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Turkey / Anonymous 

The Promptings of St. George, The Times. London, 09.09.1911, p. 3

 

 

Tarantism in the Troad

 

 

 

 

 

Turkey - Anonymous

(From a correspondent)

THYMBRA FARM, TROAD, Aug. 16 - «Come, tchelebi, come and see the girls dancing in the beanfield», said a Greek ploughman, running up to me one hot afternoon in June last. «Why are they dancing when they should be pulling beans at this time of day?» I naturally asked. «They are dancing because they can’t help themselves, poor things. St. George has got them in his power and keeps them hopping». I was too busy at the moment to go. But the same evening a shrill outcry arose from the women’s quarters. Cries of «The girls are dancing again» were heard on all sides. Making our way to the room whence proceeded the loudest hubbub, my wife and I found it filled with a crowd of shrieking, weeping, gesticulating women, in the midst of whom were the four afflicted girls, their legs, arms and bodies in twitching motion like those of marionettes. Two of them were executing a sort of slow dance, closely resembling the dance which they who are bitten by the tarantula are under compulsion to perform. A third was taking a series of terrifying “headers” on to the cement floor that might have been expected to break her skull; though, strange to say, when the fit was over she appeared without a scratch or a bruise. The fourth was working her arms backwards and forwards with a kind of sawing, Swedish drill-like movement. That all were suffering great distress was evident from their staring, anxious eyes and laboured breathing. Clearly the first form of relief was to remove them into quieter surroundings. So we had them out into the garden, away from the tumult of their agitated friends; and there, having in mind the origin of the Tarantella, we first tried the effect of a lively dance tune on the piano. This proving unsuccessful, we next had recourse to soothing suggestions, followed up by doses of valerianate of zinc. In less than 20 minutes their nerves had calmed down, the spasmodic movements ceased, and they were breathing quietly. They were convinced, however, that what they had suffered was due to no disease, but to the spiritual prompting of St. George. All the same they were not sorry to have recovered. Two days later, at about the same hour, all four had another fit. But our remedies now acted even more quickly than on the first occasion, and since then these girls have had no return of the evil.

A Three Years’ Epidemic

It was only then that we became acquainted with the fact that the neuro-hystero-psychic manifestations (if I may so call them) which we had witnessed have been epidemic for three years past in the townlet of Yenishehr, which supplies us with most of our female labour. Such is the stolid uncommunicativeness of the Greek peasant on all subjects connected with his religion. To them we are “outsiders” who can take no interest in their spiritual concerns. The manifestations begin, it appears, annually about a week before the feast of St. George (May 7). Persons of all ages and both sexes are affected. The epidemic reaches its height on that day, but continues with diminishing intensity till the end of June. As the people do not deem it a disease, they do not call in medical aid. The spirit of St. George being the cause of the marvel, it is believed that many of the “possessed” become “seers” and mediums for the working of miracles. Thus we were told that, on the indication of one of them, a well was dug in the rock under the vestibule of St. George’sChurch and abundant water found close to a spot where it had before been sought in vain. The water in this well, they say, becomes troubled at times, rises to the surface, and then again subsides. The well has a great attraction for the “possessed”, some of whom, the people assert, jump into it, but do not reach the water, being miraculously substained in the air. It is also declared that the “possessed” are invulnerable while the fit is on them, some having fallen from the flat roofs of their houses without being hurt. Setting aside these supernatural details, the case seemed to us to merit closer investigation: for here, in our close neighbourhood, was something that looked very much like a revival of the “Dancing Mania” that raged Germany, Italy and the Low Countries towards the end of the Middle Ages, and that became known in Italy as Tarantism. So, accompanied by my niece, I drove over to the fountain-head of the outbreak, a distance of ten miles.

