Definitions

antic-mask

Mask

[mask, mahsk]

A mask is an artefact normally worn on the face, typically for protection, concealment, performance, or amusement. Masks have been used since antiquity for both ceremonial and practical purposes. They are usually worn on the face, although they may also be positioned for effect elsewhere on the wearer's body, so in parts of Australia giant totem masks cover the body, whilst Inuit women use finger masks during storytelling and dancing.

Etymology

The word "mask" came via French masque and either Italian maschera or Spanish máscara. Possible ancestors are Latin (not classical) mascus, masca = "ghost"; Hebrew masecha= "mask"; Arabic maskharah مَسْخَرَۃٌ = "jester", "man in masquerade", maskhara مَسْخَرَ = "he ridiculed, he mocked", masakha مَسَخَ = "he transfomed" (transitive).

Masks in performance

Throughout the world masks are used for their expressive power as a feature of masked performance - both ritually and in various theatre traditions. The ritual and theatrical definitions of mask usage frequently overlap and merge but still provide a useful basis for categorisation. The image of juxtaposed Comedy and Tragedy masks are widely used to represent the Performing Arts, and specifically Drama.

In ancient Rome the word persona meant 'a mask'; it also referred to an individual who had full Roman citizenship. A citizen could demonstrate his or her lineage through imagines, death masks of the ancestors. These were wax casts kept in a lararium, the family shrine. Rites of passage, such as initiation of young members of the family, or funerals, were carried out at the shrine under the watch of the ancestral masks. At funerals professional actors would wear these masks to perform deeds of the lives of the ancestors, thus linking the role of mask as a ritual object and in theatre.

Masks are a familiar and vivid element in many folk and traditional pageants, ceremonies, rituals and festivals, and are often of an ancient origin. The mask is normally a part of a costume that adorns the whole body and embodies a tradition important to the religious and/or social life of the community as whole or a particular group within the community. Masks are used almost universally and maintain their power and mystery both for their wearers and their audience.The continued popularity of wearing masks at carnival, and for children at parties and for festivals such as Halloween are good examples. Nowadays these are usually mass-produced plastic masks, often associated with popular films, TV programmes or cartoon characters - they are, however, reminders of the enduring power of pretence and play and the power and appeal of masks.

Ritual masks

Ritual masks occur throughout the world, and although they tend to share many characteristics, highly distinctive forms have developed. The function of the masks may be magical or religious; they may appear in rites of passage or as a make-up for a form of theatre. Equally masks may disguise a penitent or preside over important ceremonies; they may help mediate with spirits, or offer a protective role to the society who utilise their powers.

Africa

There are an enormous variety of masks used in Africa. In West Africa, masks are used in masquerades that form part of religious ceremonies enacted to communicate with spirits and ancestors. Examples are the masquerades of the Yoruba, Igbo and Edo cultures, including Egungun Masquerades and Northern Edo Masquerades. The masks are usually carved with an extraordinary skill and variety by artists who will usually have received their training as an apprentice to a master carver - frequently it is a tradition that has been passed down within a family through many generations. Such an artist holds a respected position in tribal society because of the work that he or she creates, embodying not only complex craft techniques but also spiritual/social and symbolic knowledge. African masks are also used in the Mas or Masquerade of the Caribbean Carnival.

Djolé (also known as Jolé or Yolé) is a mask-dance from Temine people in Sierra Leone. Males wear the mask, although it does depict a female.

Many African masks represent animals. Some African tribes believe that the animal masks can help them communicate with the spirits who live in forests or open savannas. People of Burkina Faso known as the Bwa and Nuna call to the spirit to stop destruction. The Dogon of Mali have complex religions that also have animal masks. Their beliefs are in three main cults - the Awa, cult of the dead, Bini, cult of communication with spirits and Lebe, cult of earth and nature. These three main cults nevertheless use seventy-eight different types of masks. Most of the ceremonies of the Dogon culture are secret, although the antelope dance is shown to non-Dogons. The antelope masks are rough rectangular boxes with several horns coming out of the top. The Dogons are expert agriculturists and the antelope symbolizes a hard working farmer.

Another culture that has a very rich agricultural tradition is the Bamana people of Mali. The antelope (called Chiwara) is believed to have taught man the secrets of agriculture. Although the Dogons and Bamana people both believe the antelope symbolises agriculture, they interpret elements the masks differently. To the Bamana people, swords represent the sprouting of grain.

