Fear, in Sardinia, is a healthy part of the cultural heritage. And fear can be fantastic, when you know that the scariness will end, that the terror is a play and the demons are only in costume.
On this last Sunday, in Samugheo - a small, rocky town perched on the top of a small, rocky mountain - the main road was cleared for Carnevale, that most deliciously fun of pagan rituals repeated throughout the world in countless ways. Seven different towns participated with their traditional costumes which vary significantly from one to the next. Some can be traced back to the Spanish reign of the island (from 1479 to 1714), with flowing white robes and colorful ribbons. But most are more ancestral and much more intense, with a confluence of man and beast, aggression and conflict, the realm of the living intermingling with the realm of death.
It is commonly known in Sardinia that the world in which we live and breathe is, in fact, a mirror image of the world of the dead. There is a fluidity in this twin existence, which can be reassuring, and simultaneously terrifying. The sinister can be anywhere; witches can transform themselves into cats, cogas (the seventh daughter or any woman born at midnight on December 24th) into vampirical insects, rags into dolls that plague the owner with death and ruin. Of course, protection exists, but it depends on vigilance and knowledge, on reacting and reacting in time.
In every culture, the costume is a way of transgressing one's own small identity to become something transcendental, something more powerful than one individual can ever hope to be. And, in this way, the Sardinian Carnevale is extremely theatrical. A man dressed as a wild boar is beaten in the streets, a tribal drum beat is matched with the struggle between animals and their masters, people are captured by the Carnevale players and taken away. Choreographed chaos temporarily prevails in order to preserve the balance between man and beast, between the living world and the risk of ruin. For the moment of the processions, the masks and the soot and the bells and the animal skins can be terrifying. But there is also a level of rejoicing, and of play in the thrill of terror. Because for one more year, we are in control of our demons; for one more year, the balance has been preserved.