Masks in Sardinia

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      > Mamuthones

During Carnival in Sardinia, especially in the inner parts, ancient traditions and popular customs that are full of mystery come back to life.

In Mamoiada, in the Barbagia region of Ollolai, the very ancient tradition of the “mamutḥnes” and the “issohaḍres” has been conserved. It is one of the most archaic rituals dating back to the nuragic or pre-nuragic eras, according to certain studies.

The mamuthones attire is characterized by the mastruca ( a shepherd’s leather jacket ) made of black sheepskin, velvet trousers, farmer boots, a hat over which a brown woolen head square, typical women’s attire, is placed and tied around the neck and a tragic wooden mask ( sa bisèra ) covering the face.  This facial mask features a large and prominent open mouth, eyebrow arches that are always very marked, a large beak-like nose and a protruding chin.  Over their shoulders they wear heavy bunches of bells ( sa carriga ).

The issohaḍres wear white pants and shirts, a red vest, a Sardinian beret where a colorful handkerchief is placed over it, knotted up-side-down, and a polychrome shawl around the waist.  They are equipped with an inseparable soca, a long rush rope used as a lazo. 

Usually, the mamutḥnes are elderly people, whereas the issohaḍres are much younger.

During the mamutḥnes performance, usually a dozen that symbolize the twelve months of the year, stand in two perfectly aligned columns of six.  The issohaḍres are usually eight but may be more.

The mamutḥnes walk along the streets of the village at a slow pace that is heavy and pronounced. They step forward with the left foot and throw forward the right shoulder in unison; then they do the opposite. Sometimes they might take three quick leaps to then fall back again to the ground even more heavily. All this is accompanied by the violent sound of bells that contribute in making this march as gloomy as possible, as if they are proceeding towards a sad as much unavoidable fate. No one of them dares to talk, leaving the charm of this parade solely to the gesture nature of the event.

The issohaḍrespace is smoother and lighter.   They move more freely. Their task, besides that of protecting the mamutḥnes, consists of catching those who are taking part of the procession with their “soca.

Overall, it is a classic, dramatic pantomime, that calls for losers as well as winners.  The losers are the mamutḥnes; the winners are the issohaḍres, who are favorable to the imminent spring, underlining the relationship between the farmer-shepherd’s life. The parade is in fact a greeting rite for the arrival of the good season.

The hypothesis on the origin and the meaning of this rite are several. 

The anthropologist Raffaello Marchi brings forward the hypothesis that this ceremony may represent “both a totemic rite of taming the ox and, in a more recent period, one of those ritual processions that Sardinians of the nuragic civilization must have performed very often to honor their little agricultural and pastoral deities. In both instances, we can imagine, instead of the mamutḥnes, a herd of real oxen, all decorated with garlands and dressed up for the celebration, being part of a procession lead by the herdsmen issohaḍres.

R. Marchi himself also makes the hypothesis that the presence of the mamuthones could be interpreted as a “ceremony that commemorates a local historical event” in the long and tormented events between the Sardinians and the Saracen raiders called sos moros ”.


We thank the “Mamuthones” Association of  Mamoiada for the material that has been kindly made available.


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