The small town of Galatina has long been a pilgrimage centre for tarantate – women (mostly) who have been “possessed” by the mythical spider of Puglia. Tarantism dates back centuries in this region, with the earliest known accounts of it appearing in manuscripts from the fifteenth century. Victims believed that they had been bitten by the Italian tarantula, or the European black widow spider. After descending into a funk of symptoms that included vomiting and sweating, fear and delirium, depression and paranoia, the only cure was the rite of the tarantula, which involved trance-dancing to the local tarantella, or pizzica, for days on end. The pizzica musicians – typically a violinist, guitarist, accordion and tambourine player – would perform fast and feverishly, engaging the victim in a call-and-response ritual, until eventually they were released from their misery.
The cult has continued to fascinate Salentines and others into this century, with the myth and music being both preserved and reinvented. St Paul, patron saint of the tarantate, is revered and celebrated to this day in Galatina and surrounding villages. On June 29, the feast day of Sts Peter and Paul, musicians, dancers, tarantate and tourists gather at the chapel of St Paul near Galatina’s cathedral in the early hours (around 4.30 or 5am) to pay their respects before the crowds arrive for the official early morning Mass. Today, pizzica music is enjoying a boom in the Salento and elsewhere. It’s worth timing your visit to coincide with the all-night music festival The Night of the Tarantula (La Notte della Taranta; w lanottedellataranta.it), held in late August at Melpignano, between Galatina and Otranto. Dances with Spiders by social anthropologist Karen Lüdtke (Berghahn Books, 2009) is a very readable account of the history of the ritual, and the resurgence of pizzica in recent years.