Today I learned some strange things and I want to share them with you

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  1. The city of Taranto, in southern Italy, gives us three English words: tarantism, tarantella, and tarantula. All are connected to each other through a strange dancing ritual.

    Since at least the 16th century, southern Italy has been home to reports of outbursts of frenzied dancing. Victims became gripped by a restlessness and a fever, and were moved to dance non-stop for hours. The condition was called tarantism – our first Taranto-derived word.

    The dancing was seemingly both a symptom and a cure of the condition; without music and dance, the 19th-century writer Francesco Cancellieri wrote, a victim of tarantism might die:

    “When one is in the hold of this ill-wished beast, one has a hundred different feelings at a time. One cries, dances, vomits, trembles, laughs, pales, cries, faints, and one will suffer great pain, and finally after a few days, if unaided, you die. Sweat and antidotes relieve the sick, but the sovereign and the only remedy is Music.”

    This perception that dancing would cure the illness led to the development of a whole musical form that complements the frenzy: our second word, the tarantella. Over time it evolved from a folk dance into a classical form, and tarantellas were composed by Liszt and Chopin, among others.

    Nobody knows the true source of the hysteria. Some have suggest it’s a form of mass psychosis, or a disease invented to provide cover for a suppressed pagan religious ritual. But for many centuries the most common belief was that it was the result of being bitten by the local wolf spider, Lycosa tarantula. It’s from that spider’s name we get our third Taranto-related word, the generic term “tarantula” – now used to refer to any large spider.

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    1. 2022
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  2. Japanese folklore has the idea of yōkai, spirits whose behaviour can be benevolent, merely mischievous, or actively harmful to humans. These spirits reside in all things: man-made objects, scenery, and natural phenomena like the wind.

    One specific kind of yōkai are the tsukumogami, human-made tools that have become inhabited by a shape-shifting spirit. One example is the boroboroton, bedding that comes to life at night and strangles its sleeping inhabitant, perhaps in revenge for the sleeper failing to look after the bedding properly.

    Katsushika Hokusai’s The Lantern Ghost depicts a tsukumogami spirit inhabiting a lantern.

    All objects contain spirits, but it’s believed that an object must be 100 years old before its spirit can become animated and sentient. For that reason, it’s common in Japanese culture to dispose of an object when it’s 99 years old, to avoid it developing a tsukumogami. Objects are also considered more likely to gain a malevolent spirit if they’ve been treated badly or discarded; for that reason, ceremonies are often performed to console broken objects, to decrease the chances of the object’s spirit becoming angry.

    It’s an example of a beautiful and rich storytelling tradition that’s evolved over the centuries, but also one that serves a useful purpose. Perhaps stories of the tsukumogami are at the root of the (admittedly somewhat stereotypical) Japanese reverence for objects and zeal for repairing and maintaining them.

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    Read more posts from:

    1. 2022
    2. December 2022