article by Austa Somvichian-Clausen first appeared 6th October 2017 on National Geographic Magazine.
An ancient ceremony in the heart of a wild country celebrates the rebirth of spring.
A mysterious, ancient tradition takes place each year in Mamoiada, a small village tucked into the middle of wild and mountainous Sardinia.
On the day of Saint Anthony, the saint protector of animals and fire, the men of the village transform to become Mamuthones and Issohadores. Complementing one another like yin is to yang, mamuthones echo the darkness, while issohadores rope in the light.
Bonfires roar across not only the village, but all of Sardinia in observance of the holiday. One of the most popular festival days in the country, the occasion is meant to banish the cold chill of winter in exchange for the sweeter invitation of spring. It is on that day that the villagers of Mamoiada share their uniquely haunting procession of song, dance, and solemnity.
The stars of the show, the Mamuthones, represent the inhabitants of the kingdom of the dead, as well as the shepherd’s strong connection between man and his beasts. They don anthropomorphic, grotesque masks created by local artisans—accentuated by jutting features and slick black paint. Heavy copper cowbells sewn onto thick straps of leather hang tightly from their backs like tortoise shells, threatening to drag their bodies to the ground. Thin hoods of fabric drape over their heads, and darkly colored sheep pelts hide their shoulders, backs, and torsos.
In contrast, Issohadores parade around in red tunics and black bandoliers, a bell-adorned sash hanging across their bodies.
The procession begins in front of the largest church in the village. Led by an Issohadore, twelve Mamuthones begin their solemn, rhythmic pace forward. Lurching under the weight of up to 60 pounds of copper bells, they do not pay the public any attention.
Lively issohadores twirl thin reed ropes, catching young women in the crowd. They continue like this from early afternoon until late evening, until each of the bonfires in the village have been reached.
Dating back over two thousand years, the true origin of the pre-Christian tradition is heavily disputed by scholars. Some argue that it dates back to the indigenous Nuragic civilization and was originally intended as a gesture of reverence for animals, and to serve as protection from evil spirits.
Filmmaker Andrea Pecora (short film) feels a deep connection to these traditions thanks to Sardinian ancestry on his mother’s side. He hopes to share Sardinian culture with the world and says experiencing the tradition of the mamuthones was especially meaningful.
“The tension was clearly visible in the men’s eyes, and the creeping fire and holy atmosphere was something magical,” says Pecora. “I hope I’ve captured all of this into my work.”