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

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on