It’s the annual mating time for Tarantulas up here on Big Rock Candy Mountain and the surrounding areas, and everywhere you go, you see tarantulas, dozens of them, crossing the road. Presumably to get to the females, somewhere on the other side. It happens every October here in the Southwestern United States, and only the males migrate, sometimes as far as 50 miles away from their ancestral grounds.
Though large, and packing a painful bite, tarantulas actually have very weak venom, and are considered harmless to humans. Named after a species of wolf spider — the tarantula — found in Taranta, Apulia, Southern Italy, their bites were originally considered highly dangerous, inducing an hysterical condition known as “tarantism,” which eventually became known as “tarantella.”
The Tarantella evolved into a into a frenzied dance that could sometimes last as long as an entire day. The manic dance was considered an “emergency exorcism” which expelled the poison, thus saving the victim of the spider’s bite. Ancient Greeks mention the bites and the dance which its victims performed when the appropriate music was played, claiming the dance cured victims of the spiders’ toxic venom. The Romans banned the Tarantella, considering it a “cult dance of Dionysius.”
Sometimes, the dance is performed by groups, being considered a traditional Italian folk dance.
For some unknown reason, the Tarantella also evolved into a courtship dance — perhaps there are annual fall migrations of the male spiders in Southern Italy, too — though this form of the dance, despite being fast and vigorous like the exorcising version, is more sophisticated, with complicated, predetermined steps. This courtship dance also seems to have developed in Apulia, Italy; it is traditionally accompanied by mandolins, guitars, accordions, and tambourines.
The fairy Godmother’s song, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Cinderella (1950) is a Tarantella, but I’m guessing it’s more of a presumptive courtship dance rather than an exorcism, since the Fairy Godmother is sending Cinderella to the ball to find a husband in Prince Charming, and not to be exorcised while wearing glass slippers.
The Tarantella also developed into a dance between a single dancer and a drummer, in which each tried to go faster and more intricately, trying the tire the other one out. Last man standing was the winner, I suppose.
Composers like Chopin, Liszst, Debussy, Mendelssohn, and Rossinni all composed Tarantella movements into some of their pieces — or wrote entire pieces called Tarantellas — with the fast, staccato, 6/8 movement of the southern Italian dances.
(When I was an adult piano student — not a very good one, I admit — I had to learn a piece of music with a Tarantella. It gave me a devil of a time until the day I drank a couple gallons of iced tea before my lesson. To my amazement — and to that of my teacher — my fingers actually moved almost fast enough to play the movement correctly. I never told her about the incredible amount of caffeine in my system that day, preferring, I confess, to allow her to believe I was improving.)
But each year when I see the annual migration of the tarantulas across the roads here in New Mexico, and find countless tarantulas prowling across our yard on Big Rock Candy Mountain, it’s not the exorcism ritual, the courtship dance, Cinderella, or classical composers that come to mind. It’s Stanley, my little brother’s pet tarantula when we were kids.
My parents wouldn’t let us have pets, but, without their permission, my younger brother Chip, saved up his allowance and bought himself a pet tarantula — complete with aquarium — and named him “Stanley.” (Chip’s reasoning, as he explained to my outraged parents, was that “cats” and “dogs” were pets; fish, snakes, mice, and tarantulas, all of whom live in aquariums, were not. To this day, I have no idea how he got away with that “logic”.)
At first, everyone in the house was terrified of Stanley, but Chip, who read incessantly about tarantulas, and who hunted in the backyard for insects for Stanley’s meals, constantly insisted that Stanley was harmless and was, in fact, quite intelligent.
First, unbeknownst to my parents, Chip began to “train” Stanley by letting him out of his aquarium and “teaching him” to walk around the bedroom by dragging a twig with a dead fly taped on it: Stanley obediently followed, and was rewarded with the fly.
Next, Chip taught Stanley how to sit on his shoulder. At first, of course, Stanley wanted to walk over Chip’s neck, head, and arm, but with enough flies and grasshoppers, Stanley eventually learned to sit patiently on Chip’s shoulder as he did his homework. Chip and his friends thought it was pretty darned cool, and so did the rest of us kids. We started to like Stanley. A lot.
When our parents were out — at work, at the grocery, or just in the yard — Chip started to let Stanley out of the bedroom. Stanley seemed very excited. He quickly learned to navigate his way down the hallway to the kitchen — one of his favorite spots in the house since it had a nice window above the sink where the early morning sun warmed Stanley as he napped there.
The first time my mother was putting away groceries and saw Stanley lying on the kitchen counter watching her, she screamed so loudly that everyone in the house came running to the kitchen. Everyone except Stanley, who’d jumped off the counter and high-tailed it back down the hallway, up the side of the dresser, and back into his open glass aquarium: Chip found Stanley hiding under the tree branch and leaves inside.
Pretty smart little guy, that Stanley. Everyone else in the house ran and hid when my mom screamed, too.
My favorite memory of Stanley, however, is of him sitting on my shoulder in the living room, reading with me. I think Chip first put Stanley on the back of the chair where I was sitting to scare me. But Stanley, who’d been trained to sit on Chip’s shoulder, simply climbed onto my shoulder, sat there a few seconds, then brushed by bare neck with one of his furry legs. I probably jumped the first time, but not enough to scare Stanley, because he remained sitting there.
“Hi, Stanley,” I said, and went back to reading my book.
Chip, disappointed at my reaction, gave Stanley a cricket as a reward for getting up on my shoulder, then took him off to try to scare someone else. (It should be noted here that Chip never put Stanley on my mother’s chair or shoulder: she would have killed Stanley in an instant, and we all knew it.)
After a while, Stanley just came down the hallway every evening to the living room, crawled up the chair onto my shoulder, and read with me. Chip got a bit jealous, but still gave me a few crickets or flies with which to reward Stanley while we read together. It became our nightly ritual.
Stanley learned to recognize my mother’s feet or her voice or her smell or something: he would cross to the other side of the hallway or the room whenever he saw her coming. Everyone else in the house either tolerated him or actually liked him. My brother’s friends thought Stanley was the coolest thing on the planet. Chip adored him. I’m pretty sure Stanley adored Chip, too.
I wish I could say that Stanley lived a long and happy life, dying of old age, but my brother Chip made a terrible mistake one day. Without realizing that wasps are one of the few natural enemies of tarantulas — because they can sting a tarantula between their scale-like skin, and lay eggs which hatch and eat the tarantulas’ innards, killing the tarantula in the process — my brother caught a wasp, which he thought was dead (it was only stunned) and would make a good meal (because it was so large).
The wasp stung Stanley, laid her eggs, and Stanley sickened and died.
Chip was heart-broken. He wept at Stanley’s funeral, which all us siblings and the neighborhood kids attended.
Reading was never the same after that. I missed Stanley. He was a sweetheart. So every year, when I see all the tarantulas making their annual mating migration here in the Southwest, I think of Stanley, and hope he’s in a heaven full of green grass, warm sunshine, and crickets, which were his favorite meal.