PIC INTERREG IIIA Greece - Italy 2000-2006 Axis 3.2 Project Code I3201060.


Anthropological contexts

In the anthropological context, the phenomenon known as “tarantismo” exemplifies another special aspect of female identity in the Salento. This was a typically female custom, linked to the world of the peasantry, involving a deep psychological malaise, caused by the conditions of subservience and poverty that women were obliged to suffer without complaint. Today those conditions of life no longer exist and tarantismo has entered a new phase, known as neotarantismo, purely aesthetic and quite different from its original character: the phenomenon has been transformed into a sort of collective musical “moment”, to the rhythm of the traditional folk dance music known as pizzica.

According to popular tradition, tarantismo is an illness caused by the bite of the field spider known as the “taranta”, but more generally spiders, insects and poisonous creatures. The bite caused a mental and physical breakdown, curable via a special therapy, in which the sufferer purified herself by means of ritual dancing to music played on a chromatic scale. The therapy was divided into two phases: the first was at home and the second took place in Galatina, at the Church of San Paolo, the saint who could cure sufferers of this physical and mental affliction.
The domestic part of the therapeutic ritual took place in a room, at the centre of which a broad white sheet was lain on the floor, with small fans decorated with images of Saint Paul.

There were also coloured ribbons called ‘nzacareddhe. The “tarantata” (i.e., the sufferer) lay on the sheet, immobile. Next to her, the musicians began the musical exploration to identify the cause of the malaise: if it was hysteria, the music would have no effect, but if the woman had been bitten by the taranta, the right music would interrupt her state of torpor. An interesting repertoire was used to stimulate the sufferer, but only three melodies were considered to be primary remedies: the tune of the “pizzica indiavolata”, in either “D major”, “flat” or “minor”. Each of these constituted a treatment for the poison, to which the woman responded by dancing. Other folk songs of the “pizzica” or “tarantella” type, while unable to cure the victim, could have beneficial effects. Once the right music had been identified, the woman began to dance instinctively, with rhythmical movements that grew in intensity, even imitating the animal that had bitten her, going through cycles of dance moves, depending on the phases of the music. An important symbolic role was played by colour: the coloured ribbons could cause distress or a sense of calm in the mind of the tarantata, depending on the inclination of the animal towards the particular colour.

The therapy could last up to some days and finished with the “pacification”, when the woman obtained the grace from Saint Paul. After the domestic ritual, the second phase involved giving thanks to the saint. At the Church in Galatina, at dawn on June 29th, the tarantata briefly repeated the therapeutic ritual dancing before the altar and then drank the purifying waters from the well of Saint Paul (actually a cistern, today closed). Finally cured, the woman made a donation to the Saint.

In many cases, this rite was repeated every year, in the late spring-early summer, in significant continuity with the cycles of nature.
Besides Galatina, other places in the Salento are linked to tarantismo, although they never reached the importance of the Church of San Paolo. In Giurdignano, the Menhir San Paolo, and in Patù, the rural Church of the Madonna di Vereto, with a fresco of Saint Paul with the scorpions, had a similar function to the Church in Galatina. The road network, limited and of poor quality, did not allow for short journey times; it is probable therefore that the communities of the two towns wanted to create other points of reference for the tarantate of the area near Otranto and Capo di Leuca. In both cases the Saint is shown with a spider’s web, which in Giurdignano is associated with a “tarantola” (the Lycosa tarantula, actually unrelated to the family of spiders known as “tarantulas”) and in Patù with scorpions. The religious element is present, but the context is different: the menhir and the church are located in rural settings, unlike Galatina, where the church is the town centre.

Another symbolic place for tarantismo is Nardò, home to the late Luigi Stìfani, the last of the traditional musicians skilled in identifying the right music to stir the tarantata from her state of torpor during the domestic phase of the cure. He was probably more inspired by this phenomenon than any other figure in the history of the tarantate of the Salento, using his talent to explore the mysteries of the female universe through sound. Today Tarantismo has practically disappeared. Changes in the social condition of women have ended the phenomenon from the anthropological point of view, the phase in which it reflected the suffering and hardship of the female peasantry, and was expressed in such a striking fashion. Today the talk is of “neotarantismo”, more of an aesthetic concept, based exclusively on the musical dimension.

The “therapy” of the women of the past has now been reinvented as “collective musical therapy”, for which the final concert in the series of events known as the “Notte della Taranta” (the Night of the Taranta) in Melpignano represents an open cultural space. Tarantismo is now expressed entirely through music (with quite different connotations to its original form), through the mutual contamination of the various musical forms of the Mediterranean, in an ever-changing experience. For 10 years now, this is the key summer event in the Salento, drawing tens of thousands of tourists.

Tarantismo in the anthropological sense is closely linked to the culture of pagan Greece. Greek writers were the first to tackle the theme of animals and the effects of their bites and stings on humans. The spider, a symbolic animal in many cultures, took on a negative character only in Greece, because of the illness generated by its bite and the supposed risk of contagion. The ritual aspects of the phenomenon in the context of the Salento have much in common with the rites described in Greek mythology. The most obvious common feature is the season: the pagan rites took place mainly in spring or around the festivities linked to the changing of the seasons, a crucial moment in the manifestation of sexual and emotional impulses, mainly on the part of women. It is no coincidence that this is precisely the period of the tarantate of the Salento, of women subject to “altered states of consciousness”, a period which reached its climax on the feast of Saint Paul in Galatina on June 29th. The link between the cult of Dionysus and Magna Graecia (the area of southern Italy colonised by Greeks in ancient times), particularly in the city of Taranto, would also seem to be supported by the etymology of “tarantismo” itself, along with that of “taranta” and “tarantola”, which may all derive from “Taranto”, although there is some uncertainty about this. Even the purely musical term “tarantella” may come from the same root.

More specifically, the Greeks myths lead directly to the phenomenon observed in the Salento and to a particular phase of the female ritual: Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus emphasises the themes of flight, thwarted love, a never-ending race accompanied by music and the final return to the curative waters. The myth of Orpheus contains the theme of death by a serpent’s bite. The myth of Arachne refers to the transformation of a young woman into a spider condemned to weave a web hanging by a thread for eternity.

In the Euthydemus, Plato refers to the musical therapy of the Korybantes, who sought to establish a connection between the divinity by whom the victim was possessed and a particular melody. Here too the process entailed the exploration of various “musical moods” in an attempt to cure the victim of “telestic mania”, which indicates an altered state of consciousness. These aspects have much in common with the symbolism of tarantismo and the ritual practices associated with it in the Salento, which, despite being assimilated into Christian culture, have survived for centuries.

In this context too, the role played by the figure of the woman is central. Tarantismo took root and developed in the difficult conditions of life endured by women, conditions which thankfully have now changed. In the anthropological sense, the phenomenon no longer has any meaning; unlike the past, today neotarantismo expresses joy in life, vitality and a spirit of togetherness. And yet it is still women who are the key to the phenomenon in its modern manifestation: her past suffering has generated a strong impulse towards development and a heightened appreciation of the Salento of today, though its characteristics have changed. The anthropological phenomenon has projected itself into the musical phenomenon associated with the “Notte della Taranta”.


Community Initiative INTERREG III 2000-2006


PIC INTERREG IIIA Greece - Italy 2000-2006 Axis 3.2 Project Code I3201060

Co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund