Skip to main content
Select Source:



The Western term for an object that transforms a face, mask, derives from the Arabic word maskhara, "to transform into an animal or monster." This term was derived from the term msk, used in the middle Egyptian period to denote "second skin." In Arabic, it became msr, which meant "to Egyptianize," referring to the ubiquitous practice among Egyptians of masquerading, as the Arabs noted (Nunley and McCarty, p. 15). Masks, however, were an integral component in the development of human culture and social evolution long before the term mask ever existed. A lion-headed human figure carved from mammoth ivory found in France has been dated to at least 30,000 b.c.e., from the later Aurignacian (Upper Paleolithic) period. Moreover, masked images of humans have been found on Mimbres pottery (ninth to thirteenth centuries) in the American Southwest and in painted images on rock surfaces in Australia, Africa, and Siberia.


Given that masks and the performance complex of masking, known as the masquerade, are found in practically all cultures at one time or another, there must be some fundamental reasons for the emergence of such a cultural practice. The development of shamanism seems to go hand in hand with masking and masquerading. As humans began to observe nature empirically, including their own behavior, parts of the puzzle explaining reality appeared to be missing. Explanations for disease, drought, floods, lightning strikes, and aberrant human behavior were sought in the invisible world where the actions and forces of spirits, like subatomic particles, figured prominently in the phenomena of the visible world.

The development of the abstract concept of spirit may have many sources. One plausible hypothesis suggests that, as humans began to recognize themselves and other animals in temporary reflections, they concluded that such appearing and disappearing images were the counterparts of beings existing in an invisible world and that everything in the visible world had a spiritual counterpart in the invisible world. A bison, for example, had a spirit force that remained active in the invisible world after the animal was hunted down and killed. These early peoples believed that the bison's spirit had returned to this world and been reborn in the flesh. An incipient shamanic cosmology eventually mapped the perceived universe with the salient domains being the sky, earth, and water. Food, weather, fertility, and life itself depended on these realms.

Humans associated particular animals with the realms each inhabited. An eagle was associated with the sky and sun, a jaguar with the earth and darkness, and a salmon with water and life. They also observed transformations along the path of the sun, which produced day and then night as that star passed to the invisible world. The motion of the sun also produced the seasons and, by extension, the "seasons" of humans. Birth was equated with spring, maturity with summer, old age with fall, and death with winter. These transformations were believed to be controlled by invisible forces.

How did humans connect masking and the masquerade to these unseen forces? The answer is partly found in the development of human cognition during ancient times, which found a way of accounting for real-world events that continues in some traditional societies. As hunters and gatherers, humans were an integral part of the "natural environment." They carefully observed the behavior of all animals. People as well as groups of people, such as clans, assumed the attributes of these animals (totemism). Some people moved like deer, looked stocky like bears, or were mean-spirited like swans. Some were bullish (as described by Sean StandingBear, Osage oral historian and artist). Other people, however, shared the traits of many creatures and were thought to be capable of shape-shifting. As people allied themselves with certain animals, their totems, they had the right to wear masks and perform as those animals. By wearing the mask of a jaguar, for example, a clan could enter the invisible underworld and communicate with the jaguar's forces in order to prepare for war. Another person might perform in a whale mask and enter the invisible world in the depths of the ocean to ask the whales to give up some of their own in order for humans to have a safe and successful whale hunt. The tensions humans felt between the invisible and visible domains could be resolved for a while in the masquerade performance and its associated rituals.

By creating different constellations of masking, communities created their own social identity. When a person or group commits to a masking identity, one is transformed; "I am not myself," as the African art historian Herbert Cole (1995) has phrased it. When everyone involved in the masquerade adopts this belief we, as humans, have reinvented who we were and are. Thus, reinvention through the masquerade became a principle vehicle for creating culture and social identity.