An Investigation at Yenishehr

On our arrival at Yenishehr (the ancient Sigeum), we first of all inquired for Mr. Alcibiades Imbriotes, the head schoolmaster, as being probably the most enlightened person in the place. He received us very affably, and replied readily to all our questions. But he spoke in subdued tones, explaining that he would rather not be heard by the town children, a large escort of whom had accompanied us to his door and invaded his lower premises. «For I must tell you», he said, «that I refuse to believe in the alleged miracles, and attribute the prevailing epidemic of hysteria to some natural cause, of the nature of which I am ignorant». By expressing these views he had incerred much odium, and the place had been so hot for him that he had ceased to speak his mind; indeed, he was only waiting for the summer holidays to give in his resignation. «This», he said, «is the third year since the epidemic began. The first person attacked was a married woman from the neighbouring island of Tenedos, who came here for the celebration of St. George’s Day. She seems to have communicated the mania to several young girls. The following year she returned on the same occasion, fell into the same convulsions, and was imitated by a larger number of persons, this time including boys and men. This year the epidemic has been far more severe than in 1910. Beginning about a week before the festival, it culminated on St. George’s Day. I attended the morning service in the church; but it was no service, for the voices of the officiating clergy were drowned by the clamour that arose from among the congregation. The “possessed ones”, to the number of more than a hundred, were scattered all over the church, and caused such a scene of wild disorder as to upset my nerves. I thought I should have gone mad myself. It was more like an assembly of furous lunatics than a religious congegation. Such a shrieking, shouting, and groaning, such contortions and convulsions, I never witnessed before, and hope never to see and hear again. Some of the “possessed” were striking their heads against the walls and the floor; others were climbing to the galleries and up the altar screen like so many spiders. In a word, it was a pandemonium. All these poor sufferers should have been under the care of a doctor, who might have saved them from the heart disease which, I am sorry to say, many of them contract in consequence of their prolonged and unrestrained frenzy».

The Parish Priest

After the schoolmaster we called on the parish priest. Pappa Charalampus. He is a rugged, muscular, thick-bearded, grizzled man of about 65, of hearty demeanour, with a neat, spectacled, knitting wife, and a neat, elderly, knitting, spinster daughter. He bestowed upon each of us, by way of greeting, a mighty hand-grip that we shall remember. His house, standing at the end of a stone-paved courtyard, was noticeably clean and well kept, and bespoke industry and orderliness on the part of its inmates. But it was rather a shock to find that the other end of the courtyard, abutting on the street, was occupied by a wine and grog shop; and the shock was not lessened when it transpired that not only was the shop in question Pappa Charalampus’s property, but it was kept by one of Pappa Charalampus’s sons. However, the keeping of a dram shop, which here goes by the name of caféneion, is deemed no dishonourable calling in the Troad, where drunkenness is rare; so we need think no worse of the worthy priest for eking out a probably meagre income by retailing liquor to his parishioners.

Questioned as to the occurrences we wished to fathom, he declared he knew of no miracles apart from divers cures of chronic diseases, which were not uncommon on St. George’s Day, and which he had no doubt were the work of the Saint. He believed that many of those who became “possessed” were really “illuminated” from on high. «By dint of prayer and fasting», he said, «their spiritual faculties are quickened». Not a few are impelled to make public confession of their sins; and by this means the particulars of a mysterious crime that was committed 15 years ago were brought to light. A man had been found dead, pierced by a bullet, in his garden. His daughter, now a woman of 35, proclaimed the other day in the church that she had been a witness of the murder; that her father had been shot dead by her brother with a gun provided for that purpose by her mother, who took this terrible revenge on her husband for having been beaten by him. The chief actors in the tragedy, it appears, are both dead.

