Dorothy Carrington: The Dream-hunters of Corsica

Mazzeri, Finzioni, Signadori

Part 2: Mazzeri

The activities of the mazzeri, as Dorothy Carrington believes, stem from an epoch anterior to that of Homer, from the Corsican hunting and foodgathering peoples of the pre-Neolithic times (before about 6000 B.C.)

The mazzeri are dream-hunters, who go out at night to kill an animal. They recognize in the face of the animal someone known to him, nearly always an inhabitant of his village. The next day he will tell what he has seen and the person mentioned will die in the space of time running from three days to a year, and always within an uneven number of days. If an animal is only wounded by the mazzere, then the person it represents will meet an accident or illness, but not death.

How to become a mazzere (mazzeru-man/mazzera-woman)?
It depends on two factors: predisposition and initiation. To be a mazzere it is necessary to have a psychic gift that opens the door to the parallel world. The origin of the gift is mysterious, as is that of a gift for spiritual awareness that leads to priesthood. Without such a gift no one can become a mazzere, for the initiation takes place in dreams. The postulant is co-opted by a practiced mazzere who "calls" him, to join him in a dream-hunt. Initiation take place most often in adolescence. Mazzerisme runs in certain families.

What sort of people are they?
Very many mazzeri were women, so told Jean Cesari, the friend who persuaded Dorothy Carrington and her husband to come to Corsica.
They were usually armed with sticks and stones; in Corsica women rarely carried firearms.
Mazzeri, it seems, have no animosity towards the animal they have to kill, not towards the human being it represents. So they may be shunned or even hated by their fellow villagers because they are thought to bring death, they are peaceful enough in their daily waking lives. They are uninterested in electoral and political rivalries; they never played any part in the vendettas, holding their own, marginal position in Corsican society.
Between themselves, men and women alike, they live on a footing of equalitiy, regardless of distinctions of sex or social status.
According to traditional popular belief a mazzere is a person who has been improperly baptised, the priest or the godparents having omitted some word or gesture of the ceremony.
Many mazzeri are known for their notorious piercing look, that seems fascinating, rather than intimidating.
They recognize only the Christian God and the undefined qualcosa, or quellu quassu: that wich is above.

Mazzeri come from all walks of life. Roccu Multedo *) drawing on a wide experience, maintains that the majority are shepherds, the people in Corsica who live most in harmony with nature.
Most of those of whom Dorothy Carrington heard, belonged to the class of small landowners that predominate in the villages. But also mazzeri born into the ranks of village notables.

Which animals do they kill?
When the mazzeri go out at night their purpose is to kill. Not people, but animals, any animal, wild or domestic. Evidence suggest that they have a predilection for wild boar. These are very numerous in Corsica.
But the mazzeri also kill pigs, goats, sheep, oxen, bulls, cows and even dogs, though evidence on this last point is contradictory.

The familiarity with animals apparent in the activities of the mazzeri is inherent in Corsican tradition. The belief that human beings can take on the forms of animals is characteristic of archaic rural societies, which have retained an awareness of the animals hardly imaginable in the industrial world of today.

Which weapons are they carrying?
According to their own account the mazzeri go out equipped with a variety of the weapons known to the Corsicans in their history and prehistory: guns, spears, axes, daggers, knives, sticks and stones. The preferred weapon is a heavy staff or cudgel known as a mazza, usually cut from the root and stem of a vine.

What is the origin of the word mazzeri?
The word mazzere may derive from mazza, or equally from ammazza, meaning to "kill". In the village of Chera, however, in the far southeast of the island, the only weapons used are knives, if any are used at all.
In Chera and in some other parts of southern Corsica, including the Alta Rocca, the mazzeri are known as culpadori, or colpadori, from culpi, "to strike a blow". They go by other names in different parts of the island.

Everything belonged to the particular dream-world of the mazzeri; for their dreams present a bewildering combi of the possible and the impossible. Impossible usually are their methods of killing animals; yet their dreams usually take place in recognizable country close to their homes, where they know by name every pasture, mountain slope or pool or stream. Very often they hunt near water. Water, giver of life, in traditional Corsica, surprisingly, was most often regarded as evil.
Dorothy Carrington knew of only one mazzere, who discovered unknown landscapes.
At all events, it does seem from collected evidence, that mazzeri are believed to be able to travel further and faster in their night hunting than they could possibly do in what is called "real life".

Roccu Multedo maintains that certain mazzeri really go out at night, in a state of trance, as is confirmed by two of the words used to describe them: nottambuli: "night-walkers", and more significantly, sunnambuli: "sleep-walkers". Some mazzeri, they go out into the maquis while others stay at home dreaming they do so.

The Corsicans, including the mazzeri - or - colpadori have their own explanation. The mazzeri do not go out at night in their physical bodies, but in their soul or spirit; the word spirit is more appropriate because free from Christian religious connotations. The spirits of the mazzere, when hunting, meet the spirit of his victim, a human being who has assumed animal form. When he kills the animal he severs spirit from body; the body lingers on for some time afterwards, but this life is only a reprieve and inevitably the body will sicken and die. The killing by the mazzere is therefore a symbolic act perpetrated in the realm of dreams, or what the Corsicans define as "the other" or "parallel" world, to which mazzeri have privileged access.

Mazzeri do not play any specific role in the traditional death ritual. For them death has already occurred; in the maquis, in the dark, days or weeks or months before.

