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Sardinia and Carnival, between folklore and tradition


The carnival is among the ritual festivals, the oldest in the world. It is a mix of elements taken from the pagan agro-pastoral world and elements linked to the Christian religion that blend together with popular culture and tradition, uniting superstition, magic, esotericism ending in the most brutal transgression. Carnival was born to overturn the customs, values and norms of everyday life, preceding Lent, in which sacrifice, silence, toil and the expiation of sins return.

In Sardinia, the origins of Carnival are to be found in the agrarian rituals that in Roman times marked the passage between winter and spring. The etymology of the word Carnival, according to some scholars, refers to the Roman expression 'carnem levare' alluding to the elimination of meat before Lent, at the last banquet held on so-called Shrove Tuesday.

For the Romans, an early expression of carnival was the 'Saturnalia', celebrations in honour of Saturn, the Italic deity of agriculture. The Saturnalia began on 17 December and continued for seven days during which everything was allowed (eating, drinking, joking), but in particular the exchange of social roles was permitted: slaves could temporarily consider themselves free men and as such, could behave.
With the coming of Christianity and the consequent suppression of all pagan festivities, Carnival continued to be celebrated, losing, however, its magical and ritual content; it remained simply a form of popular entertainment.

This is why the presence of fire as a propitiatory element for the return of the sun and the fertility of the fields becomes fundamental and recurrent. The fires of Sant’Antonio in Sardinia kick off Carnival, during which, on 17 January, the Mamuthones make their first official appearance in Mamoiada.

Carnival reaches its climax on Shrove Tuesday, when fetishes are burnt as a scapegoat for all the community's ills, in a liberating sense.

Sa Ratantira in Piazza Costituzione in Cagliari. Photo: Vistanet

The Carnival of Cagliari: 'sa Ratantira' and the burning of 'Cancioffali'.

Compared to the Barbagia Carnival, the Cagliari Carnival has always had less resonance, but on the other hand it boasts a very long tradition that, in recent years, is fortunately being rediscovered. The central moment is the masked procession to the rhythm of the drums, known as 'Ratantira'. During the procession, a procession of masked figures sets the rhythm of the walk to the sound of drums, bass drums and cymbals, involving the participants in an excited dance. The term 'ratantira' is onomatopoeic and alludes to the 'fan tan tan' sound generated by the drums that draws and involves the crowd in the dance. During 'Sa Ratantira', a number of traditional masks make their appearance, caricatures of the people of Cagliari that have been codified since the Spanish era. Famous among them is that of 'sa panettera', the typical baker of the Villanova district, known as much for her rich and sumptuous dress and abundance of jewellery as for her vulgarity and irreverence. But the pivotal figure in the Cagliari Carnival is that of King George, also called 'King Cancioffali', a large crowned fetish symbolising power in all its forms and the ineptitude that often characterises those who embody it. 'Cancioffali' is carried in procession and then burnt in Via Santa Margherita with a large bonfire on Shrove Tuesday.

Parade of the Mamuthones and Issohadores. Photo: Mamoiada Tourism

The Barbagia Carnival: between Mamoiada and Ottana

Unlike the goliardic and playful atmosphere of the Cagliari Carnival, the Barbagia Carnival, on the other hand, is characterised by its dark and gloomy nature in which the passage from darkness to light, from liberation from earthly sins to the triumph of good over evil become inseparable elements of a tradition that probably has its roots in the mists of time. Among the most famous in Sardinia, the carnivals of Mamoiada and Ottana celebrate the dichotomy between opposites: Mamuthones and Issohadores in Mamoiada and Boes and Merdules in Ottana represent the triumph of wealth over misery, of youth over old age. Darkness, death and magic are characteristic elements of the Barbagiada carnival culture, representing a dialogue with death that is seen as an indispensable condition for evolution and survival.

Mamuthones and Issohadores

Noisy, corpulent, grotesque and solemn, in the Carnival of Mamoiada the 12 Mamuthones parade in rows of two in front of the procession, clanging their solemn ox bells in different rhythms, the only noise in absolute silence. They wear a wooden mask, called a 'bisera', with a frowning, grotesque expression and are covered in animal skins and hair.

The Mamuthones open the procession and are followed by the Issohadores. Their task in Carnival is to express the brutality of the beast, the animal instinct, tracing the cultural roots of this tradition back to archaic times.

