A mask is an ancient and powerful magical mediator among the worlds of the living, the dead, and the spirits. Masks have been worn for magical, religious, and entertainment purposes since the beginning of recorded history. Masks actually reveal more than they conceal.
Ancient peoples understood well the power of the mask. Evidence of mask-wearing in prehistoric societies shows that masks may have been intended to transform the wearer magically to achieve or acquire something. Perhaps the first prehistoric masked dancer is the “Sorcerer,” a Neolithic-Age cave painting at Trois Freres in France. The masked figure is half-human and half-animal, wearing stag antlers and poised in dance step. The image suggests a Ritual for a successful hunt. His mask reveals and liberates the animal nature within the man, which would have enabled him to come into contact with supernatural forces or the spirit of animals and petition them for help.
Masks have been used throughout history in numerous rituals, liturgies, theater, and folk art. The mask has been revered as a sacred object of power, a living thing that either has its own persona or represents the persona of another being. It enables the wearer magically to bring to life, and even become, the persona or spirit being represented by the mask. While the mask is on, the wearer is no longer completely himself or herself but shares his or her identity with that of the mask. He or she has freedom—and permission within society—to act differently, even outrageously. The transformation has its limits and controls: The wearer cannot go beyond the bounds of the mask itself and is transformed only during the wearing of the mask. When the mask comes off, the wearer must return to ordinary reality.
The transformative power of the mask can be explained in Jungian terms. A mask connects its wearer to archetypal powers residing within the collective unconscious. The mask is a mediator between the ego and archetype, the mundane and the supernatural, the sacred and the comic. It connects the present to the past, the individual to the entire collective of race, culture, country—and humanity.
In cultures where the mask is treated with reverence, mask-making is a respected and skilled art. For example, in Bali, masks play major roles in rituals and performances. The masks are carved from wood. Before carving is begun, the sculptors meditate on the purpose of the mask, the persona in the mask itself, and the performer who will wear it. The performer also meditates upon the mask prior to wearing it. He or she may even sleep with it next to him or her to incubate dreams based upon its appearance and persona, which will inspire the performance to greater depth.
The challenge of the Balinese performer is to literally bring the mask to life—to make the wood seem elastic and capable of illuminating its fixed expression. Actors who have the gift to animate their masks are respected as “having taksu.” Taksu means “place that receives light.” Actors who have no taksu are called carpenters—they just push wood around the stage.
In most cultures, masks symbolize beneficient spirits: nature beings, deities, the ancestral dead, and the animal kingdom. North American Indians have used masks to represent evil spirits over which the medicine men are believed to have power. Similar attribution is made in Ceylon.
Masks play important roles in religious, healing, EXORCISM, and funerary rituals. Sri Lankan exorcism masks, for example, are hideous so as to frighten possessing demons out of bodies. Among North American Indians, bear masks invoke the healing powers of the bear, considered the great doctor of all ills. In funerary rites, masks incarnate the souls of the dead, protect wearers from recognition by the souls of the dead, or trap the souls of the dead.
The true intent of Halloween masks is to frighten. The practice of wearing masks and disguises on All Souls’ Night stems from ancient beliefs that on this night the souls of the dead and unfriendly spirits walk the Earth. It is desirable to conceal your true identity from them so that they do not follow you home. Masks also frighten them away.
In the modern West, masks have lost much of their sacred and deep symbolic meaning. Once, they were integral to Greek drama, both secular and liturgical medieval ceremonies, the Renaissance court masque, and 19th-century mime and pantomine.
Contemporary masks are treated as entertainment props rather than as living things. They are used to disguise and conceal rather than reveal.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. “The Truth Behind the Mask.” Available online. URL: https://www.visionaryliving.com/ paranormal.html. Copyright Visionary Living Inc., 2002. Downloaded December 13, 2004.