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  • Writer's pictureValeria Pugliese

Tarantula

An anthropological art project in collaboration with Femmes


Disclaimer


This article should have been posted back in November 2023.

My blog goes through cyclical phases of shameful abandonment; judge me, I deserve it.


October 2023


My October: both an epicurean celebration of flesh and new desires and an occasion for an in-depth Memento Mori, corroborated by the distress of another year rapidly coming towards the end, enhanced by a ghastly Halloween imagery while the body palpitates at the first shivers of cold.


Ah, what a month.


Someone special got in touch.


Gregorio Carullo, dear friend, fellow sultry Southerner, founder of Femmes, the Master of nude and erotic photography, made me an offer I could not refuse (with the same graveness as the below):


"I want you to be a Tarantula" he said.


To my fears of being too old, having a non-photogenic Roman nose, embodying quite a distant aesthetic from the models that he usually photographs and other miscellaneous over-pondering, he kindly ignored me and simply told me to come to Space63; the approach worked, the photo shoot was scheduled.


Gregorio already eternalised my early 20s collagen abundance, capturing twice that crucial period of my life where both my femininity and my confidence bloomed, gifting me the most empowering experience of being photographed both with precious lingerie on and completely nude (Ladies, DO IT, it is truly life-changing!).


Valeria Pugliese per Femmes, 2017, Madame's private collection

Valeria Pugliese per Femmes, 2017, Madame's private collection

The Tarantula he referred to is an anthropological component of Apulian folklore, a unique type of possession; how intriguing, how apt for this season of horror and the latest The Exorcist: Believer released in the same month.


Although my self-marketing is heavily based on being THE Sicilian, I am indeed genetically half-Apulian; Papy is from the splendid Alberobello and even my surname, Pugliese, literally means "from Puglia".


A vintage photo of the Trulli of Alberobello, Unesco World Heritage Site

Wondering across the Southern Italian regions during my childhood to then definitely move and grow up in Sicily (province of Palermo) made me almost forget this beautiful part of my ancestry which I am really proud of.


Gregorio gave me yet again the empowering opportunity to re-discover myself, this time with a focus on my lineage and folk tradition, through his vision, his lens and his art: truly, absolutely an offer I could not refuse!


La Noia (The Ennui)



"(La Puglia) È terra di veleni, animali e vegetali.

Qui esce nella calura il ragno della follia e dell'assenza, s'insinua nel sangue dei corpi delicati che conoscono soltanto il lavoro arido della terra.

(...)

L'estate, la stagione pesante dei Greci, scivola come polvere, acceca l'acqua nei pozzi, la luce bianchissima stride gli occhi.

E la Noia penetra nell'interno dell'uomo, matura verso l'irrazionale i suoi sentimenti, deforma gli istinti.

I tarantati dicono di sentire la Noia all'inizio del male, male che viene curato con le cadenze di una musica fortemente ritmata e continua, e con la danza della piccola taranta, la tarantella."


"(Apulia) The land of poisons, animal and vegetal.

It is here, in the oppressive heat, that the spider of madness and absence insinuates within the blood of the delicate bodies who know only the arid land's work.

(...)

The Summer, the sultry season of the Greeks, blurs the surroundings like dust, blinds the dark well's waters, the whitest light disturbs the vision.

The Ennui possesses the individual, moves their feelings towards the highest irrationality, deforms the instincts.

The bitten says the Ennui is always the first symptom of the possession; the illness is healed with the cadences of continuous and highly rhythmic music, and the dance of the little tarantula, the tarantella."

From Tarantula (La Taranta), a 1962 documentary by Gianfranco Mingozzi



Tarantismo is an anthropological and psychological phenomenon that existed mostly in Salento, the geographic region at the southern end of Apulia, in Italy, consistent with the definition of mass psychogenic illness.


The rural folklore, especially in the province of Taranto, strongly embedded the Tarantismo within the still persisting collective unconscious of the region, giving it sociological bearing, documenting it since the 11th century, keeping it alive until the 70s, making it way more historically relevant than a spurious and superstitious cuntu (old wives' tale).


Michela: "Quando sei stata pizzicata dalla taranta?“

Donna di Nardò: "Ncantata fui, nncantata da lu basiliscu prima e poi m'è pizzicato la

taranta mentri cugghia la spiga.”


