One of the most exotic and memorable experiences from last year’s travels was the amazing opportunity to get to know the Mamuthones (Ma-mu-tone-ehs) and Issohadores in Sardinia, Italy. The description of the dark, animal-skin clad, masked and loud bell-toting men puzzled some I was traveling with. But me… I was struck with intrigue from the get-go. And after looking them up on You Tube, I was filled with anticipation of what promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A bit of a “naive American”, (though not nearly as naive as the man who approached me in Italy to complain that his TV was in Italian — *sigh* — true story), I approached my evening with the Mamuthones as if they were simply entertainers; men who’d gotten together to shock and stun the audience. However, upon meeting Mamuthone Pino Ladu during their rehearsal, I learned that this was much more.
The tradition of the Mamuthones and Issohadores has spanned 2000 years within Mamioada, Sardinia. Appearing three times to the public over January and February, my understanding is that the ritual was performed on behalf of shepherds, with the use of masks and ample cowbells meant to frighten and ward-off dark spirits. The extermination of these evil spirits brings blessing to the townspeople, triggers the land to flourish and allows spring to arrive.
Pino explained that the current members of the group are, “builders, engineers, clerks, artisans, and nurses who have joined together to protect the rituals of their village,”. Holding a dear and sacred place for the history of this ritual in their hearts, the Mamuthones will make these public appearances only if they are allowed to perform without variation from tradition. Pino explained that the Mamuthones, lead by the Issohadores, would parade into the event, stand still, then parade out.
The Issohadores typically don the white masks seen in the above video and a garb reminiscent of a bullfighter. I was told that the Issohadores use their lassoes to trap pretty girls in the crowd while out parading. With the vision of the Mamuthones extremely reduced by their hand-carved, wooden masks, the Issohadores are present to both create a path for and to guide the Mamuthones through the crowd.
Eager to see the masks, my companions and I followed Pino to his car, where he let us try his on. I felt pretty.
Having planned for the Mamuthones appearance, I was eager with anticipation of the evening. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long, as the Mamuthones and Issohadores arrived and began to prepare. I had the limitless fortune of being present with them backstage, and watched with amazement as these handsome men suited up to become captivating, dark, slightly jarring and frightening beings. Absolutely unrecognizable.
Each of the twelve Mamuthones (one to represent each month of the year) wore sheep skins (all with a strong hint of sheepish smell – which they did humourously warn me about ahead of time). And each carried approximately 100 cowbells of varying sizes on his back, the largest at the top, scaling to the smallest at the bottom.
Their masks were strapped on with leather at the last minute.
And it was show time. I’ve included for you a small clip I filmed, as an incredible amateur on a point-and-shoot digital camera. But to this day the video I have makes me come alive, triggering the memory of the sound of those bells and the presence of those figures as they made their way through the crowd. It was really quite… unforgettable.
I end with a deep admiration for and gratitude to the Mamuthones and Issohadores for letting us “silly Americans” into their little world.