Mamuthones of Mamoiada, ancient Carnival in Sardinia

The Mamuthones of Mamoiada are the main characters of an ancient ritual born and preserved in the Barbagia region of Sardinia. Since my first time attending this Carnival festival, I don’t even remember how many times I went back to see their rhythmic dance and take part in the celebrations.

Every year, Carnival in Italy is celebrated in many different ways depending on the region and the single town and city. From Viareggio to the Venice Carnival to other celebrations in the same Sardinia region such as the spectacular Sartiglia of Oristano, wherever you travel in Italy in February, you will have the chance to join some pretty wild parties.

Each town in Italy celebrates its own Carnival with different rituals and customs because it all relates to the local history and culture. In Venice, for example, the Carnival was historically the moment when the lower class had the chance to blend with and make fun of the upper ranks and noble clans of the society. In Oristano, a big role is played by the horses and their riders because this has always been an important part of the mostly rural Sardinian community.

In many places, Carnival celebrations are a legacy from pagan times when people honored the end of winter and the arrival of the new harvest. A strong connection to rural activities, pagan festivities, and primordial rituals is exactly what’s behind the charming festival of the Mamuthones of Mamoiada.

Being from Sardinia myself, I’ve always known that attending the Mamuthones festival at least once in your life is one of the top things to do in Sardinia. But it’s only after you have seen it by yourself, and experienced the vibe that it conveys, that you can fully understand why.

Image: Mamuthones of Mamoiada for Carnival in Sardinia.

Who are the Mamuthones of Mamoiada?

Let’s enter Mamoiada, a small village in the intriguing Barbagia region of Sardinia, to discover what all the fuss is about and why this 2000-year-old ritual that is being rehearsed and repeated non-stop over the centuries still attracts thousands of people from all over the island, the country, and from abroad.

Even though not the only characters of the ceremony, the undisputed stars of this Sardinian Carnival are the Mamuthones. Despite all the research, their origins are still lost in the scrap heap of history, adding to the mystery built around their essence.

Even though they “appear” to the public only a few times a year, the townspeople are sure to “feel” their presence all year long.

Academics and historians study and debate over the origins of the Mamuthones of Mamoiada, but natives don’t seem to bother participating in the argument or even knowing the exact beginning of this important aspect of their culture and community. In Mamoiada, everyone knows that the Mamuthones have always been a presence in their town and they have no reason to doubt they will still be in the future.

Image: Mask of Mamuthones of Mamoiada in Sardinia.

So, who are the Mamuthones and what do we know about them?

Pre-Christian masquerades that have been performing this ritual for thousands of years, the Mamuthones of Mamoiada show up on the streets of the village for the first time each year on the night between the 16th and the 17th of January. This is when in many towns in Sardinia we honor Sant’Antonio Abate (Saint Anthony Abate).

The second appearance is during Carnival. Usually, this happens around a month later, in February, but sometimes in March. This depends on when it’s Easter, every year on a different day, but always on the Sunday after the first full moon of Spring.

For Carnival, the Mamuthones of Mamoiada take it to the streets of their town on Carnival Sunday and on Fat Tuesday.

Image: Mamuthones of Mamoiada dressing ritual.

Several academics, historians, and anthropologists have been carrying out independent research for years and they all seem to have reached the same conclusion: the cadenced and harmonious dance that the Mamuthones of Mamoiada repeat over and over again is a propitiatory ritual to bid farewell to the cold winter season and welcome the warmth and the harvest that spring and summer bring.

The weight of an abundant new harvest has always been pivotal for the survival of a community. This explains why these rituals were born in the first place and why they have been so heartfelt bringing the townspeople together around the one factor that is a matter of life and death.

This is probably even more important in places such as Mamoiada because it’s a mountainous area and life, more so in the past, was harder than in warmer and flatter towns.

Image: Mamuthones of Mamoiada parading in the streets.

The dance of the Mamuthones of Mamoiada

Many towns all around the Sardinia celebrate Saint Anthony festival by lighting up bonfires in the main squares. Not everywhere on the island this is celebrated, but where I grew up, Ghilarza, they do. A large fire is lit up in Piazza San Palmerio, towards the outskirts of the town, and people make their faces and passers-by’s faces black using the burned charcoal.

In Mamoiada, the Mamuthones dance around the main bonfires all night long. With the daylight fading away and the dark setting over the streets, the rhythmic movements and sounds of their dance become truly suggestive. From some corners of the town, you will see them as a moving silhouette against the flickering light of the fire and your impression will be of being whirled to their very origins in the mists of time.

