How Tarantulas Turned Us into Dancers for Cure

The dance of Tarantella spins a tale of venom, passion, and salvation. Originating in the Middle Ages, it was believed to cure tarantula bites, melding music and movement to combat the venom’s fever.

How Tarantulas Turned Us into Dancers for Cure
Against the hypnotic backdrop of the boundless sea, the figure of Orpheus emerges, his fingers dancing over the strings, invoking the eternal Tarantella.

In the rhythmic pulse of “Tarán tarán tarán tarán tarán tarán tarántula,” there lies a tale as old as time itself, one that melds together venom, passion, and salvation. The swift bite of a tarantula, a potent reminder of our vulnerabilities, could in the past send a person into a choking, gasping stupor. And yet, the solution to such a sinister affliction was not found in herbs or rituals but in music – the kind that grows in intensity, accelerating with every beat, pulling the victim from the precipice of despair.

Imagine the scene: A patient, bitten, choked, gasping for air. Yet, the moment the resonant sounds of “Tarán tarán tarán tarán” envelop them, there's a change. Like tendrils of magic, the melodies snake around, weaving an antidote from its rhythmic fabric. The fingers twitch first, then the toes, as the person is caught in the throes of two dueling fevers: one from the venom, the other from the potent elixir of music.

And so, the dance begins. The dance of the Tarantella. This frenzied movement was not just a display of exuberance but a fight, a battle against the poison coursing through the veins. As the music grows and grows, so does the dance, transcending from mere movement to a spiritual experience. The visions and hallucinations from the venom become calmer, changing from intense colors to serene landscapes, until finally, tranquility reigns. The heart realizes what ancient souls have known: sometimes, music is the only panacea.

In Greek mythology, the Tarantella's mesmerizing power was first recognized when the goddesses of grace wielded its magic to save Orpheus from the enchanting yet fatal songs of the sirens. While the sirens might have had voices that could lead men to their doom, they lacked the legs to dance the Tarantella. However, not everyone could resist their call. Butes was pulled into their embrace, only to later be discarded by the love goddess, Cypris, into the depths of the sea. Such are the passions that sometimes only music can quell.

Pascal Quignard, the renowned author, paints a poignant image of Butes, caught in the rapture of the sirens. His demise into the Tyrrhenian Sea stands as a reminder of the intoxicating allure of passion and the sometimes devastating consequences of surrendering to it. But it's not a tale of despair; it's a testament to the power of music, a savior in the face of overwhelming emotions.

Orpheus, with his divine musical prowess, demonstrated the hypnotic might of the Tarantella against the sirens. An eternal melody, the Tarantella signifies the circle of life – an unending loop of change, magic, and revival. Referenced both by Homer in the Odyssey and Virgil in the Aeneid, this dance encapsulates the myth, magic, and healing prowess that has entranced humanity for ages.

Enveloped in the ancient rhythms of the Tarantella, a dancer finds solace and renewal.
Enveloped in the ancient rhythms of the Tarantella, a dancer finds solace and renewal, transcending the venom’s grasp and embracing the harmonious pulse of life's unending melody.

Dance of Tarantella, Myths, Spiders, and Cures

In the echoing chambers of the Middle Ages, a shadowy dance took form, born out of superstition, myth, and genuine medical concern. Today, we know it as tarantism, a captivating series of ritual practices designed to cure those who were believed to be bitten by venomous spiders. Delving into its intricacies paints a vivid tapestry of culture, confusion, and the therapeutic power of dance.

The term 'tarantism' can be deceptively misleading, leading one to believe that it hails solely from Taranto, an ancient city in southern Italy that was once inundated with spiders called tarantulas. But history, ever so convoluted, reminds us that origins aren’t always straightforward. Was it an imitation of the gentilicio (demonym), where 'Taranto' gave rise to 'tarantula'? Perhaps. But the connection between the city and the spider practice is deeper than mere semantics.

Contrary to medieval beliefs, tarantulas are benign creatures. Their saliva might lead to skin irritation, but that’s the extent of their offense against humans. These “spider mites”, with their tufts of hair and rainbow of colors, are intriguing specimens. Their hunting technique is ingenious, targeting an insect's central nervous system by biting its nape, ensuring instant death.

Yet, a grave error clouded the perception of tarantulas in the Middle Ages. They were mistakenly identified with the lethal black widow and its even more dangerous kin, the Latrodectus tredecimguttatus.

