The Mythic Mask (Continued)

Skeleton by Beckie Kravetz

Masks and Death

In cultures in which burial customs are important, anthropomorphic masks have often been used in ceremonies associated with the dead and departing spirits. Funerary masks were frequently used to cover the face of the deceased. Generally their purpose was to represent the features of the deceased, both to honour them and to establish a relationship through the mask with the spirit world. Sometimes they were used to force the spirit of the newly dead to depart for the spirit world. Masks were also made to protect the deceased by frightening away malevolent spirits.

From the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040-1786 BC) to the 1st century AD, the ancient Egyptians placed stylized masks with generalized features on the faces of their dead. The funerary mask served to guide the spirit of the deceased back to its final resting place in the body. They were commonly made of cloth covered with stucco or plaster, which was then painted. For more important personages, silver and gold were used. Among the most splendid examples of the burial portrait mask is the one created c. 1350 BC for the pharaoh Tutankhamen. In Mycenaean tombs of c. 1400 BC, beaten gold portrait masks were found. Gold masks also were placed on the faces of the dead kings of Cambodia and Siam. The mummies of Inca royalty also wore golden masks. The mummies of lesser personages often had masks that were made of wood or clay. Some of these ancient Andean masks had movable parts, such as the metallic death mask with movable ears that was found in the Moon Pyramid at Moche, Peru.

Wotan by Beckie Kravetz

In ancient Roman burials, a mask resembling the deceased was often placed over his face or was worn by an actor hired to accompany the funerary cortege to the burial site. In patrician families these masks or imagines were sometimes preserved as ancestor portraits and were displayed on ceremonial occasions. Such masks were usually modeled over the features of the dead and cast in wax. This technique was revived in the making of effigy masks for the royalty and nobility of Europe from the late Middle Ages through the 18th century. Painted and with human hair, these masks were attached to a dummy dressed in state regalia and were used for display, processionals, or commemorative ceremonials. From the 17th century to the 20th, death masks of famous persons became widespread among European peoples. With wax or liquid plaster of paris, a negative cast of the human face could be produced that in turn acted as a mold for the positive image, frequently cast in bronze. In the 19th century, life masks made in the same manner became popular.

Dartmoor Spirit Mask #2 by Phil Clark

Other Ritual Uses

Masks have played an important part in magico-religious rites to prevent and to cure disease. In some cultures, the masked members of secret societies could drive disease demons from entire villages and tribes. Among the best known of these groups was the False Face Society of the North American Iroquois Indians. These professional healers performed violent pantomimes to exorcise the dreaded Gahadogoka gogosa (demons who plagued the Iroquois). They wore grimacing, twisted masks, often with long wigs of horsehair. Metallic inserts often were used around the eyes to catch the light of the campfire and the moon, emphasizing the grotesqueness of the mask. Other masks for protection from disease include the measle masks worn by Chinese children and the cholera masks worn during epidemics by the Chinese and Burmese. The disease mask is most developed among the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), where 19 distinct rakasa, or disease devil masks, have been devised. These masks are of ferocious aspect, fanged, and with startling eyes. Gaudily coloured and sometimes having articulating jaws, they present a dragon-like appearance.

Woodwoze Mask by Katy Marchant
for Daughters of Elvin

Perhaps the earliest use of masks was in connection with hunting. Disguise masks were seemingly used in the early Stone Age in stalking prey and later to house the slain animal’s spirit in the hope of placating it. The traditional animal masks worn by the Altaic and Tungusic shamans in Siberia are strictly close to such prehistoric examples as the image of the so–called sorcerer in the Cave of Les Trois Frères in Ariège, France.

