28 aprile 2023
by Rita Lofano

Dance your worries away


The Taranta is popular. Whole nights are devoted to it. And in truth, this is how the days end up joyfully unraveled (to recover after the nights). Cathartic rite, say the intellectuals, and who can object? At most, the national Checco (Zalone), a guy who has understood everything about our time where "you can't say anything" (and he says everything).

Here, fortunately we are only reporters, so I lay out a few notes back and forth with my commute as a Pugliese living in Texas, back and forth between Rome and Houston, and then ... here we are, on the night of the Taranta. It is celebrated in summer, in Puglia, uniting peoples and generations in the squares, easing the turmoil of the soul and disrupting time. The origin of this tradition, which has fascinated scholars for centuries, is believed to be the bite of a spider (the tarantula) that caused pain, delirium and hysteria, prompting those who had been bitten (usually young women) to wriggle to the beat, to seek healing through music, to neutralize the effects of the poison by jumping and sweating. Some trace tarantism back to the Greek maenads (the female followers of Dionysus, the god of life force), others to the myth of Arachne (the weaver so skilled that she was the envy of Athena, who because of this turned her into a spider). Legends: the result is dancing.

Some trace tarantism back to the Greek maenads (the female followers of Dionysus, the god of life force), others to the myth of Arachne (the weaver so skilled that she was the envy of Athena, who because of this turned her into a spider). Legends: the result is dancing.

Lots of theories are bandied about, because the unbridled need to be anchored firmly to prevent them from sailing off too freely. "Those who are bitten by the tarantula derive maximum delight from one music or another," reads the Sertum papale de Venenis, written in 1362, probably the oldest document on tarantism. When the reading is finished, only the musician remains. And there is dancing. Without much ado. But we must continue to make a show of culture, otherwise we fall out of tune, so I am obliged to write that even Leonardo da Vinci mentions the "tarantula" in the Bestiary, dated around 1496 ("he bite of the tarantula fixes a man in his purpose, that is in what he was thinking about when he was bitten"), pointing out how on the anniversary of the bite, the "victim" is as if re-bitten, tarantulised. Painful, no doubt about it, but ultimately not the solution as far as what happens in the square (and at home), the fact that you dance non-stop, to exhaustion. Kind of like writing without knowing exactly at what line and how the article will end; basically, a kind of literary nightmare, where you are sitting at the typewriter and, as Hemingway said, you are sweating blood. Hemingway being unique, repetition is impossible, both physically and in terms of narrative.

And yet it is precisely the repetition that is somewhat the heart of the ritual that makes the myth live on, fueled perhaps by feminine wisdom (so they say, because let's be honest, if it really were madness, it would be more fun) as an expedient, as a liberating outlet from oppression, from the conditioning of a rigidly patriarchal society, a way out via the craziness that is "notoriously" female. And here again we are dealing with the sociologically correct and history as it should be read; but by poetic license, we could imagine that instead taranta originated as a dance of Amazonian rule, of the Kingdom of the Ladies (let me remind you that there was a time when abbesses ruled, here in Puglia) and certainly, in the home, men have never ruled.

The history, sure, we need to put it down in words, of course. So, in the 1960s, tarantism was still widespread in Salento, linked to the figure of St Paul (who survived a viper bite unscathed) with the healing celebrated on June 29, the Feast of St Paul. Once we have finished with the saints, asked for divine favor, there is the tribute to great art, so now we find the dazzle of the first movie (La taranta) by director Gianfranco Mingozzi, shot in 1961 in Galatina, with the advice of the greatest expert on the subject, anthropologist Ernesto De Martino. And thus even the scholarly aspect involving subjects with prefixes ethno- and anthro- is covered.

But what about literary flight? Where does that fit in? Ah, the question by the friend who whirls around and quickly falls down dizzy, “bitten” by the taranta, ha! “This is the land of Puglia and Salento, split by sun and solitude, where man walks on mastic trees and clay. Miserly even the water that falls from the sky, the animals beat with their hooves a time whose changes are invisible. The colors are white, black, rust. It is a land of animal and plant poisons: here in the heat emerges the spider of madness and absence, it creeps into the blood of delicate bodies that know only the dry labor of the earth, destroyer of the slightest peace of the day.” This is a snippet from the commentary by Salvatore Quasimodo, the voice and counterpoint of the documentary by Mingozzi. Let's face it, the pen of Truman Capote would not have produced lyrical lines full of rhetoric, but a cascade of sparking cheerfulness and distraction, a nice sans fin without all this suffering, we've had enough, we need some entertainment.

The miracle is renewed every year: in the summer in Salento, there is dancing, with loose hair and flowing skirts, with songs not only about love but also denouncing abuse and exploitation (of women). Lead singer of the 26th edition of La Notte della Taranta (200,000 danced in Melpignano last year) will be Fiorella Mannoia, who in 2016 (when another woman, Carmen Consoli, was conductor) sang two traditional songs from Salento: La Cardilleddha, criticizing the practice of raising girls of marriageable age in a gilded cage, and Lu Zinzale, a rumba metaphor for marriage in poverty. Let the curtain of merriment open! Please do not despair, the party is coming: get yourself in the taranta mood!

Sia benedettu ci fice lu munnu

Comu lu seppe bello a situare.

Fice la notte, poi fice lu giurnu

E po la fattu criscere e mancare,

fice lu mare tantu cupu e funnu

ogni vascello pozza navigare.

Fice lu sule e poi fice la luna

Poi fice l’occhi de la mia patrona.

Fice lu sole e poi fice ’na stella

Poi fice l’occhi toi cara mia bella.

Canzone tradizionale salentina

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