‘Beside the Adriatic sea, near Taranto, are found certain small animals, called tarantulas, which have perhaps taken their name from the place. ... Others call them spiders: but they are very different, since they are almost black in colour, and have only three feet on either side, and the male is not distinguished from the female... . Tarantulas bite more in summer, because their poison is then more intense; in the winter they withdraw into holes in the earth, lest their heat be extinguished by the cold weather. In summer they have a greater opportunity for biting, when the peasants are carrying the crops which they gather. Their bites or pricks have widely differing effects: some people sing, some dance, some sleep, some get palpitations, and of one peasant, it was said that after being bitten he evermore wanted to give orders and be in charge. Their poison is very earthy and torrid. From a bite or a prick, a small portion of it can penetrate the surface of the skin, where the motive and sensitive nerves are, although their teeth are too small to go as deep as the veins; and then the poison is carried through the nerves (or a branch of them) to the brain. There, because of its earthiness, it sits, and binds the thoughts which relate to the parts of the body which give rise to motion or sensitivity. It also affects the imagination and memory: for the thoughts are bound by fetters of poison, and the memory is compelled to continue in the form in which it was.’
Thus was the tarantula, and the phenomenon of tarantism, conceived in the sixteenth century, in this case by Ferdinando Ponzetti (1444-1527), author of the Libellus de venenis (‘On poisons’, 1521). He prescribed a cure of ten grains of mastic, taken with milk, the watery, loosening and warming effect of which would counteract the sludgy nature of the poison. And he also noted in passing that ‘sufferers are sometimes cured by dancing: because it dissipates the poison, or expels it in sweat.’
In later works, this connection between the tarantula, its victim, and music became more and more prominent. While a number of Renaissance scholars contributed to this trend, the central role belongs to Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), ‘the last man who knew everything’ as a recent work entitled him. Kircher was a prodigious polymath who composed vast tomes on many subjects, including Egyptology and hieroglyphs, the construction of Noah’s Ark, subterranean tunnels and volcanoes, and acoustics. Kircher regarded tarantism as a sort of magnetism; at this time, magnetism was much in vogue, and Kircher argued that everything – the action of the stars and planets, plants, even love – was due to different types of magnetism. The tarantula had its own magnetism, which manifested itself in a wondrous sympathy with music; music, therefore, was the only effective cure for tarantula poisoning. Kircher’s account of this sympathy was to become classic, and was repeated by a number of writers in the seventeenth century. Soon after its composition it was translated into English by Walter Charleton and included in his Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana (1654).
Kircher described how musical instruments caused movements in the air, which entered the head through the ear, and passed into the spiritus (a substance mediating between the soul and the body). The spiritus conveyed these harmonic movements to the muscles; in the muscles, the movements encountered the lurking poison and made it start to itch, which made the body twitch and jump and eventually break out into a dance. This in turn created heat, which relaxed the body and opened the pores, out of which the poison evaporated.
The practicalities of the cure, however, were rather more complex than this idealized theoretical sketch. In the first place the sort of music to which the victim would respond depended on his or her complexion and temperament. Some people were sluggish and melancholic, and would respond only to loud banging or noisy instruments, and not to strings; for others, strings were quite sufficient. The cure could be disturbing for all concerned, including the neighbours: ‘a certain Girl of Tarentum, being there bitten by a Tarantula, and affected with the stupendious symptome of Tarantism, could never be excited to dance by any sounds, but those of Guns, Alarms beaten upon Drums, Charges and Triumphs sounded in Trumpets, and other military musick.’ For others, however, the ‘Harmony of Lutes, Vials, Virginals, Guitarrs, Tiorbas, and other stringed Instruments’ was sufficient (Charleton, Physiologia, p.369).
(Page from Charleton's Physiologia. Source: EEBO.)
In the second place – and this, for Kircher and indeed for most seventeenth-century writers who discussed the matter, was cause for great astonishment – just as the music evoked a sympathetic reaction in the human victim, so it did in the tarantula; and just as the human victim danced in response to a certain type of music, so too did the tarantula. Kircher relates an account of an experiment, in which a tarantula was placed on a stalk floating in water, and a lute player summoned. The playing of the lute initially had no effect, until it hit upon the particular sound which was appropriate to that particular tarantula, at which point the creature began to wave its legs and shudder its body in time to the music, only stopping when the music stopped. Thus it is also recounted that in Taranto, when musicians are called to attend a tarantula bite scene, they first ask the victim where the event occurred, and what colour tarantula it was. They then go to the indicated place, catch a tarantula of the sort described by the patient, and ‘instantly fall to their instruments, and play over whole sets of Lessons one after another’ until it starts dancing. At this point they can return home, safe in the knowledge of how to treat the patient, a task in which they ‘seldom or never fail’ (Charleton, p.370).
This account, synthesized by Kircher and popularized by those who followed him, remained standard throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century. As Thomas Willis puts it, in his Essay of the Pathology of the Brain (1681):
‘Truly, musick doth easily carry men sound and sober, whether they will or no, or thinking of another thing, into actions answerable to the sound of the harmony; that presently the standers by, at the first striking up of the fiddle, begin to move their hands and feet, and can scarce, nay are not able to contain themselves from dancing: Let none therefore wonder, that in men bitten by the Tarantula, when the animal spirits being moved, as it were with goads, they are compelled to leap forth, and wander about hither and thither willingly, if they are excited to dancing and composed measures, at the stroke of an harp, so that as in these distempers, the spirit of the music, as it were inchanting the outrageous spirits, and in some measure governing, and changing their convulsive motions, serves instead of an antidote: for that the animal spirits, being very much, and for a long while exercised, after this manner, wholly shake off the Elastic Copula, contracted by the poyson, or otherwise; and they being very much wearied, at length rest from that madness, or its incitation.’
(The classic modern work on tarantism, which also contains a good account of medieval and Renaissance discussions, is Ernesto De Martino's The Land of Remorse:A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism, originally published in Italian in 1961 and now available in an English tr. by D. L. Zinn, London: Free Association, 2005. See also G. Tomlinson, Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others, University of Chicago Press 1993.)