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Myths and rituals of ancient Sardinia

The meaning of the rite.

Since the dawn of humanity, and simultaneously with the development of the first civilizations, complex systems of rituals and symbols were born.

The term rite derives from the Sanskrit, rta, which means order, repetition. The function of the ancient ceremonials was to guarantee the psycho-physical balance of a person and of the community. Through the rite, having an apotropaic or other function, the ancients faced the fear of the unknown.

The menhirs of the archaeological area of Biru ‘e Concas – Sorgono (NU). The meaning of the menhirs was linked to the rituals for the fertility of the earth.

Each ritual was always characterized by three fundamental characteristics: the repetition in a precise time and space, a symbolic system of coding, an extra-empirical efficacy. This indicates the desired effect of the ritual; this response was not always tangible, but in general it was transcendental or linked to a cult. The extra-empirical efficacy was connected rather to propitiate a particular divinity to guarantee the fertility of the earth (propitiatory rite), or to request a blessing during life changes. These are the rites of passage.

The “Mother Goddes” of the Bonu Ighinu culture, represented at the Civic Museum of Cabras (OR).

Characteristic of the ritual is the “chain of the gift”: the human being sacrifices an animal or a first fruit for the divinity, and it reciprocates with particular blessings and favors. Among these were undoubtedly the abundance of crops, the purity of the waters, the healings and the guide to the afterlife.

The menhirs and the Mother Goddes

The ancient Sardinians believed that after death the spirit of the dead continued to live in the places dedicated to burial. These were carefully adorned and had a basic importance in pre-Nuragic cultures. Moreover, the religiosity of the Sardinian people was exquisitely linked to the territory and nature, in particular to the fertility of women. Testimonies of this cult are the sculptures, still in good condition, in marble or clay, of the “Mother Goddess”. It depicted the heavenly transfiguration of the earthly mother, understood as a benign and generous nature.

Another concrete example of the importance that rituals possessed in the cultures of ancient Sardinia are the numerous menhirs scattered along the island.

The menhirs of the pre-Nuragic age are called pedras fittas by Sardinians. These are megalithic stones embedded in the ground, which represented a phallic symbolism or in any case linked to fertility. In particular, one of the meanings connected to the menhirs is the “Bull God”. As the Mother Goddess propitiated the gifts and spontaneous fruits of the earth, it symbolized fruitfulness in agriculture. In Sardinia there are more than 700 menhirs, arranged in megalithic complexes, called “sacred centers”, or placed individually.

Propitiatory and rituals of passage of ancient Sardinia

As part of the ceremonies of ancient Sardinia, some particular forms of rituals of passage and propitiators are considered here. In the first case, reference is made to the burials of the Domus de Janas and to the cult of the dead of the pre-Nuragic period. As regards the propitiatory rituals, the archaeological areas of Monte d’Accoddi (Ottava, SS) and that of Santa Cristina (Paulilatino, OR) will be examined.

Monte d’Accoddi

The monumental complex of Monte d’Accoddi dates back to the second half of the fourth millennium BC, in the area belonging to the Abealzu-Filigosa culture. It consists of a stepped sacrificial altar, which recalls the architecture of the Mesopotamian ziqqurats. The raised platform is in the shape of a pyramidal trunk and can be accessed via a ramp.

The sacrificial altar for rituals
Panoramic view from the sacrificial altar

In addition to the altar, there is a dolmen (or a slab-altar), a menhir and an omphalos. This is represented by a spheroidal stone, which had a sacred function. Likewise to the famous Omphalos of Delphi, the navel of the world, it represented the presence of the deity or a solar symbol.

The slab-altar
The Omphalos

Regarding the etymology of the name Accoddi, it could derive from the Sardinian term mountain (kodi), or stone (kodina). The sacrificial altar is unique in Europe, because it is the oldest in this continent. Like the Mesopotamian cousins, the ziqqurats, it figuratively represented a point of contact between the sky and the earth. Therefore, the altar was ideally situated between the human and the divine. It was the perfect place for mystery ceremonies and propitiatory sacrifices. Some animals, especially cattle, were sacrificed to propitiate the fertility of the earth. This interpretation is confirmed by the presence of the menhir and the slab-altar, which had a similar symbolic meaning.

