IN THE TWILIGHT ZONE: Ghosts and a cave in Sardinia
Our first Roman apartment was haunted. Rose did not like to be alone in the living room. It had a fireplace and the lower half of the walls was paneled with oak, while the upper part was covered with beige, raw silk. It was quite dark in there, but that it was a quite beautiful room. I found it cozy, but Rose occasionally sensed what she termed as an “unpleasant presence". My youngest daughter complained at times that she got her sleep disturbed by "a lady who looked nasty."
The building had a portiere, janitor, a nice man named Mario. He was a Sardo, meaning that he came from Sardinia. Mario was born a small town in the district of Sassari, a place where they speak a Spanish-influenced Italian, which meant I found it easier to understand him than most other Italians. Mario had been a sailor and I sometimes chatted with him by the table in the entrance hall, where he used to hang out. One day he asked me if we had noticed her.
- Who? I wondered
- The boys' mother.
Mario wondered if I knew if the place we lived in had originally been part of a larger apartment, which had been divided in the middle. I knew that. Our residence had been cut from the one of the older brother of our landlord, which was the reason to why our kitchen was so unusually small. The apartment´s original kitchen now belonged to our neighbor, who worked at a company that dubbed movies.
- No, we have not met their mother, I replied, wondering silently what Mario meant by "noticed". Was the lady exceptionally noisy, or was she rude? Mario smiled mysteriously:
- She's dead.
- I don´t understand
Mario told me that "the boys" had lost their parents in a car accident and that after the catastrophe they had divided the apartment between them. Our young host had moved from his share of the home and now rented it out to us.
- Their mother was a very nervous lady, explained Mario. She was not so easy to be with. That´s why I asked if you had noticed her.
- What do you mean by noticed her?
- I've been told that she, or rather her ghost, is still in the house. I´ve never seen her, but she might be with you sometimes.
I cannot deny that I was slightly perturbed, but also fascinated. I remembered how I several years ago had participated in a voodoo séance in Santo Domingo. It took place in the residence of a well-known bruja, a voodoo priestess called Doña Blanca. It had been an impressive and overwhelming experience. In the midst of the ceremony, Doña Blanca and her white-robed assistants had swirled around the altar in their long dresses, suddenly Doña Blanca grabs hold of me and violently swirls me around several times. She was possessed by a male luase, a voodoo god, and her voice was dark and rough. After our fling, she grasps my face between her hands, staring me intently and threatening straight into the eyes and hisses:
- You like the spiritual. Don´t you?
She was right. I am fascinated by what the Italians call Aldilà, The Outside, that which is beyond everyday life. Contrary to my family, I am interested in ghosts, dark and strange things. But, unlike them, I lack what Haitians call connaissance, contact with and knowledge of "the other world", that which is all around us, but seldom can be seen, except in dreams and our imagination, where lwas, the voodoo spirits and the deceased live. A world more powerful than ours, since it is limitless. It was certainly my lack of connaissance that was the reason to why I had not felt the presence of the boys' mother. However, that limitation has not hindered me from experiencing strange things. But ghosts?
One or two years before I began school, I assume I must have been six years old. It was summer and we lived in a cottage on Öland, a nice place with an overgrown garden, behind which there was a dilapidated barn with a weathervane that creaked eerily. That I remember very well, since the outhouse was by the barn, and when I was seated in there in the balmy summer heat, with sunlight shredded by the door splints, I listened to the squeaking weathervane; it was frightening, but nevertheless exciting. We rode around the island on our bicycles and I remember what the windmills looked like in the twilight. A tame jackdaw, who could say a few words, flew into the garden while we ate breakfast, listening to my father's transistor radio, which told us how a pyromaniac ravaged the island of Öland.
