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Anthropology of CatholicismA Reader$
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Kristin Norget, Valentina Napolitano, and Maya Mayblin

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780520288423

Published to California Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520288423.001.0001

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Excerpt from “Tarantism and Catholicism”

Excerpt from “Tarantism and Catholicism”

(p.43) 2 Excerpt from “Tarantism and Catholicism”
Anthropology of Catholicism

Ernesto de Martino

University of California Press

Ernesto de Martino (1908–65) could be described as one of the founding figures of Italian ethnology. Until his work was translated into English, he was fairly unknown to English-speaking anthropologists. Since then, however, the importance of his contributions to the field has received wider recognition. In the book Terra del Rimorso: Contributo a una storia religiosa del Sud (The Land of Remorse: A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism), de Martino unravels how alterity may be found “at home,” through a study in the southern peninsula of Salento of rural people seasonally affected by tarantismo, a form of possession attributed to the bite of the tarantola spider.1 The affliction is cured by the performance of “choreutic” dances followed by pilgrimages and offerings made to Saint Paul. For de Martino, tarantismo is the living presence of an other-than-Catholic history—an echo of earlier pagan, erotic ritual forms. Tarantism can be understood only when placed within the context of Catholicism’s regional history, its broader social and economic conflicts, and tensions around gender, kinship, and sexuality within the home. The cult is one that the Catholic Church has “purged” but also resignified and appropriated in an effort to contain its vitality. As de Martino shows, however, the church’s engagement with the cult in the first half of the twentieth century colludes with scientific and medical—particularly psychiatric—discourses. The relevance of this work for a modern anthropology of Catholicism is plain in its historical breadth and the richness and detail of de Martino’s ethnographic research. But it is also interesting for the way it highlights how questions of science, magic, and enchantment have posed challenges of different types for the modernizing, bureaucratic church.

Keywords:   Tarantism, Ritual Posession, St Paul, Southern Italy, Popular Devotion, Catholic Church, De Martino, Syncretism, Medical Anthropology

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