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Between Etymology And Anthropology: The Word (for The) Lunàdigas

Between etymology and anthropology: the word (for the) lunàdigas

In English it’s either childless or childfree (but is there always a clear-cut separation between not wanting and not having children?)

In Italian women without children: three words sewn together which say nothing about women’s choice. A far too long, impersonal expression as the sentence closing a bureaucratic procedure. A vague, homologating, aseptic definition, as cold as a family status certificate.

In Sardinian instead lunàdigas.

This is the word chosen by Nicoletta Nesler and Marilisa Piga for the pioneering documentary film of 2016 and for a multimedia project that, from 2008 to date, has become increasingly articulate and composite, investigating with grace, self-irony, without prejudice nor judgement the diversified panorama of women without children (everyday women, but also well-known ones such as Veronica Pivetti, Lidia Menapace, Margherita Hack, Lea Melandri and many others).

Every month on the website, in the Live Archive, we find the voices of women (but now also of men, some renowned like Moni Ovadia or Erri De Luca, others “beautiful strangers”) who have something to say about reproductive freedom, about the categories no longer so unflexible and immovable of being father, mother, son, daughter, family, maternal and paternal instinct, parenting, care, work, childbirth, adoption, inheritance, biological clock, old age… These audiovisual testimonies have been collected according to professional archival standards through the partner Regesta.exe and the open source software xDams: in this way, they can be queried with lemmas that allow you to explore the archive through simple or advanced searches. And this is precisely the extraordinary legacy that the lunàdigas want to leave, opening the way to a new vision, which is both intimate and private, social and political, about having or not having children.

On the website there are also reviews of books on the themes of motherhood/non-motherhood and virtual exhibitions of artists that reflect on their relationship with mothers, fathers, biological and symbolic genealogies: artists that open the windows of their imagination leaving us in awe over new notions of home, identity and childhood, observed from unexpected perspectives and with a provocative synthesis, as only visual art can do… In addition, there are also meetings with friends and projects aiming at raising awareness in schools and universities… And again: new posts appear every day with new observations and life experiences on the Facebook page counting more than 10,000 followers, a heterogeneous and diverse community that identifies itself precisely in the word lunàdigas, which sees also the participation of mothers, who however want to live motherhood outside of outdated structures.

Undoubtedly, the term lunàdigas speaks to us of a new alliance between women regardless of children and has in itself an extraordinary inclusive force, due to its escape from the binary logic of affirmative or privative definitions (with or without children) and value judgments (positive or negative). Lunàdigas goes beyond stereotypes, guilt and clichés. A slightly alienating and liberating word, precisely because it takes us to another anthropological place: the word lunàdigas comes from the Sardinian language and is used by shepherds to indicate ewes that in certain seasons do not reproduce, even when they are not sterile.

Mario Puddu, author of the Ditzionàriu de sa limba e de sa cultura sarda  (Condaghes editions 2015) gives very interesting interpretations of this term:

Si narat de una femina o de animale chi non faet fizos, chi no imprinzat (nau de animale finzas candu no faet fedu dogni annu); si narat finzas de cosas (terra, mata) chi non sempere batint frutu; nau finzas de su cumportamentu, de sa manera de faere chi est a lunas, a tempos, a bortas de una mota, a bortas de un’atera.

[it is said of a woman or an animal that does not get pregnant – said of an animal that does not give birth in every season – it is also used for things, land and trees that do not always bear fruit; said even of the behavior, of a ‘lunatic’ and moody way of doing]

Not surprisingly, the documentary filmmakers Marilisa Piga and Nicoletta Nesler, while delving deeper over the years into this theme of true international scope (with surveys among women from all continents, available to an international audience, as all testimonies are transcribed, edited, translated, and subtitled in Italian and English), connect it, whenever possible, to the recovery of fragile or marginal memories, with particular attention also to the local and rural traditions of Sardinia (from the endangered crafts and trades to the historical-archaeological heritage).

Lunàdigas, therefore, is a word that while launching a challenge to the future leads us back to a distant past, that of the oral culture of Sardinia: an archaic horizon like that of all the peasant and pastoral civilizations of the past, marked by the seasonal, often unpredictable, mysterious, fluctuating cycles very different from the productive logics in which demand and supply, income and expenditure must necessarily meet, and where forecast and final budgets must coincide as much as possible.

So lunàdigas is a word that arouses an immediate empathy: it doesn’t say too much (like childless or childfree) or too little (women without children). It has that pinch of mystery that projects us into a world far away, thanks to Latin etymology, from the adjective lunaticus (lunatic, epileptic, temporarily mad, blinded at intervals), with firm etymological and cultural ties with the Greek language: the verb σεληνιάζομαι (from seléne, moon) is found in classical authors and Holy Scriptures (Matthew 17:14-15), in reference to the sacred evil of epilepsy, which suddenly manifests itself without an obvious logical link of “cause and effect”, and thus appears ascribable only to the influence of the lunar phases.

The variety of the Sardinian language today has a specific definition for epilepsy (su malecaducu) that has nothing to do with the lunàdiga lemma that can  be connected instead to Italian through the direct derivation from the Latin root (with the soothing of the consonants /k/ > /ɣ/ e /t/ > /ð/: lunàdiga/luˈnaðiɣaa). Vocabularies and expressions with similar forms and meanings are documented in other Italian regions (for example, in the Ladin languages the definition da la lüna is found).

There is another interesting aspect worthy of further study: the motto lunàdiga (plural lunàdigas) is present not only in generic Sardinian vocabularies but also in more specific ones; it is, however, always referred to females (sheep, but also mares, cows, other female animals and women). The term used for males, on the other hand, is different and varies according to the area. It seems almost that the female word is a passepartout with a wider diffusion on a regional scale: this would help us understand the alleged extravagance of the females who do not reproduce, subjected everywhere and more than the males to a special surveillance, to a censorship, because they (not the males) have a lazy and empty uterus.

Yet, this ancient word escapes the forced homologation of our global society. Precisely because it can be referred to animals and plants that do not bear fruit, the word lunàdigas reconciles us not only with empty cradles, but also with famines and poor harvests, small broods, stables now packed with animals, now half empty or completely deserted. In times of ecological and economic crises, it reminds us that in nature not everything is profit, not everything is a good, not everything is a predictable roadmap, not everything is a planned and standardized production (which ends up violating, wearing out and impoverishing nature itself).

For millennia life has been like this: not only births, not only crops and harvests, but also sterility, drought, shortage alternated with the lucky cycles of abundance, as in the myth of Demeter and Persephone, and there is nothing to ask, there is nothing to justify: nature never explained why it was less of an earth mother than the previous year, why it was more or less fertile, more or less fruitful and generous.

Because if nature is not a machine, much less a reproductive machine, no woman should ever be.

And because the have been, there are, and there will always be lunàdigas in all cultures of the world.

Claudia Mazzilli


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