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The fires of Sant’Antonio Abate: a trip to Mamoiada

The beginning of Carnival in Sardinia is marked by a suggestive event which ends up in a memorable show: the fires of Sant’Antonio Abate.

This festival is actually widespread throughout Italy, but in Sardinia, it marks the first release of the typical masks: Mamuthones and Issohadores in Mamoiada, Boes, Merdules, and Filonzana in Ottana, S’Urtzu and Su Pimpirimponi in Sadali.

Participants can not remain emotionless: it’s an ancestral rite, which has its roots in the legend according to which St. Antonio Abate, stole the spark in the underworld and gave it to men to protect themselves from freezing temperatures.

Who was Sant’Antonio Abate?

Sant’ Antonio Abate, protector of pets

Born in Egypt and died on January 17th,  in 357, he’s also known as the Anchorite, but also St. Anthony of fire or St. Anthony of Egypt.

Thaumaturge and patron saint of lost causes, he is known as the protector of pets and often depicted with a piglet at his side.

On 17th January, in fact, it is customary to bring pets to church for the blessing.

The fires of Sant’Antonio Abate in the villages of Sardinia

In Sardinian language bonfires take various names:

– Sas tuvas in the Oristano area

– Sos focos in the Nuorese

– Sas frascas in Ogliastra

– Su romasinu in Dorgali

– Is foghidonis at Sadali and St. Andrea Frius

This tradition is widespread everywhere, but the fires of Sant’ Antonio Abate in Mamoiada are unmissable.

The lighting of the fires coincides with the first release of the year of Mamuthones and Issohadores and then with the start of the carousel of the other masks in all those countries that boast their own mask, full of history and mystery.

You may have already read about Mamuthones and Issohadores in our blog post about the mysterious Sardinian masks.

Mamuthones and Issohadores make the first appearance

In a ceremony, which dates back to prehistory’s through-farming rites or to the Dionysian rites, the Mamuthones, subjugated by the Issohadores, parade along the streets with precise order and rhythm, like animals following their masters.

The Mamuthones wear a dark sheepskin, a mask with an inexpressive and imperturbable appearance, obtained from the wild pear tree, a female handkerchief on their head (sa visera): they walk with rhythmic jumps together with their companions, making the 30 kilos of cowbells tied on their backs ring in unison.

The Mamuthones are always twelve, one for each month of the year.

The jumps are the representation, in the fashion of dance, of the everlasting passage from an average state of mind to the one of madness, such a Dionysian ecstasy: the Mamuthones, with rhythmic movements, go towards the final stage, where a ritual sacrifice awaits them.

The Issohadores (the guardians) are always eight: free from the weight of the cowbells, they can move with ease around the group of the Mamuthones and threaten them with the soha, the mortal lace.

The traditions of the fires of Sant’Antonio Abate, of dancing around the columns of fire lit in the main squares, where men offer wine and women the typical sweets (papassinu biancu and nigheddu, caschettas and coccone with honey and saffron in Mamoiada) characterizes many other villages of the regions of Nuorese, Sassarese and Ogliastra.

The celebrations take place in Abbasanta, Aidomaggiore, Bosa, Bolotana, Budoni, Ovodda, Ollolai, Nuoro, Orgosolo, Orosei, Orotelli, Ortueri, Ottana, Ovodda, Pabillonis, Paulilatino, Posada, Sadali, Samugheo, San Nicolò Arcidano, San Teodoro, San Vito, Sarule, Sassari, Sedilo, Seui, Silanus, Sorgono, Teti, Torpè, Torralba, Tortolì, Triei, Tuili, Urzulei and Villagrandestrisaili.

bonfire in Mamoiada
the crowd gathers around the bonfire
Mamoiada's typical masks
Little issohadores
Murales in Mamoiada
Murales in Mamoiada

Three laps around the fire for a grace

Tradition has it that in order to obtain a grace from San’Antonio, one must turn three times clockwise and counterclockwise around the fire. We did it too: it’s impossible not to get carried away!

Photo credit: Francesca Spagnoletti

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