Tarantism is an alleged, possibly deadly envenomation
Envenomation is the process by which venom is injected into some animal by the bite of a venomous animal. Many kinds of animals, including mammals , reptiles , spiders , insects , employ venom for hunting and for self defense...

, popularly believed to result from the bite of a kind of wolf spider
Wolf spider
Wolf spiders are members of the family Lycosidae, from the Ancient Greek word "" meaning "wolf". They are robust and agile hunters with good eyesight. They live mostly solitary lives and hunt alone. Some are opportunistic hunters pouncing upon prey as they find it or even chasing it over short...

 called a "tarantula" (Lycosa tarantula
Lycosa tarantula
The tarantula wolf spider or just tarantula is a wolf spider found in southern Europe, especially in Italy and near the city of Taranto...

). (These spiders are different from the broad class of spiders called "Tarantula
Tarantulas comprise a group of often hairy and often very large arachnids belonging to the family Theraphosidae, of which approximately 900 species have been identified. Some members of the same Suborder may also be called "tarantulas" in the common parlance. This article will restrict itself to...



It was originally described in the eleventh century.

The condition was common in southern Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

 during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There were strong suggestions that there is no organic cause for the heightened excitability and restlessness
Anxiety is a psychological and physiological state characterized by somatic, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral components. The root meaning of the word anxiety is 'to vex or trouble'; in either presence or absence of psychological stress, anxiety can create feelings of fear, worry, uneasiness,...

 that gripped the victims. The stated belief of the time was that victims needed to engage in frenzied dancing to prevent death
Death is the permanent termination of the biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include old age, predation, malnutrition, disease, and accidents or trauma resulting in terminal injury....

 from tarantism. Supposedly a particular kind of dance, called the tarantella
The term tarantella groups a number of different southern Italian couple folk dances characterized by a fast upbeat tempo, usually in 6/8 time , accompanied by tambourines. It is among the most recognized of traditional Italian music. The specific dance name varies with every region, for instance...

, evolved from this therapy
This is a list of types of therapy .* Adventure therapy* Animal-assisted therapy* Aquatic therapy* Aromatherapy* Art and dementia* Art therapy* Authentic Movement* Behavioral therapy* Bibliotherapy* Buteyko Method* Chemotherapy...

"The dancing is placed under the sign of Saint Paul, whose chapel serves as a "theater" for the tarantulees' public meetings. The spider seems constantly interchangeable with Saint Paul; the female tarantulees dress as "brides of Saint Paul".
As a climax, "the tarantulees, after having danced for a long time, meet together in the chapel of Saint Paul and communally attain the paroxysm of their trance, ... "... the general and desperate agitation was dominated by the stylized cry of the tarantulees, the 'crisis cry', an ahiii uttered with various modulations"".

Interpretation and controversy

It has been suggested that the whole business was a deceit to evade proscriptions against dancing, just like in Footloose. John Compton
John Compton
Sir John George Melvin Compton, KBE, PC was the first, fifth and eighth Prime Minister of Saint Lucia in 1979, from 1982 to 1996, and from 2006 until his death. Compton, who previously led Saint Lucia under British rule from 1964 to 1979, was the country's first leader when it became independent...

 proposed that ancient Bacchanalian rite
A rite is an established, ceremonious, usually religious act. Rites in this sense fall into three major categories:* rites of passage, generally changing an individual's social status, such as marriage, baptism, or graduation....

s that had been suppressed by the Roman Senate
Roman Senate
The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

 in 186 BC
186 BC
Year 186 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Albinus and Philippus...

 went underground, reappearing under the guise of emergency therapy for bite victims.

The phenomenon of tarantism is consistent with mass psychogenic illness
Mass Psychogenic Illness
Mass psychogenic illness , also called mass sociogenic illness, is “the rapid spread of illness signs and symptoms affecting members of a cohesive group, originating from a nervous system disturbance involving excitation, loss or alteration of function, whereby physical complaints that are...


Although the popular belief persists that tarantism results from a spider bite, it remains scientifically unsubstantiated. Donaldson, Cavanagh, and Rankin (1997) conclude that the actual cause or causes of tarantism remain unknown.

Cultural references

Many historical and cultural references are associated with this disease and the ensuing "cure" - the tarantella
The term tarantella groups a number of different southern Italian couple folk dances characterized by a fast upbeat tempo, usually in 6/8 time , accompanied by tambourines. It is among the most recognized of traditional Italian music. The specific dance name varies with every region, for instance...

. It is, for example, a key image in Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen was a major 19th-century Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet. He is often referred to as "the father of prose drama" and is one of the founders of Modernism in the theatre...

's A Doll's House
A Doll's House
A Doll's House is a three-act play in prose by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It premièred at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 21 December 1879, having been published earlier that month....

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