Since agricultural societies first appeared in prehistory, the mask has been widely used for fertility rituals. The Iroquois, for instance, used corn husk masks at harvest rituals to give thanks for and to achieve future abundance of crops. Perhaps the most renowned of the masked fertility rites are those still performed by the Hopi and Zuni tribes of the Southwest U.S. Together with masked dancers representing clouds, rain spirits, stars, Earth Mother, sky god, and others, the shaman takes part in elaborate ceremonies designed to assure crop fertility. Spirits called kachinas, who first brought rain to the Pueblo tribes, are said to have left their masks behind when sent to dwell in the bottom of a desert lake. Their return to help bring the rain is incarnated by the masked dancer. Cylindrical masks, covering the entire head and resting on the shoulders, are of a primal type. They are made of leather and humanized by the addition of hair and a variety of adjuncts. In the western Sudan area of Africa, many tribes have masked fertility ceremonials. The segoni-kun masks that are fashioned by the Bambara tribes in Mali are aesthetically among the most interesting. Antelopes, characterized by their elegant simplicity, are carved in wood and affixed to woven fiber caps that are hung with raffia and cover the wearer. The antelope is believed to have introduced agriculture, and so when crops are sown, members of Tji-wara society cavort in the fields in pairs to symbolize fertility and abundance.

Mouse as Nun by Beckie Kravetz for the Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble

Festival Masks

Masks for festive occasions are still commonly used today. Ludicrous, grotesque, or superficially horrible, festival masks are usually conducive to good-natured license, release from inhibitions, and ribaldry. These include the Halloween, Mardi Gras, or “masked ball” variety. The disguise is assumed to create a momentary, amusing character, often resulting in humorous confusions, or to achieve anonymity for the prankster or ribald reveler. Throughout contemporary Europe and Latin America, masks are associated with folk festivals, especially those generated by seasonal changes or marking the beginning and end of the year. Among the most famous of the folk masks are the masks worn to symbolize the driving away of winter in parts of Austria and Switzerland. In Mexico and Guatemala, annual folk festivals employ masks for storytelling and caricature, such as for the Dance of the Old Men and the Dance of the Moors and the Christians. The Eskimo make masks with comic or satiric features that are worn at festivals of merrymaking, as do the Ibos of Nigeria.

Queen Cat Mask & Costume by Vinilla Burnham

Theatrical Masks

Masks have been used almost universally to represent characters in theatrical performances. The mask as a dramatic device first emerged in Western civilization from the religious practices of ancient Greece. In the worship of Dionysus, god of fecundity and the harvest, the communicants’ attempt to impersonate the deity by donning goatskins and by imbibing wine eventually developed into the sophistication of masking. When a literature of worship appeared, a disguise, which consisted of a white linen mask hung over the face (a device supposedly initiated by Thespis, a 6th-century-BC poet who is credited with originating tragedy), enabled the leaders of the ceremony to make the god manifest. Thus symbolically identified, the communicant was inspired to speak in the first person, thereby giving birth to the art of drama.

Greek Chorus by Beckie Kravetz and Little Medusa Mask by Nancy Warren

In Greece the progress from ritual to ritual-drama was continued in highly formalized theatrical representations. Masks used in these productions became elaborate headpieces made of leather or painted canvas and depicted an extensive variety of personalities, ages, ranks, and occupations. Heavily coiffured and of a size to enlarge the actor’s presence, the Greek mask seems to have been designed to throw the voice by means of a built-in megaphone device and, by exaggeration of the features, to make clear at a distance the precise nature of the character. Moreover, their use made it possible for the Greek actors-who were limited by convention to three speakers for each tragedy-to impersonate a number of different characters during the play simply by changing masks and costumes.

In the Middle Ages, masks were used in the mystery plays of the 12th to the 16th century. In plays dramatizing portions of the Old and New Testaments, grotesques of all sorts, such as devils, demons, dragons, and personifications of the seven deadly sins, were brought to stage life by the use of masks. Constructed of papier–mâché, the masks of the mystery plays were evidently marvels of ingenuity and craftsmanship, being made to articulate and to belch fire and smoke from hidden contrivances. But again, no reliable pictorial record has survived. Masks used in connection with present-day carnivals and Mardi Gras and those of folk demons and characters still used by central European peasants, such as the Perchten masks of Alpine Austria, are most likely the inheritors of the tradition of medieval masks.

Masquerade by Charles Vess

The 15th-century Renaissance in Italy witnessed the rise of a theatrical phenomenon that spread rapidly to France, to Germany, and to England, where it maintained its popularity into the 18th century. Comedies improvised from scenarios based upon the domestic dramas of the ancient Roman comic playwrights Plautus (254?-184 BC) and Terence (186/185-159 BC) and upon situations drawn from anonymous ancient Roman mimes flourished under the title of commedia dell’arte. Adopting the Roman stock figures and situations to their own usage’s, the players of the commedia were usually masked. Sometimes the masking was grotesque and fanciful, but generally a heavy leather mask, full or half face, disguised the commedia player. Excellent pictorial records of both commedia costumes and masks exist; some sketches show the characters of Arlecchino and Colombina wearing black masks covering merely the eyes, from which the later masquerade mask is certainly a development.

