Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Role of Masks in Ritual

by Rebecca Busack

“Sometimes people carry to such perfection the mask they have assumed that in due course they actually become the person they seem.”
- William Somerset Maugham –

A mask. What is a mask? When one thinks of it, they see ornate designs, tribal masks from Africa, Halloween masks, opera masks, and even masks worn by dancers and seen in Noh theatre. But what of the masks that are not physical? The ones we wear every day, or the ones we put in place when attending a ritual or event? A mask can be both physical, as well as symbolic. The topic of discussion in this essay will be the role of masks in ritual.

Masks have been used throughout history for many different purposes, such as theatre, rituals, art, etc., and even in everyday life. There are many reasons as to why masks are used in rituals, and what sort of role they play in that particular area. Von Fürer-Haimendorf states that when one puts on a mask, they become a different person, and when in ritual can in some ways forge a crude sort of link to the spirits; such as used by shamanists. “The donning of a mask is believed to change a man’s identity and faculties, for the assumed appearance is held to affect the wearer’s inner nature and to assimilate it to that of the being represented by the mask (Von Fürer-Haimendorf, 1756).”

According to Subhash Kak, the mask is intimately connected to the ritual in either hiding ones true face, or by adopting a ‘public face’. The idea is that the mask makes the change from ordinary time, to the workings of the ritual and its connection to the spiritual, so that it becomes acceptable psychologically. Wearing a mask is a way of concealing ones personality, and in ritual, this helps one to ‘connect’ with a spirit or the supernatural. Yet it is not only the mask itself that is important, as the creation of the mask itself is seen to be a form of ritual. Some tribes from West Africa believe that the masks, even though made by human hands, have an individual existence that is separate from the craftsmen who shaped them.

In regards to ritual, masks have many different forms of purpose. Some, such as the masks of the shamans of the Eskimo, are representations of their guardian spirits, and they believe that they can induce a state of trance by wearing these masks and establish a ‘link’ with the said guardian spirit. Masks can also be used as a form of protection against supernatural dangers, such as to avoid recognition by the spirits of the dead at a funeral. “The warrior wearing a mask symbolizing a superior power identifies himself with this force and is thereby fortified in spirit (Von Fürer-Haimendorf, 1764).” Often times, masks have been used in a form of ritual to ward away evil spirits, or to act out sacred texts in a festival. Von Fürer-Haimendorf also says that in certain Asian countries, such as Ceylon, masks are used in rites of exorcism and curing, and in many cases the masks themselves represent the disease spirits that ail the patient.

Ritual shifts ones perspective from the outer, to the inner. “The creation of internal reality by the mind is confirmed by the consideration of altered states of consciousness (Kak, 1).” However, in some religions masks were seen as evil and were condemned; such as with the rise of Christianity where the Church Councils damned the practice of using masks. Cesare Poppi states: “..not only the was the Devil himself ‘a mutant’, but he was a mask, a false appearance in need of constant re-masking due to the as many exposures he had to undergo. In this respect, he was the non-identical, the confounder, the Great Liar – and he lied first of all about himself and his appearance (Poppi, 148).” Without anything other than the word of the Church, there are no facts about this so called ‘Devil’. So why do some condemn the use of masks when others embrace it freely? Many priests and such use ritual garbs, and in a sense use a non-physical mask, is this any different? According to Von Fürer-Haimendorf, the use of ritual masks in Europe really only continues in some folk customs in remote areas where pagan practices have coexisted with Christianity.

A mask can really be almost anything; a physical object to hide ones face and be used as a sort of spiritual medium, or even the use of a specific attitude or persona in a certain setting. There is no doubt that a form of mask is used widely in many different forms of ritual around the world, and can be seen as a very important prop in those rituals; whether for their cosmetic use, or their ability to help one connect to the spiritual, among other things. Is it essential to use masks in ritual? I doubt that it is essential, however, it would help those doing the ritual and allow them a certain freedom they would not achieve ‘un-masked’. Are all masks somehow connected to the spiritual? It could be a possibility, if one thinks of how much energy and precision is put into some masks, though the generic Halloween masks and such seem to lack that little something more. Whatever one’s opinion of masks in ritual, they have been highly helpful in rituals and for Shamans throughout history.


Kak, Subhash. Ritual, Masks, and Sacrifice. Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences, vol 11, Indian Instituted of Advanced Study, Shimla, 2004.

Maugham, William Somerset. The Moon and Sixpence, United Kingdom, William Heinemann, 1919. Ch. 42, p. 146 (estimated).

Poppi, C. “Persona, larva, masca: masks, identity and cognition in the cultures of Europe.” In S.C. Malik (ed.), Rupa-Pratirupa: Mind, Man and Mask. IGNCA/Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 2001, p. 148.

Von Fürer-Haimendorf, C. Masks. Man, Myth, & Magic: Book 4, London, BPC Publishing Ltd, 1971. Pp. 1756-1765.

Wikipedia. Mask. 23 March 2010.

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