What We Saw Ourselves

In company with our entertainer we then visited the church of St. George. We saw the famous well in the vestibule. Although it was a week-day, there were about a score of people in the church, of whom some were plainly afficted with the now familiar spasmodic symptoms. Underneath the Icon of St. George was stretched at full length, with face to the ground, and motionless as one dead, an unfortunate paralytic in rags, awaiting recovery. In front of the image a young woman with dishevelled hair stood writhing and groaning. While we looked her agitation increased; she worked herseld into a paroxysm, flung herself at the image, pressing her face and breast against it in an ecstasy, then tried to encircle it with her arms (which, of course, was impossible as the picture is embedded in the panel of the altar screen). Giving up this attempt, she next she carefully and deliberately set about climbing the altar screen – a feat that would have done credit to a professional acrobat; for the screen is 15 feet high, and there was apparently nothing projecting from its smooth surface that could support hands and feet. We watched her nervously as she made her way up, and felt relieved when she got on the top. I do not know how wide the foothold may be up there. It cannot be more than a few inches. But she now gave free vent to her paroxysm. Uttering a succession of piercing shrieks, she ran along the narrow ledge, twisted herself into fantastic attitudes, suspended herself by her hands, then by her hands and knees, with head down and hair wildly floating. Presently our attention was diverted from her by a burst of yet louder shrieks from the opposite side of the nave. Turning round, we saw another dishevelled woman rush towards the screen, climb it with the same agility as the first, and go through the same antics as her companion. And all the while others of the “possessed”, three girls, a man, and a small boy, were displaying a variety of contortions in the nave.

We inquired whether all the “possessed” in the town were there, and were told there were some 30 more in their homes, though the epidemic was now on the wane. The two women who were astnishing us with their gymnastics, the priest informed us, had not quitted the church, night or day, for nearly two months, and all that time had kept a rigid fast, living upon plain boiled beans and water. We were beginning to feel very uncomfortable, and hurried out of the church as if to be rid of a nightmare.

Cases of Spider-Bite

There can be no doubt that we are here in presence of a revival of the weird epidemic that raged in Europe from 1374 to the beginning of the 16th century. There seems to be this difference, however, that, whereas it affected only women in the former visitation, it now attacks men also. The name of “Tarantism” given to it in Italy was, we know, due to the similarity of the “dance” to that of the tarantula-bitten; but, as I find the Tarantella dance sometimes treated as a myth, I here give my testimony as to two cases which occurred on this farm within my own experience. The first happened about 15 years ago, when one of our reapers was stung. When he was brought before me his arms were rigid, bent upward so that the hands were on a level with the shoulders. His legs were working up and down, first one and then the other, while he kept slowly turning round on one spot. His movements reminded one strongly of those of the gipsy-led performing bears when ordered to dance. His eyes seemed starting from their sockets, and his chest heaved with a great oppression. His pulse was rapid, his temperature at fever height, and he was speechless. I was wondering what could be done for the man, when a decided voice behind me spoke out: «Ply him with raki, make him drunk, and put him in the oven». It was the head reaper who had come up and was prescribing this singular treatement. So we had the oven heated, while a bottle of the intoxicant was brought and more than half of its contents poured down the man’s throat. Then he was carried to the oven and thrust in, clothes and all. Two pair of strong arms held him there, allowing only his head to emerge from the oven door. In half an hour the head reaper pronounced him cured. He was taken out bathed in perspiration and fast asleep. Then he was put to bed. He slept on for 16 hours. When he awoke the next morning he was quite himself, breakfasted, and went off to his work. But he had no recollection of what he had undergone since the spider venom began to act. Three years later the same mishap befell another of our reapers. This time we were prepared for the emergency and applied the same remedies with the same happy results. The above experience seems to deserve putting on record, not only for the sake of establishing once for all an interesting fact in natural history, but also for bringing out the curious resemblance between the symptoms displayed by some of the “possessed of St. George” and those produced by the tarantula. The medieval Italians noticed it, and were quite justified in coining their descriptive word. As I have already related, two of the four girls we treated at Thymbra danced precisely like the “tarantularized” reapers, and the movements of a third, whom we saw in the church at Yenishehr, were identical.

The present epidemic seems urgently to claim the attention of modern medical science, and also perhaps of the societies for psychical research. For, as we have seen, the mania, now apparently in an incipient stage, is gaining ground fron year to year. It has not yet spread to any of the adjacent towns and villages; but I am credibly informed that analogous phenomena have recently occurred in the small island of Marmora and at Baloukli, a suburb of Constantinople. Some competent investigators should visit Yenishehr when the next outbreak is due, say in the first week of May, 1912.

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