Sardinia’s Mamuthones: An Ancient Carnival | GoNOMAD Travel

Sardinia's Mamuthones: An Ancient Carnival | GoNOMAD Travel KIA Carnival

Stepping back in time with mamuthones

In Mamoiada, Sardinia, forget all this. Or at least be prepared for a deep, mystical experience.

Undisputed stars of this local version of the Carnival are the Mamuthones, pre-Christian traditional masquerades dating back more than 2,000 years. The mystery wafting around their origins makes them even more respected and loved.

The Mamuthones’ presence is felt all year long in Mamoiada, a rural village nestled on a quiet spot in the province of Nuoro, where everybody, from the smallest child to the centenarian, whispers solemnly when talking about them.

The costume of the Mamuthones
The costume of the Mamuthones

Ever-present in the conversations, minds, and memories of the Mamoiadìni, Mamoiada’s inhabitants, these fascinating figures have been silently undertaking their heavy legacy year after year, carrying on with their duty and conscious that age has not diminished their allure.

They’ve been doing so since the dawn of civilization and their reputation shows no sign of cooling.

The mystery of the beginning

In the past decades, a crowd of academics and historians have been trying to narrow down the countless theories around this tradition, in the effort to find an exhaustive explanation and possibly its exact origins.

A Mamuthone preparing for the ritual
A Mamuthone preparing for the ritual

I was soon amused to notice that some of the Mamuthones enjoy all the fuss in their honor and watch contentedly as researchers and scholars frantically delve into history and issue one theory after the other.

Natives seem to unconsciously know the answer to all questions, and unabashed, every year, the sacred ceremony takes place, for the sake of the community, today as it did in prehistoric times.

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“Even if I’ve always known the Mamuthones, and my father and grandfather before me,” confessed Salvatore Ladu, “still now, every time I see them parade, they give me the willies, and rest assured that this is the same for all Mamoiada’s inhabitants.

“The Mamuthones are more than just a masquerade for us, they are part of our identity, their presence is alive all year long.”

Arguably, today the most accredited theory sees this as a propitiatory ritual performed to augur well in the seasonal crossing from the dark winter to the warmer months of springtime and summer that lead to the new harvest.

As the main resources of Mamoiada are based on farming, the lives of their inhabitants were, and to some extent still are, heavily reliant on Mother Nature’s will.

Each Mamuthone carries sixty pounds of cowbells
Each Mamuthone carries sixty pounds of cowbells

“These kinds of ritual,” believes professor Marcello Madau, “are more likely to be found in mountain areas, where lives are strictly dependent on geographical facts.”

Peace for the soul

Leaving the rolling hills of the Campidano punctuated by grazing sheeps, and heading northwest toward the severe landscape of inland Barbagia, it appears immediately clear that if a tradition was to last out in the face of millennia, attempts of foreign colonization and the efforts of Christian authorities to erase all pagan worship, it could only have happened here.

Not only have the natives of this region preserved their cultural traditions remarkably well, but they have also managed to retain much of the original charm of the geographical settings: unspoiled and towering, the surrounding mountains offer an unforgettable scenery to first-time visitors.

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Pino helping a Mamuthone get dressed
Pino helping a Mamuthone get dressed

Mirroring the character of their geographical environment, locals are peaceful and reserved. Engaging them in a proper conversation can be nerve-racking, but at the same time, they are widely renowned for their inner capability to make every guest feel at home.

At this juncture I feel compelled to issue a little advice: if a Mamoiadìno offers you something to drink or eat, do not decline; it would be considered impolite and you would be bound to miss one of the home-grown, gastronomic delicacies typical of the area, such as lard and beans cooked in large pans and distributed at the end of the parade in the main piazza of the town.

During the festival, tourists get to share with locals a genuine and seductive way of living.

A simple appeal

Their appeal is simple: native, as well as visitors, are transported back in time into a world of primordial instincts when men didn’t shy away from negotiating their most basic needs directly with their divinities.

The three times a year the Mamuthones are due, all townspeople gather together, keeping their breath in the wait for them to appear

A Mamuthone in the parade
A Mamuthone in the parade

They show themselves in public for the first time on the 17th of January, on the occasion of Sant’ Antonio Abate (Saint Anthony Abate), festivity celebrated with some forty bonfires lit up in all Mamoiada’s squares and with the Mamuthones dancing around the main ones all night long.

In February, instead, the Mamuthones appear on Carnival Sunday and on Shrove Tuesday.

A ritual to remember

The moment of the dressing up, where the men get ready for the parade, is closed to the public, but Pino managed to introduce me into the heart of the feast-day, inside the backyard of the “Associazione Atzeni-Beccoi,” one of the two groups committed to organising the celebrations.

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All Mamuthones begin the rite meticulously laying their costumes on the ground and getting dressed with the help of “civilians.”

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