In Sardinia, the Carnival of the Mamuthones is a pre-Christian traditional ritual dating back more than 2,000 years. Monstrous characters boast thick hair, black faces and are burdened with the weight of 60 pounds of cattle bells hanging around their body. Still today, they frighten babies, old men and Nonnas as they rhythmically stomp and grunt through villages, yet this tradition thousands of years old goes on...
The precise meaning of the name, Mamuthones is lost in time and a subject of discussion and debate, but you can think of it as an ancient pagan God of the changing seasons, from winter to spring, and sacrificing for the new year of growth, good rains and successful harvests.
These monsters show themselves first time in the town of Mamoiada and also in Ottana on the 17th of January, the saint day of Sant’Antonio Abate, with forty bonfires lighting up piazze, while the Mamuthones dance throughout the night. Again in February, Mamuthones appear on Carnival Sunday and on .
Magnificent, long-horned Mamuthones, above (note the real sheep's head, center). A bearded herd, below.
The masks themselves are amazing works of folk art, carved from fig, elm, chestnut or walnut and blackened to a frightening effect. The costume is made of black sheep skins which are heavy and weigh down the Mamuthone, arranged on the back are a series of carriga (bells) which are said to scare away evil spirits.
The Mamuthone legacy is shrouded in secrecy and there is little documented evidence on their origins, but there is evidence that Mamuthones have been involved in some sort of ritual from the beginnings of the Nuraghic Age (early Sardinian culture) from the 18th century BC (earlier than the Bronze Age) to the 2nd century AD.
An Issohadores lassos his Mamuthone
Others argue that it’s a festival to celebrate the victory of the Sardinian shepherds (Issohadores) against the Saracens invaders who imprisoned the Mamoiadini leading them into a dark, cold cave. Another theory is based on meaning of the roots of the name Mamuthones, supposedly calling the rains to the roots--again, appeasing the Gods to give good rains. The last theory is simply to honor the animals which Sardinians depend on for so much... wool for clothing, milk for cheeses and their meat.
The Issohadore in full regalia
Other characters, called Issohadore are in charge of the ritual and their tethered Mamuthones, protecting their beasts from harm or evil spirits--or the curious onlookers during the procession through the village. With their rope lassos they will often wrangle the pretty women in the crowd boasting health and fertility. The Issohadore wears a colorful headdress, white mask, a bright red waistcoat, white shirt, trousers, gold buttons, a band of bells in bronze, shawl, woolen leggings, leather boots and their lasso.
This area of Sardinia is an interesting place to visit, often with surprising things to see and experience, unique in all the world. For instance, all around the countryside you might feel like you are in a Celtic region once you see all the monolithic stones standing guard with their carved concentric stones--looking very much like similar stone alignments in Brittany or the British Isles. You will also come across many conical shaped ruins of castles and other structures left behind from the precursors of the Sardinian people... the Nuraghe. Their chopped-top cones and spiraled, organic patterns and shapes made by the layout of their settlement walls makes one ponder how scary it must have been so many thousands of years ago when their own Mamuthones were lassoed and pulled through their tight passageways...
If you travel to these villages other times of the year, don't worry... the locals live with the Mamuthunes all year long, with museums displaying their best costumes and masks, statues in piazze and frescoes on walls in the villages.