They repeat the same dance on the two days of Carnival, but the final effect is not the same. In fact, if you travel to Italy in January and have the chance to make it to Sardinia, Saint Anthony’s is a festival I would recommend attending.

The two Carnival parades see no bonfire and the ritual is slightly different. The costumes, the moves, and the sound of their sheep bells make the ritual exactly the same, but for Carnival, everything happens in daylight along the streets of the village and somehow the Mamuthones end up mixing with the other more modern masks. In my opinion, Saint Anthony offers a more intimate experience and the bonfires make the atmosphere magical and mystical.

Image: Mamuthones and Issohadores in Mamoiada, Sardinia.

But what is so intriguing about the dance of the Mamuthones of Mamoiada? Cadenced by the sound of some 30 kg of bells each Mamuthone carries on his shoulders all day long, their dance is a rhythmic series of jumps controlled and led by the Issohadore in chief, another pivotal figure of the rite.

It’s easy to understand why they attract thousands of visitors every year. It’s a journey back in time many people and cultures can relate to. It’s a throwback to deep human instincts when religion was heavily connected to nature and people’s needs.

Feelings and instincts so embedded in human nature and intrinsic to other cultures that oftentimes you will find other similarly rural masquerades parading along with the Mamuthones of Mamoiada during Carnival. At the same time, the Mamuthones are often invited to other countries to perform their ritual and dance in front of curious and different audiences.

To perform their dance along the streets of Mamoiada, the Mamuthones are usually twelve, symbolizing the number of months. They dance rhythmically in two parallel lines, gliding in through the maze of narrow streets and winding alleys, reproducing the propitiatory ritual that has been interceding with natural forces over thousands of years.

During the parade, marching together with the Mamuthones are the Issohadores.

Dressed in red and white, the Issohadores are between eight and ten. Their duty is to guard the Mamuthones, and one of them leads the parade all along giving the Mamuthones the guidance they need to be perfectly synced when performing their dance.

The name of Issohadore comes from “soha,” the lasso they use to joke around and seize young women.

Image: Costume of Mamuthones of Mamoiada.

The costume of the Mamuthones and the dressing ritual

The costume of the Mamuthones of Mamoiada is made of black moleskin trousers typical of Sardinian clothes for men, a white blouse and black sheepskin on top. The bells are worn on top of the sheepskin in descending order with the biggest on top.

After wearing all the parts of the costume, only the mask is left. It needs to be dark-brown wood, strictly handmade, and as ugly as possible to convey a dramatic look and scare evil away.

The costume, purportedly a mix of animal skin and manmade tools, is evocative of the primordial ties between men and animals/nature. In prehistoric times, especially in rural areas, livestock and its well-being were of paramount importance for the survival of the community itself as they served as food as well as for working. This is why in many of the festivals reminiscent of pagan times around Europe, animals are widely represented.

Image: Dressing of Mamuthones of Mamoiada in Sardinia.

When they start their ritual dance, the heavy steps of each of them are perfectly synced together. The sheep bone-made clapper hitting the bronze of the bells makes the sound needed to stave evil off and reminds us of the herd of sheep brought to the pasture.

The process of wearing the costume is a ritual itself, takes hours, and is closed to the public. We were lucky enough to have been invited not once but twice to attend the ceremony and take pictures. It’s one of my favorite phases of the festival.

There are two cultural associations in Mamoiada that run the show, “Associazione Atzeni-Beccoi” and the town’s Proloco. We were invited to the backyard of the old house where the Mamuthones of Associazione Atzeni-Beccoi were getting dressed.

Image: Bells of Mamuthones costume.

This is a closed event, while the Proloco keeps its doors open and anyone can see the ritual, even though the crowd is so big that enjoying or even understanding what’s happening become pretty difficult. The different parts of the costumes are laid on the ground and each Mamuthone gets dressed with the help of outsiders and of the Issohadores.

After getting dressed, the Mamuthones perform the dance once inside the backyard without wearing the mask. When the leader Issohadore thinks and lets them know that they are ready, they wear the black mask and go out to meet the crowds.

At the end of the parade, which lasts pretty much all afternoon until the evening, the Mamuthones go back to their original venue to rest, eat but first of all, take off the 30-something kg of bells carried around all day.

Plan your trip to see the Mamuthones of Mamoiada – Out top tips

Book in advance

Mamoiada is a small town with a very limited choice of B&Bs, so booking in advance is highly recommended. I stayed in several B&Bs in Mamoiada and my favorites are Ortensia and Perda Pintà.

