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.