INTRO Mask History | History, Utility, and Global Diversity

by Second Nature on September 20, 2023

Origins and Early Uses


The earliest evidence of masks dates back to the Upper Paleolithic era, about 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. They were probably used for ritual or shamanic purposes. The oldest surviving mask, made of stone and believed to be 9,000 years old, was found in the Judean Desert.

Ritual and religious functions


Throughout ancient history, masks were used primarily in religious and spiritual rituals. Shamans and priests often wore them to represent deities or ancestors. In ancient Egypt, masks were used to cover the faces of mummies to give the dead a face in the afterlife. In Greek and Roman theater, actors wore masks to portray various characters, with the masks often exaggerated to be seen from a distance. 

Functional use


In addition to ceremonial roles, masks were also used for practical purposes. In ancient Rome, gladiators and warriors used masks made of metal to protect their faces. During the years of the medieval plague, doctors wore beak-shaped masks filled with aromatic herbs, mistakenly believing that they protected against the "miasms" of the disease. 

                          Art and performance


Over time, masks became an integral part of various performing arts. In Japanese Noh and Kabuki theaters, intricately designed masks help convey the characters' personalities and emotions. The use of masks in African tribal dances and Native American ceremonies has played a vital role in storytelling and the preservation of history.