Some of the lasting images of 2020-2021 will surely be littered (possibly literally) with masks! We have all had to get used to wearing them and having them with us – in pockets, bags or car, every time we leave the house. We still have a way to go. So, for those of us now getting a little miffed with all this mask wearing, I thought I’d look into the history of masks.
How Old is the Oldest Mask?
Mask wearing goes back a long way, 12,000 years to be precise, according to a recent discovery in 2019. A Peruvian funeral headpiece was found on a beach in Florida. This mask, made mainly of copper, is believed to be one of the earliest examples of metal working. This was quite a surprise to the archeologists as they didn’t believe early man was capable of such crafting at this point in time!
Meanwhile, in Pnei Hever in the southern West Bank, sixteen Neolithic stone masks were discovered dated to be approximately 9,000 years old. The exact purpose of these masks is not entirely clear, although some anthropologists suggest that they may be associated with a form of ancestor worship.
Funerary (Death) Masks
Funerary Masks have been used in many cultures around the world, in rituals and ceremonies that honour the dead.
Having made a mask, molded using the face of the deceased, it would then be placed over the face of the departed. Sometimes alterations might be made to the eyes to make it appear as if the person was still living. These masks were believed to frighten away malevolent spirits from the dead and to guide their own spirit back to their final resting place in the body.
The rich would make theirs out of gold or other precious metals.
Egyptian and Mycenaean cultures have some great examples of death masks which were often adorned with decorations. Some of the best of these are from Egypt where masks were often worn, not only to adorn the dead but as objects of power to assert control over others.
Whether worn by the dead or the living, masks have often played the role of magically ‘transforming’ an individual from mortal into an immortal state.
Elite Roman Burials
Elite Roman burials often included the use of death masks, more commonly known in Latin as, imaginesto. These were not an honour open to all but reserved only for the male elite!
These mask images were molded out of bees wax, a substance only the rich could afford. These death masks of family ancestors were stored in the atrium of the home. The masks would be worn by an actor or professional mourner during a funeral procession to preserve the memory of those already departed. I’m not sure if everyone would be happy for this to happen nowadays!
Masks of Healing
In Sri Lanka, the Ddha Ata Sanniya masks are used in an ancient ritual dance to rid people of various ailments. The ritual performance is known as the devil dance. Through this performance, it is believed that 18 specific diseases can be purged from the bodies of those afflicted. Each mask is decorated differently according to the corresponding illness.
Most of these masks are made from wood and then brightly painted. As the dance is performed, the person is said to be healed and blessed. Sounds good to me!
The False Face Society of the Iroquois people in North America, use masks in their healing rituals which are performed twice a year. During this lengthy ceremony, mask wearers go from house to house in the community, driving away disease and evil spirits.
Not all masks are used for ritual healing, sometimes they are used to inflict injury.
Masks of War
Many cultures have worn masks when going into battle. The Romans and Greeks adorned their battle shields with images of mask wearing warriors. The horsemen of the Roman army attached highly decorative and symbolic masks to their helmets.
The Japanese have historically used masks with traditional Samurai warriors being one of the most iconic. The Samurai masks were frightening, often with grotesque features made to instill fear in their enemies.
Mempo or Men-yoroi is the overall term to describe the protective facial armor worn by the Samurai.
They were often made of iron and leather, some with extra detailing like detached noses and facial hair.
But there is more to the Japanese use of masks than just the Samurai!
Masks in Theatre
These carefully crafted masks allow the intention of the character to change during performance, depending on how the light catches the mask.
In one instance, the character may seem happy when looking down at the audience but if the same mask looks up, the light catching it, makes the mask appear to be concerned! Clever stuff eh?!
These masks completely hide the actors’ expression, yet the audience knows what the character is about. In this theatrical tradition, women were prevented from performing. Therefore, many of the masks depicted not only the age and class of women but different female forms. Some young and beautiful, others old and wise, some poor and yet others regal but all played by men!
The colours of these masks also gives the audience a clue about each character. Hannya is a very jealous character but if the mask is painted white, she is of high standing. If red this indicates she is a little less refined, whilst the deepest red Hannya mask tells us she is the most evil of all demons!
There are many other characters in Noh Theatre played in this way, using masks. For example, Hyottoko is a comedy character who is able to blow fire through a bamboo pole! He often brightens the performance with his comical conduct. However, slightly unexpectedly, Japanese tradition also dictates that by placing a mask of his image above the fireplace, you will bring good fortune to a family suffering a bereavement.
The Italian Comedy or Commedia Dell’Arte began in the 15th century and consisted of a troupe of travelling players who went from town to town. They used music, dance and amusing dialogue to entertain their audiences. Each player wore a mask and much of the performance was improvised around a specific theme, reacting and responding to the audience at any given moment.
There were a number of stock characters who represented stereotypes of subjects such as love, jealousy, and buffoonery. The masks themselves were made of leather and were meant to represent specific people, ridiculous and absurd characterisations but people nonetheless. The masks helped audiences identify what each character personified.
There are many superheroes out there and I’m sure you can think of your own favourites. Many of them wear masks. Dead Pool, Black Panther, Spiderman and Iron Man all have full face coverings which disguise them. Batman and Robin on the other hand, favour the half mask. And yet, many of these superheroes still manage to survive unidentified by both their lovers and the authorities alike!
Of course the mask allows them to maintain a certain air of mystery. They can continue with the day job, as it were, and then leap into action when needed with just a few simple costume alterations!
With this in mind, I feel we are in good company when we have to leave the house with a mask in our pockets! Perhaps a shift in how we think of our Covid masks and the wearing of them, might make things a little easier to bear.
Lots of people have made their mask a fashion statement, creating colourful and even sparkly masks for themselves. On the flip side, there have also been many pictures shared on social media showing how the inconsiderate disposal of these masks is causing problems for wildlife.
Is it too much of a stretch to view ourselves as superheroes when we don our masks? In this way, might we see ourselves doing our bit to save humankind from the pandemic? Wearing our masks is a positive thing we’re doing for everyone in our communities rather than an inconvenience to us, the individual.
Whilst governments around the world roll out the vaccine so that we might once again venture out, I wonder if it’s worth remembering all the uses of masks. However you feel about wearing them, it looks like us humans have been doing it for thousands of years. They’ve been used to heal, celebrate death and ancestors, entertain us and now more recently, to keep us safe from disease. So I guess we might now take a leaf out of Black Panther’s book when he says “What happens now, determines what happens to the rest of the world”.
If you have enjoyed this blog, please get in touch with your thoughts or comments. I’d love to hear from you.