[Interviewer] Michela: “When were you bitten by the tarantula?”

Woman from Nardò: “I was beguiled, beguiled by the basilisk first and then I was bitten

by the tarantula while I was harvesting crops.”


It is believed that the syndrome of Tarantismo results from the bite of the spider Lycosa Tarantula, although a better and more local candidate, especially during the Apulian harvesting season, is the Latrodectus Tredecimguttatus.


Latrodectus Tredecimguttatus (female), commonly known as the Mediterranean black widow.

The bitten or "tarantulated" (Tarantato/Tarantata) shows the common symptoms of latrodectism including localised pain, muscle rigidity, vomiting, and sweating, lasting from three up to six days.


The main source of investigation and research about Tarantismo is the book La Terra del Rimorso (The Land of Remorse), first Italian edition from 1961), a classic work by Ernesto De Martino, the founding figure of Italian cultural anthropology and ethnopsychiatry. Based on fieldwork conducted in the Salentine peninsula of Southern Italy in 1959, the outcome is a compassionate and compelling account of Tarantismo, no longer appearing as a mere mental illness or as a survival of shamanistic irrationality, but as a product of a cultural history, endowed with its own forms of rationality.


De Martino's research identifies the "tarantulated" as being mainly women, often young and unmarried, always from the most rigid and desolate socio-economic circumstances, robbing them of any opportunity for emancipation and independence.


St. Paul's Bride


The reference to the ennui as being the initial and most pervasive symptom truly made me ponder on all my Jungian studies on Animus Possession (a key, life-changing reading on this topic for me still remains The Animus: The Spirit of Inner Truth in Women by the first generation Jungian psychologist Barbara Hannah), the novel Come Closer by Sara Gran, all the cinema productions on the topic of exorcism of women and, indeed, my most intimate experience of clearly hearing my Animus as a child, His "voice", His integration within me as an adult and the tangible experience of ennui, tedium, languour as a modern woman, grown and formed within the patriarchy, liberated although often lost, in crisis with her femininity.


The Animus card from the Supra Oracle deck

In the account of De Martino, the exorcism of Maria di Nardò exhibits the erotic tension stirred from ennui and unsated primitive desire, with the woman shamelessly simulating the sexual act.

The exorcism of Maria di Nardò, June 1959

The exorcism of Maria di Nardò, June 1959

Photo of an exorcism in front of St. Paul's chapel; it disturbingly reminds of Malena's scene when she is tortured by women and still lusted upon from distance by men

The initial missionary coital position embodies the status of submission of the woman to the man:

"For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man."

(St Paul, 1 Corinthians 11:7)




The prolonged silent disgust, the contempt, the blind female rage against the submissive St. Paul's system of role-playing made the Apulian tarantate feel like a failure should they not be able to "upgrade" to the roles of wives and mothers, while, in contrast, torments the modern woman as a furious desire to claim back her individuality, her importance as a person regardless of her reproductive system.


The passage from a horizontal to a vertical position, standing up, stomping her feet on the floor (symbolically killing the tarantula) and the dyonysian dance of the tarantella represent an opposition to the condition of passivity and a powerful movement towards successful healing.





The French anthropologists Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, in the landmark text The newly born woman, defined the ritual of Tarantismo as explicitly sexualised:

the erotic caressing, convulsing on the floor with the spread legs, the crawling and spasmodic movements, the loud climax followed by a warm resolutive languour all represent a surrogate of the orgasm.





I like to think that this personal Jungian interpretation of Tarantismo is further corroborated by a double reference to St. Paul, traditionally the patron of tarantate, the masculine Animus of the possessed.

In Apulian folklore, the tarantata is regarded as St. Paul's Bride.





The conservative spiritual "husband" is evoked during the exorcism to silence and calm down that primal feminine sexuality while his image and, sometimes, the "land of Malta" (reference to the myth of St. Paul shipwrecked in Malta repressing the venom of a viper), are apotropaic practical tools against the possession.


