Sardinian Carnival – Rituals of death, metamorphosis and rebirth

Tempo di lettura: 4 minuti

Sardinia is a wonderful, paradise-like island in the very middle of the Mediterranean. I am fortunate enough that I am able to call it home. However, during my time in Venice, I have become aware of the fact that, for many non-Sardinians, my island is regarded as nothing more than a heavenly summer getaway. Nevertheless, Sardinia is much more than crystal-clear sea and white beaches: there are a number of other things to be discovered and explored.

This is the reason why I have decided to talk about a topic that is incredibly interesting, but unknown by most foreigners: Sardinian Carnival. The expression “Sardinian Carnival” is actually quite inadequate in itself, as it comprehends multiple forms of celebration, spread out over the hole island, that can acquire a very unique physiognomy in respect to one another and every manifestation can appear really distant from the others. Therefore, a good starting point to understand Sardinian Carnival and its various expressions can be etymology. In Sardinian, the concept of Carnival is expressed by the word “Carrasecare”, made up by two elements: “carra”, which means meat, and “secare” which means tearing or cutting. So, the word basically refers to the act of tearing meat apart.

While the Italian word “Carnival” is believed to have in origin a strong Christian connotation, as it referred to the act of removing meat from the diet in the days immediately before the Lent, is has been highlighted how the word “Carrasecare” finds its root in ancient and still pagan context. More specifically, the origin of Sardinian Carnival celebrations needs to be associated with violent and theatrical rituals linked with earth fecundation, the changing of the seasons (especially the passage from winter to spring) and, at one point, even with Dionysian cults and sacrifices, with the first ritual expressions dating back to more than 3000 years ago. Through the centuries, external influences started overlapping with the indigenous tradition, but in many parts of Sardinia the Carnivalesque rituals and celebrations that still take place nowadays have remained quite intact and many links with the pagan root can still be noticed. This is true especially for the more internal villages, as the mountainous central areas of the island are believed not to have been christianised up until at least the IX century A.D.

Coming back to etymology, the “carra” (meat) to which the word Carrasecare refers is not any kind of meat, but specifically flesh. This is because the ancient Sardinian Carnivalesque rituals (in analogy with other pagan Carnivalesque rituals in Greece and all over the Mediterranean) involved a sacrificial victim, probably a human at first, that had to be torn apart (act to which refers the word “secare”) and mauled, in order to commemorate the mythological death of Dionysus, the pagan god to whom the rituals were dedicated.
In fact, according to the myth, Dionysus died after being mauled by the Titans, only to then resurrect along with nature in spring.
This mythological reference is the reason why Carnivalesque rituals in Sardinian not only explicitly refer to death, but also to rebirth. The idea behind the rituals was that, thanks to the sacrifice, men would have the power to invoke and call for the god himself (Dionysus, probably commonly referred to in Sardinia as “Maimone”), who had the ability to propitiate rain and therefore good harvesting for the new coming season. It is evidently not by chance that celebrations took place (and take place to this day) in February or March, just before Spring and the harvesting season. This agricultural root is still very explicit in some cases. For example, “Sos Thurpos”, the typical Carnivalesque masks of the village of Orotelli, explicitly mimic the act of ploughing and they sing a doggerel that is a limpid reference to the god himself (in Sardinian: “Maimone, Maimone, abba cheret su laore, abba cheret s’ispicau, Maimone lodau”, translatable in English as “Maimone, Maimone, wheat wants water, grain wants water, Maimone, let you be worshipped”).

Of course, as previously said, with the passing of time and the multiple colonisations undergone by the island, this common pagan root evolved in a number of different ceremonies and rituals that can visually appear very diverse from one another. The famous “Sartiglia” from Oristano, the troubling masks of “sos Mamuthones” and “sos Issohadores” from Mamoiada, “sos Boes” and “sos Merdùles” from Ottana and many others are all different Carnivalesque expressions still present in Sardinia, each one traceable to a different village. Behind the visual variety of the celebrations, the common pagan origin can still be discovered and reconstructed behind every ritual at a more attentive regard. 

Some Carnivals have also exceptionally maintained essentially intact. A great example (and probably my personal favourite) is “su Battileddu”, from the small central village of Lula, near Nuoro. In Lula, the original ritual act of the animal/human sacrifice and its connection with the rebirth of nature harvesting is displayed vividly, through a fictitious and raw representation in which blood, cries and violence mingle with good wine, laughs, strong interaction with the public and conviviality.

Since words cannot substitute the power of experience, I hope to have tickled the imagination of the readers enough to make them want to see these rituals, especially “su Battileddu”, first-hand: I am pretty sure it will be an unforgettable experience and an opportunity to smile at the thought of Sardinia depicted as just another beautiful holiday island.        

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