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Dance of the Spider Women: A Mystical Tradition in a Forgotten Corner of Italy

By Laura Fraser

May 6, 2020

From the July/August 2010 issue

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"Pizzica pizzica" translates to "bitten bitten." 

Photo by Lorenzo Pesce

"Pizzica pizzica" translates to "bitten bitten." 

In Salento, pizzica music is a passionate source of regional pride.

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The road that runs down through Salento, a region in the heel of Italy’s boot, is almost completely deserted at night. I am driving to a folk concert with two Italian friends, and we pass only a few sleepy villages, many gnarled olive trees, and scarcely another car along the way. When we reach the town of Alessano, situated a few kilometers from the point where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet at the tip of the peninsula, we park on a narrow cobblestone street. No one is out, and the air is dry and hot. The place seems scrubbed bare of inhabitants. We trudge up a hill, round a corner, and then—a blaze of light. Before us, the central piazza is packed with thousands of people. The crowd stretches from the town’s ornate neo-Gothic church to the clock tower, everyone staring up at the brightly lit stage.

A church made of pietra leccese, the region’s ubiquitous pale stone; pizzica singer Enza Pagliara.

Singer Enza Pagliara, the evening’s main act, is just warming up. Fernando Bevilacqua, a local photographer who has brought my friend Giovanna and me here, elbows his way to the front of the crowd, sidling past elderly signoras in cardigans and pumps, scruffy kids with dreadlocks, men with slick black hair and neat red pants, and young women in diaphanous skirts and eggplant-tinted curls. The crowd is di tutti i colori, as they say in Italian, all types and all colors. Giovanna, who is short, climbs the step of a fountain to get a better view.

A few strums of guitar, several staccato taps on a tambourine, some mournful cello sawing, and Pagliara steps up to the microphone, reaching wide with her long arms as if to embrace the entire crowd. The sound that emerges from her mouth isn’t like blues or jazz or opera or anything else I’ve ever heard. It’s an Arab-tinged wail of close harmonies and dissonance, full of longing, lust, and lament. Her clear voice carries over the thousands of upturned faces, and the song seems as ancient as the limestone buildings of Alessano.

Maybe it is. When I tell Bevilacqua I can’t understand a word, even though I speak Italian, he explains the lyrics are in Salentino and Griko, dialects spoken here that date back to the Greeks who colonized the area long before the Romans arrived. Pagliara sings hymns to endurance, plaintive tunes for gathering wheat under a beating sun; come-hither courtship dialogues with back-and-forth verses between voice and instruments; and pieces with polyphonic overtones that sound like Balkan ballads. Pagliara invites her elderly aunts and uncle on stage to sing a few traditional lullabies and other songs from their childhoods. The crowd is swaying, entranced by the mystical music, which is called pizzica.

“It’s impossible not to dance, no?”

Then a frenetic song starts up, and Bevilacqua whispers that this is a pizzica pizzica, which translates to “bitten bitten.” The tambourine, accordion, and cello pick up speed, and Pagliara sings faster and faster. The words are coming so quickly now, they’re just sounds. Pagliara is dancing so fast that her long black hair swishes wildly and her feet barely touch the stage. The earth vibrates with thousands of feet pounding the cobblestones in the square. Bevilacqua glances at me and says, “It’s impossible not to dance, no?” and I realize my feet are tapping, too. I give in to the rhythm and start twirling with the music. The crowd in the square breaks into small circles as people stomp, spin, and pair off for impromptu courtship dances. The pace is dizzying; no one can resist the song’s contagious energy.

Tonight, the mood is celebratory, the antithesis of pizzica’s seemingly tortured beginnings. Legend has it that in the distant past, musicians played these songs when someone, usually a woman, had been bitten by a tarantula spider. Contemporary pizzica, while paying homage to the customs of the past, represents a reawakening and reclaiming of the region’s culture, turning something morose into a joyous event.