I and my sister Annika slept in an outer room, my father and mother in an interior one. In the middle of the night I and Annika woke up at the same time, sensing how a cold draft passed through the room, soon after my mother turned up and anxiously wondered if we were asleep - a sudden chill had woken up her and my father. For more or less a minute it had engulfed the room and then disappeared. When the holidays were drawing to a close, we rode into Borgholm to return the cottage keys to the agency's offices. The clerk wondered if we had noticed something strange about the house:
- How so? asked my father.
- Well, the man answered. Actually, I may not say this to you, but the man who will rent the cottage after you told us that he wanted to rent it because he was studying paranormal phenomena.
- Paranormal phenomena?
- Yes, the clerk laughed heartily.
- He stated that he investigates haunted houses and the cottage you rented is known to host ghosts.
I assume that most of us have something similar to tell. Maybe the cottage had been placed above some underground stream, or a nightly breeze had made its way through the house, but – of course - it could also have been an unruly spirit who had visited us, or a night stalled wraith who had begun to move. In my part of Sweden, it is told that ghosts surprised by dawn freeze on the spot in the form of ice cold air, you could actually pass through them, but it made you sick and depressed, and the ghosts cannot move again until the darkest hour of the night.
Mario and his family lived in a service apartment on the ground floor. His wife, Vivi, was really quite good looking, but since she rarely left the gloomy apartment and smoked like a chimney, she gave an ashen impression and I felt sorry for her because she spent most of her time down in the tiny hovel. Their daughter, Noemi, who was around ten years old, however, was a lively girl, who was diligent in school. Her little brother, who was maybe three or four at the time, I do not remember so well. Some years later he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, but was operated on and recuperated without any after-effects.
Along with Mario and Vivi, we experienced a few years later a magical evening in Sardinia, a moment when the border line between present time and the Aldilà became blurred and we entered into the Twilight Zone.
There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.
That was the intro to The Twilight Zone, a TV series that had its heyday between 1959 and1964, although two decent resuscitation attempts were made they could not beat the original. It´s success was probably linked to the mystique that in those bygone days existed around the TV. When daily routines had finished, the living room was darkened while the evening tea was laid out on a table in front of the sofa, the family gathered in around the TV. Its blue-gray light beamed at us, as from a laterna magica, and strange worlds opened up. The black and white universe inside the mysterious device was essentially different from everyday life; we were attracted thither, and stayed trapped for several hours - a Twilight Zone.
Memories also belong to a Twilight Zone and they often work like a camera, providing photos that keep a record of past events, but not in the form of an unblemished narrative, more like a series of snapshots of preserved moments. The historian and jazz scholar Eric Hobsbawm, has with books like Bandits, The Invention of Tradition and Nations and Nationalism sometimes been my cicerone within The Twilight Zone, indicating the dangerous myths that flourish in there. Not least the nasty form of nationalism that once again is trying to strangle Europe. He explained how patriotism is created from above, by social engineers, historians and unscrupulous politicians, and then spread among "ordinary people". Suck that sweet tooth - Sweden Democrats! Well, being a gifted historian Hobsbawm stated that his life had been "a protest against forgetting". To preserve memory and imagination and convey them to others is maybe at the heart of culture - music, literature, film and the arts, probably even computer games, though that is a closed world to me. Sometimes, I imagine that my blog is a tiny contribution to such a mighty endeavor - preserving and conveying imagination and memories. In any case, it means something to me. Unfortunately, my literary ability is not as great as it should be, and my memory could be much better
For example, I would like to recall the name of the town where Mario was born and where his generous parents treated us with a nice dinner and of course also the name of the strange chapel to which he later took us, bringing us into The Twilight Zone. As Dominican farmers have explained to me, The Twilight Zone is actually a tangible place:
Once Indians lived on this island, it was theirs. Here they had their fields, their villages and kingdoms, but then the conquistadores came. The whites killed the Indians, enslaved them and gave them diseases in exchange for their gold. The country belonged to the Indians, but to preserve it, they had no other choice but to move down under the earth. They still live down there, and theirs is the force that gives life to the soil. The Whites have built the cities, cut down the forests and poisoned the soil, but we peasants know that if you want to bring strength out of the ground, you have to go to the Indians and give them what they want - beautiful, sparkly things, rum and sweets. Go to the springs and rivers where the life force breaks forth, go down to the caves, they are closer to the underworld where the Indians live. Make friends with them, give the Indians your respect and what they like and they will help you.