Saint Paul at Malta Grasping the Viper, Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1735

A Maltese saying highlighting the ambivalent Animus nature of St. Paul, as both saviour and oppressor or women:

"Ha l-velenu mil-lifgha, u tefghu f’ilsien in-nisa"


"He takes the poison from the mouth, and throws it into women's tongue"


Chapel of St. Paul in Galatina where exorcisms were usually performed; note the spider-shaped light

Dyonisian Collective Unconscious: Music as a Cure


Latrodectism, the scorching heat of the land, both the ignorance and moral code of working classes and an indelible Dyonisian unconscious pulsion across the region, formed the belief that only music would heal or, at least, soothe the status of pizzicata (being bitten).


The term Pizzica refers today to a genre of folk dance typical of Salento, part of the larger family of Tarantella; the etymology of the word derives from the Italian pizzicare which means to sting, to bite, to pinch.

An example of Pizzica below, "Pizzica di San Vito" by the musical group I Calanti:



The exorcism commences when the bitten starts perceiving the agonising ennui and some symptoms typical of latrodectism although is still psychologically alert enough to request the aid of the musicians who would play the pizzica.

The musical instruments of choice would be the tambourine, flute, panpipes, guitar and violin.

A modern tambourine used in the Pizzica

Through a musical effort that could last days, the musicians focus on finding the healing vibrations for the exorcism.

Upon hearing the music, the Tarantata let herself go in the most Dionysian dance, which usually mirrors the specific type of spider she has been bitten by.


As an academically educated musician myself, I found this research incredibly interesting, truly an iconic example of ethnomusicology; Ludovico Einaudi captured its deepest essence through the Taranta Project:



Furthermore, as a Jungian scholar and, according to DNA test, having a 25% Greek ancestry, made me absolutely fascinated by the parallels with ancient rites to Dyonysus in Apulia held by Messapians, an Iapygian tribe who inhabited Salento in classical antiquity.


Romans during the Decadence, Thomas Couture, 1847

The enduring memory of a Dyonisian past in Salento perfectly explains the ingrained collective belief in the healing and cathartic power of a musical exorcism (Pythagorean interpretation including references to Harmony of Spheres and activation of self-consciousness through music), the efficacy of ritual madness and the sexual components of the dance, with the tarantate reminiscing the Greek Bacchantes and Maenads.


Apart from the spiritual and unconscious symbolism, the musical exorcism had a scientific value (folk medicine) of stimulating a faster heartbeat, sweating and increasing the production of dopamine which naturally fights the post-bite poisoning.


Antidotum tarantulae, a curative musical score from Athanasius Kircher (c. 1660)

Although since De Martino's investigation, the phenomenon of Tarantismo seems to have met its demise, the primitive desire to lose ourselves in a sensual cathartic dance has been substituted by the festival La Notte Della Taranta which tours for the entire month of August across Salento, culminating in a grand finale concert in Melpignano.


Notte della Taranta, 2019

Tarantismo Today


Although I do not fluently speak it, I can understand the Apulian dialect (hyper concentration is needed when Papy and other Apulian family members speak with 10x velocity); I believe a short quote from the song Taranta (Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino) lyrics explains in a rather touching way the modern longing for a cathartic ritual of music and pleasure within the community which cures from any torment that possesses the heart:


"La gente sapia comu t’i curare

Ci lu tou male se chiama’ taranta

E osce ca li tempi hannu cangiati

Ci è ca po sentire lu miu dulore"


"The community knew how to seek a cure

If your sickness was caused by the tarantula;

But today, as times have changed,

Who can feel my pain?"



In these modern times of uncertainty, alienating disruption of communities and third spaces, increasing isolation, a crisis of both femininity and masculinity, do we still need Tarantismo as a primitive way to heal with and through the community, let go of all the rage and satiate the most primitive form of libido?




2020: a lady dancing the pizzica in a deserted square in Lecce during the isolation period

Maybe.

This summer or the next I shall go to Apulia, aiming to lose myself in at least one night of the Notte della Taranta festival, "tarantulating" until sunrise: planning needed ASAP.


"C'n g'na ma scì, sciamanin,

c'nan g'na ma scì, nan g'n si'm scin"


"If it is now the time, let's start immediately,

if not, stay put"

(Apulian dialect tong-twister)


21/01/2024: The publication of this article has been kindly triggered by a beautiful baroque concert I had the pleasure to enjoy yesterday evening, Italian Fire by the talented Musica Antica Rotherite.

I am quite glad the awareness about Tarantismo arrived in London at last:






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