This blog post began after watching Suzanne’s performance (above) at the final concert of the 2017 La Notte della Taranta. I thought it was beautiful. But what was this song? What did it mean?
I knew that the song was called “La cerva” and that it is an Italian folk song. A bit of internet search engine random walks turned up a version of the lyrics in Italian and translated to English.
La cerva Nu giurnu sciia a 'ncaccia alla foresta intra lu boscu de Ninnella mia, 'ncontrai na cerva e li truncai la testa, morta nu bbera e lu sangu scurria. Se 'nfaccia la patruna a lla finestra: --Nu m'mmazzare la cerva ca è la mia. --Nu su venutu per ammazzare la cerva, ieu su venutu per amare a tie. From the book Morso d'amore: viaggio nel tarantismo salentino by Luigi Chiriatti, 1995. The Doe One day I went to hunt in the forest In the woods of my Ninella; I met there a doe and I cut off its head; It was not dead and blood flowed. The [land] lady came to the window: --Don't kill the doe, for it is mine. --I have not come to kill the doe; I have come to love you. Translation by Luisa Del Giudice.
This translation is from the essay Healing the Spider’s Bite: “Ballad Therapy” and Tarantismo by Prof. Luisa Del Giudice, which was first published in the book The Flowering Thorn: International Ballad Studies (pages 23 -33) edited by Thomas A. McKean (published by University Press of Colorado, Urban Institute, 2003).
“La cerva” appears in her essay when she references an event described by Luigi Chiriatti in his book Morso d’amore. He describes how one night in the mid-1970s he came home to find his parents trying to help a man by the name of ‘Ntoni overcome what they believed was a state of tarantismo.
This state of possession — tales of which go back many centuries in the area in south-east Italy where La Notte della Taranta is held each year — is said to be caused by the bite of a tarantula. The phenomenon was formally studied in 1959 by the ethnologist Ernesto De Martino when he went to the region to gather stories and to film the rituals used to cure those afflicted known as tarantates. His book, La terra del rimorso (1961), is considered the definitive work on tarantismo. It was translated into English with the title The Land of Remorse.
What Luigi Chiriatti’s parents were doing that evening was to administer, as best as they could, the ancient cure which involves the playing of music that would induce the right dancing and movement to exorcise the spider within the tarantate.
According to Prof. Del Giudice, Luigi Chiriatti’s parents sang ballads of “increasingly erotic content to scazzicare ‘Ntoni”. One of these was “La cerva,” an “extended metaphor describing lovemaking and loss of virginity in terms of the hunt: A doe is decapitated in a dark wood; she is wounded but does not die, blood flows, she protests.”
[Chiriatti] came to understand that sexuality was at the center of the phenomena…He then understood it to mean that one becomes a tarantata because one does not know how to make love; to be cured from love’s bite, one must learn how to do just that. (Del Giudice)
Professor Del Giudice describes the “phenomena of tarantismo” as a
traditional ritual practice, involving music, dance, and color, used to cure (especially) peasant women of a mythic spider’s bite.
Musicians were central to this form of therapy and were well paid for their services. Once the disorder had been attributed to a spider’s bite, experienced musicians were called to the victim’s home, and a musical diagnosis of the disorder began.
The musician’s role was to find the correct rhythm to awaken the spider and make it dance, in order to destroy it. Indeed, a belief connected to the tarantula’s musical sensibilities held that the spider emitted a certain melody when it bit, which was transferred to its victim. Through music and dance, musicians elicited deep and unresolved aspects of the victim’s malaise: from repressed or problematic sexuality to depression, anxiety, and so forth.
The spider could be annoyed by or respond to, color, as well. Indeed, normally a range of colored ribbons or scarves were shown to the tarantata, and she might be aroused by one color and throw herself on the object, tearing it to shreds. (Excerpts from Healing the Spider’s Bite by Luisa Del Giudice.)
Del Giudice introduces the religious symbolism inherent in the rituals. She cites De Martino’s research that identified tarantate as often being “young women in situations of forbidden or unrequited love.” St. Paul is the patron saint of tarantismo and thus the spider’s bite equates to love’s bite (morso d’amore).
St. Paul becomes the spider which invades and torments victims like a god possessing an ecstatic novice; he makes them ill, but this poison itself makes them well. Like cures like. He is an erotic saint; he initiates and then commands the dance. The tarantate are his “brides.” (Del Giudice page 28.)
Suzanne’s presentation is lovely and evocative simply as a performance. But for Del Giudice “La cerva” is an example of a long tradition where
singer-healers provide an effective example of balladry as folk medicine in a ritual healing practice. Call it “ballad therapy.”
That Suzanne would sing this particular song at La Notte della Taranta adds a layer of rich symbolism. She becomes the healer; she makes the rhythm. And although sometimes a turquoise dress is just a turquoise dress, it is a color that is also full of meaning, a healing color.