R.A.Stano – F.Palmirotta: Tarantism

V° Congresso Europeo di Musicoterapia.
Relazione Rocco A.Stano/Francesco Palmirotta
TARANTISM: ancient and natural philosophy of life

By using the term “Tarantism” or “Tarantulism”, we refer to a typical phenomenon located in the south-east of Italy, expecially in Salento. In this custom, sound is the only remedy capable to heal the bite of a spider called “Tarantula”.
According to popular believings the venomous powers of the spider caused vertigos, nausea and abdominal aches that occurred a few hours after the bite. So, the bite’s victims – called “tarantulated” – were reduced to a catathonic condition.
The only remedy for these suffering was the domiciliary sound therapy.
Victim’s relatives engaged some musicians – therapeutists in order to provide healing to the “tarantulated”.
Therapy was held inside the house or in courtyards, in a space prepared specifically for the ill person, adorned with coloured ribbons, basins full of water, aromatic herbs, mirrors and/or swords.
All these preparatives are similar to the “setting” concept of music-therapy, and lasted for entire days until the victim was completely healed, and this occurred always.
The main instrument of this custom was the frame-drum with rattles (better known as tambourine), accompanied by various melodic instruments such as flute, panpipes, guitar and violin.
This custom was so deep-rooted in Puglia’s and Salento’s culture (but we find traces of its presence in other regions of south Italy, in Abruzzo, and expecially in Sardegna where the custom had the name of “Argia”) that Catholic Church, unable to defeat it, had to allow the custom, entrusting St. Paolo – the saint of mystical ecstasy – as its patron. The Catholic Church also requested to people healed from these sufferings a pilgrimage to St. Paolo’s chapel in Galatina in order to pay thanks to the Saint (only author of the healing).
This resulted in the shifting of focus from the therapeutical effect of sound to miracle, but it also allowed this custom to survive till these days.
The originality and peculiarity of this phenomenon attracted philosophers, ethnologists, anthropologists and doctors; each one of them tried to go deep into the argument, and their attempt to give logic and rational explanations oriented the researches towards every possible connection of cause and effect, directing the attention to the real poisonous ness of the spider, to mental disorder, to socio-cultural ways of Puglia, to the real capacities of music, to sexual needs, to hysteria, and so on, without obtaining clear answers. Even when someone believed to have found them, he was soon contradicted by other contrasting proves. And yet the validity of the practice, leading quite always to recovery, was acknowledged in every research.
Various studies and researches about Tarantism demonstrated that Tarantula wasn’t related with illness, as its venom couldn’t cause that symptomatology related to mood illness as anxiety and depression, bounded to the relational sphere of subject: precluded eros, personal unsatisfactions, working stress, difficulties with social integration, and so on.
In my opinion all the researches and studies on tarantism did not succeed in giving sure answers because the argument has always been considered in its single parts – ill, spider, poison, therapy, hysteria, and so on – and not as a true community – patient, relatives, familiars and music players – aiming at well being; in my opinion the fact that this result was always achieved is the secret of the longevity of tarantism: the resolution of the case. Considering this aspect, Tarantism has to be promoted as a natural philosophy of life, purged by psychopathological and etiological prejudices that don’t give enough merit to the therapical event through sound, rhythm and dance, which is the purpose of modern music therapy.
A scholar who studied tarantism as a whole, without any prejudice, giving a very interesting interpretation of it, from the point of view of music therapy, was the ethnologist Ernesto De Martino in his masterpiece entitled “ Land of Remorse”. After a series of inquiries, he defines the phenomenon as follows “….Tarantism was first observed in the temporary ethnographic abstraction …at this stage the selected hermeneutic perspective of tarantism was verified as an institute and not as a disease. It was proved that the connection with forms of latrodectismo was occasional, and that the phenomenon could not be identified as psychic disorder. At the same time a well defined symbolic, culturally conditioned autonomy of the phenomenon was revealed, that is its mythical and ritual horizon of revival and reintegration in crucial moments of man’s life, particularly during the crisis of puberty with the conflicts and the precluded eros of the adolescent ”.
The mythical and ritual horizon of reintegration foreseen by De Martino is nothing but an evident trace of the ancient alliance between music and medicine that the ancient citharists-doctors of Puglia inherited from Pythagorean culture.
This Pythagorean message about healing music was so strong in Puglia that this therapeutical practice was granted in Tarentum even to those who couldn’t afford the treatment charges, just as told by Kirker in the XVII century “as a matter of fact the players of Tarentum … used to heal by music even in their capacity as public officers (that is salaried workers) to help the poors and relieve them from expenses.” (Musurgia)
So Tarantism would have its origins in the Pythagorean cuture which gave great importance to music as the life giving element of human being, and even as the regulator of the cosmos in the idea of Love – Soul – Harmony.
