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Dances with Spiders

Dances with Spiders: Crisis, Celebrity and Celebration in Southern Italy

Karen Lüdtke
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Dances with Spiders
    Book Description:

    For centuries, the rite of the tarantula was the only cure for those 'bitten' or 'possessed' by the mythic Apulian spider. Its victims had to dance to the local tarantella or 'pizzica' for days on end. Today, the pizzica has returned to the limelight, bringing to the forefront issues of performance, gender, identity and well-being. This book explores how and why the pizzica has boomed in the Salento and elsewhere and asks whether this current popu- larity has anything to do with the historic ritual of tarantism or with the intention of recovering well-being. While personal stories and experiences may confirm the latter, a vital shift has appeared in the Salento: from the confrontation of life crises to the vibrant promotion and celebration of a local sense of identity and celebrity.

    eISBN: 978-1-84545-875-1
    Subjects: Anthropology, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. [Illustration]
    (pp. x-x)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xiii-xv)
  6. [Map]
    (pp. xvi-xvi)
  7. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xvii)
  8. [Illustration]
    (pp. xviii-xviii)
  9. Introduction: Tarantula Territory
    (pp. 1-28)

    The Salentine peninsula is an arid, rocky, olive-tree terrain exposed to two main winds and seas. The Tramontana brings cool air across the mountain ranges of northern Italy, blowing the waves of the Ionian Sea onto the sandy shores of the western coast. On the other side, the Scirocco drives desert air from North Africa onto the largely rugged and steep cliffs of the eastern Adriatic coast. Throughout history, these winds and waves have made this far limb of Italian soil into a cultural crossroads at the heart of the Mediterranean, bringing crusaders, invaders, travellers and pilgrims in bygone times,...

  10. PART I. Past and Present Spider Webs

    • Chapter 1 Seeking St Paul: Historical and Contemporary Enactments
      (pp. 31-53)

      I follow Evelina and her family into the main church on the city’s central square, San Pietro piazza, to attend the first mass of this festival day, as I have ever since we first met in 1998, on the eve of St Paul’s feast day. It takes a little while to get there: on the square, Evelina’s son and his wife explain that Evelina had been fine this morning, but had gone through her ‘troubles’ earlier in the year.² As we stand and listen, others gather around to ask a question or two. Evelina’s family speaks openly about this without...

    • Chapter 2 Webs through Time: Origins and History of Tarantism
      (pp. 55-76)

      Once upon a time, Satan compelled a malicious woman to harm the Virgin Mary of Finisterrae. This woman captured a number of tarantulas and, knowing they were poisonous, placed them in the alms caskets of the Madonna’s church. Henceforth, all who came to leave a coin or two in devotion were treacherously bitten in their hands. Fear and anguish spread among the faithful and, suspecting witchcraft, many began to abandon the Madonna’s shrine. The Virgin Mary, in turn, spoke to the spiders: ‘You were born without malice, but an evil woman taught you to act in an immoral way. Now...

  11. PART II. The Spider’s Cult Today

    • Chapter 3 Curing Myths and Fictive Cures: Views of Believers and Sceptics
      (pp. 79-99)

      In its ancient, curative sense, tarantism has become extinct. Public rituals of music and dance, once widespread throughout the Salentine peninsula, Apulia and beyond, no longer exist. This fact is well-known and open to little doubt. And yet the belief system within which this ritual dance was wrapped has not dissolved into time immemorial. A minority of believers and a majority of sceptics reside side by side in the Salento today. This was sharply brought home to me one afternoon in August 1999 when I talked to two elderly gentlemen in the south-west of the Salento. One, a victim of...

    • Chapter 4 Ads and Antidotes: Celebrity versus Conservation
      (pp. 101-119)

      The group Aramirè takes a verbally militant approach, as the lyrics of their song ‘Mazzate Pesanti’ (Heavy Blows), performed to the pizzica’s beats, shows. Roberto Raheli, director of the group and author of this song, speaks out strongly against the commercialization and exploitation of the music, dance and territory of the Salento. The inside cover photo of this album shows an equally evocative and all too common scene in the Salento: a rubbish dump of abandoned washing machines, stoves and fridges on the outskirts of a village marked by a flag post sign reading ‘Divieto di scarico’ (No Waste Dumping)....

