A ceremonial mask is defined as a headdress or an object that covers the face for purposes of protection, ritual, entertainment, transformation, and disguise. Ceremonial masks have different characteristics and functions, depending on the culture that is associated with the particular mask. There are some areas in the world where masks are worn to communicate with ancestors, to ward off evil spirits, to entertain a crowd through dramatic arts, or to express prestige and wealth.
The ceremonial masks of Africa vary throughout the continent. Masks continue to be of great importance within certain African societies. Art has a great influence over the masks that have been produced. Art is thought to be an expression of ancestral worship. The most prominent area where ceremonial masks are present is a location from within the center of the continent moving from west to east. African masks serve several purposes. Masks not only are representations of ancestors but also are used as a means of communication between the two groups of living and nonliving individuals.
Andreas Lommel, in Masks: Their Meaning and Function (1970), stated that there are four categories of African masks. The first category is composed of realistic masks that often represent beautiful women. These are located throughout western Africa and the Congo. The second category is made up of animal masks. They represent animals and are located in all areas. They date back to hunting societies. The third category is abstract masks. These are more apparent in Sudan, where desert nomads had great influence. The last category is of expressionistic style. Even though this type is seen as being universal, there is evidence that they are more prominent in the Congo and Cameroon. Masks were constructed from bronze, usually worn by a deceased king to preserve his face. Terra-cotta and wood were also materials used to construct masks. Wooden masks were used in ceremonies or rituals to honor the gods.
African masks vary in purpose. There are four main types of African masks: initiation, secret society, fertility, and festival masks. Initiation masks are very sacred and used during initiation rites. It may be forbidden to wear certain initiation masks, but they may be displayed during the ceremonies. Secret society masks hold special powers within the specific groups they represent. Only members of the specific society a mask represents are able to see this mask, and it is destroyed after use. Fertility masks are used by men in relation to agriculture events. These masks contain special powers related to the rain and fertility. There are numerous festival masks used during any spiritual activities, including hunting and harvesting ceremonies.
Melanesian ceremonial masks are similar to those of Africa in that they are used by secret societies. The masks are used during religious or spiritual ceremonies and represent spiritual beings and ancestors. Some masks are associated with protection and are made to resemble skulls. According to Adrienne Kaeppler in Ceremonial Mask: A Melanesian Art Style (1953), during some ceremonies, not only are large extravagant masks worn, but also the bodies and faces of individuals are painted with “red burned clay, black with soot, and white with lime from burned shells or coral.” Ceremonies are performed to appease specific gods and to shield against tragedies such as illness and natural disasters. Melanesian masks are often referred to as being expressionistic due to the presentation and great amount of emotion expressed from the masks.
Ceremonial masks in Ceylon are associated with dramatic performance and traditional myth. Demons and evil spirits are believed to be the cause of illness. The Ceylonese believe that these evil spirits can cure a disease through performing an exorcism and other ceremonies. The mask is used to vanquish and cure the disease once the disease is transformed into a physical form. These ceremonies allow evil spirits to transform into spirit helpers.
Tibetan masks reflect Indian influences and have shamanistic characteristics. Many masks represent supernatural beings and spirits that aid in decision making and deliver warnings. Some masks are used during midwinter or midsummer celebrations. Ceremonies involving the elimination of illness require dance and other performances of rites to neutralize the illness that is represented through the masks themselves. Tibetan masks see their origins stemming from the Buddhist tradition.
North American tribes have created two main types of ceremonial masks. The first is an animal-type mask that represents the connection between humans and their animal ancestors. The second type consists of masks that reflect spirit helpers. Shamanistic forms of masks are present in the northwest part of the continent. Many masks are highly artistically creative and are usually formulated with both human and animal features.
Wooden carved masks are common among the Iroquois. The masks are reincarnates of mythical creatures and deities. There are several types of masks used during different occasions. These include the motherhood mask, the mask of the adviser, the beggar mask, the mask of storm, and the scalp mask. Masks are used during ceremonies for successful harvests, hunting, and protection. Masks from the southwestern tribes have a unique appearance and are made from soft skin to symbolize male deities. The masks that do represent a deity can stay within a village for a period of time while he entertains through dance, provides gifts for children, and delivers punishment to deviant individuals. Masks represent hierarchy and are representations of gods. Native Americans located in the Plains use minimal masks and ceremonies such as the bear mask and buffalo dance. The focus of each ceremony in which the masks are used is on the object of desire such as the bear or buffalo.
Central America is well known for its death masks. Death masks were found buried with ancient mummies. Others were representations of different gods. Masks were made out of black- or greenish-colored stone found in Mexico and Teotihuacan. One of the most famous masks is called “Our Master the Tortured One.” This mask totally engulfs the whole body of the Mexican god Xipe Totec. This particular god is in connection with the spring and has the ability to renew all things.
Japanese masks are no longer a representation of religion. Instead, today they are genuinely works of art. Theater is the foremost driving force of these artistic masks. Japanese masks are some of the oldest masks found in the world. They are also known as gigaku and are accompanied with music and dance in a theatrical form. Bugaku plays came after the gigaku plays. The main difference between the two is that the bugaku no longer uses masks within the performance. NO- is known to be the most impressive Japanese masks. The five characteristics of the No-masks represent gods, men, women, madmen, and demons.
Australia does not have any records of separately physical masks, but the Aborigines have used another technique. Instead, there has been traditional use of different paint and art that cover the face and body. The paint is arranged in specific patterns. The masking of the face and body uses the same ideology as does a physical mask. Many ritual ceremonies are performed to develop a connection with the ancestors and the Dreamtime. The Aborigines paint their faces and bodies during ceremonies and celebrations involving the transmission of knowledge and legend to their people.
Masks are seen all over the world. Many can be identified by the materials from which they are made and by the style and colors used. There is no common definition of a mask due to its multiple uses and forms. Masks serve the purpose of relating with those beings or forms of other worlds in rites of transformation and recalling historical events within the culture.
The relationship between a mask and the person who wears the mask is intimate. The person becomes a medium for the spirit or power that the mask represents. The person and mask work together to communicate a message or an action. In many societies, there is also a relationship between the artist who creates the mask and the mask itself. It is thought that the energy, attention, and detail paid to a mask during its creation generate a power or spiritual force within the mask from the moment it is completed. The artist or carver takes great pride in the production of the mask.
Different areas use various materials to construct their ceremonial masks. Some of these materials include the objects within the immediate environment such as bark, branches, shells, stones, pieces of leather or hide, clay, and animal parts. Other masks may include human attributes such as hair, usually from a shaman or a powerful individual within the particular society.
The study of masks continues today. There is much to learn and uncover about the secret world of masks. Masks are hierarchical, religious, spiritual, and representations of the unknown. It is difficult for any one person to fully comprehend the importance of a mask used in past civilizations. Much of what is learned is still considered quite hypothetical and incomplete. Anthropologists have made their best attempts to try to understand these objects, their meanings, and their functions.
- Kaeppler, A. L. (1953). Ceremonial mask: A Melanesian art style. Journal of Polynesian Society, 25, 118-138.
- Lommel, A. (1970). Masks: Their meaning and function. New York: Excalibur Books.
- Napier, A. D. (1986). Masks, transformation, and paradox. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Richards, D. (1994). Masks of difference: Cultural representations in literature, anthropology, and art. New York: Cambridge University Press.