While other animals often seem unaware of their reflected image, for example, when they drink from a lake or pond, humans have long observed their image, particularly the face in reflective surfaces, including water and shiny hard surfaces. By manipulating their image with paint, feathers, body scarification, and tattoos, people consciously reinvent who they are in order to strengthen social bonding and group identity, both crucial to survival. Interestingly, human facial expressions, controlled by the competing voluntary and involuntary parts of the brain, also affect social bonding. The involuntary part of the brain lies in the older "primitive" portion, where it competes with the voluntary portion. This tug-of-war is often visible in the way human facial expressions suddenly change. For example, when hearing that someone secretly hated has fallen on hard times, one's voluntary facial expressionthe aspect that can be controlledmay communicate, "That's too bad. I'm so sorry." But, toward the end of that expression, the involuntary part of the brain takes over and an incipient smile becomes apparent.

Lying is simply a manipulation of facial expressions, voice modulation, and body language to ensure social bonding in both the long and short terms. Similarly, the use of a mask freezes the facial expression and eliminates this kind of ambivalence. Thus, a person wearing a mask while circumcising a young boy is protected by the steady gaze of the mask, which hides his true expression at an emotionally volatile time. The masks worn by executioners perform the same function.

Gender also adds to the understanding of the origins of masks and masquerades. In ancient times, men invented masks as decoys to take advantage of an animal and to become the animal in order to communicate with its spirit for cooperation in the hunt. Moreover, the entire masquerade complex includes men making masks, dancing as the masqueraders, sacrificing blood to the masks, and the symbolically violent act of drumming, which is for a man to strike with his hand or club the skin of an animal stretched over a wood cylinder. These active behaviors, so prevalent in traditional societies and in some contemporary ones, are regarded as men's work. Women, on the other hand, are expected to perform long-term nurturing tasks, patiently and less obviously, compared to men's actions.

The Functions of Masking

Masquerades have many functions, yet they appear to cluster into particular categories. There are masks associated with rites of passage such as adolescents' initiations, other age-related ceremonies, and death. Masking in seasonal festivals and renewal rituals is associated with the earth's fertility and the path of the sun as it appears to us from Earth. In other masquerades, men play women, generally as the maiden, mother, and crone. Masks also evolved into theater as, for example, in ancient Greece or the Noh drama of Japan. In some sports and in hazardous occupations, masks are worn to protective the face.

As people change physically, especially at adolescence, old age, and death, masking rituals are performed to mark the transition and make it safe. Adolescent energy, for example, can be dangerous and destabilizing to society. To insure a safe transition, groups of young boys, for example, may be gathered and kept away from their village for long periods of time while they are taught the ways of masculine adulthood. Masquerades are performed in order to teach the adolescents and to communicate to the village that the transition has been blessed by the appropriate spirits in the invisible world and is a success. Frequently, masks that accompany the dead in burial are placed over the face or head, thus assuring their safe journey or passage through the underworld and to a place where their spirits can assist, not hinder, their people in the visible world.

Other masquerades celebrate the changes of the seasons, which are associated with renewal and fertility. The Corpus Christi masking festivals of Ecuador celebrate the fertility of Christ's body and its positive impact on the fertility of crops and the harvest. Musical bands play as the processions of masqueraders move through the streets of Pujilí. The many plastic dolls on the mask superstructures serve as metaphors for fertility. The mirrors reflect the powerful light of the sun, which makes all life possible. Urban festivals, such as Carnival and its pre-Lenten celebrations, were all at one time associated with fertility.

In Bulgaria, masquerades are intimately associated with agriculture and human fertility, while in Basel, Switzerland, and Trinidad and Tobago there is far less emphasis on fecundity and more interest in the renewal of social and individual identities. These festivals often address local political, health, and economic issues, as well as global themes concerning war and other events reported in the popular media.

Within most masquerade festivals, only men play the roles of women, which fall into three categories: the maiden, mother, and crone. In general, men play women's roles, first because men monopolize the masking process, and second, in order to communicate to both sexes the kinds of behavior they believe are appropriate for women. Maringuila maidens in the masquerades in Michoacán, Mexico, represent idealized beauty and how young women should conduct themselves in public.

