In the historic city of Oristano on the Italian island of Sardinia, the sight of a group of horsemen in terrifying doll masks galloping down the crowded streets doesn’t signal some occult apocalypse, instead it means that the Sa Sartiglia has begun.
This yearly festival, which takes place on the Tuesday and last Sunday of Carnival on the island, is an ancient medieval celebration, the origins of which are unclear. The festival dates back to at least the 1500s, having been mentioned in a medieval manuscript, but others have speculated that it dates back much further. Regardless of its age, the festival is a strange and fascinating sight (not to mention a little creepy).
Traditionally, a tournament takes place on both days, with the Sunday match performed by local farmers, and the Tuesday match being undertaken by local carpenters. Regardless of the day, the spectacle is the same: equestrian performers don blank-faced masks and ride elaborately decked-out horses through the streets of Oristano. Watched by crowds of onlookers, the performers speed toward the chapel, in front of which hangs a tin star with a hole in the middle. The idea is for the rider to skewer and collect the star with a sword. Sometimes this requires standing atop the moving horse. Then at the end of the festivities, the amount of stars gathered indicate how successful the farming and carpentry will be in the coming year.
The leader of the festival is known as the Su Componidori, who is cheered on by the raving crowd. Visitors would be excused for missing the importance of the figure however, as they try to avoid the dead gazes of the masked riders.