The Land of Remorse: A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism
“Traduttore, traditore” (Translator, betrayer): in English, this Italian proverb illustrates its own meaning. In a bare two words, assonance, alliteration, accent pattern, and nearly perfect symmetry are partially lost, although much is retained. Dorothy Zinn, translator of Ernesto De Martino’s La terra del rimorso (The land of remorse), faced a more severe problem with the mere four words of the title because “rimorso” means “re-bite” as well as “remorse.” Indeed, to be “bitten again” is the root metaphor of [End Page 104] “remorse.” Although “biting” is an essential element of tarantism—a cultural institution that revolves around the bite of the tarantula—I cannot think of one word or phrase in English that would convey both “remorse” and “re-bite.” The title is only the beginning of the translator’s dilemmas.
But where would we be without translators/betrayers? Starting with the Bible, remove all translations from your bookshelves. You may find that your personal, intellectual edifice crumbles without such betrayals. I began by talking about the ill-acknowledged, creative scholarly art of translation because I want to emphasize the efforts and determination of Zinn and Free Association Books. They deserve our thanks for publishing perhaps the most important work of Italian ethnography to date, unavailable to the English reader until now, although it was originally published in 1961.
Many people have heard of the tarantella and may think of it as an exotic Italian dance believed to cure the poisonous bite of the tarantula. They may also think of it as the product of ignorance, poverty, superstition, and passion— in short, stereotypical attributes of Southern Italians. De Martino shows, however, that the tarantula’s bite, within the institution of tarantism, was a symbolic bite and that most victims had never actually been bitten. Victims’ annual reoccurrence of symptoms (“re-bite”) evades biological explanation, as does the fact that most of the afflicted were young women, not agricultural workers, who had more contact with spiders.
Symptoms did imitate those of a spider bite in some ways—fever, nausea, vomiting, muscular pains, and stomach cramps—but the tarantate (those afflicted) also felt tired, depressed, even anguished. De Martino argues that these feelings expressed a crisis in the life of the victim, typically the crisis of sexual maturation, spurned or impossible love, a difficult home life, or poverty. The cure—a traditional musical therapy involving dance, colors, the community’s attention, and more—provided a catharsis. De Martino calls tarantism “an entire symbolic system ready to enter into action and operate its efficacy as resolution, with the society’s consensus and assistance” (p. 114). Tarantism “was not a ‘disease.’ Rather, it was an instrument of reintegration” (p. 32).
There are three major sections in the book. In part 1, “Salento 1959,” De Martino describes fieldwork in the summer of 1959 in the Salento (Apulia), the heartland of the tradition in Southern Italy. The ethnographic team included an anthropologist, a historian of religions, an ethnomusicologist, a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a photographer. They timed their fieldwork to coincide with the annual period when the tarantate re-experienced their symptoms—that is, when they were “rebitten.” This happened in late June, preceding the Saints Peter’s and Paul’s feast day, when the afflicted not only danced at home but also gathered at the Church of St. Paul in the town of Galantina for a ritual performance that had become part of the cure.
In part 2, “The Land of Remorse,” De Martino examines the surprisingly extensive literature on the subject of tarantism, written by clergymen, doctors, travelers, and others, from the sixteenth century on. The fieldwork results described in part 1 gain in significance as De Martino compares them with historical, semiethnographic accounts of tarantism. These accounts have obvious biases, but they also contain observations consistent with what De Martino saw in 1959, even though he felt that he was viewing “an episode in the death throes of tarantism” (p. 78). The fuller, earlier descriptions help make sense of the fragmented tradition of 1959. In this, De Martino is like the evolutionary folklorists who explained contemporary customs, or “survivals,” by reconstructing their fuller, richer historical reality, when they enjoyed mainstream status.
Part 3, “Historical Commentary,” identifies parallels to tarantism in the then-contemporary Mediterranean world (Sardinia and Spain) and beyond (Africa and the Caribbean). Even more compelling are the historical sources, beginning with ancient Greek religion. De Martino believes that tarantism proper crystallized in the medieval period, out of the conflict between Christianity and pagan traditions. In this section, De Martino goes beyond cultural evolution to show how the literate world’s explanations of tarantism from the sixteenth to the [End Page 105] twentieth centuries reflected changing paradigms in European thought, which in turn affected the tradition itself. This unsurpassed classic explores a profound folk creation. Anyone interested in folklore and religion, or in medicine and belief, will want to read it.