Among the Yoruba Gelede of West Africa and in some Latin American countries, men dress as mothers and convey, through the round forms of their costumes and masks, women's promise of fertility and ability to bring stability to society. The two-faced Gelede mask reminds participants that each person has an inner and outer self, and that it is the inner face that keeps the outer appearing cool and collected during stressful times (Nunley, 1996, p. 1782).

Men have always feared old women, most likely because the latter cannot give birth and are no longer sexually desirable. Old women might, from the men's point of view, pose a threat to society, as they are often accused of witchcraft. Thus males play the crone to neutralize the potential destructive force they fear.

Masks are also associated with physical and spiritual dangers, in other words offense and defense. Shamans in full ritual dress, including masks, enter the invisible world on behalf of clients or even an entire community to eliminate dangers posed by disease, weather, particular people, or enemy communities. A Siberian shaman once wore such ritual dress while dancing to the rhythm of a drum and the rattling sound of his medicines and metal objects attached to his garment. While spinning and mimicking the flight of birds, he once traveled in the invisible world and dealt effectively with both good and bad spiritual forces, thus protecting his clients. Likewise, an Oku sorcerer's ritual dress, complete with a hooded bird mask, fulfilled the same function.

In industrial societies space suits and helmets (masks) are used to protect astronauts on their flights into space. Like the shaman, who could look back on the visible world from his spiritual space, the astronauts looked back from the moon and showed the world from a new perspective. Looking back at the world from the moon, people learned how small and interconnected the world is and, as well, its vulnerability. The environmental movement was inspired by this realization.

Masks are also used in theater and in films. Greek theater masks, which evolved from the old Dionysian cults, were concerned with death, rebirth, and fecundity. They were worn by actors who played specific roles in the tragedies. In Asia, masks are frequently found in live theater in the great epics about Hindu deities, Japanese Noh theater, Chinese New Year pageants, and in Balinese street theater celebrating the exploits of the forceful crone known as Rangda. In Western films such as Star Wars or the popular television series Star Trek, masks cover the faces of beings from other galaxies as well as cyborgs, characters that are both biological and mechanical.

Masks and masquerades are inextricably linked to the development of culture and human identity. In the ludic performances of masks, social bonding occurs and roles are defined on many levels, including gender. Masks play to the spirits of the invisible world; they are the "x" commodity in the equations of the many worldviews invented by humans. Masks have existed from ancient times to space explorations. While masquerades were and are integral components of traditional societies, they have found new meanings and purposes in film, sports, and modern warfare. I am a soldier, I am a hockey goalie, I am Darth Vader, I am the spirit of the bison: in other words, "I am not myself," a conceptual tool that has led to individual and social reinvention, the essence of being human.

See also Animism ; Dress ; Gender Studies: Anthropology ; Gesture ; Identity: Personal and Social Identity ; Religion ; Ritual ; Theater and Performance ; Totems ; Tragedy and Comedy .


Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.

Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie Bullough. Cross-Dressing, Sex, and Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Burch, Jr., Ernest S. "War and Trade." In Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska, edited by William W. Fitzhugh and Aron Crowell, 227240. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

Coe, Michael D. The Jaguar's Children: Pre-Classic Central Mexico. New York: The Museum of Primitive Art, 1965.

Cole, Herbert M., ed. I Am Not Myself: The Art of African Masquerade. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California at Los Angeles, 1985.

DeMott, Barbara. Dogon Masks: A Structural Study of Form and Meaning. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1980.

Drewal, Henry John, and Margaret Thompson Drewal. Gelede: Art and Female Power among the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Duchartre, Pierre-Louis. The Italian Comedy. Translated by Randolph T. Weaver. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Esser, Janet Brody, ed. Behind the Mask in Mexico. Santa Fe: Musuem of New Mexico Press, 1988.

Ferris, Lesley. Acting Women: Images of Women in Theatre. New York: New York University Press, 1989.

