tammurriata pompei
Above: A mosaic from Pompeii which appears to depict the tammurriata being played and danced in Antiquity. 

“The arms are held in front of the body with the elbows outward, and the movements that they make are basically two, inspired by agricultural activities. The first is a downwards gesture of sowing. The second is an upwards gesture that resembles the movements made when collecting fruit from trees. The steps of the tammurriata follow the rhythm of the drums and are characterized by mirrored movement of the feet, side-to-side, back and forth, or toe-to-heel of the two dancers. All in all, the dancers move in circles.” – Arianna Sacco

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Dancing as Life

“Life causes motion, and motion can give evidence of life. This becomes: ‘Life causes motion, hence motion is evidence of life.’ Humans can see that the motions of work have a direct purpose, but motion for motion’s sake is something else–‘dance’ broadly taken. (In the languages of eastern Europe, the same word often means both ‘dance’ and ‘play,’ and other nondirect motions like swinging, tickling, and laughing may fall in this basket. Medieval western Europeans, too, called the nocturnal dancing and feasting of the spirits the game, its goal being an abundance of crops called luck.) Supernatural powers, of course, need not work to survive; hence divine life simply ‘dances’ and in this very act of dancing is thought to create life. …

“The spirits that villagers sought to influence were the spirits of the dead. But different categories of dead existed, with different powers and different connections to the living.

“First, one’s dead ancestors. Since they had begotten the living, one could reasonably appeal to them to help their offspring survive. And because these ancestors had been buried in the ground (where their spirits were assumed to pass much of their time), presumably they could help the seeds down there–the newly sown crops–to germinate and grow. Basic to this belief is the notion of resurrection: the seed seems dead, it is buried, it rises to produce new seed. The eternal cycle of life.

“Second were the spirits of the dead of other villages. These were particularly dangerous because they would be busy sequestering all the existing abundance for their offspring. So ritual dancers, from the Balkans to Britain, marked out territories and fought intruding bands, to the death if necessary.

“Finally, there existed a very special group: young women born into the clan who had died before having any children–hence not ancestors of the living but still belonging to the community. Most important, they had not used their natural store of fertility. So, people reasoned, if we’re especially nice to them, they might bestow that unused fertility on us. Because unmarried girls in the living community spent much of their time singing and dancing together, people inferred by analogy that the spirits of dead girls would likewise band together and spend their time singing, dancing, swimming, laughing, and so on. These Dancing Goddesses inhabited the wilds, controlling the rain and other waters, creating fertility and healing powers people needed. The challenge was to lead, cajole, trap, or entice them into the cultivated areas to shed their fertility here, and one way to do this was to do what they did: dance.”

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance, pp. 3-4.

Tarantism: The Ritual Setting

“From a description that dates back to the first half of the eighteenth century, we learn that the choreutic-musical-chromatic exorcism could be held at home or outdoors, in either case with the ceremonial observance of several distinct particulars and sometimes even the artificial preparation of the surroundings in the manner of a real ‘sacred space’. Here is a description by Nicola Caputo, a doctor and scholar from Lecce:

They customarily adorn the bedroom dedicated to the dance of the tarantati with verdant branches outfitted with numerous ribbons and silken sashes in gaudy colors. They place similar drapery throughout the room; sometimes they prepare a sort of cauldron or tub full of water, decorated with vine leaves and green fronds from other trees; or they make pretty fountains of limpid water spout, capable of lifting the spirits, and it is near these that the tarantati perform the dance, seeming to draw the greatest delight from them, as well as the rest of the setting. They contemplate the drapes, the fronds, and the artificial rivulets, and they wet their hands and heads at the fountain. They also remove damp bands of vine leaves from the cauldron and strew them all over their bodies, or–when the vessel is large enough–they plunge themselves inside, and in this way they can more easily bear the fatigue of the dance. It often happens that those who go dancing through the towns and hamlets accompanied by the usual music are brought to an orchard, where, in the shade of a tree, near a pond or brook offered by nature or prepared through craft, they abandon themselves to the dance with the greatest delight, while groups of youths in search of pleasure and pranks gather near. Among the latter mingle more than a few who are approaching old age and who, contemplating with serious curiosity the melodic frolicking, seem to exhort the youths with unspoken admonishment…”

Ernesto de Martino, The Land of Remorse: A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism, p. 87.