Weird scenes from an enchanted isle
Jan Morris explores magic, mystery and the strange dream life of Corsica's sinister shamans The Dream-Hunters of Corsica Dorothy Carrington Weidenfeld £20
Saturday 22 April 1995
Who would not die, faced with such a macabre divination - one mazzeru, having tickled a trout in a pool, recognized it as his own aunt. And what makes the business all the weirder is the fact that these wizards have not really, it seems, been out hunting at all, alone or in company, slashing boars or tickling trout. Either they have dreamed it all, or they somehow inhabit two worlds at the same time - parallel worlds of the spirit and the flesh, across whose frontiers they are able to pass, not at will, but under some supernal compulsion.
If this all sounds like mumbo-jumbo to you, or perhaps acid hallucination, it is taken with extreme seriousness by the author of this strange book. Dorothy Carrington, a.k.a Lady Rose (she is the widow of the painter Sir Francis Rose) is an eminent authority on Corsican matters, honoured within the island itself, and well-known elsewhere for her book Granite Island, which introduced the world at large to Corsica's megalithic heritage, and to the mazzeri too. So vividly does she describe the activities of the night-hunters that it came as a genuine disappointment to me to find that they happened only in bed, not in the dark wildness of the Corsican mountains; but to Lady Rose, sleeping and waking overlap, and truth covers both.
It is of course thrilling to discover that in a well-developed, heavily- frequented French island such anthropological marvels still exist - that there really are still dream-hunters and harbingers of death along the road from the marines and McDonalds. Lady Rose is an elderly lady, and much of her book, it is true, concerns folklorism of the past: but she assures us that mazzeri are still living and dreaming in the island, and still alarming, one assumes, their unfortunate neighbours. Not that they are evil prodigies: they do not will the deaths of others, but are merely messengers from the spirit world, or from the mystic supreme being, the qualcosa, which is a Corsican personification of destiny.
"When the mazzeri go out at night," Lady Rose tells us, "their purpose is to kill" - but then they don't really go out at night at all.
Or do they? In Granite Island, Lady Rose described one practitioner actually disappearing into the maquis, apparently on a hunting mission. Other scholars suggest they noct-ambulate in a state of trance, while "reliable witnesses" maintain they have seen mazzeri abroad at night at a time when their families swear they were at home in bed - confirmation of their powers of bilocation, enabling them to be in two places, if not two conditions, at once. And what are we to make of the report that mazzeri of Spelunca would not eat an animal they had killed because it represented a person about to die of tuberculosis, and had rotting bones? Was it a dream-meal they had in mind, or had they truly brought home something nasty for the pot?
It is all very confusing, but not to Lady Rose. "Mazzerisme is irrational", she briskly declares, "and is rooted in dreams. . . The usual arbitrary distinctions between dreaming and `real life' must be laid aside". Easier for her to do, perhaps, after so many years of living in Corsica, than for her readers. The island is full of supernatural tradition: ghosts and wizards and death-cults, ogres, vampires, magic healers, prophetesses, the Evil Eye. It is against the enormously rich and complex background of Corsican occult-ism that she lays out for us the particular phenomenon of the mazzeri, and she evidently accepts it as being as "real" as anything else in this world.
Perhaps she has herself been initiated into the alternative universe by her long sojourn on the island, or by her familiarity with its death- obsessed megalithic culture. Or perhaps the unseen influence of the mazzeri themselves has tempered her judgements. For myself, I find this work extremely hard to review because I have clearly not managed to bridge that gulf between dream and reality: but it is an odd fact, all the same, that while I was reading it I was overcome by a queer sense of other-worldliness, transmitted perhaps by those eerie night-hunters far away. Throughout the book I felt I was in a permanent condition of dj vu, as if even the weirdest manifestations of mazzerisme, even the annual dream-battles of rival sorcerers, were half-familiar to me from long ago, somewhere else.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 3 US? China? India? The 10 biggest economies in 2030 will be...
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens trailer: The most extreme fan reactions on Twitter
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling