What if we could have more than one face? If we cover our eyes, do our thoughts and feelings remain unrevealed? Perhaps we want to impersonate or ridicule another person or maybe hide and protect ourselves. All these motifs put together outline the meanings and possible origins of the word “mask”: masquer (Middle French: “to hide, guard the face”), masca (Medieval Latin: “specter, nightmare”), maskhara (Arabic: “buffoon, mockery”), más que la cara (Spanish: “more than a face”).
For thousands of years, humans have used masks in order to protect and disguise themselves for spiritual or medical reasons as well as entertain others. The oldest findings of stone masks date back as far as 35,000 years. Some remarkably well-preserved examples of 9,000 year old face masks believed to be used at communal rituals are showcased in museums in Paris and Jerusalem.
One of the widely-spread occasions for wearing masks was at festivals such as the Greek Dionysia, the Roman Saturnalia, The Carnival of Venice or the Jewish Purim festivities. The main idea of most of these masquerades was that all people were treated as equals: slaves were able to impersonate kings, aristocrats could move around in peasant disguises, and men could even dress as women. In rituals, masks have often functioned as mediators between humans and supernatural forces. Many African masks represent animals, which are believed to help communicating with the spirits who live in the forest. In Melanesia, a sub region of Oceania comprised of Vanuatu, Papa New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, masks are used in religious ceremonies to connect with the spirits of ancestors. Masks are also seen at wrestling matches where the participants wear them in order to instill fear. This tradition is common in Japan, North America but especially in Latin America. The wrestling mask is believed to give strength but it also grants its wearer anonymity and the possibility to separate private from public life.
Mexican wrestling masks. Source: galleryhip.com
They have been used in various theater traditions such as the Japanese Noh Theater, the Chinese opera or the European avant-garde theater. They were used to represent people, emotions, deities or characters (Commedia dell’arte). In the stadium-like classic Greek theaters, the tragic and comic theater masks helped to transmit emotions and facial expressions to the spectators who were seated at a distance of 10 meters (32 feet) or more. Theater masks were usually made of wood (Noh Theater), leather (Commedia dell’arte) or cloth and flower paste.
Harlequin mask. Source: delpiano.com
Sometimes, masks also have practical functions. War masks like those worn by Roman Gladiators, Japanese Samurai or European medieval knights were not only intended to protect the face but also to intimidate the enemy. They often had big eyes and scary expressions of anger painted on the carved faces made of leather or iron. A beautiful example of masklike facial armor is the Mempo, also known as Mengu, a term used for various types of facial armor worn by the Japanese samurai class. Covering all or part of the face, it was often decorated in detail with moustaches, fierce looking teeth or a detachable nose.
Mengu mask. Source: giuseppepiva.com
Medical masks, which are used to protect both the patient and doctor, usually only cover the mouth and nose and are designed to be functional. One of the more remarkable examples of artfully designed medical masks was the mask of the Venetian Plague Doctor with its peak-shaped nose. The mask, which was part of a costume invented in the early 17th century in Paris, covered up the whole face and identified it’s wearer as a doctor.
Where does the fascination in wearing a “second face” come from? The answer to this question can perhaps be found in the word’s opposite form: to unmask. A person whose mask “has been taken away” is a person exposed, stripped of any applied image. This could also mean that wearing a mask is some sort of experiment: by taking on another identity one might also discover new things about oneself.
Thus, a mask allows us to shield our “true face” but also to refine our own personal identity as a human being. The ambiguous effect a mask might provoke also influences the respective perception of the masquerade: a mask can be scary but also intriguing. Masks continue to be a popular way to assume different identities as well as give us a certain amount of anonymity and privacy. In this way, the mask may serve as a protective shield against both physical threats (infections, gas, flying objects, injuries) and social stigmas (based on the social background, gender, race, physical disabilities). Thanks to masks, men could play women and vice versa, unimposing soldiers could turn into fierce warriors and dancers could touch the divine in ritual dances.
The mask gives us the chance to live out an illusion, which is exciting, if nothing else for the mystery of who is hiding behind the mask.
More about Mexican wrestling: http://maskalucha.com/history-of-lucha-libre.aspx
More about classic Greek drama masks: http://greektheatre.wordpress.com/home/
Some beautiful pictures of Mengu: http://www.pinterest.com/nihonnokatchu/面具-mengu-facial-armor/
Here is an image of a Plague Doctor’s costume: http://epilepsio.tumblr.com/post/67367873374/the-nose-half-a-foot-long-shaped-like-a-beak