In much of Sardinia they are called cumbessias, in Oristanese muristenes: they are isolated ghost villages with a mystique that is easy to come across when travelling around the island in search of unusual and precious places. Silent all year round, they were inhabited only on the days of the novenas (nine days or weeks of prayers to a saint), amidst devotion, the breaking of vows and cheerful group celebrations in honour of the saints after whom the small country churches, often small jewels of medieval art, are named. The sanctuaries opened their doors day and night to the faithful, while the small houses, with humble facilities, welcomed the pilgrims who arrived in procession on foot or on horseback from the village parish. The prior would start the rituals marked by gosos, ancient and poignant songs of praise sung in chorus at sunrise and sunset, celebrations in church and moments of recollection and reflection during walks around the villages.
It wasn’t just prayers and spirituality, the novenas were also a popular communal feast, with typical dishes being prepared and fires lit for the roasts. After dinner, people stayed for hours together, with poetry competitions, traditional songs and dances, and then slept in the little houses arranged in a circle around the church or in a row like a village street.
The habit of staying and resting in sacred places may have very ancient roots, perhaps Nuragic. As Aristotle also said, in the prehistoric period of Sardinian civilisation, incubation was widespread, a curious ritual that helped to establish contact with the afterlife and the divine, and it was considered a good remedy for the soul and the body to sleep, for short periods and in special circumstances, 'near the heroes', next to the Giants’ tombs.
For some decades now, the tradition of staying in the novenaries scattered throughout Sardinia has slowly been lost. Today, after the religious rites, everyone returns home and the villages remain silent.
But inexorably the ancient tradition emerges and some reopen their doors day and night; sooner or later the sacred festival will return.