Gennep, Arnold van. Rites of Passage. Translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Hammoudi, Abdellah. The Victim and Its Masks: An Essay on Sacrifice and Masquerade in the Maghreb. Translated by Paula Wissing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Ivanov, S., and V. Stukalov. Ancient Masks of Siberian Peoples. Text in English and Russian. Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1975.

James, Edwin Oliver. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961.

King, Barbara J. The Information Continuum: Evolution of Social Information Transfer in Monkeys, Apes, and Hominids. Santa Fe: SAR Press; distributed by the University of Washington Press, 1994.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Way of the Masks. Translated by Sylvia Modelski. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982.

Marshack, Alexander. The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation. Mount Kisco, N.Y.: Moyer Bell, 1991.

McCarty, Cara. Modern Masks and Helmets. Pamphlet. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991.

Napier, A. David. Masks, Transformation, and Paradox. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Nunley, John W. "Cover Story." Journal of the American Medical Association 276, no. 22 (December 11, 1996): 1782.

. Moving with the Face of the Devil: Art and Politics in Urban West Africa. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Nunley, John W., and Cara McCarty. Masks: Faces of Culture. St. Louis, Mo.: St. Louis Art Museum and Abrams Publishing, 1999.

Nunley, John W., and Judith Bettelheim. Caribbean Festival Arts: Each and Every Bit of Difference. St. Louis, Mo., and Seattle: The Saint Louis Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 1988.

Oliver, Douglas L. Oceania: The Native Cultures of Australia and the Pacific Islands. Vol. 1. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1989.

Pani, Jiwan. World of Other Faces: Indian Masks. New Delhi, India: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1986.

Phelan, Peggy. "Crisscrossing Cultures." In Crossing the Stage: Controversies on Cross-dressing, edited by Lesley Ferris, 155170. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Sarachchandra, E. R. The Folk Drama of Ceylon. 2nd ed. Colombo, Ceylon: Department of Cultural Affairs, 1966.

Slattum, Judith. Balinese Masks: Spirits of an Ancient Drama. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992.

Thackeray, J. F. "New Directions in the Study of Southern African Rock Art." African Arts 26, no. 1 (January 1993): research note.

Turner, Victor W. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1969.

Walker, Barbara. The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

John Nunley

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Masks." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Masks." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 16, 2017).

"Masks." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from


masks The word ‘mask’ is related to a masque or masquerade, which was a courtly performance popular during the Renaissance and the seventeenth century. Characterized by masks worn by the players, the entertainment was derived from their dancing and acting in a dumb show. The wearing of masks was part of a religious and liturgical tradition, linked to the thespians of ancient Greek theatre. Later, these masks were adopted and adapted for the Roman amphitheatre. Mapped onto the mask is a human emotion, belonging to a cast of theatrical conventions, which is more stylized than realistic. By 1705, Joseph Addison drew attention to the limitations of the mask, by asking: ‘Could we suppose that a Mask represented never so naturally the great Humour of a Character, it can never suit with the Variety of Passions that are incident to every single Person in the whole Course of a Play.’

Another important theatrical tradition is that of Japanese mask-making in relation to Noh dramaturgy, the ceremonial art of the Samurai warriors of the early sixteenth century. Noh theatre can be traced back to the Gigaku and Bugaku forms of mask dance drama, which originated in Korea in the seventh and eighth centuries and then went to China. These masks are a synthesis of Iranian, Indian, Indonesian, Manchurian, and Indo-Chinese traditions.

The first Japanese mask-makers were influenced by esoteric Buddhist sculpture and drew on imagery of the guardian spirits of Buddhism. Entering into an almost trance-like state, the artistry of the mask-maker lies in getting under the skin of the mask. The Japanese Noh masks express not only eternal beauty and human emotion, but also the inner mind. Through the Noh theatre, it was believed that the gods made themselves manifest through the mask. For this reason, it is forbidden to touch its face. In order to make the eyes, before the mask-maker bores through the finest Japanese cypress wood, out of which the mask is made, he must utter a prayer. According to tradition, it is at the point of being pierced that the mask becomes imbued with life and spirit.

