The Significance of Masks
What is a mask? Is a mask just an ornament or article worn on the face for disguise, entertainment purposes or even as a form of protection? (Feinup-Riordan, 21). Masks have commonly been used during ritual and spiritual services and have been used to create, amplify or fulfill the wearer’s identity or sense of inner spirituality. Ritual masks can be found throughout the world and the functions of these masks in ritual are usually religious or magically inclined. Some characteristics include the enabling of communication with the unseen, undead, or giving magical powers to shamans or spiritual healers within tribes and various communities who wear them. This review article will explore the different themes, within different cultures, regarding the use of masks in ritual, and how it coincides and relates to identity building in ceremonies and proceedings.
In the study done by Meschutt et al in 1992, the notion of masks incorporated in death rituals is discussed and explored. They mention that, when a death arises within a tightly knit community with shared cultural and religious values (315), the deceased’s memory lives on as a life passage, or as a reminder in the creation of a mask. They proceed to explain that life and death masks were made for many different reasons, but specifically before photography was invented, life masks were the closest representations of an individual, whereas death masks served to preserve an individual’s features as a token of remembrance (positive and negative), and was also used when building statues. According to Meschutt et al, In the late 1890s, Laurence Hutton, who published ‘Portraits in plaster’ separated the creation of life and death masks into two categories, ‘the famous and the infamous’ (318). The category of the infamous was occupied by criminals, convicts, felons and so on (post-execution), however life masks for such felons also exist.
According to Keats (105), masks are also used as an expressive tool, as many therapists aid their clients in discovering the different ‘faces’ of the self; studying the differences in speech, gestures and mannerisms they portray upon donning a mask. And being both culturally and spiritually based, such masks represent a ‘multi-dimension’ (106) or second face to the face. Wearing a mask also gives the wearer a sense of freedom, the ability to perform acts or act in such a way they would not do in their everyday lives, or even be the mask (animal masks - acting like the animal, being the animal). Masked faces also portray different semiotics in the sense that they are used not only in spiritual and cultural contexts, but also for entertainment purposes, as a disguise or different facets of human nature. Evidence of the mask and its aura of spiritual power, specifically in ritual and healing processes, therapists began using masks within their realms of psychotherapy (107). Further exploring the study, it was found that patients with self-esteem issues and confidence issues enabled them to behave more socially and with newfound attitudes, acting almost as a ‘mediator between the client’s conscious and unconscious worlds of self’ (107).
Between Asian cultures, such as Japan and Balinese cultures, the donning of masks in ritual is strikingly correlated. Most masks are used in ritual and spiritual processes that, in turn, enable them to involve themselves in a ‘mysterious, other-worldliness that is apparent even to those who are uninitiated’ (Caldiron, 227). It is probable that such masks developed out of indigenous religious practices without any foreign influence; each has a strong identity and powerful, sometimes legendary, aura within the culture.
A report was published in the September 1980 issue of The Alcalde which explored the notions involved with mask wearing in the tribal regions of Mexico. Researcher, Donald Couldry, discovered that the masks were not just merely a disguise, but is also ‘a significant function that relates to shamanism, symbolism and social uses’ (20). He found that the Mexican Indians believed that the act of covering one’s face relates directly to the soul, and that Mexican masks were understood as mystical devices of transformation in which the ‘wearers become someone or something else’ (20).
A typical cliche that one may encounter when studying African art, or ritual practices is that men are the only ones who wear masks, while the women prepare, cook and clean for the festivities or ceremony. I was amazed when I read that women, too, don the masks and have their own rituals and ceremonies as well. In Zambia, men and women face initiations (men- mukanda, women- mwadi) (Cameron, 50), who would have thought that women also partake in mask-wearing festivities! In the 1998 study by Elizabeth Cameron, she spends time in the Kabompo district in Zambia to learn, observe and participate in the initiation rituals of men and women. Mwadi, meaning the initiation of the potential mother, is experienced as an interethnic ritual and is easily recognized by women from different ethnic tribes. When a young female matures (signified and recognized by her breast development), the family prepares and plans her initiation. The women, during their initiation phase, don masks and dance, guided by the four basic elements, first, her entire attire (clothes, mask, acoustic mask) acts as a disguise (focussing on aural presence), second, the transformation occurs, third, the masks as a mediator between structures, and fourth, the mask is seen as a medium of articulating power (57). The mask is not only seen as a means of disguise, but also as an intercessor, a medium of transformation. A completely new identity is created via the wearing of a mask, a journey to say the least.
In conclusion, the different cultures examined and explored today all demonstrated similar characteristics in relation to mask wearing. The mask is more than just a simple disguise, in ritual it is seen as a medium of transformation, a deity that enables one to be free, to be someone, or something, that they are not. Masks create identities for the wearer, an identity that he or she may never dream of showing or pursuing when they are ‘themselves’. Although different masks play different roles and have different powers across the various cultures and traditions, they each interrelate through similarity of function, interpretation - they all serve purposes. I understand that the relationship must be harmonious and respectful with the ‘divine’ entities or powers involved in the rituals or ceremonies, and that full focus and intention also plays a huge role in successful mask wearing for ritualistic and spiritual practices. This was an interesting topic to explore, although I have covered minor facets, there is still much more to learn about this fascinating practice.
‘The mask can be a limitation, but you just deal with it. You do get superhuman strength and pumpkin bombs and all this other stuff to express yourself with.' - William Defoe.
Cameron, Elizabeth L. "Women=Masks: Initiation Arts in North-Western Province, Zambia." African Arts 31.2 (1998): 50-61+93. Print.
Coldiron, Margaret. "Lions, Witches, and Happy Old Men: Some Parallels between Balinese and Japanese Ritual Masks." Asian Theatre Journal 22.2 (2005): 227-48. Print.
Feinup-Riordan, Anne. “The living tradition of Yup’ik masks.” 1992. 21. Print.
Keats, Patrice A. "Constructing Masks of The Self In Therapy." Constructivism in the Human Sciences 8.1 (2003): 105-24. Print.
Meschutt, David, Mark L. Taff, and Lauren R. Boglioli. "Life Masks and Death Masks." The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology 13.4 (1992): 315-19. Print.
"The Mexican Mask - A Link to the Soul." The Alcalde 59.1 (1980): 20. Print.