Carnival in Sardinia: mysteries and meaning of the Sardinian masks

carnevale in sardegna

Carnival in Sardinia has many facets, but it mainly deals with mystery, fear, cowbells’sound, streets packed with Sardinian Masks, each with a particular history and meaning.

The Carnival atmosphere in Sardinia, especially in Barbagia’s villages, is totally different from the merry one you may experience all over Italy: this is because our Carnival evokes ancient farming rites, where men and animals are the main characters of the show.

You won’t see party-poppers neither you’ll hear the burst of laughter here. Everybody awaits with excitement the arrival of Boes e Merdules in Ottana, Thurpos in Orotelli, Mamuthones in Mamoiada.

Sardinian masks are dark and mysterious: they celebrate the rite of yoking and the men’s eternal struggle against mother nature.

People dressed in sheep fur, wooden masks, a handkerchief around the head, heavy cowbells tied on the back which rhythmically ring and the smut on the face when it’s uncovered: Carnival in Sardinia shows a gloomy side to explode a moment later in liberating rites which celebrate the irony of the human existence.

Every village has its masks and traditions:

 

1) Carnevale in Ottana: Sos Boes e Sos Merdules

Ottana’s Carnival,  celebrated quite near the city of Nuoro, is considered by anthropologists a performance dedicated to the Dyonisiac cult. Dyonisus was celebrated with dances and propitiatory rites to let the hearth reborn at the beginning of spring, after month of bitter cold and lacking rain. There’s also an alternative explanation, linked to the worship of the ox, an ancient ritual of the Mediterranean countries still unspoiled and alive in Sardinia up until now.

The ox represents strenght and fertility: the ritual of the ox carried by men, who worship it to invoke the herd’s fertility, has the power to transform them into oxes, changing their human features into animal traits.

Sos Boes (the oxes) and Sos Merdules (the oxes’owners) perform a chase which becomes a dance. Its aim is to exorcise the danger of the trasformation into beasts.

The Filonzana, the only femal character, is the old woman who everybody fears: stooped and dark dressed here she comes with a wooden mask. In the 70’s some people used to make a parody of this figure with smut-spotted-face and a dental prosthesis curved in a potato. She’s a woman, but a man hides under her dress; she brings wood and spindle, as the mythological Greek goddesses, ready to cut the life-thread suddenly.

She tells good o bad fortune, depending on how much she likes the wine she’s offered.

Another mask is Sa Partoja, the woman who used to give birth to a rags’ puppet, after a long and tiring dance which simulated the labor pains. Today, she doesn’t exist anymore, but many old people still recall her quite vividly.

Even if all the Ottana’s masks are usually called Merdules, the real Merdules are only those with scaring and deformed traits, dressed with sheep furs, the traditional dark handkerchief (su muccadore), whip and cane.

 

2) Carneval in Mamoiada: Mamuthones and Issohadores

Mamoiada is home to Mamuthones and Issohadores. According to a ceremony which dates back to  ancient farming rites or to the Dyonisiac cult Mamuthones, subjugated by Issohadores, parade along the streets in a regular rhthm, as animals following their masters.

Mamuthones dress with dark sheep furs, wear unflappable masks carved from wild-pear tree and a feminine handkerchief (called sa videra) wrapped around the mask: they walk at a precise rhythm along with their companions, ringing in unison their cowbell tied to the back which weight up to 30 kg.

Mamuthones count always twelve, one for every month of the year.

Their short jumps are the scenic representation, in a fashion of dance, of the constant shift from a quiet state of mind to madness; the Mamuthones point to the final stop, where they will be sacrified.

The Issohadores (the guards) count eight. Free from the weight of the cowbells, they can move around the group of Mamuthones and threaten them with the soha, a mortal lace.

While Mamuthones are gloomy, dark and scaring, Issohadores dress colourful clothes, red coats on white trousers, a black embroidered shawl tied on the hips, a black hat wrapped under the chin with a coloured ribbon and a cross body leather belt.

The first official parade takes place January, 17th during the bonfire night dedicated to Saint Antony the great and Carnival kicks off.

 

3) Carnival in Orotelli: the “thurpos”

The “Thurpos” (the cripples) are the native Orotelli’s masks: smut-spotted-faces, long hand-made woollen coats. cowbells on their shoulder, they perform the daily rural life. While some act as shepherds, others (Thurpos Boes) act as oxes or blacksmiths who pretend to shoe oxes. Also the Thurpos ring the cowbells to push the devil away; during the parade, they usually catch people from the audience and force them to offer a drink, while, on Shove Thursday, it’s their turn to let everybody enjoy some wine before the dance “Su Ballu de sos Thurpos” takes place.

