Among these are the traditions associated with Carnevale, or su Carrasegare in Sardinian, which bring villages to life at the island’s centre during this period.
The masks, costumes and beliefs linked to Carnevale in Barbagia are showcased in the exhibition ‘Su Carrasegare – Beyond the Masks’, which is on display at Co.As.It. until March 16.
The exhibition was curated by graphic designer Paola Steri, with photos by Luca Pisci.
Both have Sardinian origins and have been living in Australia for 18 months, first in Perth and then in Melbourne.
Having always been fascinated by the traditions of his birthplace, Mr Pisci said he returned to Sardinia to undertake research on the masks of Barbagia, where he interviewed and photographed locals.
Made of fur, bones and intimidating cattle bells, the costumes are very different from those associated with Carnevale throughout the rest of Italy, and have an archaic air about them.
Mr Pisci’s research was assisted by Salvatore Dedola, a linguist who managed to trace the origins of the masks back to the pre-Christian era by studying the etymology of Sardinian words associated with Carnevale.
It began with the word Carrasegare, which derives from the Akkadian words “qarnu(m)” which translates as “power”, and “sehu”, meaning “to revolt”, “to destroy” or “to desecrate”.
The result is “the desecration of power”, which has nothing to do with the Latin term “carnem levare” - meaning “to remove meat” - which is often associated with Carnevale and refers to the period which precedes fasting for Lent.
As Mr Pisci explained, Carnevale existed long before it was adopted by the Church as a time of indulgence before the period of penance.
Its rituals are linked to the ancient myth of the “eternal return”, known across the Mediterranean and Middle East in similar ways, from that of Adonis in Syria to Dionysus in Greece and Mascazzu in Sardinia and Harlequin in Italy.
It’s a myth based on that natural cycle of death and rebirth and on the idea of Chaos returning to order (Cosmos).
Similar to many other pagan traditions and celebrations, Carnevale was readapted with the advent of Christianity.
Unable to eliminate these rituals, which were tightly linked to popular superstitions and intrinsic to peasant civilisation, the Church began to demonise them or change them in its favour.
And so the masks of the Mamuthones (mysterious masked creatures who traditionally performed dances in fire to invoke the gods) became associated with Saint Anthony, who descended into hell to bring fire to humans.
Su Maimone is another mask representing the ancient god of the Sardinian mythology, linked to the worshipping of water and rain.
Even today, Su Maimone is central to Carnevale celebrations in the Sardinian town of Oniferi.
It is represented by a puppet with goat horns, carried by a donkey.
The puppet’s face is covered by a prickly pear leaf, a natural reservoir of water.
Another tradition linked to the worship of water is Sa Sartiglia, an annual contest which takes place on the last Sunday of Carnevale.
The mask of Su Componidori, representing a god on Earth, is carried around without its feet touching the ground while it blesses the crowd with the Pippìa de Maju.
It’s the etymology of the latter (“Opening of the heavenly sources at the hands of the shaman”) which confirms the link between the worship of water and Carnevale.
Aside from these ancient rituals, the Church also reappropriated the words themselves.
Through the monks - the only ones among the population who knew Latin - the Church could change, for example, the meaning of pagans’ names, associating them with vulgar terms until they were no longer referred to.
An example of this is “cazzu”, a Sardinian name for God.
Though the passing of time has obscured the original spirit behind Carrasegare, the etymology of the words still reminds us.
The word maschera, or “mask”, comes from the Sumerian “mas” meaning “pure”, “ka” meaning “word”, and “ra” meaning “channel”.
The result is “to channel pure or candid words”.
Those who wear the masks, therefore, don’t hide the truth; instead, they are more prepared to tell it.
And that’s what you do for Carnevale: you wear masks to escape everyday life, you make jokes to be serious, you overturn order to then return to order.
For more information on the exhibition, visit Co.As.It. Museo Italiano's website.