There are two topographies, a mundane and a sacred, one covers the other, but that does not mean that the sacred sphere does not exist and that it cannot penetrate everyday life. The sacred manifests itself through dreams and art, but also through ideologies and fanaticism.
Mario's family moved back to Sardinia and one summer we visited them there. The change was startling. The previously gray and chain-smoking Vivi had blossomed and was found to be an ebullient, spiritual source to Sardinian culture. She knew her people's songs, stories and history and had read all that had been written by their Nobel Prize laureate, Grazia Delleda. Vivi told us about the local nuraghe, impressive monuments built by the island's fabled inhabitants between 1700 and 1400 BC. No one knows their purpose. Where they fortifications, princely abodes, temples, or perhaps all this? Nowadays, they are part of Sardinia's peculiar landscape, where they can easily be mistaken for the rock formations that unexpectedly rise from the big island's interior, mountainous landscape, an animated world where poor shepherds and bandits for centuries have lived close to their deities.
Vivi and Mario took us to churches and nuraghe, showed us their wedding album and served delicious, Sardinian food. After dinner with Mario's parents we went by car on winding roads through a wild, alien landscape, brightly lit by a full moon, which occasionally was obscured by drifting, white clouds. After a long, nighttime drive, we arrived at a dilapidated church on a mountain plateau. Around bonfires rested Sardos, sharing wine and food between them. It was a nightly celebration honoring the church's patron saints. The pilgrims talked, sang and one of them played a bagpipe. They offered us food and wine and we felt welcome. I asked a bearded, friendly man with a worn peaked cap, who had offered me some tasty, thick wine, what he did for a living. Laughingly, he replied:
- I don´t do anything and I'm proud of it. I`m a Sardo and live a healthy life. Like my father before me and his grandfather before him.
They took us into the church, it was dark inside, but from a hole in the wall next to the altar, came a mild, yellow light. To enter, we had to crawl on all fours through a narrow passage, which opened up to an unexpected sight - illuminated by a multitude of candles, placed directly on the floor, human skulls and bones were piled from floor to ceiling:
- Christian martyrs, Mario whispered beside me.
- Sardinian legionnaires who had converted to Christianity and were murdered by their Roman officers.
Surprised, I looked at the skulls, which seemed to move in the flickering candlelight. It was not a frightening experience, rather awe inspiring. I felt as if I had ended up in the Underworld, in one of the Indian caves I had visited in the Dominican Republic, where you as my Dominican friends said: “Encountered the Otherworldly”. The presence of something sacred and profound, as if I had crossed a threshold while crawling through the narrow corridor. I found myself in what the Romanian historian of religions, Mircia Eliade, called illud tempus, "that time", a "time out of time" in which everything remains unchanged, the time in which rituals take place and where the sacred is present.
There are people who live within illud tempus. I have met several of them along the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic and I suspect that such people are to be found in Sardinia as well. In the southern part of the neighboring island, Corsica, a few Mazzeri may still be around. They might be both men and women, but the majority of them are women. The word mazzera comes from Latin - mactare, to kill, which eventually became the Italian ammazzare. Mazzeri seldom kill in real life, most of their killing is done in Aldilà, in The Twilight Zone, the kingdom of dreams and therefore the Mazzeri often are called Dream Hunters.