Masks may also indicate a culture’s ideal of feminine beauty. The masks of Punu of Gabon have highly arched eyebrows, almost almond-shaped eyes and a narrow chin. The raised strip running from both sides of the nose to the ears represent jewellery. Dark black hairstyle, tops the mask off. The whiteness of the face represent the whiteness and beauty of the spirit world. Only men wear the masks and perform the dances with high stilts despite it being a “female” masks. One of the most beautiful representations of female beauty is the Idia’s Mask of Benin. It is believed to have been commissioned by a king of Benin in memory of his mother. To honor his dead mother, the king wore the mask on his hip during special ceremonies.

The Senoufo people of the Ivory Coast represent tranquility by making masks with eyes half-shut and lines drawn near the mouth. The Temne of Sierra Leone use masks with small eyes and mouths to represent humility and humbleness. They represent wisdom by making bulging forehead. Other masks that have exaggerated long faces and broad foreheads symbolize the soberness of one’s duty that comes with power. War masks are also popular. The Grebo of the Ivory Coast carve masks with round eyes to represent alertness and anger, with the straight nose to represent unwillingness to retreat.

Today, the qualities of African art are beginning to be more understood and appreciated. However most African masks are now being produced for the tourist trade. Although they often show skilled craftsmanship and they will nearly always lack the spiritual character of the traditional tribal masks.

Oceania

The variety and beauty of the masks of Melanesia are almost as highly developed as in Africa. It is a culture where ancestor worship is dominant and religious ceremonies are devoted to ancestors. Inevitably many of the mask types relate to use in these ceremonies and are linked with the activities of secret societies. The mask is regarded as an instrument of revelation, giving form to the sacred. This is often accomplished by linking the mask to an ancestral presence, and thus bringing the past into the present.

As a culture of scattered islands and peninsulars Melanesian mask forms have developed in a highly diversified fashion, with a great deal of variety in their construction and aesthetic. In Papua New Guinea six metre-high totem masks are placed to protect the living from spirits; whereas the duk-duk and tubuan masks of New Guinea are used to enforce social codes by intimidation. They are conical masks, made from cane and leaves.

North America

Arctic Coastal groups have tended towards rudimentary religious practice but a highly evolved and rich mythology, especially concerning hunting. In some areas annual shamanic ceremonies involved masked dances and these strongly abstracted masks are arguably the most striking artifacts produced in this region.

Pacific Northwest Coastal indigenous groups were generally highly skilled woodworkers. Their masks were often master-pieces of carving, sometimes with movable jaws, or a mask within a mask, and parts moved by pulling cords. The carving of masks were an important feature of wood craft, along with many other features that often combined the utilitarian with the symbolic, such as shields, canoes, poles and houses.

Woodland tribes, especially in the North-East and around the Great Lakes, cross-fertilized culturally with one another. The Iroquois made spectacular wooden ‘false face’ masks, used in healing ceremonies and carved from living trees. These masks appear in a great variety of shapes, depending on their precise function.

Pueblo craftsmen produced impressive work for masked religious ritual, especially the Hopi and Zuni. The kachinas, god/spirits, frequently take the form of highly distinctive and elaborate masks that are used in ritual dances. These are usually made of leather with appendages of fur, feathers or leaves. Some cover the face, some the whole head and are often highly abstracted forms. Navajo masks appear to be inspired by the Pueblo prototypes.

Latin America

Distinctive styles of masks began to emerge in pre-Hispanic America about 1200BC, although there is evidence of far older mask forms. In the Andes masks were used to dress the faces of the dead. These were originally made of fabric but later burial masks were sometimes made of beaten copper or gold, and occasionally of clay.

For the Aztecs human skulls were prized as war trophies and skull masks were not uncommon. Masks were also used as part of court entertainments, possibly combining political with religious significance.

In post-colonial Latin America pre-Columbian traditions merged with Christian rituals, and syncretic masquerades and ceremonies, such as All Souls/Day of the Dead developed, despite efforts of the Church to stamp out the indigenous traditions. Masks remain an important feature of popular carnivals and religious dances, such as The Dance of the Moors and Christians. Mexico, in particular, retains a great deal of creativity in the production of masks, encouraged by collectors. Wrestling matches, where it is common for the participants to wear masks, are very popular and many of the wrestlers can be considered folk heroes. For instance, the popular wrestler El Santo continued wearing his mask after retirement, revealed his face briefly only in old age, and was buried wearing his silver mask.

Asia

India/Sri Lanka/Indo-China/Indonesia

Masked characters, usually divinities, are a central feature of Indian dramatic forms, many based on depicting the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. Countries that have had strong Indian cultural influences – Cambodia, Burma, Java, Thailand, Vietnam – have developed the Indian forms, combined with local myths, and developed their own characteristic styles.

