Thoughts hanging on the clothesline: The mystery of the Sardinian ‘Mamoiada Masks’.
Summer holidays spent travelling around Italy were over, and I lounged in my garden before flying back to Hong Kong, finding some time for myself – at last. I looked around and took note, with more attention, of what surrounded me in the garden. The palm tree, the hibiscus and the rhododendron drove my reminiscences to a place of dry land and amazing flowers: Sardinia. So, I picked up my first memory from the clothes line – a very useful tool for hanging my thoughts in the open air…
This time, our first exploration led us to the innermost part of the island, Barbagia. We arrived at Mamoiada first, since we wished to visit the ‘Museum of Mediterranean Masks’. Once inside, we fist watched a very well made short documentary that virtually took us into a very particular celebration, ‘The Mamoiada Carnival’, and the making of black, gory wooden masks and brass cowbells of all sizes, used during this occasion by the Mamuthones. The Mamuthones are characters dressed in black sheep skin that wear black wooden masks and loads of heavy cowbells strung onto their back and torso. They move, or better dance, following precise rhythm and steps. The Mamuthones are always accompanied by the Issohadores, who instead wear a white mask and colourful garments. They carry a lasso (the soha) that they swing around, and it is a sign of good luck to be caught by it.
There are various interpretations of the role of these two different characters, which belong to the fascinating folklore of Sardinia. The Mamuthones supposedly represent ‘death’, and the passing of the months (since there are twelve such masks), and the ever-important man-animal connection. The sound of the cowbells is supposed to frighten the bad spirits and reawaken nature. The Issohadores have more human characteristics and wear a Spanish-looking attire: a red jacket with white pants. They play the role of the Mamuthones’ guardians, and watch their each and every step. Both masks are protagonists of a mysterious ceremony that dates back to Sardinian agropastoral traditions and possibly to the rituals connected to Dionysus, the god killed and then reborn, like Nature in spring.
The Mamuthones appear on the streets of Mamoiada on 17th of January, on the day celebrating Saint Anthony Abbot, and bonfires are lit in all the town’s squares. The synchronised steps taken by the Mamuthones around the fire, and the mesmerising sound of the bells as they move is already in itself an almost otherworldly experience. It seems that the men who wear the Mamuthones’ costume, as they say, go through a real metamorphosis. Dressed in that way, they do not represent something or someone else but they take a completely new identity, and therefore see the world with different eyes.
There were other masks and costumes at the museum, and some of the most beautiful ones represented animals, like the Boes (ox), typical of another celebration held in Barbagia, the Ottana Carnival.
The Mamoiada and the Ottana Carnivals are probably connected, since there are many affinities between the two events. In Ottana, the Boes are worshipped creatures that follow the orders of the Merdules (anthropomorphic masks). I noticed that, all over Sardinia, in jewellery and decorative art, the ox is a recurring theme. Despite the fact that, economically, sheep and goats have more value on the island, the ox was the animal revered in various cultural areas, like Crete, Spain and the Armorica region of France. In Sardinia, findings of the Nuragic period witness the presence of ox-like heads, bronzes and decorations. The ox represented power, and the shepherd thus became the master of a bigger animal, stronger than him. The herd did not really do heavy-duty work, though. It only grazed grass, and it co-existed with men.
Whatever the true meaning of these masks, a question arises. Did the masks from Ottana date back to earlier times, compared to the ones from Mamoiada? Or was it the other way round? Once again, this is another fascinating Sardinian story that is still open to various interpretations.
I loved the Museum and I admired its ambition to become a reference point for the many masks belonging to the folkloristic traditions of the Mediterranean area outside Italy too. There was a room hosting pieces from north of Italy, Greece, Spain and Eastern Europe. But the dark gaze of the Mamuthones was matchless. It told us that if ‘A midnight hour comes when everyone has to take off his mask’, in the words of Søren Kirkegaard, there are times when a mask is needed to gain a brand new identity, to become something or someone entirely different.
I recommend this short video, to get a better idea of Mamoiada’s unique celebration, which I am now determined to attend, hopefully soon.