I have been doing a lot of thinking about the implications of creating and using masks over the past few days. Historically, masks have been around for millennia, utilized in ritual and ceremony by humans from the most primitive tribal functions to the most civilized society ball. A mask gives the wearer permission to change his personality, in fact,¬†persona¬†is said to originate in Greek theatre, a term for the mask a performer would wear to hide his true self when assuming a character. Psychologically, Jung identified the¬†persona¬†as an outer, social mask, the face we show to others, often developed to the exclusion of the inner self. By donning a mask, we give ourselves permission to deviate from our personas and explore other facets of our being.
Men donned masks for many of the rituals and celebrations that marked a tribe‚Äôs most important celebrations and transitions. Men wore masks during¬†rites-of-passage, to ensure a bountiful hunt and harvest, to escort recently deceased spirits into the afterlife, and to mark times of renewal like the new year.
Masks helped primitive tribes deal with change and danger. Transitions and crises could threaten the unity of the tribe. The unchanging face of the mask was a symbol of stability and continuity, and the masquerades were thus used to convey meaning, purpose, and structure during these shifts.1
Many ancient peoples¬†conceptualized masks as physical manifestations of supernatural entities; there was a power in these masks which meant they were only to be viewed in a ritual context.¬†As society became less agrarian and more “civilized,” meanings began to get muddled and those who wore masks, even in ritual, were less likely to understand¬†why¬†they wore them. Rituals from the past remained although their meanings were all but forgotten. In 18th century Venice, the masked ball became an occasion where all classes could mingle and mix, unknown, often for sexual assignations not unlike fertility rituals of old, while the Halloween tradition of¬†guising, young adults¬†dressing up to to represent the dead of their community, eventually led to modern costuming and trick or treating.
Throughout history, there have been gods who were portrayed as a mixture of man and animal. In ancient Egypt, nearly the entire pantheon was animal-headed. In Greece, gods would often take the form of animals to seduce or otherwise interact with humans. Native American gods were commonly animals with human attributes such as speech or thought. Celtic myths depict nature-deities like Cernunnos with antlers or horns, while other myths show animals as symbols of traits desired by humans.¬†Eastern traditions also feature animals in a mythic context such as the Kitsune, a magical Japanese fox, or the dragons of Chinese mythology, while some Hindu gods and Avatars like Ganesh or Narasimha are zoomorhic in nature.
In Straw Dogs, John Gray writes:
For much of history and all of prehistory, humans did not see themselves as being any different from the other animals among which they lived. Hunter-gatherers saw their prey as equals, if not superiors, and animals were worshipped as divinities in many traditional cultures. The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. It is the animist feeling of belonging with the rest of nature that is normal.
While most people will deny their animal sides, masks allow them to experiment with that aspect of their personality. Give a child a animal mask and he becomes that animal; give an adult the same mask and he becomes a child, seeking that animal within. The adult fails to realize what the child knows intuitively– that we are all just animals. We are more than the face we present to the world, and humans need to admit this.
- The Masks Men Wear
- Jung’s Archetypes
- Man and His Mask
- Scottish Guising: Medieval and Modern Theatre Games
- Ritual, Masks and Sacrifice