The masks* are usually highly exaggerated and formalised, and share an aesthetic with the carved images of monstrous heads that dominate the facades of Hindu and Buddhist temples. These faces or Kirtimukhas, 'Visages of Glory', are intended to ward off evil and are associated with the animal world as well as the divine. During ceremonies these visages are given active form in the great mask dramas of the South and South-eastern Asian region.

China

In China masks are thought to have originated in ancient religious ceremonies. Images of people wearing masks have been found in rock paintings along the Yangtze River. Later mask forms brings together myths and symbols from Shamanism and Buddhism.

Shigong dance masks were used in shamanic rituals to thank the gods, while Nuo dance masks protected from bad spirits. Wedding masks were used to pray for good luck and a lasting marriage, and “Swallowing Animal” masks were associated with protecting the home and symbolised the “swallowing” of disaster. Opera masks were used in a basic 'Common' form of opera performed without a stage or backdrops. These led to colourful facial patterns that we see in today's Jingju (Beijing Opera).

Korea

Japan

Japanese masks are part of a very old and highly sophisticated and stylized theatrical tradition. Although the roots are in prehistoric myths and cults they have developed into refined art forms. The oldest masks are the gigaku. The form no longer exists, and was probably a type of dance presentation. The bugaku developed from this – a complex dance-drama that used masks with moveable jaws.

The or noh mask evolved from the gigaku and bugaku and are acted entirely by men. The masks are worn throughout very long performances and are consequently very light. The mask is the supreme achievement of Japanese mask-making. masks represent gods, men, women, madmen and devils, and each category has many sub-divisions. Kyōgen are short farces with their own masks, and accompany the tragic nō plays. Kabuki is the theatre of modern Japan, rooted in the older forms, but in this form masks are replaced by painted faces.

Eskimo cultures

Middle East

Theatre in the Middle East, as elsewhere, was initially of a ritual nature, dramatising man’s relationship with nature, the gods, and other human beings. It grew out of sacred rites of myths and legends performed by priests and lay actors at fixed times and often in fixed locations. Folk theatre — mime, mask, puppetry, farce, juggling - had a ritual context in that it was performed at religious or rites of passage such as days of naming, circumcisions, and marriages. Over time some of these contextual ritual enactments became divorced from their religious meaning and they were performed throughout the year. Some 2500 years ago, kings and commoners alike were entertained by dance and mime accompanied by music where the dancers often wore masks, a vestige of an earlier era when such dances were enacted as religious rites. According to George Goyan, this practice evoked that of Roman funeral rites where masked actor-dancers represented the deceased with motions and gestures mimicking those of the deceased while singing the praise of his life (see Masks in Performance above).

Europe

Masks are used throughout Europe, and are frequently integrated into regional folk celebrations and customs. Old masks are preserved and can be seen in museums and other collections, and much research has been undertaken into the historical origins of masks. Most probably represent nature spirits, and as a result many of the associated customs are seasonal. The original significance would have survived only until the introduction of Christianity which then incorporated many of the customs into its own traditions. In the process their meanings were also changed so, for example, old gods and goddesses were, literally, demonised and became devils.

Many of the masks and characters used in European festivals belong to the contrasting categories of the 'good', or 'idealised beauty', set against the 'ugly' or 'beastly' and grotesque. This is particularly true of the Germanic and Central European festivals. Another common type is the Fool, sometimes considered to be the synthesis of the two contrasting type of Handsome and Ugly.

The oldest representations of masks are animal masks, such as the cave paintings of Lascaux in the Dordogne in southern France. Such masks survive in the alpine regions of Austria and Switzerland, and may be connected with hunting or shamanism, and tend to be particularly associated with the New Year and Carnival festivals.

The debate about the meaning of these and other mask forms continues in Europe, where monsters, bears, wild men, harlequins, hobby horses and other fanciful characters appear in carnivals throughout the continent. It is generally accepted that the masks, noise, colour and clamour are meant to drive away the forces of darkness and winter, and open the way for the spirits of light and the coming of spring.

In the beginning of the new century, in 19th August 2004, the Bulgarian archeologist Georgi Kitov discovered a 673g golden mask of a Thracian king in the burial mound "Svetitsata" near Shipka, Central Bulgaria. It is a very fine piece of workmanship made out of massive 23к gold. Unlike other masks discovered in the Balkans (of which 3 are in Republic of Macedonia and two in Greece), it is now kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Sofia. It is considered to be the mask of the Thracian king Teres.

Masks in theatre

Masks play a key part within world theatre traditions, particularly non-western theatre forms. They also continue to be a vital force within contemporary theatre, and their usage takes a variety of forms.