When the concert is over, many in the crowd continue playing tambourines, their bodies shaking and feet tapping, and we wander amid the stalls that sell CDs, instruments, jugs of local wine, and t-shirts emblazoned with big black spiders. The people around us keep dancing until we straggle back to the car at two in the morning.

I’m here in Salento in the middle of a scorching August for the Notte della Taranta, or Nights of the Tarantula, a weeklong festival that celebrates the tarantella, the famous folk music and dance of southern Italy. Concerts are slated for almost every night in different town squares throughout the region. Pizzica is the Salentine variant of tarantella, and its homeland, the southernmost part of Puglia, is still relatively untouched by tourism. It feels like the Italian countryside foreigners visited forty years ago. During the day, the villages are deserted, motionless, and oppressively hot; during the cooler evenings, the shops open, and people slink out as if from under rocks.

I’ve come because I’m fascinated with Salento’s myth of the tarantula, in which women throughout history have claimed they’d been bitten by a tarantula, possessed, perhaps in order to escape their otherwise dreary lives. I’d seen images of these women in a dramatic film, Pizzicata, and heard it mentioned among my Italian friends. I wanted to understand more about this culture—and its music, which has made a decided comeback.

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Since antiquity, and until only a couple of decades ago, life in Salento was desperate, particularly for women, who had little say in their destinies. Occasionally someone would sink inward, glassy-eyed, and begin writhing on the floor, delirious. Neighbors would whisper that she’d been bitten by the tarantula, and would circle around her playing instruments. The spider’s poison would cause her to convulse and become manic. The afflicted tarantata would eventually rise up and dance in circles, stomping on the ground to the music (particularly the tambourine), as if trying to kill a spider, until the episode subsided. The ritual lasted, on and off, for up to three days, and the symptoms allegedly returned every year in June around the feast day of San Paolo (Saint Paul), who protects against venomous animals.

Today, Salento is better known for its craggy coves and Baroque architecture than for its tarantate, who—like the poisonous spiders that supposedly caused their frenzied state—have mostly died off. Yet on my first trip to Salento, three years ago, I noticed signs of those spiders everywhere. Faded posters of tarantulas were tacked up on village walls, advertising traditional pizzica music concerts. Happy-looking spiders beckoned from highway billboards, encouraging tourism in the area.

How had Salento transformed the tarantula—a grim symbol from its past—into a cheerful icon celebrating the region and its music?

To find out, I had to start with history. In the 1950s, a handful of anthropologists and ethnomusicologists started recording pizzica music. Alan Lomax, for instance—famous for discovering Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and other American roots musicians—amassed a collection of traditional Salentino folk songs. Another researcher, anthropologist Luigi Chiriatti, recorded music and oral histories in the early 1970s and has written several books on tarantismo.

After the concert in Alessano, I call Chiriatti, and he invites me over to his house in a town near Melpignano. His living room walls are covered with relics from his long career in anthropology: masks, ancient musical instruments, and black-and-white photos of Salento’s past.

“Through the music, we started seeing the territory in a truly different way, rediscovering the land, the rocks, the churches, the piazzas, and the sea."

Chiriatti, a modest man in his seventies, is energetic and impassioned when talking about his region’s deepest traditions, and we chat for hours about the history of the tarantula rites, how they came to Salento (probably from the Greek Dionysian cult), and the varieties of stories he has collected from tarantate over the years. What puzzles me, I tell him, is how pizzica, which he says by the 1980s was mostly forgotten or considered hillbilly music, is packing town squares in 2009.

“We had to revisit what identifies us as Salentini,” he says. Previously, most associations with Salento had been negative. “It had been considered a land of remorse, a land from which people emigrated because there was no work, a land with no partisan heroes—a land that had been silenced and forgotten.”

