The Dance of the Tarantella C.A. Keith


The term aphrodisiac raises eyebrows. The Dance of the Tarantella and Witches portrays a story of seduction and ritualistic dance to attain a sexual awakening.

Are aphrodisiacs really a new concept?

It was a cool fall night and the full moon apparent when the delirious and hysterical woman appeared. Her garments were scant and the tear in her dress hung obscenely. The woman’s chants were like cries of a frenzied wolf. The woman paced, she wildly danced while the terrified others watched wide-eyed. The women’s faces were covered. No one knew who they were or whence they came. The mad woman was bit by a tarantula and she felt relief by dancing at the festival of the tarantella. Other women bitten by the insane bug, joined in this erratic festival. They all needed to go through a sort of metamorphosis, a relief that would end in blissful gratification.

A scent lingered in the air. What was it? Was it the smell of lust, the lingering aroma of incense burning, or the bonfire in the centre of the crazed women who encircled the dancing flames. Maybe it was a combination of odours that teased the air. It was erotic. He looked beyond the hazy path and saw a woman. Her eyes were glowing red, almost glaring, searching. What was she searching for, maybe a lover, maybe a sense of freedom? She didn’t look at me; she looked through me.

The woman reeled and giggled in delight. Tonight was the night she had no cares, no ties, no links; tonight was her night. She would be free. She played, she cavorted; the desire in her eyes, the madness. Her covered face, allowed her anonymous escape. She wasn’t herself. Tonight, she was anybody, nobody, and yet, she would do anything and nothing.

The night quickly passed and morning peeped through the cool mist covered streets. The woman sprawled in the dust-covered lane, awoke feeling rested. Miraculously the bites vanished. With a shrill, she too, vanished into the dawn.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Witches were portrayed as old, evil women who rode on a broomstick in front of the moon. This sight terrified many people. Usually the witch was a woman and, men were called wizards or warlocks. “In folklore, brooms were the primary means of travel for witches, who mounted them and soared through the air at tremendous speed. The witch riding her broomstick has become a popular cultural stereotype.” (Guiley, page 37)

The behaviour of the witch is similar in nature to that of a hysterical woman during the Dance of the Tarantella. The woman, at this time, is erratic, wild and flirtatious. Witches and the hysteric woman, dance and fly. Both the witch and the hysterical woman go through many forms of metamorphosis. One of these metamorphoses that the witch and hysterical woman may go through is comparable to a sexual awakening. Witches gather around a bonfire. The group sing, dance and focus on the magical power that orgasm releases. For the hysterical woman, sex is an important ritualistic dance and a story of seduction. The orgasms that they experienced were probably greater than usual for various reasons. Some of these reasons include group participation and aphrodisiacs.

This paper will attempt to explain the heightened sexual experience of the hysterical woman during the dance, and the portrayed version of the witch. I will demonstrate this by discussing aphrodisiacs and the process of deindividuation as a causality.

The term aphrodisiac raises eyebrows for most people. Some picture olden day Spanish Fly, some think kinky sex, while other’s still, think aphrodisiacs are substances that prolong or excite sexual desire. These ideas are correct but misleading. This term is very difficult to explain singularly because it is a multi-faceted term. 

Aphrodisiacs come in the form of food, drink, herb, spice, charm, ritual, drug, homeopathic remedy, flower essence or aroma. It might be thought that these enhancers are a means to achieve sexual happiness. Anyone who has worn sexy lingerie for a romantic interlude, or sipped a glass of champagne, perfumed, turned down the lights, put on their favourite music or used a drug to enhance sex, has used a form of an aphrodisiac.

Why do aphrodisiacs work? The body can produce hormones, neurotransmitters and neuropeptides when given certain stimuli. Many traditional aphrodisiacs use vitamins, enzymes and are high in amino acids. Therefore, the bodies natural juices are aroused.

Another physiological explanation is that the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system play a key role in sexuality. “When a person becomes aroused, his or her parasympathetic system prevails: then, during orgasm, the sympathetic takes over and dominates.” (Watson, page 7) The parasympathetic system releases the hormone acetylcholine and the sympathetic system releases epinephrine / norepinephrine. The reflexes that produce the effect of sexual arousal are sometimes stimulated with certain substances like some aphrodisiacs.