    • Chapter 5 Sensing Identities and Well-being: Personal Motivations and Experiences
      (pp. 121-136)

      ‘The success of the pizzica today is directly linked to the fact that tarantism no longer exists,’ says one middle-aged Salentine man, suggesting that show business grows on the negation of crises and cure.² One exits and the other enters on stage, and their appearances appear irreconcilable. Would tarantism, with its heavy baggage of inherent crises and suffering, make it to the headlines today if it were too close to the bone, if it were attributed more than a soap opera feel? The answer of a middle-aged woman, native to Galatina is clear: ‘Today this tradition has lost itself. It...

  12. PART III. From Ritual to Limelight

    • Chapter 6 Spider WoMen Transfixed: Negotiating Crisis and Cure
      (pp. 139-157)

      With his conspicuous sense of humour, Patruno (2003) takes a provocative stance, stressing that the focus on recovering well-being through the tarantula’s music and dance brought into relief in this study is highly ambiguous. This view questions whether and to what extent we may compare those transfixed by the tarantula spider in past and present times.

      In this context, anthropological studies on health and illness have increasingly challenged the contours and assumptions of biomedicine, revealing that ‘non-medical healing is empirical in the sense that it is often based on systematic observation and interpretation of symptoms, suffering, cause, effects and response...

    • Chapter 7 Tarantula Threads and Showbiz Airs: Fine-tuning Performances
      (pp. 159-187)

      A girl no more than ten years old writhes on a white sheet. A young woman circles its perimeter, waving a red scarf at her in an elegantly tamed bullfighting fashion. It is a mild summer night in September 1999 and a crowd has gathered in the town of Casarano for a concert of the Alla Bua. The musicians had announced the young dancer’s request to repeat a piece rehearsed for her school performance. One of them kneels close to the dancer on the tarmac sports pitch, the concert venue, beating a large, cymbal-less tambourine (a ‘shamanic drum’, as he...

    • Chapter 8 Spider WoMen Transformed: Celebrating Well-being
      (pp. 189-210)

      In July 2004 the Rhythm and Sticks Festival, celebrating percussion music from around the world, brought the pizzica to the South Bank Centre, one of London’s major arts and culture venues. The well-known Salentine group Ghetonia made its debut in the UK capital, performing its repertoire of songs in theGrikodialect and pieces featuring the rhythmic beat of the pizzica. The Purcell Room auditorium with its black-curtained walls contrasted sharply with the open-air settings of the Salento, but the concert was a huge success. The musicians interacted humorously with the audience and their pieces were enthusiastically received, with a...

  13. PART IV. Conclusion

    • Chapter 9 Dancing Beyond Spiders
      (pp. 213-219)

      In August 2005, together with my Salentine friend Patrizia, I arrive once more at Evelina’s homestead. Walking into the courtyard through the main gate, we see her standing, tiny and delicate, no more than one metre twenty tall, framed by a pointed archway leading to the stables. She greets us from a distance, with a firm, warm voice: ‘Ciao!’ and, recognizing who we are, raises one hand in a joking, chiding gesture. We kiss the cheeks of her beaming face in greeting. She is eighty-one years old now and her back curves at the shoulders, but her eyes and stride...

  14. Epilogue
    (pp. 220-220)

    On 29 June 2007, around 5.30 a.m., Evelina once again steps into St Paul’s chapel in Galatina. She gives a shrill cry, drops back into the prepared arms of her grandson and, as if taken over by shock waves, stamps her feet forcefully onto the ground. My stomach churns. She is lowered to the floor. The chapel is filled to the brim with onlookers. Outside, the pizzica circle, previously blocking the entrance, has stopped resounding across the square. All night long, musicians and dancers had (despite reprimands) selected this location to execute their modern-day vigil, following the concert on the...

  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 221-238)
  16. Filmography
    (pp. 239-240)
  17. Index
    (pp. 241-254)