Except for vestiges of the commedia in the form of puppet and marionette shows, the drama of masks all but disappeared in Western theatre during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. The Irish poet-playwright W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) revived the convention in his Dreaming of the Bones and in other plays patterned upon the Japanese No drama. In 1926, theatre goers in the United States witnessed a memorable use of masks in The Great God Brown by the American dramatist Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), wherein actors wore masks of their own faces to indicate changes in the internal and external lives of their characters. Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943), a German artist associated with the Bauhaus, became interested in the late 1920s and ’30s in semantic phenomenology as applied to the design of masks for theatrical productions.

Mice Masks & Costumes by Vinilla Burnham

Masks Today

The No drama of Japan has remained a significant part of national life since its beginnings in the 14th century. No masks, of which there are about 125 named varieties, are rigidly traditional and are classified into five general types: old persons (male and female), gods, goddesses, devils, and goblins. The material of the No mask is wood with a coating of plaster, which is lacquered and gilded. Colours are traditional. White is used to characterize a corrupt ruler; red signifies a righteous man; a black mask is worn by the villain, who epitomizes violence and brutality. No masks are highly stylized and generally characterized. They are exquisitely carved by highly respected artists known as tenka-ichi, “the first under heaven.” Shades of feeling are portrayed with beautifully sublimated realism. When the masks are subtly moved by the player’s hand or body motion, their expression appears to change.

Minotaur by Beckie Kravetz

In Tibet, sacred dramas are still performed by masked lay actors. A play for exorcising demons called the “Dance of the Red Tiger Devil” is performed at fixed seasons of the year exclusively by the priests or lamas wearing awe-inspiring masks of deities and demons. Masks employed in this mystery play are made of papier-mâché, cloth, and occasionally gilt copper. In the Indian state of Sikkim and in Bhutan, where wood is abundant and the damp climate is destructive to paper, they are carved of durable wood. All masks of the Himalayan peoples are fantastically painted and are usually provided with wigs of yak tail in various colours. Formally they often emphasize the hideous.

On Java and Bali, wooden masks, tupeng, are used in certain theatrical performances called wayang wong. These dance dramas developed from the shadow puppet plays of the 18th century and are performed not only as amusement but as a safeguard against calamities. The stories are in part derived from ancient Sanskrit literature, especially the Hindu epics. The brightly painted masks are made of wood and leather and are often fitted with horsehair and metallic or gilded paper accoutrements. They are ordinarily held in the teeth by means of a strap of leather or rattan that has been fastened across the inside. Occasionally an actor interrupts the unseen narrator, the Dalang, who is speaking the play. The mask is then held in front of the face while the player says his line. The use of theatrical masks in Java is exceptional, since masks, being forbidden under the prohibition of images, are practically unknown in the Islamic world.

* * *

The Girl Who Cut Flowers
by Horse + Bamboo Theatre, inspired by
the art of Paula Rego

In the West today, a reawakening of interest in myth, folklore, and the traditional arts of indigenous societies has prompted a renewed interest in masks as aesthetic, performance, and ritual objects. Julie Taymor’s rendition of Carlo Gozzi’s The King Stag, The Rhino Drum Show by William Todd–Jones and other productions for the modern stage make effective use of masks to bring magical worlds vividly to life. Traditional mask performance techniques are updated for contemporary audiences by innovative theatrical troupes such as The Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theater and Faustwork Mask Theater in the United States; Horse + Bamboo, Daughters of Elvin and Ophaboom in Great Britain; and numerous others around the world. Masks also inspire contemporary visual artists – including the artists featured on these pages. Working in a variety of mediums and forms, these artists draw on myth, folk tales, and mask traditions from around the world, creating magical works imbued with spirit, character, and the spark of life.

Intallation by Beckie Kravetz

A life-size figure wrings out masks…

…imbued with strong emotions

…and hangs them on a washing line…