The essay will focus on all methods and types of aphrodisiacs. This will include aromatics, alcohol, drugs, visual, auditory, taste and touch stimuli. In this essay, anything that stimulates the sexual organs for the sole purpose of excitation, may be considered an aphrodisiac.

Deindividuation is a process which “an individual in a group loses the awareness of himself as a separate individual.” (Gleitman, page 593) A good example of this behaviour is a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The individual members of this group may be quiet or even shy. When the group gets together they may be hostile and aggressive. The members are hidden behind masks and lose their sense of identity. The members take on the identity of the group. Witches and hysterical women might go through this process of deindividuation while they cavorted.

Witches rely on group participation. Interaction within the group structure can build a higher energy level to achieve a higher power. Hysterical women may or may not have relied on group power but as a group they too may have lost some of their original individual identity. Group power could be a strong female unity, a form of woman bonding. The group unity might have led to a promiscuous seduction. Through seduction, deindividuation may have contributed to a greater desire for completion of bliss.

Witches are portrayed as women who ride on broomsticks. There are many different ideas and theories why witches ride on broomsticks. One idea was that fertility rites would help crops grow so the witches would ride the fields on broomsticks.

Some theories, however, hint at the idea that hallucinogenic drugs were used. She didn’t ride through the air to get from one place to the other as was originally thought. “According to lore, witches of old brewed the ointments in their cauldrons. They rubbed ointments on themselves and the broom, pitchforks, chairs, poles or beanstalk that they used to ride through the air.” (Guiley, page 255) A witch flew on the broomstick to get high and ‘fly’.

Linguistically, the saying she ‘flew’ through the sky takes on many different meanings. Considering the fact that the witch would be sitting on this object that was laced with natural chemicals, she probably got high and felt orgasmic. “In modern times, Dr Erich-Will Peuckert of the University of Gottingen, West Germany, tested a medieval flying-ointment recipe on himself and a colleague. The ingredients included deadly nightshade, thornapple, henbane, wild celery and parsley in a base of hog’s lard. The ointment cause the two men to fall into a trance like sleep for 20 hours, during which each had nearly identical dreams of flying through the air…and participating in erotic orgies.” (Guiley, page 255)

Whether the witch actually flew on broomsticks doesn’t matter, because she thought and she believed she flew.

Hysterical women also ‘flew’ through the streets of the festival. They may or may not have used drugs to produce the effect but the hysterical woman wildly danced and flew through the streets. The hysterical woman at the wild party looked for desirous affairs. “And the attack is also a festival..a story of seduction.” (Cixous and Clément, page 10)

Sex is also a big part of the ritualistic dance of the Tarantella, “A mingling, a mixing of bodies, spatial confusion, disorientation: the body turns upside down, as in the hysteric’s fantasy of the head-vagina,” (Cixous and Clément, page 32) Both hysterics and witches share the value of intercourse in their play.

The witch values intercourse as a source of energy, whereas, the hysteric values intercourse as a form of suppressed and released pent-up energy.  The hysterical woman bottled up secret sexual desires for such a period of time that she might have exploded with passion.

“Sex was a major activity for the witch who attained ecstasy by, controlling the climax… The sex act is viewed as neither immoral or moral but as a mechanism for the raising of the powerful Kundalini energy.” (Guiley, page 219)

In the East, a spiritual method of yoga was developed called Tantra. Students of Tatra explain this energy, “the body is perceived as a system in which energy moves via an arrangement of energy vortexes called chakras, each related to specific emotions and orgasms. Kundalini, also called the serpent power is the force that moves through the body during meditation or sex and creates that experience of rapture, when making love, the energy rises to the top chakra, in other words, to the brain-where the hypothalamus releases the neurotransmitters that induce ecstasy.” (Watson, page 15)

This ecstasy was felt by witches in their dance ritual. The hysterical woman and the witch might have felt this Kundalini force when they were involved in sexual activities.

Another way that passion could be stimulated was through a person’s olfactory system. The sense of smell is very keen in humans. Aromatics have played a role in medicine, rituals and sensuality throughout the years. There have been many people who have played upon the sense of smell to lure their lover. Cleopatra lured men by exciting their sexual desires with perfumes. “Cleopatra, notoriously well versed in the art of seduction, used scent freely to create an aura of mystery and irresistibility…she would drift down the Nile on a barge that was enveloped in a cloud of perfume, her body glistening with rare and exotic oils and the sails of her vessel permeated with heady aromas.” (Watson, page 47)

Certain flowers and plants can have an aphrodisiac effect such as rose, jasmine, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, cedar wood and ginger. A rare flower called Seville produces a hypnotic effect. In the book ‘The Newly Born Woman’ the author discusses odours, “Bewitching contagion is also passed through odours…the charm was a bouquet of musk roses…This odour follows me…” (Cixous and Clément, page 37)

Odours are an aphrodisiac. The hysteric who was searching for a love affair becomes more turned on by the stimulating effect that an aphrodisiac has.

