historic tone to a more vivid and cinematographic one. For example when telling about Evelina:

this tiny elderly lady….[…] now she is better but in the past she would faint before leaving the house on St Paul’s day and her family had to drive her to Galatina unconscious […] she was lying on the back seat, giving off muffled sounds. Her fingers were clawed like the fangs of a spider (p. 39).

Ludtke enquires upon an important matter: Does Evelina and the other Tarantati really want to get better, or do their actions reinforce the status quo of the cause of their suffering? These are the kind of questions that are precious for us as music therapists.

In the second chapter through a rich overview of old and new Tarantism, Ludtke gives an historical perspective and confirms that the roots of Tarantism remain a mystery. Although some people search even for satanic origins, Ernesto de Martino (1961), the major scholar on the issue, locates the first Tarantism phenomena between the ninth and the fourteenth century in the period of the Islamic expansions in Apulia. According to De Martino, Tarantism arouse out of the dual need to deal with actual spider epidemics and with the changing socio-political and religious conditions. Other roots can be sought in European dancing manias like St. Vitus or Saint John’s dance in the Netherlands and in Germany in the thirteen and fourteen century A.C. . Even more ancient and interesting parallels to Tarantism have been drawn with the Dionysian and Orphic cults of Greek origins. All these manifestations were characterized by the cathartic use of dance and music. The complex and ambivalent relationship with Christianity is obviously the core of the healing rite.

Ludtke gives place to De Martino’s view that sees the phenomena as a culturally specific response to harsh living conditions of women in Southern Italy:

De Martino proposed a psychoanalytically tinged interpretation viewed within a historical and socio-economic framework. Tarantism was defined as a “religion of remorse” allowing the payment of debts contracted on an existential level (p. 64).

Of particular interest in Ludtke’s broad overview is her underlining throughout different stages of European history, the link between the different perspectives on this issue and different conceptions on human nature and society.

The second part of the book, “The spider’s cult today” brings us abruptly in our present times and begins a very long explanation on how and why the neo-tarantism emerged. The question in itself is fascinating and can be applied to many different musical or healing traditions. What links the ancient ritual to the satellite broadcasted mega concerts taking place nowadays? Why have the sounds and, I would like to add, the setting used as a cure for suffering and oppressed women, become in the last ten years an occasion for mass entertainment? Maybe, as the author suggests, “today’s buzz around the tarantula music and dance can serve to blind us to socio-cultural implications of contemporary afflictions ad to re-appropriated discourses on healing and well-being?” (p.77).

Chapter three reveals that the traditional curative form is almost completely disappeared. Most of the Salentine people are thankful to the eradication of a phenomena that relate them to an obscure and poor past, and only a few of them, in closed circles, still feel that Taranta and St Paul saved them from misery. But everybody is happy about the fact that the music and pathology of the taranta serves now contemporary purposes, which are sometimes connected to personal or social wellbeing and sometimes to the cultural and economical growth of Salento’s society.

Ludtke brings us joyfully through the different summer “taranta nights” that resonates with rhythms and sounds through the wonderful piazzas and beaches. She seems comfortable and absolutely not judgmental even when she observes the exhibitionism of musicians and dancers, that has nothing to do with the true suffering of women that we have seen in De Martino’s documentary films. If to a music therapist this might look as a cheap sale of music’s curative potential and of the musician’s capacities to attune to the woman’s needs, according to the author this is the natural development of the phenomena. Watching a singer on stage swept by the catharsis of music and imitating the spasms and contortions on the Tarantate apparently does not make her uncomfortable.

As the author writes, to some extent also the ancient ritual was used in some manipulative manner and not merely to heal the victim. Today “it is a means of advertising Salento without consideration of its cultural heritage […] but it also represents a key to developing this area according to culturally sensitive and environmentally sustainable parameters […]; a closer looks reveals how tarantula’s music and dance are still, or again, being liked to experiences of recovering well-being.” (p.116).

The third part of the book titles “From ritual to Limelight” and is the longer and in my opinion the less clear and convincing one. In the effort to address the important matter of analyzing “the underlying factors influencing self-perception, human relations, power issues and vision of reality sabotaging or nourishing well being” (p. 137) the reader could feel disorientated.
The author shifts from the attempt of interpreting the symbolic meaning of the spider’s bite, to rapid digressions on the real motifs of the women’s sufferance.

She inserts long interviews with the so called “new Tarantate” women that search in the pizzica’s throbbing rhythm and ecstatic dance the possibility of expressing sensuality and instinctual energies. Often they find in altered states of consciousness provoked by movement and rhythm some kind of well being, and sometimes a shortcut in the search of their real self or of their own roots. Ludtke doesn’t questions about how deep and stable are those states of “well being”, while these rituals might appear hazardous shortcuts to those that work using the deep curative potential of music.
It is surprising that the author does not mention the lack of containment as a possible danger for those that attempt a “do it yourself” kind of therapy. What could be interesting is asking what has changed in the conception and cure of psychic agony in these last decades.

The author’s anthropological perspective has the important role of widening the views we normally have , but in such a vast overview on the subject I feel the lack of a deeper analysis of the curative dimension of such an interesting ritual: in the first place the recognition of the psychic suffering of each single patient, the containment granted by the family and the community which had to name and accept this affliction; the possibility of a woman muted by a poor oppressive catholic society to express her agony using her whole body, and last but not least the capacity of the musicians to attune with voice and instruments to the specific needs of the woman and of “the spider’s bite”, in other words to her distress.

It can be interesting to add Adriano Primadei’s (Primadei, A. and Nirensztein, S. (2007) psychoanalytical view: He makes an association between the spider and “the Uncanny” by Sigmund Freud. Freud (1919) wrote that “the uncanny is undoubtedly related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror; (…) it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general.”(p.81). In Primadei reflections “Karl Abraham (1922, p. p.464) identifies the spider as the oneiric symbol that can arouse the feeling of the uncanny. The spider, according to Abraham, is a “masculine mother” that can penetrate with a poisonous bite.”. He thinks that in a sense “the role of Tarantism as a symbolic order was to create a protection net to prevent the person from drowning into anxiety…. The spider .. gives a symbolic meaning and form to this anxiety…. if the feeling of anxiety cannot be named, and has no meaning, then it cannot be thought or processed. ” (Primadei, A. and Nirensztein, S., 2007. p.7)
In the fourth part of the book “Conclusion”, the author synthesizes the core of the book, as an attempt to understand “how has the tarantula’s dance changed over time and what it reveals about the link between performance practices and well-being” (p. 213).

In the reflections on the role of rhythm and on the role of art as a form of expression of the self and on how “soundness emerges where the sense of self integrates” we find the motifs that make this book worth reading. The large bibliography is really admirable.
The music therapist looking for a detailed discussion on the therapeutic effects of the “pizzica” music on the psychic state of the Tarantati might be disappointed. Nonetheless, this essay is rich of interesting and stimulating thoughts even if sometimes slightly verbose and unclear.


Abraham, K. (1922). Il ragno come simbolo onirico. In Opere, vol II. It. ed. 1997
Bollati Boringhieri. Torino

De Martino, E. (1961) La terra del rimorso: contributo ad una storia religiosa del Sud. Il Saggiatore. Milano.

Freud, S. (1919). Il Perturbante. in Opere vol IX. It.ed.1989 Bollati Boringhieri. Torino.

Primadei, A. and Nirensztein, S. (2007) Tarantism in music therapy: a dialogue between traditional music and psychic suffering. Keynote: 7th European Music Therapy Congress. Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

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