In many cultural traditions the masked performer is a central concept and is highly valued. In the western tradition it is sometimes considered a stylistic device which can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans. In some Greek masks the wide and open mouth of the mask contained a brass megaphone enabling the voice of the wearer to be projected into the large auditoria. In medieval Europe masks were used in mystery and miracle plays to portray allegorical creatures, and the performer representing God frequently wore a gold or gilt mask. During the Renaissance masques and ballet de cour developed - courtly masked entertainments that continued as part of ballet conventions until the late eighteenth century. The masked characters of the Commedia dell'Arte included the ancestors of the modern clown. In contemporary western theatre the mask is often used alongside puppetry to create a theatre which is essentially visual rather than verbal, and many of its practitioners have been visual artists.

Masks are an important part of many theatre forms throughout world cultures, and their usage in theatre has often developed from, or continues to be part of old, highly sophisticated, stylized theatrical traditions. See also Masks in ritual.

Contemporary theatre

Masks and puppets, were often incorporated into the theatre work of European avant-garde artists from the turn of the nineteenth century. Alfred Jarry, Pablo Picasso, Oskar Schlemmer and other artists of the Bauhaus School, as well as surrealists and Dadaists, experimented with theatre forms and masks in their work.

The modern effort to restore the mask to the stage derives from Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) who in A Note on Masks (1910) proposed the virtues of using masks over the naturalism of the actor. Craig was highly influential, and his ideas were taken up by Brecht, Cocteau, Genet, Eugene O'Neill - and later by Arden, Grotowski and Brook and others who "attempted to restore a ritualistic if not actually religious significance to theatre". .

The first real sustained and developed use of masks in contemporary theatre can be traced back to the work of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, founded in 1959, and to Peter Schumann and his Bread and Puppet Theatre, which was established in New York in the early 1960’s. Schumann, born in Silesia in 1934, combined aspects of European festival masks with a highly distinctive American sensibility, and his strongly humanitarian and anti-war polemic has continued to exert an influence on the use of masks in theatre, especially on street-theatre. Other US and Canadian companies, inspired by Bread and Puppet, developed including In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater of Minneapolis; Arm-of-the Sea Theatre from New York State; Snake Theater from California; and Shadowland Theatre of Toronto. These companies, and others, have a strong social agenda, and combine masks, music and puppetry to create a visual theatrical form.

In Europe Schumann’s influence combined with the early avant-garde artists to encourage groups like Moving Picture Mime Show and Welfare State (both in the UK). Later groups, notably Horse and Bamboo Theatre (founded 1978) and Trestle Theatre (1981) developed the use of full-head masks to a sophisticated narrative level. Horse + Bamboo continue this work and remain influential. The practice of performing with masks is also studied by many performers, often derived from the Commedia dell'Arte traditions. The work of Jacques Lecoq has been particularly important in the revival of interest in this discipline.

Functional masks

Masks are also familiar as pieces of kit associated with practical functions, usually protective. There has been a proliferation of such masks recently but there is a long history of protective armour and even medical masks to ward off plague. The contrast with performance masks is not always clear-cut. Ritual and theatrical masks themselves can be considered to be practical, and protective masks in a sports context in particular are often designed to enhance the appearance of the wearer.

Medical

Some masks are used for medical purposes:

  • Oxygen mask, a piece of medical equipment that assists breathing
  • Surgical mask, a piece of medical equipment that helps to protect both the surgeon and patient from acquiring diseases from each other
  • Face shield, to protect a medical professional from bodily fluids
  • CPR mask or pocket mask, used to safely deliver rescue breaths during a cardiac arrest or respiratory arrest

Protective

Protective masks are pieces of kit or equipment worn on the head and face to afford protection to the wearer, and today usually have these functions:

  • Providing a supply of air or filtering the outside air.
  • Protecting the face against flying objects or dangerous environments, while allowing vision.

In Roman gladiatorial tournaments masks were sometimes used. From archaeological evidence it is clear that these were not only protective but also helped make the wearer appear more intimidating. In medieval Europe and in Japan soldiers and samurai wore similarly ferocious-looking protective armour, extending to face-masks.

In sport the protective mask will often have a secondary function to make the wearer appear more impressive as a competitor.

Before strong transparent materials such as polycarbonate were invented, visors to protect the face had to be opaque with small eyeslits, and were a sort of mask, as often in mediaeval suits of armour, and (for example) Old Norse grímr meant "mask or visor".