Love potions and oils can be made either as a unique substance or a blend with other oils. Each person has a different olfactory system which means that every scent works differently on every person. One scent might turn on one person and turn off another. Body chemistry is individually different so experimentation with scents is necessary. The term pheromones is a chemical that is released in the air that affects a person’s behaviour.  Sex pheromones attracts one person to another through the role of one’s olfactory system.

Scents can permeate through the body. The bath is one place to enjoy flower essences, whereas, oils can be applied topically. Oils penetrate the glands and organs quickly and was even noticed in the kidneys of a guinea pig within ninety minutes. Oils are also inhaled in a vapour form by stimulating the nerve endings in the nose and sending chemical messages to the pituitary and endocrine glands. Aromatics work in various ways as an aphrodisiac. This is perhaps why witches burned incense and bathed in oils.

Another kind of aphrodisiacs are drugs. Witches have used drugs for ages. Witches used drugs on their broomsticks to get high. Witches also used drugs in their rituals. “The fumes of incense contribute to the altered state of consciousness..rituals employ sex, concentration, yoga, sound, breath control, forms, gestures and postures, and incense.” (Guiley, page 219)

An acute sexual ecstasy was felt through the use of aphrodisiacs such as incense and plant based. “Humans are like instruments of this universal jouissance,” (Cixous and Clément, page 165)

The hysteric dancing at the Tarantella festival was searching for a form of jouissance similarly as witches were, what with incense, music, drugs and wine to reach blissful orgasm. Although, it has been proven that too much alcohol can inhibit orgasm.

Throughout the years, aphrodisiacs have been used by many people and are still being used today. In the beginning of this paper, I wrote a short story. This is my interpretation of the hysteric’s dance of suppressed sexual energy. I focused the paper on witches and hysterics because I believe them to share a similar sexual experience during their festivals / rituals. The availability of information rested upon that of the witches and a lot of information of the hysterical woman is supposed.

This paper focused on two important causalities for the increased sexual experience of the hysteric and the witch. The causalities were aphrodisiacs and deindividuation. Hysterical women and witches ‘flew’ through the streets in the dark trying to achieve sexual gratification. Both the witch and the hysterical woman each had different reasons for the attainment of sexual passion.

The blissful ecstasy that witches and hysterics are striving for is similar to most people’s desire for passion and ecstasy. Some people, as was explained earlier, turn down the lights, put on relaxing music, sip wine, and bathe themselves in perfumes to heighten and tantalize their partners sexual experience. Perhaps, not to the same lengths as the witch and the hysteric did to achieve bliss.

Aphrodisiacs such as plants, aromatics, and nature’s sense of smell, touch, sight, listening and taste play an important role in stimulating sexuality. I wonder if the witch and the hysteric’s heightened sexual experience was due to the use of various forms of aphrodisiacs.

Maybe some of the seductive behaviour that led to the achievement of orgasmic bliss was through the process of deindividuation. When people are in a group they often take on the personality and motions of the group. Belly dancers hide behind scarves while enticing their viewers. Seduction and group personality seem to be interrelated. The witches wildly danced until they reached climax. The group spirit often encircled fires enticing the coven of witches to act together in a playfully seductive role.

In conclusion, I’m not sure whether group spirit plays a seductive role in all people. It seems plausable that aphrodisiacs do play a key role in sexuality. Aphrodisiacs whet the appetite and stir up romantic juices. Aphrodisiacs, especially ones that entice our senses, are not old witch’s brews that are evil and kinky but olden day methods that are stimulating, titillating and still used today.

Cixous, Hèléne., Clément, Catharine., (1993). The Newly Born Woman. USA.

Gleitman, H., (1991). Psychology: Third Edition. USA.

Guiley, R.E., (1989). The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. UK

Watson, C.W., (1993). A Guide to Aphrodisiacs and Sexual Pleasures: Love Potions. USA.

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