“ The Pythagoreans not only theorized the healing effectiveness of music, but were catharsis agents too. Pythagoras himself put into practice healing music and so did Archita Aristosseno and Clinia from Tarentum. People who were suffering from sciatica used to go to Aristosseno’s…..he was able to heal the excitement caused by wine too. As concerns the moral sphere, he thought that the aulos (ancient double flute) and the lyre were particularly efficacious in moderating loose morals and safeguarding the good government of the town. Then, in Pythagoreanism, the cathartic use of music concerned the pathos sphere in its threefold meaning, the psychic, the somatic and the moral one”. ( E. De Martino – La Terra del Rimorso)
According to the school of Ontosophia of Dr. Palmirotta this hypothesis gains a meaning of even more importance as there are – in the therapeutical practice leaded through art, music and philosophy (considered as mother of every science and art form) – very ancient origins and similarity with the Orphic-Pythagorean culture that spreaded through the entire Magna Grecia area, and particularly the city-symbol of this culture, Taranto, that in fact gives its name to Tarantism and to the Tarantella itself.
Pitagora philosopher, therapeutist, mathematic and astronomer, maintained that the entire creation was based on armonic proportion and that the way of knowledge and wisdom for humans went through the consciousness of those proportions.
To be at unison with universe with the armony of spheres.
Music was the main method in order to activate this self-consciousness and to obtain mind progress in humans. Thanks to music and all its components (rhythm, melos, dance, etc.) humans could reach the ecstatic condition that allowed them to vibrate at unison with gods.
Religious cults of the most ancient mythological gods,
Apollo, Demetra, Dionisio, Eros, Pan, etc., always contained various musical performances.
Gods themselves are often represented in ecstatic poses bringing musical instruments… for example Apollo holding the cetra, Demetra with the frame-drum, Pan with the panflute and Dionisio with the aulos.
The equation ecstasy-comfort is a foundament of theory-practice of Psychosomatic and Umanist Ontosophia.
The main dynamic that brings to the healing of the so-called “tarantulated” has to be found exactly in the reaching of ecstasy thank to sounds and rhythm made by musician conscious of doing this therapeutic practice.
We could in fact see a healthy-intuitive-primitive concept of intentionality as dynamic motivation of Psyche (individual and collective) in Love (eros) with the Living-Nature.
In the purpose of enforcing and proving in a scientific method these origins of Tarantism – not recognized by everyone – I started to visit museums and archaeological spots in order to research and collect images from the past which could prove this historical relation.
The results of this research, which is still being done, are amazing and the material collected till now – about one hundred diapositives – is exemplifying and corroborant the ontosophic idea of Eros and Psyche as engine of roots of western culture (and from this, of any authentically human culture).
Paradoxically these origins of Tarantism haven’t been thought of and recognized by many of those who studied the phenomenon, which so has been dated to medieval age, and even De Martino agrees to this thesis, despite the fact he has found some similarities with some rituals of the ancient Greece (oistros and aioresis) and an analogy so described “…about the musical cathartic we must remember how the pythagorean tradition of correspondence between musical harmony of cosmos, the musical harmony of soul and body and the music obtained with human instruments went in medieval age through De Musica of Boezio…” cause he hadn’t found literal testimonies regarding Tarantism dated before the 1000 a.d. (the most ancient document related to musical exorcism of those poisoned by tarantula’s bite is the papal Sertum De venenis) .
If De Martino had examined the collection of archaeological items of apulia’s pots of Iatta of Ruvo in Puglia, surely he would have found in the images what he hadn’t found in written text.
The research I’ve done with the ermeneutic perspective originated by humanistic and music-theraupeutic studies has leaded myself to research in the images, coming from the ancient past, those proves that could testify the hypothized origins of Tarantism.
It’s amazing in fact the big quantity of ritual and mythological scenes related to music and expecially to Eros and Dionisio’s myths represented on vascular exhibits found in Taranto and in numerous necropolis of the ancient Messaphic and Peucete cities such as Rudie, Roca, Egnatia, Mesagne Conversano, Bitonto, Altamura, Ruvo, and dated back mainly to the IV century b.C. , a period in which the Pytagorean Taranto of Archita made many commerce trades and cultural exchanges with the local populations.
The high number of ancient pottery laboratories, found in the archaeological spots, testifies that those pots was locally produced and that the choice of representing those myths wasn’t a case but it pointed customs and believings of the society of that period.
Malinowski’s theory affirms that myth and rituality related to that, represent a sort of “license” of social institutions that legitimates customs and believings of an entire society.
The relation is completed by the visualization of diapositives representing the above-mentioned images.
Rocco A. Stano

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