The mask, as a sacred object endowed with magic powers, was a feature of the mask rituals of Mexico. The vestiges of such beliefs have been revived by the mask-maker, El Zarco Guerrero, the creator of the contemporary Nagual mask, which is central to the masked dance that takes place during the Dia de Los Muertos Festival in Arizona.

By contrast, in eighteenth-century England the mask was associated with degeneracy. Attributed with aphrodisiac properties, it was associated with prostitutes, as illustrated in Hogarth's moral cycle, The Harlot's Progress, of 1732. Masquerade was a licence for debauchery in Restoration and Georgian England. According to the anonymous author of Short Remarks upon the Original and Pernicious Consequences of Masquerades of 1721, the masquerade was nothing less than a ‘Congress to an unclean end’. Its carnivalesque and liberating anonymity is captured by eighteenth-century novelists such as Defoe, Fielding, and Smollet. Women, in particular, were released from moral constraints by the mask, which also served to protect their blushes.

From the way in which P. B. Shelley uses the trope of the mask in his social protest poem, The Mask of Anarchy (1819), to Jim Carrey's social comedy in the feature film, The Mask (1994), it is apparent that this is an artefact which continues to fascinate. The reason may not simply be that masks are representations of the universal aspects of ourselves, but also the recognition that what they hide beneath is a revelation of our inner self.

Marie Mulvey-Roberts

See also theatre.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"masks." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"masks." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . (December 16, 2017).

"masks." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from



Often considered one of the strangest accessories, masks had both practical and decorative uses among European women. Masks were first worn during the sixteenth century to provide protection from the sun and other elements while women were outside or riding horses, thus preserving the pale complexion that was in fashion. This practical usage of masks continued through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and such masks covered either the full face or just the nose and eyes. Full face masks were made of fine stiffened white cloth with holes for the eyes and mouth. They were held to the head with ties or, in a strange arrangement, with a button that was clenched between the front teeth.

Fashionable half-masks were most popular during the seventeenth century. These masks covered the area around the nose and eyes, and were either held to the head with ties or fastened to a small stick, which required that women hold the mask up to the face in order to remain concealed. Such masks allowed women to conceal their identity while attending the many theater performances that were prohibited for respectable women, or simply to maintain an air of mystery at a party or ball. They were either black or white and were made of silk, satin, velvet, or some other soft material. By the nineteenth century masks had gone out of fashion and were only worn by bandits and people attending masquerades, or costume balls.


Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.

Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 15501760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Masks." Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Masks." Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. . (December 16, 2017).

"Masks." Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from



Decorative masks were an important part of the ceremonies practiced by people living throughout Africa. Such ceremonies included initiation rituals for young people to become members of a social group, rituals to enforce a society's rules, and religious occasions. Masks covered a person's face and were designed to represent ancestors or to symbolize mythical beings. Masks were only one element of ceremonial garb, however. With masks, dancers or performers would also wear whole costumes to assume the identity and powers of the spirit, ancestor, or deity represented.

Carved from wood and decorated with grasses, feathers, or animal skins, masks were painted with intricate designs of many colors. Unlike body painting, tattooing, and scarification, masks were designed not to beautify but to look dramatic and imposing. The faces carved on masks often have distorted features. Among the Pende people in the present-day country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the bulging eyes, giant ears, and long nose of the Kipoko mask symbolized the chief's ability to see, hear, and smell sorcery and evil doings. The mask's small mouth represented the chief's ability to hold his tongue to keep hasty words from leading him into trouble. Although many in Africa have converted to religions such as Christianity, which do not use masked ceremonies, some social groups continue to use masks that resemble those worn by their ancestors thousands of years ago.


Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Masks." Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Masks." Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. . (December 16, 2017).

"Masks." Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from