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by Sarah
Rated: E · Article · Dark · #1455097
A form of punishment, a hiding place, a disguise - there are many reasons to wear a mask.
The Newsletter mask logo
designed by undocked22

Whether for disguise, protection or ceremonial purposes masks have played a role in our lives since time immemorial. In fact the earliest known image of usage of a mask appears on the wall of a cave in southern France. Depicting a hunter disguised in deer skin and antlers, the painting dates back 22,000 years. The oldest known masks actually resemble animals, because of the importance of hunting to primitive man.

Traditional cultures attach great importance to masks, which initially were believed to be a powerful form of communication with the supernatural forces thought to rule the universe. Many are symbolic, specially designed and created to be worn at traditional ceremonies and rituals. Masks were and, in many cultures, still are considered sacred objects possessing great power, and they commonly feature/d in ceremonies dedicated to specific gods, fertility rites, initiations, healing and funerals. They are also a symbol of power and prestige, and have been used by leaders and rulers to control their people.

Masks have two main uses: they provide the wearer with a form of protection and they conceal his/her identity. A surgeon or dentist will wear a mask to protect himself and his patient during his work. This being the Horror/Scary genre it’s easy to look beyond the practical, and ask if there’s more to the mask than hygiene and practicality…

The second reason could easily be applied to and enhance the first one, and it’s responsible for some memorable moments in horror writing. In this newsletter I’ll give you a bit of history about masks from different cultures. Please note: I have chosen masks from countries offering a bit of history to inspire horror/scary writing. Masks feature in almost every culture, and much of their history is similar to several regions. It is impossible to cover the entire history of masks in one newsletter.


African masking ceremonies vary according to tribal customs. Worn during crop harvesting, war preparation, celebrations, initiations, peace and troubled times the mask is worn by a specific dancer; one who is chosen or initiated for the event. African masks can represent a powerful spirit, which is believed to possess the person wearing the mask. Spirits summoned with the mask include: ancestral, African deities, mythological creatures and animal and human spirits. The mask spirit can be evil or good. Masks representing human or totem ancestors ~ beings or animals to which a tribe traces its ancestry ~ are greatly valued by their family, and are considered the home of the spirit. In addition to ancestral ceremonies honouring the mask it may also be presented with gifts.

During the ceremony music is played on traditional African instruments, accompanied by singing and dancing while the masked dancer enters a trance and communicates with the spirit. Sometimes a wise man or translator will accompany the dancer, because messages relayed by the spirit may be conveyed in unknown sounds or grunts. The translator will accurately decipher the message.


Deities such as Xiuhtecuhtli, Tlaloc, and Tezcatlipoca are represented on many masks, which appear to have played an important role in religious ceremonies. During the Aztec era human sacrifice was a part of the religion, and skull masks were used during these ceremonies. This ritual was very important to Aztec society because sacrifice was regarded as a way of satisfying the gods, who would allow the people to live with health, wealth and happiness. Prior to the sacrifice, the selected individual would don the mask, immediately losing his/her individuality to transform into a symbol of an ancient and honourable ritual. The role of a sacrifice was a serious one. Skulls were also treasured as war trophies, which may enhance the importance of the skull mask.


Originating from the time of the Venetian Republic, masks became true works of art in what was Europe’s most wealthy and extravagant nation. Unlike the rest of the continent, Venetian citizens enjoyed a high standard of living, and it became necessary to conceal one’s identity when out in public during the day. Additionally the Venetians’ morale was maintained through the use of masks, because with no face every person had a voice and class became irrelevant.

However, human nature being what it is people found themselves taking advantage of the situations presented by their concealed identities. Increasing numbers of travelers and traders moving through the city saw an increase in human “vices” such as prostitution and gambling. Women began dressing more provocatively, corruption grew more commonplace and even members of the churches donned masks and emulated their congregation. The central Roman government turned a blind eye because of the generous income from Venice’s economy, and slowly the Venetian Republic collapse into a state of indolence, luxury and moral decay. Ultimately the wearing of masks in public was banned, and restricted to certain periods during the year.