But when ethnomusicologists began rediscovering the songs and musicians began playing them, Salentini realized that pizzica music and dance are what makes their territory unique. Their view of the music—which is, at its heart, upbeat in sound—began to take on a positive cast, and this affected the way Salentini saw everything about their culture. “Through the music, we started seeing the territory in a truly different way, rediscovering the land, the rocks, the churches, the piazzas, and the sea,” Chiriatti says. The music fits the place.

In the 1990s, a small underground pizzica scene started to percolate, partly boosted by Pizzicata, a 1995 neorealist film that included interviews and sessions with traditional Salentine musicians. The film recounts the story of one tarantata, a young contadina (peasant woman) who was “bitten” by a tarantula and fell ill after her lover was killed and she was promised to his murderer.

Local musicians, including Bevilacqua—the photographer who was my guide in Alessano—started organizing small concerts and booking gigs throughout Europe. In 1997, some young administrators of Salento’s small towns recognized the modern appeal of the spider and decided to use pizzica to promote regional identity, staging the first Notte della Taranta. The event has grown exponentially ever since, bringing tens of thousands of tourists to the area and making Salento synonymous with pizzica, the way Argentina means tango.

“By freeing the music from associations with the spider, the ritual, and religion, we’ve turned something negative into something profoundly positive,” Chiriatti tells me.

A classic Salentine building in the town of Muro Leccese; the harbor at Otranto.

On the day before the final concert of the week in Melpignano, a town of about 2,000 people, I find my way to the ruins of the sixteenth century Carmine church. A stage has been built there, and musicians are preparing for a dress rehearsal. Enza Pagliara sits on the grass, pressing a sweating bottle of water to her face to stay cool in the hundred-degree heat. I sit down next to her and ask about pizzica’s tarantula-related origins.

Pagliara, forty-one, who has studied tarantismo and pizzica for more than twenty years, says that most people think the tarantulas were a myth. In 1959, the anthropologist Ernesto De Martino set out with an interdisciplinary team of physicians and psychologists to study thirty-five women afflicted with tarantismo. His work was published in English as The Land of Remorse (and “remorse” in Italian has a double meaning: re-bitten). Today, Pagliara says, most Salentini believe that the tarantula bite was an excuse, a way for people in the villages to express rage, repressed eroticism, and frustration.

“It was a territory that was extremely poor,” Pagliara says. “People worked like serfs, and until fifty years ago, the padrone even had the diritto della prima notte,” meaning the local landowner had the right to sleep with a bride first on her wedding night. “For women”—she makes a strangling gesture around her throat—“it was untenable, and the tarantula was the way to let loose of everything, a form of therapy before psychotherapy.”

"I can’t help it; I feel like I have the living soul of the music inside me, the soul of the land.”

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Pagliara grew up singing the songs with her aunts. She began recording, she says, because “I knew there was something precious in this music.” She went to early pizzica gatherings in the ’90s and learned to dance and play the tambourine. When she began to record her relatives, at first they were ashamed and wanted to sing songs from the radio instead. “Their songs have a real sense of this territory from the older days. They’re the sound of the land, and I’ve wanted to keep them alive.”

Pagliara performs at large concerts, but also at small pizzerias and at parties, sometimes until five in the morning. “I don’t know how to sing pop or anything else,” she says. “Our oldest music was therapy for the tarantata, and so maybe I am a little crazy, because I have to sing. I need it for myself more than anything. I can’t help it; I feel like I have the living soul of the music inside me, the soul of the land.”

At the final concert of the Notte della Taranta, held yearly in Melpignano, revelers of all ages enjoy live music.

