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
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The Independent Culture
When night falls, the mazzeri of Corsica, the neo-shamans of that peculiar island, get up to some sinister things. Sometimes alone, sometimes in packs, armed with guns, knives, staves or stems of the magic asphodel, they go out in search of an animal to kill. Any animal will do - a wild boar is best, but pigs, goats, sheep, oxen, bulls and cows are all fair game. They don't generally want to eat the creature, anyway. They chiefly want to turn it on its back and look into its face: for whether it be pig's snout or bull's nostril, in its features they will instantly identify the face of a human being they know. Next day, back in the village, they will report their findings: and the person they recognised in the dead animal will soon be dead too, if not within a few days, at least within the year.

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.