Mamuthones: soul of Sardinia, heritage of humanity

By Angela Corrias

LONDON (Herald de Paris) – Most traditions all over the world owe their existence to climate conditions, especially if they belong to rural communities and become therefore pivotal to their economic life. However, very few are as well-preserved as the ritual of the Mamuthones in Mamoiada, village set in the heart of Italian island Sardinia. Laid on a 700 mt of altitude, the small town of Mamoiada is surrounded by the unspoilt landscape of the hostile and evergreen mountains, as well as rich soil fields of the province of Nuoro.

From the 17th of January to most February the entire village lives in the wait of their annual sacred ritual that 2000 years ago was performed in order to augur well in the seasonal crossover from the dark winter to the springtime. Obviously, today the ritual is not aimed at the same reason it was at its heyday, but while tourists can see in it only a festive celebration, for local townspeople, has a deeper meaning: “It’s part of our identity,” says poet from Mamoiada, Salvatore Ladu.

Despite foreign domination and attempts from the Christian religion to stop it, not only has this rite survived, but it’s more and more present in the life of Mamoiada’s inhabitants, who proudly protect the reason of their fame as they’ve been doing for the past twenty centuries.

With the aid of my local guide, Pino, I took up on a journey through the oldest Carnival I had ever witnessed. And experienced, because you can’t just see a 2000-year-old ritual, you need to experience it, to be fully aware that those are universal roots of human history.

The costume of the Mamuthones consists of black sheepskin to symbolize the ancestral connection between man and animal, and thirty kilos of bronze cowbells on the back worn in a bunch shape with the biggest ones on top and the smallest on the bottom, tightly tied with brown leather laces. “In general, in all rituals,” explained Mario Paffi, coordinator of the “Museum of Mediterranean Masks” in Mamoiada, “producing a noise has the goal of chase the bad spirits away, and this is the role of the cowbells in the costume of the Mamuthones.” The last element of the dress is a dark wooden mask, giving the ensemble the tragic and sad look that made it famous all over the world.

Countless theories have tried to place the reserved and powerful figure of the Mamuthones, ranging from the times of African invasions of Sardinia to celebrations in honour of Greek god Dionysus. Today, however, the most widely accepted theory sees them as the main characters of a propitiatory ritual aimed at intervening with the natural forces in the hope of a rich agricultural year.

The ritual itself sees the Mamuthones (usually twelve mirroring the number of the months) divided in two parallel lines, proceeding with slow and measured steps all along the narrow streets of the village. They are protected and guided by the Issohadores, named after the soha that in the dialect of Mamoiada means lasso. The costume of the Issohadores reminds of the Spanish domination and is the exact opposite of their gloomy protégés: wearing bright red jacket, white trousers and black boots and hat, the Issohadores are the shield of the Mamuthones and they guide them through their propitiatory dance that will bring prosperity to everybody.<

The ritual of the Mamuthones is probably the oldest in Europe, although many countries boast some of the scariest masks as their most ancestral traditions. In the Museum of Mediterranean Masks, it’s possible to view a permanent exhibition of a wide range of costumes that populate most European Carnivals, from the Southern countries such as the Greek Islands, to Northern places such as Scandinavian countries. Their costumes have in common the presence of bells, as the evidence that they all were created to avert the danger of evil spirits within their communities.

Admittedly, at the beginning I didn’t quite catch the spirit of the whole ceremony, but by the end of the day I realized I was sharing a part of our most ancestral history with one of the few districts in Sardinia that managed to resist foreign colonizations throughout the centuries. As well as political independence, Mamoiada’s townspeople have been successfully claiming every year the right to reconnect with their very first dawn.

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maria March 3, 2009

beautiful tradition

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