I hear similar sentiments from other Salentini I talk to. The tradition is in their blood. Before the last show, I meet Giorgio de Giuseppe, who dances to pizzica almost nightly with small gatherings of musicians. We sit in a café outside a gas station in a small village near Otranto. De Giuseppe is a slight, fit retiree of fifty-six who worked as a jail guard. He tells me that his father, an illiterate contadino (peasant), was one of the rare men bitten by the tarantula, before Giorgio was born. His father never felt the bite, but became vague and depressed. Then, every year on June 29, he turned manic. The family took him to the church of Saints Peter and Paul in the village of Galatina to join the other tarantate in the region, who likewise became agitated on that day and went there to be calmed. For the rest of his life, even when he walked with a cane, his father had to dance whenever he heard a tambourine. Now de Giuseppe says he’s inherited that urge. “A little bit of the spider’s venom has been transmitted to my blood,” he says. “I don’t fall to the ground and have convulsions, but I need to dance when I hear the tambourine.”

De Giuseppe’s belief in the spider venom is unshakeable. “Why,” I ask, “did the spiders mainly bite women?”

“They wore skirts—that made it easy to get bitten,” he explains.

“Do you think that saying you were bitten by a spider might have been a way for people who were extremely stressato to let off some steam?” I ask. “Maybe the spiders weren’t even poisonous. I mean, no one else in Italy went pazzo (crazy) after being bitten by a spider.”

De Giuseppe becomes agitated. “Look, Laura,” he says, tapping the table. “There are no more spiders because of pesticides, and so there are no more tarantate. If you go looking for a spider, you can’t find one. They’re extinct.”

The lure of pizzica draws in festivalgoers from all over Italy and the world. Concerts last well into the night, and when a pizzica pizzica starts up, the urge to dance is irrepressible.

On the final night of the Notte della Taranta, Melpignano is transformed into a huge fairground with food vendors, camping tents, craft stalls, and remote video screens for dancers who want more space. De Giuseppe the dancer is there, peddling hundreds of little tambourines to tourists. Backstage, I pause to talk to Giuseppe Spedicato, thirty-three, the acoustic bass player in Pagliara’s band. Spedicato tells me he became interested in pizzica while studying ethnomusicology in Lecce, the largest city in the region. I ask him why tens of thousands of people are gathering outside right now, from all over Italy, and he says there’s a huge interest in traditional music now among his generation; these days it’s cool.

“You go to anyone’s house, or to a party, and people will make a circle and play pizzica and dance,” he says. People love the music because it’s so rhythmic and hypnotizing. “There are moments when the tambourine and the voice send people into a trance. It’s a way of getting outside yourself.” So, too, there’s a fascination with the music’s history. “Pizzica is popular partly because of the magic associated with it,” he says. “The spider, the poison, the music as an antidote—we’ve got a collective infatuation.”

“The spider, the poison, the music as an antidote—we’ve got a collective infatuation.”

The concert begins at dusk, and soon the crowd swells to more than 100,000 people, as far as I can see, all swaying together in front of the moonlit monastery ruins. Band after band takes the stage, starting with traditional acoustic music, and heading toward rock. Special guest stars—world musicians from other countries—join the Orchestra Notte della Taranta in compulsively danceable collaborations. The audience is transported, moving together as though under a spell. My friend Giovanna is here, along with several of her friends who’ve traveled all the way from Bologna in the north for the concert, which they say they wouldn’t miss. Mesmerized by the music, the audience speeds up as the hour gets later and later.

When a man taps me on the shoulder and tells me I’ve been “bitten by the tarantula,” I check my watch and notice I’ve been at the concert for seven hours straight, most of it dancing, packed into a crowd. The concert finishes around four in the morning, and it feels as though it just got started.

Afterward, Giovanna and I walk the streets of Melpignano as the wine sellers pack up, the jewelry makers take down their stalls, and the crowds disperse to the far corners of Italy. In the main square, dancers twirl and stomp on imaginary spiders. One by one, they drop off, a few curling up on the stone steps of San Giorgio church. As they finally sleep, exhausted, the sky grows light and the pale limestone glows a faint pink, already beginning to warm.

Laura Fraser is a San Francisco–based journalist and author whose articles have been featured in the New York Times, Mother Jones, and Vogue. She is the author of the memoir All Over the Map.

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