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When Bitten by a Tarantula, Keep Calm and Dance On

This particular illustration of a tarantula does not look like the large, furry tarantulas from the theraphosidea family that we have come to know and love (or run screaming from, as the case may be).  It looks more like your friendly neighborhood wolf spider.  That’s because it is – the arachnid shown here is a lycosa tarantula, also also called the European tarantula, which is indeed a member of the lycosidae (wolf spider) family. This adorable arachnid takes its name from Taranto, a city in Southern Italy’s Puglia region that faces the Ionian Sea – Taranto; Tarantula.

One of the most interesting qualities of the lycosa tarantula is its association with tarantism, a type of dancing mania.  Tarantism, which has been documented in several parts of Europe but most often in southern Italy, was believed to be caused by the bite of the tarantula.  In 1695 Giorgio Baglivi, a seventeenth century Italian physician and scientist who studied with Marcello Malpighi and was physician to Popes Innocent XII and Clement XI, wrote a very informative treatise on the European tarantula and the effects of its bite.

Being bitten was a predictably miserable experience.  According to Baglivi, “The Life of Man is always a Scene of Unhappiness, but ‘tis yet unhappier when ‘tis teaz’d with Diseases, and unhappiest of all when plagu’d with Poison.  The Poison of the Tarantula affords us a deplorable of Instance of this Unhappiness.”  After being bitten, the victim would experience symptoms similar to those seen in “malignant Fevers” – chest pains, difficulty breathing, and an erratic pulse being typical.  If the victim was not cured death was a very real possibility; therefore, swift treatment was absolutely necessary. 

Treatment came in the form of dancing, the theory being that the physical exertion would sweat the poison out.  Baglivi tells us that after being bitten, victims of the tarantula would fall to the ground half-dead, deprived of their strength and senses, and might occasionally sigh piteously.  Once music began to be played, however, “the Patient begins to move his Fingers, Hands, Feet, and successively all the Parts of the Body; and as the Musick increases, their Motion is accelerated; and if he was lying upon the Ground, up he gets, (as in a Fury) falls a Dancing, Sighing, and into a thousand mimick Gestures.”  This went on for several hours, after which the patient would rest, and then resume dancing.  This usually went on for about four days; in rare cases it could last as long as six.

Bear this in mind the next time you're bitten by a spider.

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