Tarantella

(This column was published in the February 3, 1997 Buffalo News.)

    Music aficionados may know a lively Italian folk dance called the tarantella. It is characterized by rapid movements, foot tapping and, on the women's part, exaggerated flouncing of petticoats.

    The tarantella has an interesting history with an entomological aspect that carries a lesson about the assignment of responsibility.

    First recorded in the mid-14th century, the dance derives its name from the southern Italian town of Taranto. It originated as a manic response of field workers to the bite of a spider whose name is also related to Taranto -- the tarantula. Those bitten suffered severe pain, muscle spasms, vomiting and delirium; some even died. No drugs were available to counteract the venom and sweating associated with the dance gyrations may have been thought to flush it from the dancers' bodies. Indeed, they would continue for hours and even days. So common was the dancing that musicians patrolled the fields in expectation of being hired to play for the afflicted.

    This supposed cure remained widespread for over 300 years and is even said to survive today in remote rural areas of Mediterranean countries. At the height of its popularity it was witnessed by many well known observers including the British diarist, Samuel Pepys, and the British playwright, Oliver Goldsmith. In an act that hardly reflects to his credit, Goldsmith forced one of his servants to be bitten by a tarantula in order to study the effects. Fortunately for the butler, he only suffered minor swelling around the wound.

    The accumulation of similar evidence by regional doctors eventually led to condemnation of the dancers. That was a time when religious fervor had led to a general suppression of any kind of revelry and the dancing certainly provided an excuse to disregard those restrictions. When he too found that the tarantula's bite had little effect, a 17th century Italian physician wrote that the tarantella was the feigned activity of malingerers, wanton young women and half-wits, many of whom only pretended to be bitten in order to dance and vent their frustrations. Today's psychologists might more kindly describe it as a kind of mass hysteria.

    At any rate, with the increasing condemnation of the practice, the mania declined. Even the name tarantula was later assigned to species of another spider sub-order that includes the tarantula of our American Southwest. The Italian spider is considered today to be related to our harmless wolf spiders. So much for priority.

    But we have not quite reached the end of our story. Modern entomologists returning to those southern Italian fields discovered an abundant population of malmignattes, tiny and equally venomous relatives of our black widow spider. The larger and easier-to-find "tarantula" wasn't the culprit after all. And at least some of those wildly gyrating Italian peasants were not just hysterics. So much too for their critics.

    I cannot promise tarantella dances at the Buffalo Museum of Science, but a major traveling exhibition about spiders will open there this coming Saturday, February 8. The extensive displays, some of them interactive, will provide interesting information about these much maligned creatures that are in fact among our best allies in the natural world.

    Then at the museum at 3 p.m. the following day, Dr. Jonathan Coddington of the Smithsonian Institution will give the Hayes Lecture, "Sex, Silk and Poison," about these three major aspects of spiders' lives: their strange reproductive rituals, their remarkable architectural abilities and their unusual use of venom to predigest their food. Hayes Lectures are open to the public at no charge.

    Miss Muffett, I hope to see you there.-- Gerry Rising


Note: In "Rethinking the Dancing Mania," Speptical Inquirer24: 4 (July/August 2000): 42-47, Robert E. Bartholomew makes a strong case that the dancing was not the result of spider bites or ergot poisoning. His explanation (p. 47): "Based on an examination of a representative sample of medieval chronicles, it is evident that these episodes are best explained as deviant religious sects who gained adherents as they made pilgrimages through Europe during years of turmoil in order to receive divine favor." He goes on to say, "Their symptoms (visions, fainting, tremor) are predictable for any large population engaging in prolonged dancing, emotional worship, and fasting. Their actions have been 'mistranslated' by contemporary scholars evaluating the participants' behavior per se,removed from their regional context and meaning. Tarantism was a regional variant of dancing mania that developed into a local tradition, primarily in southern Italy." I find myself convinced by Bartholomew's analysis.