The Tarantula Wronged

In 1972, arachnidist John A. L. Cooke undertook to defend the reputation of tarantulas. Text from the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix (Nov 2, 1972):

Like many arachnidists, Cooke is upset about public attitudes toward spiders, particularly tarantulas. In an interview, conducted in the presence of several very large live and hairy tarantulas, he pointed out that while they can inflict a moderately painful bite when angry, they are not venomous.

"I wouldn't let my 4-year-old son keep one as a pet if they were," he said.

Their bad name, he added, can be traced to the region around Taranto, in southern Italy, from which they take their name. This is the habitat of the true, or European Tarantul, whose bite was said to induce tarantism.

Webster's New International Dictionary defines tarantism as: "A nervous affection characterized by melancholy, stupor, and an uncontrollable desire to dance."

The traditional treatment was to encourage the victim to dance wildly until the effects of the poison wore off. Thus evolved the wild Neapolitan folk dance, the tarantella. According to Cooke, who is writing an article on the subject for Natural History magazine, musicians wandered through the fields at harvest time, ready to offer their services to a victim of tarantula bite.

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix - Nov 2, 1972

In his subsequent Natural History article, Cooke then revealed that it was probably black widows that had been biting the people around Taranto back in the Middle Ages. The tarantulas had been unfairly maligned:

Interestingly, it has recently been shown that even the European tarantula has been wrongly accused, that it does not inflict the dreaded bite attributed to it but is quite harmless. The real culprit in tarantism is none other than the famous black widow spider. The black widow, Latrodectus mactans, is a comparatively small, inconspicuous, and secretive member of the family Theridiidae, the comb-footed spiders. These include several common cobweb-spinning spiders found in buildings. Latrodectus, whose name comes from the Greek and means "secret biter," is a genus of world-wide distribution containing several species. Although all are highly venomous, only L. mactans is synanthropic, posing a serious threat to people.

"Despite their formidable appearance, North American tarantulas are a serious threat only to their prey—beetles and grasshoppers."

     Posted By: Alex - Sat Jun 22, 2024
     Category: Insects and Spiders

I thought I read that he's an arachist.

I'm willing to speak up for critters that have been maligned, especially spiders, who are basically on our side. But these things are the definition of creepy.
Posted by Virtual in Carnate on 06/22/24 at 09:15 AM
No, anarchist, I meant. (Not antichrist, either.)
Posted by Virtual in Carnate on 06/22/24 at 09:16 AM
And the tarantula was named after the dance called the tarantella, which in turn was called after the Italian city of Taranto, where there was a dance craze. The spider wasn't guilty.

(But dance crazes in general *are* weird.)
Posted by Richard Bos on 06/22/24 at 09:43 AM
The only legitimately funny Three Stooges short, "Disorder in the Court," uses this as a joke. Larry's violin bow snags some lawyer's awful toupee, and Mr Fine yells "A TARANTELLA!" I got the joke that it's a dance, but until today I never knew how directly it connected. A pun that works on more than 1 level is a good pun!
Posted by Bill the Splut on 06/22/24 at 07:02 PM
ALL Three Stooges shorts were funny.
Posted by F.U.D. in Stockholm on 06/22/24 at 11:33 PM
I would pay good money to watch any political debate if all the candidates were injected with the dancing venom for the event.
Posted by crc on 06/24/24 at 05:18 AM
To me, it's an unexplained oddity that diseases/poisoning can cause dancing. St. Vitus' dance is the most common; the tarantella is just another example.
Posted by Phideaux on 06/24/24 at 03:28 PM

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