 

4) Carnival in Oristano: Su Componidori

In Oristano, Carnival is synonymous with Sartiglia, one of the few horse-ride still existent in Europe. The Sartiglia takes place the last Carnival Sunday and Tuesday. The Componidori is the main character of the show: he’s chosen by the Guilds of Farmers and Carpenters and bears the responsibility for the harvest of the year. The more he’ll center the star with his sword, the fruitful the harvest will be.

Among the Sardinian maske, the Componidori is perhaps the most hieratic: the knight chosen to be the Componidori turns into sacred symbol for the whole community, after he gets dressed by the women.

Once dressed with the typical garments (white leather trousers, shirt, “coietto”, top hat, a lace veil and the mask), The Componidori can’t touch the ground anymore and will mount his horse from a table (sa mesitta). He will stay on top of his horse up until the end of the ride.

He starts the ride trying to skewer the star at a gallop then he leaves the scene to the remaining knights. When the ride is over, the Componidori moves into the Piazza Manno and starts Sa Remada, the ride where he lays down on his back at a gallop, blessing the crowd with a bunch of violets (Sa pippia de Maiu)

 

5) Carnival in Santulussurgiu: the faceless knights of Sa Carrela e Nanti

Another horse-ride is held in Santulussurgiu, a small town near Oristano. It called “Sa carrela ‘e Nanti” which means “the opposite street”. A crazy ride takes place along the unpaved road among the pairs decorated with the festive decorations. The street is the main road, Via Roma, a 350 meters long slope, which is covered with straw and sawdust for the occasion, is the natural stage for skilful knights who seems to fly over their horses’backs.

Crowd, knights and horses are the star attractions. The knights, all native of the small town, must wear the mask or paint their face along with a proven acrobatic skill.

 

6) Carnival in Bosa: Gioldzi and the Attittadoras

Carnival in Bosa, also known as Karrasegare, is perhaps the most joyful and funny feast out of all the Sardinian ones. Karrasegare starts on Fat Thursday when groups of masked locals visit private houses in search of yummy food to share together at dinner time.

It goes on Saturday, called “Saturday in the Cellars” where wine-makers open the doors and offers everybody a glass of wine. Karrasegare ends on Shrove Tuesday with the parade of Gioldzi (King George, Carnival’s symbol) and of the Attittadoras, black-dressed women who sing complaining at the same time for the king’s death. At sunset, they make way for the white masks which declare the end of Karrasegare.

 

7) Carnival in Tempio: Re Giorgio, Ghjolghju Puntogliu, and sa Mannena

King George, in local dialect Ghjolghju Puntogliu, is one the main masks of the allegoric Carnival in Tempio, too.

Who was King George, a constant presence in Sardinian Carnival? He’s Giorgi, a pagan god who – since the pre-roman age-  had to be propitiated with rites and sacrifices to get a rich harvest. Today, after six days of parties, he faces trial on Fat Thursday and is burnt at the stake along with all the problems of the region he’s responsible of.

Mannena is the beautiful girl who marries King George. She parades with Lu Traccogghju, a mix between a devil and an animal, la Reùla, a crowd of dead people and Su Linzolu Cupaltatu, the feminine characters covered by a sheet, unpredictable and disrespectful.

Carnival in Tempio is merry and joyful: it’s considered the best among the allegorical Carnivals, as well as those of Viarreggio, Fano e Cento.

 

8) Carnival in Cagliari: the Ratantira and  Cancioffali

Carnival in Cagliari has always been famous for its ironic mood. An attitude which belongs to true inhabitants of Cagliari, unconcerned, easy-going, ready to laugh about their companions but first of all about themselves.

Sa panettera (the baker)gossip par excellence, sa fiùda the inconsolable widow and a  su caddemis, the beggar are the main masks of the show. They represent the typical figures of the old times daily life.

Su banditori (the town crier) opens the parade. He walks along the old part of the town singing a mother goose that the inhabitants of Cagliari learn since they start to speak: “Càmbara, Càmbara, Càmbara e maccioni, pisciurrè, sparedda e mummungioni!”. It’s a hymn to the sea marked by hundreds of drums which follow the town crier and represent the real soul of the Ratantira.

Carnival ends with the Pentolaccia’s Day, when the bogus King George (Cancioffali) is burnt at the stake, among laughter and noise and people enjoy the last crazy night of fun before the Lent time.

Discover Carnival in Sardinia through its mysterious masks!

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