The living Sardinian Stone Age

Sòrgono is a long village between the mountains of Barbagia in Sardinia. In fact, it is the gate of Barbagia. The narrow gauge railway from Cagliari – a former miner’s railway – also struggles up to this point. For centuries, its surroundings have been a meeting place for the region’s shepherds, who drive their flocks up to the mountain pastures from here on April 25, St. Mark’s Day, and then down from there on September 29, St. Michael’s Day. Around the village, lonely medieval shepherd’s churches stand here and there in a valley or on a hilltop. Before the spring departure and after the fall arrival, the shepherds gather at these with their flocks, family members and flock owners, to ask for divine help in a big joint Holy Mass for the lonely life that will last for half a year, and later to say thanks for the help they received. Churches are sometimes opened on other major holidays, for example, on Easter Monday, when young shepherds hold a common feast and roast sheep next to them. Such as at the Gothic San Mauro shepherd’s church, to which we are heading now.

But before we get to the church which stands six kilometers from the village, I have an urgent task. I have to fill AdBlue in our van, otherwise it will stop. On Easter Sunday I was looking in vain for an open gas station in Sardinia. By Easter Monday, the quantity drops below the critical line. I can only do a maximum of fifty kilometers. However, the gas station in Sòrgono is also closed. I could buy fuel with card, but AdBlue could be bought only in the shop. I ask the two Sardinians filling up their cars where we could buy it. They discuss it, they mention shops “uptown”, but then they agree that they are also closed. They speak Italian with difficulty and awkwardly, it seems they only use Sardinian on a daily basis. The older one starts making calls in this language. “My uncle has it in Artzana, four kilometers from here. Come after me.” We follow him. We stop in front of a real jack-of-all-trades courtyard, like the ones in the outskirts of Budapest when I was a child. Disassembled engines, tile mosaics about to be assembled, parts of unknown purpose in a circle. The uncle begins to pour AdBlue from a thirty-liter demijohn into a five-liter wine jug. I take it out to fill in the van. “But this is white wine”, Miki says, and he repeats to the puzzled uncle: “vino bianco”. “I also have it!”, he replies happily. He opens a large iron door next to the workshop and invites us into a hypermodern cellar with steel fermentation tanks. In the meantime, I want to pay for the AdBlue, but he says it was out of friendship, we should try the wine instead. We are in a hurry, but it would be an insult to refuse this offer. He pours everyone white wine, then red, and then even homemade champagne. He says that he cultivates fifteen thousand vines on three hectares alone, now he has a thousand and four hundred liters in the cellar. “And which sorts?” “Well”, he laugsh, “I have ten different sorts of red, I mix them together. And also eight sorts of white.” In the meantime, the nephew announces that there is a religious feast at the Lusurgiu shepherd’s church eight kilometers away, they cook for five hundred people, there is dancing, mutton roasting, and we all are welcome. We’re drooling, but we brush it off, because someone has to check in at Cagliari airport in three hours.

Then we would not find a single gas station, café or shop open until the airport. Without this unexpected help, we would not have reached Cagliari that day.

The shepherd’s church San Mauro rises on a small hill next to the Sòrgono-Ortueri road. A squat structure with strong buttresses on both sides, its square façade has a huge rose window, similar to many other Sardinian Gothic churches, such as the parish church in Gavoi. The semicircular protective cornice above the rose window is supported by two clumsy angels. On each of the two railings of the steps leading up to the gate, a recumbent lion holds a coat of arms, most probably of Aragon, now indelible.

Abbot St. Maurus, the patron saint of the church, was the first disciple of St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine order around 510. According to tradition, he brought Benedictine monasticism to Gaul. His biography full of miracles, which founded his cult, was also written there, in the abbey of Glanfeuil on the Loire, in the 9th century. He was especially revered in Sardinia, many churches were dedicated to him. As he was a Benedictine monk, the church near Sòrgono dedicated to him was also long assumed to be the remains of a former monastery of this order. However, no written or archaeological sources indicate the existence of such a monastery. It seems that, since its building in 1574 – or, more likely, from the building of an earlier church standing here – it has always served as a shepherd’s church.

As I mentioned, the main function of shepherds’ churches was to serve as a ritual meeting place of shepherds transhuming – that is, marching up and down between winter and summer pastures – on April 25 and September 29. At this time, the anthropomorphic breads that the shepherds brought with them were blessed, as I presented in the post about Sardinian breads. But the church of San Mauro has also had its own special holidays. January 15, the day of St. Maurus is Santu Maru de is dolos, the feast of St. Maurus of pains, when he is mainly asked for soothing rheumatic pains. On Easter Monday – that is, when we were there – is Sant Maru de is flores, the spring festival of St. Maurus of the flowers. But the biggest holiday is the last Sunday of May, Sagra ’e Santu Maru, or Santu Maru erriccu, the day of the rich St. Maurus, who brings abundant harvest and flocks. This holiday is surrounded by a six-day pilgrimage and animal fair, to which pilgrims come from all over the island.

