Masks & Masking
By. Fraser Barton
The symbolic and ritual application surrounding mask wearing is of significant importance when beginning to understand ritual practices such as those performed by Shaman. The physical act of wearing a mask is often considered a necessary component in many shamanic practices in which transformation of shaman into spirit form is required (Pollock, 1995). Mask wearing is not however confined to shamanic practices. Ritual masks held particular importance to many ancient societies and their importance remains, although to a lesser extent, in modern ritual and cultural practices. Mask-wearing or masking allows for a transformative state to be achieved by the wearer. This is often through ritual practices accompanying the wearing, and is compounded through the cultural and social significance of wearing the mask and the materials in which it is constructed from.
A mask can be considered as anything which acts to conceal an individual’s direct identity and is often worm upon the face causing partial or full obscurity. Ritual masks are usually ornate and elaborate in design, constructed of items of specific importance to that culture or ritual such as wood, leaves, animal skin, and even human bones (Chavez, 2011). Such cultural masks are often deemed sacred and worn only during certain rituals. They are seen as an integral part of healing, blessing and magic rituals and in certain cultures are considered to contain spiritual powers (Chavez, 2011).
Masks play an important role in portraying personal and cultural identity and possess the contradictory ability to both disguise and define an identity. In its purest form a mask can be considered a mere disguise, an obfuscation of the individual as it has become associated with in modern times. In a more traditional sense, a mask is used to manipulate identity. Masks have been used in many religious and cultural practices and to many societies are necessary in reinforcing and instilling familial and cultural identity. The wearing of a mask, often during cultural or religious purposes can elicit an intense identity transformation within the wearer. Mask makers and wearers describe this as being a transformation of personality, in which the wearer becomes a representation of a spiritual essence (Tonkin, 1979).
It is interesting to note that the use of Masks in disguising and manipulating identity often fail to fully disguise the identity of the individual. In this sense then, masks can essentially be described as a spiritual disguise. Whilst the identity of the individual who becomes masked is known, the spiritual identity is foreign while worn (Pollock, 1995). Mask wearing can also be seen as a representation of cultural identity, as Masks are often worn during ceremonies unique to the individual culture and are seen as a way of demonstrating and teaching cultural heritage and identity (Pollock, 1995). Masks become iconic to the culture and resemble cultural dimensions which can only be expressed through their wearing (Pollock, 1995).
Masks are often a very powerful and persuasive component of cultural and religious rituals. The act of ritual masking can be seen as crucial to attaining a transformative state for the wearer. Masks act as a connection to the spirit world and allow for the wearer to disengage from reality and become ultimately transformed in spiritual identity (Subhash, 2004). Ritual masking is often used to call upon ancestral or animal spirits. These ritual spirits channelled through the mask provide the wearer with a sense of empowerment and in the case of ancestral spirits can help reaffirm cultural identity. The construction of the mask is often specific to its requirement for the ritual. Ritual masks may be designed in such a way that during rituals, the eyes, ears or mouth may be covered to block out all sound or vision, in order to give the wearer a feeling of sensory deprivation. It is this sense of sensory deprivation, coupled by the ritualistic aspect of masking which assists in attaining an altered state of consciousness as required for the ritual (Crisp, 2010).
Ritual masking is not necessarily limited to facial disguising. Research conducted by Pollock details the Kulina tribe located deep within the Brazilian Amazons in which masking is primarily auditory, contrasting masking in a traditional, visual sense (Pollock, 1995). Face and body masking is used on occasion during rituals but is considered to be unnecessary as many rituals are performed during the night (Pollock, 1995). Kulina shamans undergo an identity transformation in the absence of any visual masks, instead the masking is through wild bird and animal sounds (Pollock, 1995). This serves to replace conventional speech and the spirit transformation seen through speech not sight.
For different cultural and religious societies, masks and masking holds varying degrees of importance. The spiritual meaning surrounding masks is often viewed through the rituals for which they are required. In a socio-cultural context, masks can hold important meaning for showing outward displays of cultural heritage and ritual meaning. When used in cultural practices such as healing ceremonies, coming of age rites and spiritual practices their importance is often paramount. It is interesting to note the contrasting perceptions of meaning which can surround a particular mask when possession is transferred between differing cultures. This shift brings forth a change in meaning which is often considerably different to the masks original intention. When masks become removed from their original owner society, whether through legitimate means or misappropriation, the meaning and cultural significance is markedly changed. This shift in ownership can have such a considerably impact on the original owner society that the original meaning and significance of the mask can be transformed indefinitely (Seip, 1999).
Glimpses of the ritual significance of masks can be seen in modern society with some modern practices having roots in ancient masking rituals. One such ritualistic application which drew attention and can be considered to have been developed through ancient shamanic healing rituals is the role of clown doctors within hospitals. A study conducted by Van Blerkom likens the masking of clown doctors to shamanic healers, in that their use of superficial masking and masking performances directly assists in patients dealing with illnesses (Van Blerkom, 1995). This is but one application of modern day masking in which ritual masking has survived and evolved within modern society, to now be utilized in a clinical environment.
• Chavez, FB 3rd 2010, Types of Tribal Masks, Website Article, eHow, viewed 29th March 2011, http://www.ehow.com/list_7397010_types-tribal-masks.html
• Crisp, T 2010, Altered States of Consciousness, Website Article, Dreams Health Yoga Body Mind & Spirit, viewed 29th March 2011, http://dreamhawk.com/dream-encyclopedia/altered-states-of-consciousness/
• Pollock, D 1995, ‘Masks and the Semiotics of Identity’, The Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute’, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 581-597.
• Seip, LP 1999, ‘Transformations of Meaning: The life history of a Nuxalk Mask’, World Archaeology, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 272-287.
• Subhash, K 2004, ‘Ritual, Masks and Sacrifice’, Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 11, pp. 1-15.
• Tonkin, E 1979, ‘Masks and Powers’, Man, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 237-248.
• Van Blerkom, LM 1995, ‘Shaman Healers of Western Medicine’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 462-475