I was about to share fears and hopes with my ancestors. With the aid (and the patience) of Pino, I journeyed to Sardinia through the oldest Carnival I had ever seen, or experienced, because, let’s face it, you can’t just see a 2000-year-old ritual, you need to experience it.
Being born in Sardinia myself and having lived for twenty years only 60 km away from Mamoiada, I have always known this tradition, but after seeing what it actually does for the spirit of the village, I’ve realized I had never captured the spirit of lonesome figure of the Mamuthones.
In the Italian tradition the Carnival has always been an occasion for wild parties, bright colors and funny masks.
Big cities such as small villages organize colorful parades, convoys of allegoric carriages making a mockery of the latest events populating the political scene -- three days of total craziness, probably made easier by the fact that everybody wears a mask.
All over Sardinia, the vast and lightly populated island off Tuscany’s coast, festivals are major part of the calendar.
Stepping back in time
In Mamoiada, Sardinia, forget all this. Or at least be prepared for a deep, mystical experience.
Undisputed stars of this local version of the Carnival are the Mamuthones, pre-Christian traditional masquerades dating back more than 2,000 years. The mystery wafting around their origins makes them even more respected and loved.
The Mamuthones’ presence is felt all year long in Mamoiada, rural village nestled on a quiet spot in the province of Nuoro, where everybody, from the smallest child to the centenarian, whispers solemnly when talking about them.
Ever-present in the conversations, minds and memories of the Mamoiadìni, Mamoiada’s inhabitants, these fascinating figures have been silently undertaking their heavy legacy year after year, carrying on with their duty and conscious that age has not diminished their allure.
They’ve been doing so since the dawn of civilization and their reputation shows no sign of cooling.
The mystery of the beginning
In the past decades a crowd of academics and historians have been trying to narrow down the countless theories around this tradition, in the effort to find an exhaustive explanation and possibly its exact origins.
I was soon amused to notice that some of the Mamuthones enjoy all the fuss in their honor and watch contentedly as researchers and scholars frantically delve into history and issue one theory after the other.
Natives seem to unconsciously know the answer to all questions, and unabashed, every year, the sacred ceremony takes place, for the sake of the community, today as it did in prehistoric times.
“Even if I’ve always known the Mamuthones, and my father and grandfather before me,” confessed Salvatore Ladu, “still now, every time I see them parade, they give me the willies, and rest assured that this is the same for all Mamoiada’s inhabitants.
“The Mamuthones are more than just a masquerade for us, they are part of our identity, their presence is alive all year long.”
Arguably, today the most accredited theory sees this as a propitiatory ritual performed to augur well in the seasonal crossing from the dark winter to the warmer months of springtime and summer that lead to the new harvest.
As the main resources of Mamoiada are based on farming, the lives of their inhabitants were, and to some extent still are, heavily reliant on Mother Nature’s will.
“These kinds of ritual,” believes professor Marcello Madau, “are more likely to be found in mountain areas, where lives are strictly dependent on geographical facts.”
Peace for the soul
Leaving the rolling hills of the Campidano punctuated by grazing sheeps, and heading northwest toward the severe landscape of inland Barbagia, it appears immediately clear that if a tradition was to last out in the face of millennia, attempts of foreign colonization and the efforts of Christian authorities to erase all pagan worship, it could only have happened here.
Not only have the natives of this region preserved their cultural traditions remarkably well, but they have also managed to retain much of the original charm of the geographical settings: unspoilt and towering, the surrounding mountains offer an unforgettable scenery to first-time visitors.
Mirroring the character of their geographical environment, locals are peaceful and reserved. Engaging them in a proper conversation can be nerve-racking, but at the same time, they are widely renowned for their inner capability to make every guest feel at home.
At this juncture I feel compelled to issue a little advice: if a Mamoiadìno offers you something to drink or eat, do not decline; it would be considered impolite and you would be bound to miss one of the home-grown, gastronomic delicacies typical of the area, such as lard and beans cooked in large pans and distributed at the end of the parade in the main piazza of the town.
During the festival, tourists get to share with locals a genuine and seductive way of living.
A simple appeal
Their appeal is simple: natives as well as visitors are transported back in time into a world of primordial instincts, when men didn’t shy away from negotiating their most basic needs directly with their divinities.
