07 Feb Carnival in Sardinia
The carnival is a festivity celebrated all over the world. The most famous celebrations, which attract thousands of tourists every year take place in Rio de Janeiro, Cologne and Venice. However, also the island of Sardinia has extremely rich and still rather unknown carnival traditions, which strongly reflect the ancient rituals, cults and beliefs ingrained on the island over the centuries.
Origins and meaning of the Sardinian carnival
Despite the religious dimension of contemporary carnivals, the roots of Sardinian carnival date back to the pre-christian times and old pagan rites. The festivity begins traditionally in the night between the 16th and 17th of January, with the all-night-burning bonfires of Saint Anthony. It is believed that St. Anthony stole a spark from the Kingdom of Hell and gave fire to the mankind. He is also the saint patron of pastoralism and agriculture, which for centuries were one of the main activities on the island.
The traditions of Sardinian carnival are reflections of the strong agro-pastoral culture of the island. The figures often wear stark, simple, wooden zoomorphic masks, costumes made of animals’ furs and other tools used in pastoralism. They reveal a close connection between the human beings and their animals, the pastors and the sheep. The carnival is not only a period before the Christian Lent, but also a celebration of the end of winter and the arrival of spring, a rebirth after death. Traditional rituals and dances aim at bringing good luck, prosperity and fertility in the upcoming months.
Carnival in Sardinian cities
The traditions of Sardinian carnival vary in different cities of the island. Some of the most interesting are the following:
1. Carnival of Bosa – Karrasegare
The culmination day of Bosa’s carnival is Mardi Gras (Martedì Grasso) and the main character of the event is Gioldzi, a puppet which symbolises the carnival. The celebrations start in the morning with S’Attittidu, the keen, during which the inhabitants of Bosa walk out on the streets wearing black long black dresses and funeral shawls, often with their faces painted in black. Each person brings a doll or a puppet, a personification of Gioldzi. They walk through the streets with the dolls in their hands asking for milk to keep the baby Gioldzi, the dying carnival, alive. In the evening the black parade turns into a white one; the participants wear white clothes and start looking for Gioldzi around the city. The night culminates in bonfires where Gioldzi puppets are burned and in this way give a symbolic end to the carnival.
2. Carnival of Mamoiada – Mamuthones and Issohadores
Mamoiada is a little town in the center of Sardinia inhabited by only 2,5 thousand people. The carnival celebrations start on the night of St. Anthony with a parade of Mamuthones and Issohadoers, figures from the very ancient tradition and still not certainly known origin. Mamuthones, mysterious beast-like creatures are dressed in black sheep furs, stark black wooden masks and bells of different sizes attached to their backs, which can weigh up to 40 kilograms. They proceed slowly in two rows, surrounded by Issohadores, light creatures, in white masks and joyful clothes. The origins of the ritual are not certain; some scholars state that the tradition comes from the ancient Greek dance for Dionysus, others that it might be related to the pastoral traditions of the island.
3. Carnival of Ovodda – Don Conte
The Ovodda carnival takes place on Ash Wednesday. The main character of the event is a human-size puppet, Don Conte, which symbolise the religious and politic power. On the celebration day the inhabitants of the city dress the puppet in a long tunic, put him on the back of a donkey and stroll with Don Conte around the streets while singing and making fun of him all the way long. In the evening the figure is brought to a symbolic trial, which always ends with a punishment: the puppet is burned and its ashes are thrown in an escarpement. After the ritual the inhabitants of Ovodda start a night-long celebration.
4. Carnival of Ottana – Sos Boes and Sos Merdules
Another Sardinian town which cultivates carnival in a strong connection with the pastoral tradition is Ottana. The main two figures of the carnival parade are Sos Boes and Sos Merdules, the oxen and the pastors. The characters of Sos Boes are dressed in wooden masks with long horns, furs and bells. Sos Merdules, the pastors, conduct the oxen tied with ropes and make sure that the beasts, despite their continuous attempts, don’t escape during the parade.
Another fascinating Sardnian carnival, Sartiglia, takes place in Oristano. We will present in detail in the next article.