Mask History | Rituals and Religion

by Second Nature on September 21, 2023
Throughout history, masks have been more than just facial jewelry or accessories. They have had a deeper meaning, intertwined with the essence of rituals and the spiritual world. For many ancient civilizations, masks served as a bridge between the mundane and the divine, a means of communicating with invisible forces.


Spiritual intercessors and divine representatives

In many ancient societies, masks were used only by the elite - spiritual leaders, shamans and priests. When these spiritual intermediaries wore masks, they often invoked deities or ancestors. The mask served a transformative function, allowing the wearer to assume another identity or tap into divine power.

Shaman mask. Transbaikal Evenks. Late 19th century. Brass. The edges are covered with strips of leather with remnants of bear fur. The same strips are on the face. Height 22 cm. Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), St. Petersburg. Photo from the book "Masks of the Peoples of Siberia", Leningrad. © Aurora Publishing House. 1975.

To an observer, the appearance of a masked shaman or priest signified the presence of higher powers. It created an atmosphere of awe, respect, and sometimes fear. The sanctity of the ceremony and the power inherent in the mask were believed to be inextricably linked.

Shaman mask. Transbaikal Evenks. Early 20th century. Thin sheet iron. Moustache of light brown fur. A piece of blue cloth is sewn to the upper part of the face. In the holes on the sides of the forehead passed a cord to fix the mask on the head. Photo from the book "Masks of the Peoples of Siberia", Leningrad. © Aurora Publishing House. 1975.


Eternal rest with a face: Egyptian heritage

Ancient Egypt, with its profound rituals associated with death and the afterlife, demonstrated a unique side to the use of masks. Mummies, preserved bodies meant for the afterlife, were adorned with masks that gave the deceased an appearance, a face for eternity. These masks were not merely decorative. They ensured that the spirit would be recognizable in the afterlife, allowing it to go to the next world unhindered.

Many masks, such as the famous mask of Tutankhamun, were made of gold and precious stones, epitomizing the splendor and divinity of the pharaoh.

Tutankhamun's Mask: A breathtaking artifact from ancient Egypt, this gold funerary mask once adorned the face of the young pharaoh, Tutankhamun. Exquisitely crafted with intricate details and inlaid with precious stones, it symbolizes both the opulence of Egyptian royalty and the profound spiritual beliefs surrounding the afterlife.



Dance of Heritage: The Vibrant Storytelling of African Masks

Similarly, in the diverse tapestry of African cultures, masks are central to tribal dances. They transcend mere adornments and venture into realms of storytelling and historical preservation. These masks, often vibrant and symbolic, embody tales of heritage, morals, and the symbiotic relationship between nature and mankind. Through dance and rhythmic movements, the masks come alive, narrating ancient lore and connecting the past with the present, enabling communities to preserve and share their ancestral stories and cultural wisdom.


Role of Masks in Indigenous North American

The indigenous tribes of North America too have long embraced masks as integral to their ceremonies. Whether carved from wood or molded from clay, these masks are more than mere representations. They are carriers of traditions, stories, and spiritual philosophies. During ceremonies, these masks, imbued with ancestral spirits, play a pivotal role in linking the material and spiritual worlds, fostering a deeper understanding and reverence for their rich cultural heritage and the natural world.

A mask depicting a false face (according to another version, a mask of an orator). Seneca Indians, painted wood, brass plates and nails, natural hair, XIX century, USA. This kind of mask was worn by Seneca Indians at the ceremonies of the secret society of False Faces, organized for the purpose of communicating with ancestors and exorcising evil spirits.



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