The real danger lay in the dance of the black widow. As poetic as it sounds, it's a dance of seduction and death. After mating, the female black widow often consumes her male counterpart, unless he's one of the fortunate few to escape and mate again. But more often than not, the male ends up ensnared and devoured, a testament to the power of nature's cruel beauty.

This seductive, deadly dance isn't unique to spiders. The mythical sirens, as depicted by Virgil in the Aeneid, lured men with their enchanting dance, driving them to euphoric madness. Although the gods transformed their enticing legs into fishtails, these sirens never lost their lethal charm. That is, until Orpheus played his mesmerizing melodies, combatting their allure.

This brings us to the fascinating twist: tarantism believed that the best antidote to a spider's venomous dance was another dance. Specifically, a dance mimicking the very spider believed to have inflicted the bite.

The cure, as they perceived it, was a therapeutic mix of music, dance, and colors. Each component tailored to the supposed spider culprit. The dances, mirroring those of the tarantula or the seductive siren, were rhythmic and invigorating. And the colors? They often reflected the vibrant hues of tarantulas: a radiant blend of red, black, and yellow. It's worth noting that Mexico alone boasts over sixty species of these colorful arachnids.

A dance of healing and history unfolds, symbolizing the enduring human dance with nature, myth, and the quest for cures.
A dance of healing and history unfolds, symbolizing the enduring human dance with nature, myth, and the quest for cures.

Athanasius Kircher and the Musical Tarantulas

Athanasius Kircher, the German Jesuit, hailed as the Da Vinci of his time, captivates modern minds with his diverse range of knowledge and published works, touching on fields from geology and comparative religion to medicine. One particular work that stands out from his vast repertoire is the treatise “Magnes, sive De Arte Magnetica” from 1641, which elegantly blends themes of love, Earth, the cosmos, and notably, music.

The chapter on tarantism in this treatise draws a fascinating connection to an explosive 1610 manuscript by Matteo Zaccolini. Delivered to the Medici in Florence, this manuscript, due to its controversial content, remained unpublished. Yet, secrets seldom remain so, and the manuscript seeped into the Italian scholarly circles, influencing revered painters like Domenichino, Carracci, Guido Reni, and Poussin.

At the heart of this mystery lies the tarantula and its peculiar influence on humans. Kircher's observations defy mere scientific understanding. He speaks of tarantulas that sing, others that dance, and some that remain silent, responding only to mournful music. If bitten by these enigmatic creatures, one's cure lay in mimicking the tarantula's art – singing, dancing, or indulging in melancholic melodies. The danger, however, was a bite from two distinct tarantulas, for merging their contrasting musical demands proved fatal. Kircher's writings further propose a haunting bond between the victim and the spider, suggesting that the venom's effects linger in the victim as long as the tarantula or its lineage persists.

The esoteric nature of tarantism lends itself to myriad interpretations. It becomes a metaphor for cause and effect, a focal point in treatises on melancholy, music therapy, arachnophilia, and arachnophobia. At its core, the tarantula's bite symbolizes a release of passion, akin to the power music has over human emotions.

This theme resonates in literature too. Take Bob Dylan's “Tarantula,” his debut in poetic expression. While many critics attribute his writing style to the Beat Generation figures like Kerouac and Ginsberg, a deeper reading reveals inspirations from the literary giants, William Shakespeare and James Joyce. Dylan's text sings a song, a rhythmic dance of words evoking a tarantula's allure.

But tarantism also underscores a transition in music from its primal, trance-inducing state to the more restrained, “seated listening” of the modern world. Pascal Quignard mourns this evolution, suggesting Western music abandoned its archaic core, leaving behind the essence of dance. Today's music might be made while seated, but its roots lie in movement and emotion.

So, dear reader, as you sit engrossed in these words, consider Kircher's world where the line between music, nature, and humans blurs. If by any chance you spot a tarantula beside you, be it singing, dancing, or silent, would you dare to communicate, or better yet, share a dance?

Athanasius Kircher in contemplation, delving deep into the tarantulas, music, and magnetism.
Athanasius Kircher in contemplation, delving deep into the tarantulas, music, and magnetism. Credit: Wikipedia
Athanasius Kircher, medicinal music for the tarantula bite, 17th century.
Athanasius Kircher, medicinal music for the tarantula bite, 17th century. Credit: Whipple Library
Athanasius Kircher, Tarantella, 17th century.
Athanasius Kircher, Tarantella, 17th century. Credit: Wikimedia

In-Text Citation: Espinosa, Pablo. ‘El Fascinante Mundo Del Tarantismo | Pablo Espinosa’. Revista de La Universidad de México, Accessed 24 Sept. 2023.