The menhir of Monte d’Accoddi

A recent hypothesis supported by the scholar Eugenio Muroni suggests a curious astral correspondence between the altar of Monte d’Accoddi and the stars of the Southern Cross. However, due to the precession of the equinoxes, the arrangement of the stars in the firmament is today very different compared to that of 5000 years ago; therefore, this correspondence is no longer valid today.

The well of Santa Cristina

The archaeological area of Santa Cristina is located in Paulilatino, Oristano. It includes a temple-well, a nuragic village and an early Christian settlement. The sacred well of Santa Cristina dates back to the Nuragic age and has some characteristics that make it unique in the world. The construction of the structure, in fact, dates back to the 11th century BC.

Sacred well of Santa Cristina, exterior

The sacred well consists of a vestibule, where ceremonial rituals were held, a staircase and a trapezoidal access compartment. The deepest part of the well is instead a circular cell with a tholos covering. A pseudo-dome flows towards the ground, forming a hole 35 cm in diameter.

Tholos cover of the well

An extraordinary construction technique

An extraordinary structural peculiarity of the Santa Cristina well concerns the alignment of the blocks along the access stairway. These, in fact, have been worked and polished so precisely that they seem to belong to a modern building. The construction technique employed in Santa Cristina about 3,000 years ago represents a singular mystery.

Staircase of the Well of Santa Cristina, note the refined construction technique

In this regard, the words of the Sardinian archaeologist Giovanni Lilliu are representative: «It represents the peak of water temple architecture. Its proportions are so balanced, its geometric composition so exact, so rational, that it does not seem possible for it to have been built around the year 1000 BC».


The water cult and the astronomical correspondences

The function of the structure was a sacred building for water cult. When the Moon is situated on the Zenith of the well, it is precisely reflected in the center of the pool of water. This phenomenon creates a particular visual effect, like the game of an illusionist. In these moments, the priest of the cult could donate an offer and ask the divinity Orgìa (correspondent of the Greek Medusa) for healings or purifications.

Another peculiarity of the sanctuary of Santa Cristina regards its spatial orientation. In fact, during the spring and autumn equinox, the sun’s rays run parallel to the entrance stairway, thus illuminating the water at the center of the structure. For this reason, some scholars believe that the Santa Cristina well could represent an astronomical observatory.

The necropolis of Sant’Andrea Priu

The archaeological site of Sant’Andrea Priu is one of the most important examples of hypogeum necropolis of the domus de janas type. This complex dates back to the end of the Neolithic (3000 BC), to the pre-nuragic culture of Ozieri.

The domus de janas (in Sardinian language fairy houses) are burials dug into the rock. In Sardinia there are more than 2400.

In Sant’Andrea Priu we have about 20 tombs, including the famous Tomba del Capo. This consists of 18 rooms and a vestibule. An extraordinary peculiarity of this burial complex is it was transformed into a church during the Byzantine period. So it was frescoed with the depiction of scenes from the Gospels.

Tomba del Capo of Sant’Andria Priu, Bonorva

The vestibule is semicircular and is characterized by a specific workmanship of the ceiling, which simulates the roof beams of a hut. Ancient Sardinians wanted to depict a continuity of life after death. The dead, in fact, was placed in a sepulchral environment that reproduced the typical houses of the living.

Vestibular ceiling of theTomba del Capo
The interior of the Tomba del Capo
Decorative frescoes on the ceiling of the Tomba del Capo
The hand of God
Christ Pantocrator,Tomba del Capo
The apostles

Rite of passage

The burial ceremony was a complex rite of passage codified through a well-defined system of symbols. Among these, of considerable importance were the numerous cup marks found at the level of the vestibular floor. The votive cups were small grooves with a mysterious meaning. In fact it is assumed that they could contain the blood of sacrificial victims for votive offerings, or that they represented breasts in relation to the cult of water. Their extra-empirical efficacy was to propitiate the passage of man from life to the beyond. In some cases, the arrangement of the cup marks even reproduces a stellar constellation. It is possible, however, that these cavities were filled with fat and, when the fire was lit, they served as ancient candles to watch over the dead.

Cup marks near the Tomba del Capo of Sant’Andria Priu, Bonorva

The dead were placed in a fetal position and were painted with a red ocher painting. The same color is found on the walls and ceiling of the Tomba del Capo. During the burial rituals, the ancient Sardinians placed inside the room the instruments and jewels typical of earthly life, such as arrowheads, shell molluscs, necklaces and bracelets, as well as ceramics.

Samuele Corrente Naso and Daniela Campus

(Translation by Daniela Campus)

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