The interior of the church, of which I have never been able to take my own photo

The memory of the centuries-long celebrations is preserved by the numerous graffiti that were scratched and carved into the stones of the church’s façade. Most of them are of a “hic fuit” type, showing the visitor’s name and year, and some even his schematic figure. But many pictures depict the façade of the church itself in a schematic form, as if the pilgrim would bring it as an offering to the great church, just as in other pictures the founders hold the model of the church in their hands, or as in the Neolithic Sardinian nuraghi, the towers made of large stones, there stood a small bronze or stone model of the nuraghe for magical protection.

sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1

I wrote centuries, but what if it’s more like millennia? Transhuming shepherding is much older than Christianity, and the shepherds must have held ritual meetings here during their ascents into and descents from the mountains even before that. But where?

It would be obvious to say that in the same place, on the site of the church. But knowing the topography of the area, an even more obvious and much more surprising explanation offers itself.

A few hundred meters from the church, under giant cork oaks, stands the megalith complex Biru ’e Concas, erected in the 3rd millennium BC, one of the most important monuments of Neolithic Sardinia. The complex ensemble consists of three rows of menhirs, separated from each other by a short footpath. The majority of the menhirs – in Sardinian, perdas fittas, stones stuck in the ground – are flat stones without any symbol, but two show anthropomorphic patterns. An eye and a nose were carved on top of one, and a broad-bladed Sardinian knife around the waist on the other, just like in the richly carved anthropomorphic menhirs exhibited in the Laconi Menhir Museum.

Around the three rows, a number of additional menhirs – about 150 in total – are standing or lying on the ground, either alone or in the form of a circle.

sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2

These menhirs, of which there are many still standing all over Sardinia, were mostly associated to large megalithic tombs, which the Sardinian folk calls tomba de gigantes, tombs of giants. These graves – like the megaliths of Coddu ’Ecchiu and Li Lolghi in the pictures below – were the burial places of prominent leaders, tribal or village chiefs, ancestors, “kings”. And the graves of the ancestors were surrounded by menhirs representing the mourners or descendants. Their being human representations is often emphasized by their anthropomorphic features: eyes and noses, daggers worn on the waist by men, and bulging breasts by women.

Tamuli near Macomer: three male and three female menhirs in a row next to a tomba de gigantes

It is a fascinating experience to stand by these huge rows of stones, which bear witness to a culture of many millennia without any words or signs, but with stubborn expressive power. To a culture that dominated a large part of Europe before the Celts, and which we must consider as the root of our European civilization even before the Greek culture.

The tombas de gigantes got their name from the fact that their burial chambers deep in the ground far exceed the length of the human body. The reason is that, in addition of the resting place of the dead, the tombs also served as sanctuaries for the living, as evidenced by the small lower gate of their central menhir. As recorded by many ancient authors, before a big decision or initiation into manhood, the Sardinians entered the grave of a revered ancestor, and spent a night or two in the chamber, without eating or drinking, only munching on the hallucinogenic plant called sardonium, and accepting the visions experienced here as a guidance. This custom was called incubatio by the Latin authors, and this term was adopted by modern psychological literature as well.

Unlike in the continent, Christianity took root in Sardinia without destroying such cultic places, tombs and menhirs. They were probably no longer regarded as pagan sanctuaries, but as respectable graves and memorial stones of the ancestors, which is why they were able to survive in thousands on the island. The continuing cult of the menhir rows of Biru ’e Concas is evidenced by the fact that the transhuming shepherds still hold celebrations around them to this day. This was probably the original cult place of the ascent and descent, which only moved a few hundred meters away with the construction of the first church of San Mauro. A similar prehistory is found in many other pastoral churches in Sardinia, which were also built in the immediate vicinity of Neolithic sacred places, in order to consecrate the place according to the new religion, while preserving the old site as a representative of the ancestors and the tradition.

That the shepherd’s church really took over the sacred role of the former tomba de gigantes and menhir ensemble, is evidenced by one more proof. It is the modest pilgrim accommodations that are attached to the church’s sanctuary and surround the church’s courtyard. These puritan rooms are called in Sardinian cumbissía (mostly in the plural, cumbissías). As Massimo Pittau, an excellent researcher of the Neolithic Sardinian culture points out, not only the name, but also their function is related to incubatio. The little rooms all face the church. Pilgrims have stayed in them in order to get a dream during one or more nights spent near the holy place that will guide them on their life’s journey.

If this is the case, then the shepherd’s church of San Mauro and its celebrations which are still alive today, are as extraordinary representatives of the Sardinian Stone Age as the procession of the mamuthones in masquerade burying the winter in Mamoiada.

1 comentario:

MOCKBA dijo...

Recently I was surprised to learn that the Neolithic migrations along the shores of the Mediterranean - unlike the better know migration stream up the Danube - was almost solely based on sheepherding, without cattle and with very little earth-tilling...