Other great options are AbbaNive, B&B Da Anna, and B&B Domus Deiana.

If you can’t find a place in any accommodation in Mamoiada, you can try the neighboring towns like Orgosolo or Nuoro. Nuoro is the capital of the province and a much larger city so you will certainly have a wider choice of accommodation. Obviously, you will need your own car unless you are a guest and your friends drive you around.

Plan your itinerary

If you decide to visit Mamoiada, don’t miss the opportunity to explore the surrounding towns of the Barbagia region. Places like Orgosolo, Dorgali, and Nuoro as well as natural attractions such as Su Gorroppu, the Ispinigoli Grottoes, Su Gologone karstic spring, and the Cedrino river all deserve a visit.

For an all-inclusive experience of local life, breathtaking views of the Cedrino river, and genuine authentic foods, you can book your stay at the superb Agriturismo Canales in Dorgali. It’s a short drive from Mamoiada but when you go back to your room, you will be surrounded only by peace and tranquility.

Around Mamoiada are also several archaeological sites of ancient necropolis such as the domus de janas (fairies’ houses) and tombe dei giganti (tombs of the giants).

Pack light and warm

Whether you are attending the Mamuthones festival for Saint Anthony in January or Carnival in February, expect very cold weather. Keep in mind that Mamoiada is in the mountain and temperatures can get close to zero, especially at night. In January, we have also seen heavy snow, so inquire before reaching.

Whatever the forecast, I suggest you pack warm winter clothes, better if in several layers. For example, packing a few thermal tops as underwear and long-sleeve tops to wear underneath your sweater is a good idea.

Include winter walking shoes and a pair of ankle boots in case it rains and your first pair gets soaked. Finally, pack a warm coat or jacket, and definitely a hat and scarf. The party and celebrations might continue until late at night, so you would probably be comfortable wearing also a pair of gloves.

Blend in with locals

Hospitality is important all over Sardinia, but in Barbagia, it’s sacred. If a Mamoiada resident invites you, don’t hesitate and accept. The local dishes are prepared using homegrown, genuine ingredients, and their Cannonau red wine is one of the best on the island.

Their festivals are an occasion to share homemade local meals altogether in the main piazza, and when the Mamuthones are involved, the enthusiasm is easy to perceive. Their hospitality will truly make you feel at home.

Visit Museo delle Maschere Mediterraneee

For a more complete experience, I totally recommend visiting the Museum of the Mediterranean Masks. This is a fantastic exhibition of traditional masquerades from other towns in Sardinia as well as other Italian regions and European countries.

From the Alps to the Iberian Peninsula to the Balkans, the museum takes you on a tour through the common roots of the Carnival traditions in the Mediterranean.

How to reach Mamoiada

Mamoiada is located in the central-eastern part of Sardinia, some 15 km from Nuoro, 130 km from Olbia’s airport, 150 km from Alghero’s airport, and some 185 km from Cagliari’s airport.

Extra-urban public transport in Sardinia is not well-organized, so to reach Mamoiada I suggest renting a car. You can easily rent a car from all the main airports in Sardinia, Olbia-Costa Smeralda, Alghero-Fertilia, and Cagliari-Elmas.

To navigate your way around the roads of Sardinia, I recommend using Google Maps. Rental cars usually have a navigator but sometimes I find it not updated enough. Google Maps gives you also an update on the current road works in progress. Even though the road is good, consider that Mamoiada is in a mountainous area, roads are bendy, and there are quite a few uphills and downhills.

If you are coming from Cagliari, take the highway S.S. 131 towards Sassari up to Abbasanta and follow the signs towards Nuoro. When you are getting close to Nuoro, you will find the sign to Mamoiada-Lanusei.

If you reached the island by ferry and are traveling from Porto Torres or Sassari, take the highway S.S. 131 towards Cagliari up to Abbasanta and then follow the same directions mentioned above (Nuoro first then Mamoiada-Lanusei)

If you are coming from Olbia or Nuoro, take the S.S.131 towards Cagliari and turn to the interchange Mamoiada-Lanusei.

Finally, if you are reaching Mamoiada from Alghero, merge into SS291 della Nurra and take SS131bis. Take SP21, 43, and 101 to merge into SS128bis, 129, and the main SS131. Take the exit Nuoro/Tortolì and follow the signs to Mamoiada/Lanusei/Oliena/Orgosolo.

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