One of the most powerful masks is the savi mask, which does not need to be worn to enable its power to come forward ~ simply owning one is enough to protect and counter any black magic. Some masks are considered so powerful they may only be handled by certain men. Savi masks have their tongues stuck out as an aggressive gesture towards enemies, and their eyes are painted rather than carved into holes. Each mask symbolizes an ancestral totem or spirit, which may be a crocodile, an eagle or even a pig.

The mai mask is the teacher during a young man’s initiation ceremony, representing totem spirits. They depict a mythical sibling pair of a brother and a sister. During the intitiation ceremony an elder wearing the mai mask becomes a spirit teacher, and he may utter important totem names at no personal risk to himself ~ names are very sacred and nobody is supposed to speak their own or anyone else’s real name for fear of attracting unwanted attention from sorcerers or malevolent beings. Specific totem names are used for various spiritual purposes, magic and healing. Only the most powerful men in the clan have knowledge of the thousands of totem names.

The dream mask is usually carved after it appears in a dream, and is believed to haunt the dreamer until it is carved. It is said the spirit captured in the carved mask has encouraged the individual and forced him to engage in “bad behaviour”, such as fighting with his friends or pursuing his neighbour’s wife. Once the carving is complete the carver/dreamer must pay for a party for the mask. If he sells the mask the sale price must be equal to the cost of the party.


Between 600 and 200 BC the ancient Athenians created “theatre”, and with it the masks of tragedy and comedy, worn during ancient Greece’s golden age. This is the first time plays were written, and usually in the honour of the Greek God of Fertility and Reproduction Dionysus. All plays were either comedies or tragedies. At the time actors were all males, so the masks were useful for showing an audience a change in character or mood. One actor might play several different roles in a play, which made the use of the mask even more important. The mask also challenged the performer to become more expressive and utilize the full potential of his voice and physical skills, because the mask’s fixed expression meant he could not use his face to portray his character.

These ancient masks were made from clay, wood or linen, with an attached wig covering the entire head. The mask mouth was wide, to aid the actor’s speech. Traditionally “Comedy Tragedy” masks are today regarded as the international symbol for drama, while also representing Dionysus’s dual personality, as well as the two effects of wine ~ joyous revelry and a dark harvest. Tragedies were musical, while comedies featured scantily-clad actors. Sometimes the actors were completely naked, although this trend became less common from the 4th century BC when comedic actors began wearing more respectable clothing.


A common feature of many ancient societies, the death mask is cast from plaster or clay shortly after an individual has died. The mask was then used to cover the face to protect it from evil spirits during funeral rites. Afterwards, the mask would be placed in a family member’s house to remind the family of their life with the deceased. On name or feast days the mask would be decorated with laurel. While the mask is supposed to be a true representation of the individual, changes were sometimes effected, especially to the eyes to make it appear as though the subject of the mask is still “living” with the family.

Mary Queen of Scots’ beautiful death mask ~ her eyes are closed as if sleeping ~ was cast after her execution. Most recently death row inmate John Joe Amador, executed in Texas in 2007, arranged the construction of his own death mask prior to his death. Perhaps the most famous death mask is the one cast in Paris in the 1880s. A young woman’s body was found floating in the River Seine, and with no visible signs of injury it was thought to be suicide. At the Paris morgue a pathologist was so enamoured of her beauty he cast her death mask. Copies were made, and it became fashionable to display what was now known as L’Inconnue de la Seine ~ “the unknown woman from the Seine”. This rather morbid obsession with this specific death mask is attributed to its peaceful, restful features and the slight smile upon the lips.

Today the mask is also known as “the most kissed girl of all time”, because it was used in the design of the CPR dummy. This death mask has inspired several writers, most notably “The Worshipper of the Image” by Richard Le Gallienne, in which a poet’s looses his daughter and wife to death and suicide respectively after he falls in love with the mask.

There is a lot more information available about the origins and beliefs around masks, and they are a feature of many other cultures, including Chinese, Japanese, North American and Australasia. I hope this brief overview has given you some food for thought and inspiration for your next story.
© Copyright 2008 Sarah (zwisis at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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