A feminist reinterpretation of events: from Hildegard von Bingen to the Tarantolate*
The term queer/queerness has the powerful meaning of different, non-horizontal, transversal. Queer art practices challenge gender norms and social expectations, creating spaces for the exploration of fluid identities, unconventional relationships, and forms of political resistance. A queer approach rejects by definition the uniquely binary understanding of things. Art and sound thus become vehicles for liberation and affirmation, in which the voices of women and marginalized communities can finally be heard.
Hildegard von Bingen was a German nun, mystic, composer, writer, theologian and philosopher who lived between the 12th and 13th centuries. She was an extraordinary figure, not only for her intellectual and artistic prowess, but also for her role as a woman at a time when women were confined to the role of angels of the house. Active as a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary, and as a medical writer and practitioner, she even wrote about the menstrual cycle and female pleasure, despite the constraints of those times.
Music-wise she brought technical and stylistic innovations to sacred music, and wrote lyrics in vernacular languages such as German rather than Latin, that was commonly used for sacred music; she made music more accessible and understandable to audiences and opened it up to listening. Hildegard von Bingen’s influence on religious music goes beyond her stylistic contributions though. Her music was an expression of her spiritual vision, which she sought to convey through beauty and harmony. Her approach to composition was related to spirituality, using music as a means of connecting with the divine, and elevating the human soul and enabling change.
«Either by the form and quality of the instruments or by the meaning of the accompanying words, those listening could be instructed… in inner things.» **
For a long time, women have been excluded from knowledge, therefore whenever they approached it, they did it in a very personal, creative, transversal and non-horizontal way, creating the necessary experience by and for themselves. Hildegard’s almost bizarre approach to knowledge, for example, gave rise to transverse and queer artistic expressions that challenged conventions and broadened horizons.
Starting from this approach, we can reread countless events of the past, such as, for example, the connection between women and drums, an instrument that has deep roots in popular culture and spirituality, which has always represented a connection between women and divinities. This vital and healing connection has survived on the shores of the Mediterranean: think of the phenomenon of Tarantism studied in depth by Ernesto De Martino. ***
Tarantism, a cultural and social phenomenon rooted in the traditions of southern Italy, is based on the belief that the bite of the tarantula leads to a state of trance and possession, curable only through ecstatic dance and the sound of the drums. This practice, for centuries considered a manifestation of female hysteria, could actually conceal a profound cultural revolution and a message of female emancipation, by rereading it through other lenses, and other utopias.
What if this was just one example of how women found ways to express themselves and find themselves outside of stifling dominant cultural obligations in non-ordinary ways? What if through drumming and ecstatic dance, women could tap into ancestral and spiritual power, challenging social hierarchies and gender expectations? A liberation beyond spider venom.
In a historical context in which women were often relegated to subordinate and silenced roles, Tarantism may have been a vehicle for emancipation and assertion of identity. The taranta dance, with its hypnotic and frenetic rhythm, would thus have allowed women to express their individuality and escape, at least temporarily, from the rigidity of social conventions.
Through drumming and wild dancing, women would have been able to reconnect with an ancestral and spiritual power, defying social hierarchies and gender expectations. The taranta thus became a symbol of a primordial force, capable of shaking the very foundations of a patriarchal and oppressive society.
The trance induced by the dance would thus not be a symptom of hysteria or madness, but rather a way to free oneself from the invisible chains that imprisoned body and soul. A kind of catharsis, in which people could find themselves and access an otherwise inaccessible dimension.