Not all mazzeri are hunters. Marie-Madeleine Rotily Forcioli *) describes a man of her acquaintance in southern Corsica, who died some forty years ago, who was a practising mazzeru.
Exceptionally gentle by nature, he hunted neither in real life nor in dreams. His dreams nonetheless often predicted malady and death. Some of the mazzeru's dreams were violent. He found himself killing with his bare hands. The gesture was symbolic, but he always recognized the victim as someone known to him, usually a member of his village. That person invariably died within a year. The mazzeru awoke from such dreams physically exhausted.

The two mazzeri Dorothy Carrington met, a man and a woman, and the mazzeru known to Marie-Madeleine Rotily-Forcioli, experienced their dreams as imposed on them by a superior power. They were, to use the Corsican expression, "called" to hunt, "called" to kill; the order was absolute; they could not even choose their victims.

Relations between mazzeri of the same village seemed to be friendly, if casual.The intoxication of the mazzeri was their night hunting; what happened by day was unimportant.

The relations of mazzeri with those of other villages were on the contrary hostile. Once a year, on the night between the 31th of July and 1st of August, the mazzeri of each village organized themselves into a "milizia", electing a captain, and went out to fight the mazzeri of a neighbouring village; or rather, they dreamed they did so. These phantom battles, known as mandrache, usually took place on a mountain pass separating the two communities, f.i. the Col de Vizzavona). The mazzeri carried their usual variety of weapons. The choice of the asphodel as a weapon in the mazzeri's battle can be accounted for by the plant twofold association with death (see article The asphodel).

The outcome of these battles was premonitory. The mazzeri killed in combat were condemned to die within a year; sometimes they were found dead in their beds on the very morning of the next day . The village that lost most mazzeri would lose more lives in the coming year than the opposing village of the victorious mazzeri.

The inhabitants of the villages were deeply concerned by these phantom battles. On the night of 31 July they would keep fires burning outside the houses and in the church squares. It would seem that they were designed to ward off the spirits of the dead, just as cutting implements were placed, that night, on window ledges and above doorways.
The first day of August has been described as an unofficial feast of the dead, analogus to All Souls' Day, on 2 November. But in fact it had a contrary significance. (see Part 1).

The two mazzere Dorothy Carrington has met, a man and a woman, as well as the mazzeru portrayed by Marie-Madeleine Rotily-Forcioli, were people of a superior cast of mind, inherently Christian and genuinely distressed by the nature of their calling.
The mazzeru, known by Pierre Lamotte, maintained that all great events, such as revolutions, epidemics, wars, are enacted in the parallel, spirit world before they take place in material reality. Man has no future, only a timeless eternal past.
The mazzeru Dorothy Carrington met did not, in fact, impress her by his expression, but this, she learned, was because he had recently renounced mazzerism. He spoke in a deep rich poetic voice. He was relieved to confide his memories. He had constantly hunting during the past twenty years. Each time he had entered a landscape familiar to him only in his dreams. Whereas the other mazzeri I knew of hunted, if they hunted at all, in recognizable places close to their homes, and sometimes into the very streets of their village, this mazzeru entered another country. It was grander, he said, than Corsica. The mountains were higher; there were no trees. Huge rivers crossed the land; one he followed until it disappeared into a tunnel through a mountain. He walked around the mountain - no such feat was impossible in his dreams - until he reached the spot where the river issued from the other side of the range. He straddled it, planting a foot on either bank. He saw a hundred children floating on its current; floating to their deaths. One he recognized as René, a boy of his own village. He stooped and rescued him from the water. There was an epidemic in the village and René was the only child not to die.

The mazzeru's dreams were full of unearthly wonders; but they were also terrifying. This mazzeru had no taste for killing and he tried, if possible, to save his victims. His situation was the more painful when members of his own family were concerned. He said: "Once I had to kill a bull with a knife. Imagine my horror when I recognized the animal as my poor father! I did no more than strike it, and I withdrew the knife immediately. My poor father broke his leg, was very ill, but recovered".

Not all his dreams were of hunting; but those in which no hunting took place might be equally disturbing. Once he saw a close member of his family, for whom he had great affection, surrounded by a group of fellow mazzeri. Did they intend to kill him, even though his spirit had not assumed animal form? Before he could discover their intentions he was abruptly woken by an accidental noise in his house. It is said to be dangerous to wake a mazzere, that harm will ensue. This was indeed what occurred. When the mazzeru returned to his dream he saw the same gathering of mazzeri; but without his beloved relative. That person died within a few days.
After this the mazzeru determined to free himself from his dreams, they had become too oppressive, overwhelming him with guilt and remorse. He felt a strong urge to reintegrate himself into the Christian religion:" I preferred Jesus Christ" was how he defined his attitude. But the Catholic rites of exorcism were no longer performed ( one of the ways to abdure mazzerism). He found a Christian sect, who showed him charity and they rebaptised him, according to his wish, and thereafter he ceased dreaming. He was free.
Redeemed.

Today there are still some thirty mazzeri in the south of Corsica.

*) Roccu Multedo, a.o. Le "Mazzerisme" et le Folklore magique de la Corse" - http://adecec.net/adecec-net/parutions/mazzerisme2.html
*) Marie-Madeleine Rotily-Forcioli: "The mazzeri I have known"

Photos Mazzere by the Spanish photographer Joan Fontcuberta, who was so kind as to give his permission to use his photos from the Exhibition about the Mazzeri, which took place in St.Florent, Corsica, July 2003.

See also the website of Joan Fontcuberta.

Part 3, Finzioni

Legends & studies by Dorothy Carrington

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