Their hunt can be both individual and collective. A Mazzera can hunt either in her everyday guise, or in the form of an animal; a dog, a cat or a crow. Her reputation is ambivalent; usually she lives a casual, social life and carefully conceals her true nature, though her neighbors are generally knowledgeable about her true nature. It is usually the intense gaze that reveals a Mazzera. Her eyes are unable to hide the depths within her. A Mazzera´s familiarity with the dream world may both assist and hurt her neighbors. Since Mazzeri know of no borders, no limits, they might with their thought s enter under the skin of other people and find out what they are hiding within their souls. Mazzari can also lure others into the "realm of darkness and death." It is said that the one who has stepped into that domain can never be free again. Inside you feel the intimacy of death and the strength of life. However, even if Mazzari may be called "murderers", they are nevertheless peaceful beings - that is, in their everyday life.
I read about Mazzari in a book written by Dorothy Carrington, who for most of her life lived in Corsica. She was daughter of General Frederik Carrington, known for in the late 1800s having crushed the Matabele uprising in today`s Zimbabwe, where Ndbele and Shona warriors fought a doomed war against English maxim guns. Dorothy's parents died when she still was a child and she eventually found a place in London's art world, where she for many years mounted exhibitions. In 1954 she moved to Corsica, which she came to explore inside and out, mostly in search of "the dark, menacing side of the Corsican psyche," it was how she came in contact with the Mazzari. She only met two of them in person, but she explored thoroughly all the folklore she could find about the Mazzari and their activities. She died in 2002.
Dorothy Carrington writes that it was not only in their dreams that Mazzari killed. They could gather in groups and during nocturnal hunts kill an animal, generally a boar. If they in the features of the dying animal, as in a sudden flash, could discern and recognize a human face, this meant that the one they saw would die within three days, or at least within a year and it would happen at an odd date. Rarely a Mazzara confessed that she belonged to the secret society. Nevertheless, anyone could point her out, or in some rare cases – him. Mazzari were neither shunned nor hated, though, since "they knew death" they were generally feared. Due to their unique position Mazzari did not engage themselves with in politics and they were protected from the blood feuds and violent vendettas, which during Carrington's time on the island continued to plague the Corsican countryside.
I do not know if there exist, or have existed, any Mazzari in Sardinia, but even there legends are told about women leaving their homes to participate in nightly hunts. La Femmina Accabbadòra, The Female Terminator, hunts either alone or in a pack of wild women. She does not kill animals, but people. A bitter widow, who has taken it as her task to kill hapless victims. Dressed in black, and sometimes in the company of other veiled widows, she seeks out the elderly, or the chronically ill, to kill them without mercy. What unites La Accabbadòra with the Mazzari is her killing method. She uses La Mazza, the thick root of a vine stock, which also happens to be the preferred weapon of the Mazzari.
Some believe in the stories of La Accabbadòra and describe her gruesome endeavor as a form of euthanasia, beneficial in a poor pastoral and peasant community where people cannot afford to feed the infirm, the elderly and others who do not contribute to the common welfare. It is hard to believe that such cruelty can be defended and an Accabbadòra has probably never existed. Nevertheless, Sardinian folklore and some of the island´s bizarre traditions may convey a harsh and primitive impression. The Sardinian carnival may strike as a fairly frightening event, with its Zias and Mauthones. The former are men dressed up as women, with grotesque masks and black dresses. They carry with them bloody dolls, which they hold out to young women, while asking them to suckle their babies. Mauthones are from head to foot, dressed in huge, hairy sheepskin coats and they also wear grotesque masks. Most impressive is the mighty So Bue, hiding behind a handsome masque representing a bullock´s head and atop of his huge sheepskin coat he has hung giant cowbells. The man who is dressed in this way must be strong and athletic; his outfit generally weighs more than thirty kilos. Inside his coat So Bue may in some villages carry blood-filled leather bags, since he on the last day of the Carnival is supposed to be "sacrificed" in the main square. Some ethnographers try to trace these strange rituals thousands of years back in time, before Sardinia was Christianized and even much earlier than that, though since the traditions are not recorded earlier than the 1800s it is a difficult task to prove the carnival's age.
