Carnival in Sardinia is a rather heartfelt happening, rich in archaic fascination and traditional rituals. The colourful and lively celebrations during the whole week before Ash Wednesday are a moment of intense popular participation for many of the main centres and whole villages, whose inhabitants gather in the main squares to dance all evening long. People get involved in every celebration and actors and spectators are mixed up together, both in the dances and the lively parades.
Among the several celebrations dotted throughout Sardinia, the Carnival of Mamoiada is among the oldest folkloric events in Europe and surely the most famous in Sardinia. Everyone’s attention is focused on the parade where the main characters are the ghostly masks of the Mamuthones and Issohadores. Mamuthones - part men, part beasts - wear a black sheepskin coat, and a noisy tangle of cow-bells (su ferru) strapped to their backs and chests; like silent shadows or mysterious characters, mamuthones hide behind their dark wooden masks, called sa bisera, with prominent noses, chins and cheek-bones and holes for the eyes and mouth. The head is covered with a brown kerchief tied beneath the chin. Sa bisera, at once dramatic and grotesque, represents silence and impassibility. The noise of cowbells counterbalances the silence of the faces.
Issohadores, which move with mamuthones, wear a colourful costume: red cloth jacket, brass-studded belt, white cloth pants (once made of dark velvet), a multi-coloured small fringed shawl and a berritta (cap) held by a handkerchief. Some have an austere white mask which covers their face. Issohadores carry sa soha, a rush rope, in their hand. They usually play a special role in the performance: while the mamuthones hop around, shaking their bells in unison, the issohadores round them up, and lasso people attending the parade. The parade ends in the main square with everybody joining the ballu tundu, the traditional circular dance. As a conclusion to three days of dancing and parading on the square and through the village streets, on Mardi Gras, a puppet symbolising Carnival is placed on a cart and driven through the streets of the village by men dressed as mourners, who grieve his death and sing their bereavement.
If you are in Mamoiada, you should pay a visit to the Mediterranean Mask Museum which traces the history of all the local carnivals throughout the ages.
At Orotelli Carnival is animated by sos thurpos ("the blind people"), characters wearing a heavy coarse woolen overcoat worn by shepherds during the cold season, and with their faces blackened with burnt cork. The dominant colour is black, black faces and black clothes prevail. Two of the thurpos are yoked as oxen to a plough, in a farcical and ironic mime, a sort of theatrical play which represents the relationship between man and animal, with oxen-thurpos rebelling against the farmers. In the end, thurpos and farmers ally themselves to capture people from the public and get them to pay for drinks.
In Ottana, a big village right in the centre of the island, participants wear surprising scary animal masks, which are likely to hold you spellbound with their mystery. Boes wear sheep pelts with a belt adorned with heavy cowbells across their chests. Their faces are hidden by horned masks designed to look like an ox. The costume of merdules represents a rough, humpbacked and uncouth cattleman wearing sheep pelts. His face is hidden by a grotesque mask adorned with carvings and coloured engravings. Together with other zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures and among bursts of enthusiasm, these main characters parade the streets of Ottana in disorderly fashion, mimicking man’s struggle with animals through fights and beatings, performing a ritual of an almost totemic quality.
In Oristano, the last Carnival day is dedicated to the Sartiglia, an equestrian tournament during which the jockeys, dressed up with ancient traditional costumes, compete in sticking hanging stars on a spear. The number of stars collected foretells the success of the harvest. It is evident that the carnival rites mirror ancient pagan traditions connected to earth’s fertility.
The carnival in Bosa is quite different still, as it is characterized by the creativity and originality of the costumes. A figure dressed in the traditional costume of Laldaggiolu opens the parades on the Thursday, Saturday, and Monday preceding Ash Wednesday. During the parades the people of Bosa satirize the idiosyncrasies and faults of their fellow-citizens. For the grand finale on Shrove Tuesday a group dressed in mourning costumes improvises a funeral lament - s’attitidu - full of jokes and sexual innuendoes. In the evening everyone dresses in a white costume, carrying a lantern, to personify the end of carnival.
Finally, in Cagliari, Carnival includes parades of allegorical floats and costumed figures converging into a square where a dummy called Cancioffali -king of artichokes- is burned on a huge bonfire.