This is the last of my row of articles dedicated to the historical setting of ŠRDN – From Bronze and Darkness and I would like to talk about some Sardinian cultural uses that crossed the centuries, part of the Island’s present tradition and great inspiration for our best dark-fantasy novels: masks. Sardinia – under the surface of Christianity – still keeps pagan rituals, rooted in its ancestral spirituality, alive. These rituals are linked to the rural celebration of the “Wheel of the Year” and they are particularly spectacular during the period of Carnival.
Meanwhile in Venice noble masks like Lynch’s Locke Lamora – not older than a couple of centuries – parade cheerfully with elegance on the streets, in Sardinia herds of masked bull-sheep demons stroll mute around town, progenies of winter which must be chased away and killed. The most famous and impressive are the Mamuthones. These demon-like costumes are typical of the village of Mamoiada: black pear wood masks cover their face, a rough coat of sheepskin wraps the body and 30 kilograms of brass cowbells hang on their shoulders. They don’t speak; for almost a daylong they walk in a number of twelve and, with a precise combination of steps, they jump in a crash of bells, cutting the breath of the viewers. The ceremony is a dramatic experience. Mamuthones are “guarded” by four couples of Issohadores, another traditional mask, utterly white, red dressed and holding ropes, which represents the human domination towards the demons of the earth.
Many villages have different masks – like the Maimulu of Ulassai – but the concept remains similar, as the names do together with the origins. All the mentioned words like Mamuthone, Maimulu, even the village of Mamoiada and many other places, recall Maimone, a Sardinian “demon” that – in the islander’s language (an independent language, not an Italian dialect) – crossed centuries as a “water god” (close to Phoenician God of Rain). As Sardinia is very dry in summer, water was the essential manifestation of the power of nature, and its protector was no one else but Dionysus (in its Greek manifestation). In Greek, this god was called Mainoles (“madly wild”) and the Maenads – his female masked ministers –were called Mainades (“crazy”). The term “Maimoon” in Greek indicated a person who was willing to be possessed by gods and, last but not least, the contemporary Sardinian word for Carnival “Carrasecare” is a derivation of “harra’e sehare”, meaning “human flesh torn to pieces”, with a clear allusion to Dionysus’s mythological death: eaten by the Titans.
These are just etymological hints of the ancestral soul of Sardinian Carnival rituals, but the very view of the dark ceremony is an eloquent-enough validation. The second most impressive costumes belong to the village of Ottana and they are called Boes e Merdùles. Like Mamuthones, the Boes (“oxen”) openly represent beasts: they are dressed in white sheepskin and wear brown masks with enormous horns. The figure guarding them is the Merdùle, a man with a distorted face on his mask, both indicating its wrathful power and the signs of hardship in the countryside. The name Merdùle in fact comes from mere-de-ule (“owner of oxen”): herdsman. And you’ll meet a “version” of him on the novel.
There are many other dancing demons: the Thurpos of Orotelli – black dressed men with their faces covered in soot; the Cotzulados, with yellow-ochre faces and hanging sea shells; the Filonzana, a solitary elder woman holding the spun of fate like Norse Norns; and the Battileddu of Lula, the goriest of all, with face covered in smut and blood, a goat stomach pierced on his horns and a bull stomach hanging from his belly. This last organ is filled with blood, which must be spilled out by the ritual onslaught of the crowd.
We arrived at the end of this short journey in Sardinian mysteries. It is an ancient island, with such a rich cultural heritage that it would be difficult not to write fantasy novels about. If you want to find out the way I personally plotted some and many more of these archaeological, historical and cultural elements, grab ŠRDN – From Bronze and Darkness and sharpen your sword.