Dorothy Carrington assumed that Mazzari belonged to an ancient tradition, with roots far back in Neolithic times, when nuraghe were erected on the neighboring island and maybe she could have been right. Elsewhere in Italy, anthropologists and historians have described groups of mainly women who embarked on nocturnal hunts, mostly in their dreams, but also in reality. Best known is Carlo Ginzburg's description of the Benandanti, who based on trial protocol dating from 1575 and 1675 tells about the persecution of groups of peasants who claimed that they during night would leave their bodies and fight against evil witches to safeguard their crops.
Inquisitorial interrogations of Benandanti, who operated in the region of Friuli in northern Italy, is like Mazzari stories telling about nocturnal gatherings and hunts when the Benandanti might adapt the shapes of various animals, generally, small and inoffensive creatures like cats, dogs and birds, even hares and rabbits.
As the case among the Mazzari it was generally women who asserted that they met others like them to dance, drink and party and at such occasions they could be informed about whom in the villages that "would die within a year." Such descriptions have led researchers like Norman Cohn to assume that the "reality" behind the Benandanti confessions were by the inquisitors who interrogated them, molded into the metanarrative that had been constructed around similar testimonies that appeared in contemporary witchcraft trials all over Europe.
Cohn doubted that, as Carlo Ginzburg claimed, as well as various believers in withes´ cults that have grown within New Age circles, that Benandanti and similar phenomena were vestiges of ancient fertility cults, something that Dorothy Carrington also claimed about the origins of the Mazzari. Norman Cohn did not doubt that Benandanti and Mazzari told the truth when they claimed that their experiences were real. They had certainly been in Aldilà:
The Benandanti absolutely believed that their experiences were real and that they were collective; but they never for a moment suggested that they were bodily – the witches too were said to fight only in spirit.
The "spiritual sphere" was for Benandanti and Mazzari an integrated part of life. What they experienced in trance and in their dreams were just as real as everyday life, something their judges could not understand:
What Ginzburg found in his sixteenth-century archives was in fact a local variant of what, for centuries before, had been the stock experience of followers of Diana, Herodias or Holda. It has nothing to do with the “old religion” of fertility postulated by Margaret Murray and her followers. What it illustrates is – once more - the fact that not only the waking thoughts, but the trance experiences of individuals can be deeply conditioned by the generally accepted beliefs of the society in which they live.
I assume Cohn is right. He was not talking about cults and rituals, but about people with connaissance. Those who believe they are familiar with a parallel reality, like the over one hundred years old Julian Ramos who once explained to me, far out in the Dominican countryside:
- Here are two worlds in one. One world that you can touch and another one that is invisible to men like you, people from countries up there, but that world is more powerful than the other one, the one you believe is the only one. It is the dream world where luases and the deceased live. I know both worlds and I walk between them, like a man walking through sunshine and shade.
His words are reflected by beliefs of mystics all around the world. Sweden´s great seer, Emanuel Swedenborg, could claim that he stepped into and out of the Spirit World, just as we common people move out of or into a room and that those who live within the "second sphere" can consider and assess "our" world much better than we can do.
I do not know for sure, but I think I have sensed the presence of that strange world in art I have seen, in books I have read and with some people I have met. But, since I have no connaissance I have never been able to step into that world and that is probably well enough, because chances are great that if I had been able to do that I would probably, as the Mazzari claim, be lost in a Twilight Zone and turned into a dreamer, someone who "loves the solitude".
Boselli, Mauro (2005) Dampyr: Le Terminatrici Milano: Sergio Bonelli Editore. Bucarelli, Sergio (2003) Eutanasia ante litteram in Sardegna. Sa femmina accabbadòra. Usi, costumi e tradizioni attorno morte in Sardegna. Calgari: Scuola Sarda. Carrington, Dorothy (1996) The Dream-Hunters of Corsica. London: Phoenix. Cohn, Norman (1976) Europe´s Inner Demons. Frogmore, St Albans: Paladin. Ginzburg, Carlo (1983).The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press. Hobsbawm, Eric (1983) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press. Hobsbawm, Eric (1991) Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press.