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Creepy Goat-Men Are the Stars of Sardinia’s Annual Citrus Festival

Alecia Wood

The Sagra degli Agrumi in Sardinia is a celebration of the end of the citrus season, featuring folk songs and locals decked in traditional outfits. Oh, and terrifying monsters, too.

"Guarda lei—in un paio di giorni diventerà un'aragosta!"

Translation: "Look at her—in a couple of days she'll become a lobster!"

I overhear a woman exclaim this about me as we stand in line for a taste of fluffy, orange-zest scented soft nougat being doled out of a giant bronze bowl into tiny cups. I've just arrived to Muravera on Sardinia's southeast coast, and the sun is blazing down even on this early April morning.

It's the same sun-drenched weather that's ideal for growing citrus, as the fruit trees crave warm summers and mild winters. "Especially here in the south of Sardinia, they grow very well—mostly oranges, but also lemons and mandarins," says Sonia Deiana, a local beekeeper. "It's the climate, the soil, and being close to the sea. Our grandparents always had plots of land with citrus trees, and there's a lot of it used in our cooking. Most of the sweets made in Sardinia use oranges—the rind or the juice."

Turn any corner in that region and you'll likely find an overflowing car trunk peddling the fruit, or garages opened up to reveal endless orange-filled crates for sale. Residential backstreets are flanked with agrumeti (citrus orchards), where elder trees mark the end of one owner's turf and the beginning of the next.

Every April some 40,000 punters, mostly Italians, head to Muravera—a town of just 6,000 residents—where Deiana has brought me to check out the chaotic Sagra degli Agrumi. During this annual celebration of all things citrus, families open up their private cortes (traditional homes with their own courtyards) to dish out samples of that silky nougat, along with cream-thickened crema di limone lemon liqueur, orange zest-laced pardula sweets filled with sheep's ricotta, freshly squeezed grapefruit spremuta, and candied cedro (citron) peel. "The sagra is a big opportunity to show off all the different foods you can make with citrus," Deiana says. "They're very proud of their oranges here."

The music-filled, hours-long parade that winds down the town's central street is all sorts of pageantry – fruit-adorned tractors; floats depicting scenes of country life complete with flaming outdoor hearths; drummers followed by a horse procession; and locals dressed up in traditional, intricately decorated outfits. 

But it seems the big drawcard of this raucous sfilata are the people dressed as fanciful, animal-like characters parading in choreographed, dance-like movements, sometimes growling and rattling their costumes at the crowd.

"They're meant to represent animals, so they're dressed in masks and fur, and are trying to escape from the man who's trying to catch them. It's a war between nature and man," Deiana explains. "They also want to frighten people, because they are supposed to be evil. It's like a mythical creature, something that needs to be defeated, that's understood as a demon or an evil spirit that's wicked."

There are a few types of them at the Sagra degli Agrumi, traditionally from different spots around central Sardinia. There are the half-sheep, half-man mamuthones dressed in dark, shaggy sheepskin, black masks, and bells on their backs, who are hunted by issohadores wearing red shirts and wielding a rope to catch them. There are the mamutzones di Samugheo, sporting hairy goat wool hats with huge, twisted goat horns—sometimes whole goat heads—rounded up by a shepherd in a hooded cloak. The maschere di Sorgono are crowned with deer horns and a vest of cascading bones, while the merdules chase the boes, who wear carved wooden masks with long horns recalling those of an ox.

The creatures' origins are mysterious, given that no original documents exist about the tradition. The widespread story – which is confirmed by the Museum of Mediterranean Masks in Sardinia – is that they're born from ancient pagan rituals, probably during Sardinia's Nuragic period (which lasted from the 18th Century BC to the 2nd Century AD), the rite performed to summon a healthy hunting season or harvests. They often pop up at these carnivals, and are said to be linked to the island's strong pastoral traditions. "It's thought that in the past, they used to do these dances at the beginning of spring," Deiana says. In the 1950s, one theory about the mamuthones – who wear anthropomorphic masks – suggested the custom marked the Sardinians' defeat of Saracen invaders, but further research later established the tradition of the mamuthones and the other fabled figures actually emerged well before then, so their origins and celebration are not related to that at all.

The Sagra degli Agrumi itself marks the end of the citrus season, just as the new orange blossoms appear in spring; the fruit is mainly harvested from September to November. "It's a moment of relaxation for the owners and workers of the agrumeti, because after the harvest and sale is all finished they can rest—for a little bit!" Deiana says. "At the sagra, you eat continuously, drink, have parties, tell stories. The new life of the oranges restarts in April, so it's all a ritual to hope for a good season to come, to appease the new harvest."

If honoring Mother Nature means sipping free limoncello in the Sardinian sunshine, I'm all for it.