Occupational

  • Filter mask, a piece of safety equipment
  • Gas mask, a mask worn on the face to protect the body from airborne pollutants and toxic materials
  • Beaked masks containing herbs in the beak were worn in the Middle Ages by plague doctors to try to ward off the Black Death.
  • Fullface mask as part of self-contained breathing apparatus for divers and others; some let the wearer talk to others through a built-in communication device
  • Oxygen mask worn by high-altitude pilots, or used in medicine to deliver oxygen, anesthetic, or other gases to patients
  • Welding mask to protect the welder's face and eyes from the brightness and sparks created during welding

Sports

An interesting example of a sports mask that confounds the protective function is the Wrestling mask, a mask most widely used in the Mexican/Latin lucha libre style of wrestling. In modern lucha libre, masks are colourfully designed to evoke the images of animals, gods, ancient heroes, and other archetypes. The mask is considered "sacred" to some degree, placing its role closer to the ritual and performance function.

Disguise

Masks are sometimes used to avoid recognition.

Masks are also used to prevent recognition whilst showing membership of a group:

  • Use by penitents of masks in ceremonies to disguise their identity in order to make the act of penitence more selfless. The Semana Santa parades throughout Spain and in Hispanic/Catholic countries throughout the world are examples of this, with their cone shaped masks known as Capirote.
  • Use by vigilante groups
  • The cone-shaped mask in particular is identified with the Ku Klux Klan in a self-conscious effort to combine the hiding of personal identity with the promotion of a powerful and intimidating image.
  • Members of the group Anonymous frequently wear masks (usually masks from V for Vendetta) when they attend protests.

Punitive

Masks are sometimes used to punish the wearer either by signalling their humiliation or causing direct suffering:

  • A "shameful" mask (Schandmaske in German) is devised for public humiliation; a popular reduced form are donkey ears for a bad ('dumb') pupil or student
  • Particularly uncomfortable types, such as an iron mask, are fit as devices for torture or corporal punishment
  • Masks were used to alienate and silence prisoners in Australian jails in the late 19th century. They were made of white cloth and covered the face, leaving only the eyes visible.

Fashion

Decorative masks may be worn as part of a costume outside of ritual or ceremonial functions. This is often described as a masque, and relates closely to carnival styles. For example, attendants of a costume party will sometimes wear masks as part of their costumes.

  • Wrestling masks are used most widely in Mexican and Japanese wrestling. A wrestler's mask is usually related to a wrestler's persona (for example, a wrestler known as 'The Panda' might wear a mask with a panda's facial markings). Often, wrestlers will put their masks on the line against other wrestlers' masks, titles or an opponent's hair. While in Mexico and Japan, masks are a sign of tradition, they are generally considered by many in the United States to be a deathblow to a wrestler's character. Very few masked wrestlers have succeeded in becoming popular and generally are considered as jobbers. The belief is that fans want to see a face to empathize with and will only get behind a wrestler that shows it.

Horror movie

Masks have been used in many horror movies to conceal the identities of the killer. Notable examples include Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th series, and Michael Myers of the Halloween movie series.

Other types

  • A Death mask is a mask either cast from or applied to the face of a recently deceased person.
  • A "life mask" is a plaster cast of a face, used as a model for making a painting or sculpture.
  • A "buccal mask" is a mask that covers only the cheeks (hence the adjective "buccal") and mouth.
  • A "facial" (short for facial mask) is a temporary mask, not solid, used in cosmetics or therapy for skin treatment.

References

Further reading

  • Burch, Ernest S. (junior); Forman, Werner (1988). The Eskimos. Norman, Oklahoma 73018, USA: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Hessel, Ingo; Hessel, Dieter (1998). Inuit Art. An introduction. 46 Bloomsbury Street, London WCIB 3QQ: British Museum Press.
  • Kleivan, Inge; B. Sonne (1985). Eskimos: Greenland and Canada. Leiden, The Netherlands: Institute of Religious Iconography • State University Groningen. E.J. Brill.
  • Mauss, Marcel (1979). Seasonal variations of the Eskimo: a study in social morphology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Oosten, Jarich G. (1997). Arctic Ecology and Identity. Budapest • Los Angeles: Akadémiai Kiadó • International Society for Trans-Oceanic Research.
  • Rasmussen, Knud (1926). Thulefahrt. Frankfurt am Main: Frankurter Societăts-Druckerei.
  • Rasmussen, Knud (1965). Thulei utazás. Budapest: Gondolat. Hungarian translation of Rasmussen 1926.
  • Smith, Susan Valeria Harris, "Masks in Modern Drama", Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
  • Huteson, Pamela Rae, "Transformation Masks", Blaine 2007 www.hancockhouse.com ISBN 088839635X
  • Wilsher, Toby, "The Mask Handbook - A Practical Guide", Routledge 2007, www.routledge.com

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