The Issohadores close the procession opened by the 12 Mamuthones, walking behind them in a composed and orderly manner. There are six of them, dressed luxuriously and wearing a black cap, white shirt and red cloth tunic. An essential characteristic is the white mask with delicate features and, unlike the Mamuthones, absolutely expressionless.

In their confident gait, the Issohadores hold the long reed rope ('sa soca', hence the name Isso(c)adores) that they throw like a whip through the crowd to catch their prey, particularly women.

Ottana – Boes and Merdules. Photo: Wikipedia

Boes and Merdules

Boes and Merdules embody the soul of the Ottana Carnival.

The Boes wear a mask on their face, 'sa caratza', which has the features of an ox and bears various decorations, the most famous of which is the 'flower of life', a symbol of prosperity, hope and good omen. The Boes wear sheepskins and the ever-present and characteristic cowbells.

The Merdules wear a mask with anthropomorphic features, similar to that of the Mamuthones, but like the Issohadores they try to be in command throughout the parade. They too are covered in white sheep skins and use a stick, 'su matzuccu', with which they summon the Boes or attempt to tame them using a leather rope, also called 'sa soca'.

Sa Filonzana during the first appearance of the masks at Ottana on the occasion of Fuochi di Sant'Antonio.
Photo: Matteo Carta

Sa Filonzana

In the Ottana Carnival, besides the Boes and Merdules, another figure often appears, called 'Sa Filonzana', the spinner.

It is a man who personifies a lame, ugly and deformed old woman intent on spinning wool. This carnival figure is interpreted by a man because, just as in the theatre, women were not allowed to take part in the carnival and therefore the female characters were also played by men. The thread represents life and she is ready to cut it with a pair of scissors in front of anyone who does not offer her a drink. This is an obvious reference to the Fates of Greek myth, whom the Romans called 'Moire'. It is the filonzana who orders the Boes to die, and they fall to the ground, and only after a few minutes do they get up and start parading again, symbolising the cycle of life.

The Sartiglia of Oristano

The Sartiglia is one of the oldest equestrian jousts in the Mediterranean and still today represents an event very much felt by the Oristanese and Sardinians in general, embodying exactly the sense of spectacular choreography of Carnival in the broadest sense. The Sartiglia is celebrated on the last Sunday and Tuesday of Carnival and involves a horse race that the horsemen - and in particular one of them, known as 'Su Componidori' - run through the streets of the old town centre with the aim of hitting the target with a sword: the famous golden star, hung in mid-air by a green ribbon.

The winning of the star is synonymous with good luck, failure on the other hand alludes to bad luck. Still of uncertain and debated origin, the term Sartiglia derives from the Castilian 'sortija', meaning 'ring', incorporating within it the term 'sors' meaning luck. Within the Sartiglia, therefore, survive probably some of the most interesting and least explored aspects of pagan rituality, contaminated by ceremonials of Christian origin. The race is in fact linked to the cyclical nature of the seasons and its raison d'être is the propitiation of the harvest.

Knight looking contentedly at the star, which he has just stabbed with his sword.
Photo: Antonio Casu

'Su Componidori' is the knight par excellence, the leader of the race, characterised by his mask with clear androgynous features. And the term alludes to the public ritual dressing that 'Su Componidori' awaits in order to be 'born'. It is up to him to perform the delicate task of piercing the star with his sword, and his figure is given a ritual celebratory importance that constitutes a magical and superstitious moment actively experienced by the entire community, from the moment of his dressing. From the moment he dons the mask, 'Su Componidori' is unreachable and distant, just like a god. It is not only the mask that gives him asexual appearance: the black top hat on his head, the veil, the shirt full of puffs and lace, the waistcoat and the leather belt are elements that denote an appearance somewhere between a man and a woman.

Su Componidori together with su Secundu. Photo: Antonio Casu

The race to the star concludes with the famous Pariglie race, during which the riders perform, alone or in groups, one after the other, in spectacular and dangerous acrobatics on the backs of their horses. highlighting qualities such as courage, dexterity and the harmony between man and animal.

Bibliographic references

Roberta Carboni has been a tourist guide and art historian for more than 10 years. She lives in Cagliari and is passionate about Sardinia, which she has loved so much, all her life, which is why she has chosen to tell its story through exclusive thematic tours. In this way, she contributes to making the island known not only to those who do not yet know it, but also to the Sardinians themselves. The tours take place both within Cagliari, i.e. in the historic centre and other parts of the city, and in the surroundings of the city, going also to the south and centre of Sardinia.

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