The three times a year the Mamuthones are due, all townspeople gather together, keeping their breath in the wait for them to appear.
They show themselves in public for the first time on the 17th of January, on the occasion of Sant’ Antonio Abate (Saint Anthony Abate), festivity celebrated with some forty bonfires lit up in all Mamoiada’s squares and with the Mamuthones dancing around the main ones all night long.
In February, instead, the Mamuthones appear on Carnival Sunday and on Shrove Tuesday.
A ritual to remember
The moment of the dressing up, where the men get ready for the parade, is closed to the public, but Pino managed to introduce me into the heart of the feast-day, inside the backyard of the “Associazione Atzeni-Beccoi,” one of the two groups committed to organising the celebrations.
All Mamuthones begin the rite meticulously laying their costumes on the ground and getting dressed with the help of “civilians.”
They are clad in black sheepskin and wear some thirty kilos of cowbells on their backs, in the shape of a bunch, with the bigger on top and gradually smaller sizes going to the bottom, tightly tied using dark brown leather laces (see Pino, I was watching…).
The uglier the better
The final step of the dressing up is the long-awaited moment of covering their faces with the rigorously handmade, dark brown wooden mask, symbol of the Mamuthones, that gives them their suggestive and tragic look.
“The peculiarity of the mask,” explained Mario Paffi, curator of the Museo delle Maschere Mediterranee (Museum of the Mediterranean Masks) of Mamoiada, “is that the uglier, the better.”
The heavy weight of the costume makes it necessary for it to be worn only by healthy and strong men.
“When these men are dressed up as Mamuthones,” told me Salvatore Ladu, “they don’t just act like them, they need to be them. As they step back in time, they must leave behind all aspects of modernity: no piercing allowed!”
The Mamuthones are usually twelve, to symbolize the number of the months, and parade dancing rhythmically in two parallel lines, gliding in through the tangle of narrow streets of the city centre, reproducing the propitiatory ritual aimed at interceding with natural forces.
Their costumes evoke the prehistoric man-animal connection, and their steps, powerful and steady, rigorously occur at the same time in order to produce the typical, haunting sound of the sheepbone-made clapper banging against the bronze of the cowbells, to stave bad spirits off the built-up area.
“Animals were extremely important in rural communities such as Mamoiada,” explained Mario Paffi, “as they could be both eaten and used for working."
"In ancient pagan rites, the animal was the sacrificial victim to the divinity, and its blood was to be dropped on the ground. In fact, blood in contact with the earth was believed to regenerate itself and beget new life.”
For the sake of the community
Alongside the Mamuthones is the lithesome figure of the Issohadores, named after the “soha,” lasso in the local dialect, with which they seize their “preys” (mainly young women) during the parade.
There are usually eight or ten Issohadores, whose dress in bright red and white strongly reminds one of the Spanish domination.
The Issohadores fiercely guard the Mamuthones during the whole parade throughout the village, against the townspeople flocked to applaud and touch them. One Issohadore per time is in charge of leading the Mamuthones, giving them precise instructions on how to proceed in their measured steps that recreate the ritual.
On Shrove Tuesday, the celebrations reach their climax and finally come to an end with the residents parading a puppet representing Juvanne Martis Sero (John of Tuesday Evening), the king of the Carnival.
Men dressed up in black as grieving old women (zias), cry the king’s death, to indicate the beginning of the penance of the Lent.
Symbol of a population
Although it belongs to Mamoiada, this sacred ritual earned a privileged place in the landscape of Sardinian local traditions. The Mamuthones are the perfect epitome of the original personality of the island’s inhabitants: rugged albeit gentle-mannered.
At the end of the parade, the exhausted Mamuthones go back to the “Associazione Atzeni” where a very much earned dinner helps them round off a long but rewarding day.
With relief they take off their shoulders the thirty-kilo burden and start commenting on the outcome of the day.
The warmth of the softly lit room lured me in, and there I stumbled on a Mamuthone with an unusual willingness to chat.
“I know it can sound unbelievable,” said Francesco, who has embodied the spirit of his ancestors for some forty years, “but from the very moment we wear the mask, we see the world in a different way.”
Bewitched, after this unique experience, I do believe him.
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