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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 .


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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.

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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.

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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.

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MASKS . This article will not attempt to establish a comprehensive inventory of masks and their various ritual uses because even larger works have only been able to do this imperfectly. Rather, as a general introduction to this field, it will concentrate on some of the general concepts and theories that have arisen from the study of masks. Its geographical focus will be Africa, Melanesia, and the Americas because these regions provided the data on which the theories discussed were based.

Historical Overview

Although the importance of descriptions by travelers, missionaries, and topographers from at least as early as the sixteenth century should not be overlooked, it can be argued that effective study of ritual masks began only in the nineteenth century. At this time the first interpretations and general theories about European folk traditions emerged, following (among others) the work of the Grimm brothers, Jacob Grimm (17851863) and Wilhelm Grimm (17861859), for whom folktales revealed traces of beliefs and myths connected with ancient pagan gods. Later, Wilhelm Mannhardt (18311880) took an interest in the folk religion of his time, in particular that of the rural communities. Collecting vast amounts of data, Mannhardt underscored the predominance of beliefs in fertility spirits and in the existence of a connection between vegetal and human life. Under his influence, a number of mask rituals came to be understood as incorporating ancient beliefs dealing with fertility, and masks were interpreted as representing demons of the vegetal world.

At the same time, E. B. Tylor (18321917) began to establish anthropology as a science of human beings and their culture. He described the evolution of civilization from the first humans, who in his eyes were in large part represented by contemporary "primitive" peoples, up to the civilized human of his day. To this end he used a comparative method to organize an impressive number of facts and documents in support of his evolutionary perspective. He also analyzed the process whereby elements belonging to an older stage of evolution survive into later stages in which they do not function adequately.

Therefore, the various elements that formed the core of the study of masks by folklorists as well as anthropologists up to World War II were present as early as the last quarter of the nineteenth century. These elements are: (1) the evolutionist perspective, following which the history of Western society can be reconstructed by classifying all known societies according to the degree of civilization they have reached; from this point of view, the peoples studied by ethnology enabled modern humans to relive, as it were, stages experienced by the Western world thousands of years ago; (2) the notion of "survival," used to describe those remnants of ancient customs that resisted evolution and survived beyond the period in which they were truly meaningful; and (3) intensive use of the comparative methodon the basis of what ethnology reported on traditional communities of Africa, Oceania, or the Americas, it was thought possible to reconstruct the earlier stages in the evolution of a society and to recover the original meaning of a particular custom.

By the end of the nineteenth century, scholars were in possession of an ever-increasing amount of comparative data on masks. In 1883 Adolf Bastian wrote a general study on the role of masks. In 1886 Richard Andree published an overview and summary of far-ranging documents from various periods. He thus made a large database on masks available to other scholars while organizing it into categories that have been constantly taken up ever since. Finally, in 1898 Leo Frobenius linked masks, seen as representing spirits of the dead, to secret societies. From his perspective this relationship originated as a male reaction to matriarchy and provided an explanation for the exclusion of women from practically all mask rituals. These early theories of ritual masks marked the anthropological and folkloric study of masks for several decades.

In a well-known article published in 1933, Karl Meuli formulated a general theory of "primitive" masks that he then applied to European traditions. According to him, there is a close connection between masks and so-called matriarchal societies. Furthermore, the majority of primitive masks represent spirits, primarily spirits of the dead. Indeed, the strange appearance of masked figures indicates that they do not belong to the human realm. Their behavior reinforces this interpretation: the masks beg while threatening, they reprimand, and they punish, after which they distribute gifts and grant wishes of prosperity and then disappear. Meuli explains this behavior as the result of a primitive belief that no death is natural, every death being the result of the malevolence of a living person. At particular times during the transition from an end to a beginning (the passage from one year to the next, for example), the underworld opens up, allowing the dead to return among the living. The masked figures represent these dead, who first seek revenge. By letting them pilfer and chastise as they please, one gives them the opportunity to calm down, after which they again bestow benevolence.

This interpretation, applicable equally to the masks described by ethnology and to European folk masks, is a synthesis of the theories founded on evolutionism, the notion of survival, and the comparative method, to which it adds psychoanalysis. Influential both within and outside scholarly circles, Meuli's theory played an important role in the history of the study of masks. It appeared, however, at a time when anthropology itself was gradually turning away from the ambitious theories developed at the beginning of the century to focus instead on elaborate and detailed localized research, employing a more demanding method. A similar trend emerged somewhat later, after World War II, in the study of folk traditions.

Up until then, because of the survival theory, a given culture was not studied as a coherent contemporary phenomenon but rather as a patchwork of various elements that could be analyzed somewhat independently of each other. Critics noted, however, that a custom should not be considered as a mere relic: it survived because it still had a role to play in the society in which it was observed. From then on studies increasingly tended to consider each custom as part of a contemporary system, analysis of which would illuminate the function of each of its components. Similarly, comparison was no longer applied to isolated elements; rather, scholars compared systems of relationships. Finally, the problem of the continuity of culture and cultural traits was tackled on a new basis: the historic dimension was reintroduced into the analysis and replaced the notion of survival, which focused interest on the question of origins and, in effect, canceled out history.

For instance, earlier authors had interpreted Carnival as either an old agrarian rite of purification and fertility aiming at driving out the bad spirits of winter or as a survival of the Roman Saturnalia. However, as Suzanne Chappaz-Wirthner (1995) points out, integrating history into the study of Carnival reveals that the imagery linked to secular and religious power, as manifest in court festivals and liturgical celebrations, played a decisive role in the development of a repertoire of carnivalesque images unique to the Christian West; individuals as well as social groups resort to it to play out their conflicts and express their aspirations. Carnival therefore can be considered a language with cosmic resonance enabling a dramatization of social dynamics.

The traditional populations studied by ethnology were again placed in the historical framework that general theories considering them as "primitive" had somewhat obscured. Thus, anthropologists and art historians as well as folklorists came to carry on their research within concrete historical frameworks. They now deal with notions of identity, creativity, change, exchange, power, and politics among other elements that shape a particular mask ritual at a particular time.

Problems of Definition

Although everybody seems certain of what a mask is, the definition of the term poses important problems. In the narrow and usual sense of the word, a mask is a false face behind which one hides one's own face for purposes of disguise. In ethnology, mask also refers to headpieces that do not cover the face, as well as elements of costumes that are worn over the face (such as veils, fringes) and other full or partial adornments of the body or face. The term mask is also used to refer to any representation of a face, whether or not it is worn on the face of a dancer. Consequently this includes mannequins; effigies; faces painted, molded, or carved on buildings and boats; and pendant masks as well as finger or pocket masks. Finally, the definition is sometimes widened to include face or body paintings and tattoos. Since scholars do not agree on the denotation of the term, confusion permeates the literature on the subject. As M. C. Jedrej (1980) puts it, the word "mask" identifies no coherent class of institutions of any use to social anthropologists.

It is important to keep in mind this problem of definition when trying to understand some of the ideas frequently advanced on the subject of masks; for example, the claim for universality of the mask: it is only when makeup, paintings, and tattoos are included in the definition of mask that one can say that masks can be found in virtually all cultures. But is such a broad definition justified? No one can say, for this question has not yet been systematically investigated.

It is important to note that the focus on the face that museums, art galleries, and books on masks often maintain gives a distorted view of the ritual mask. This interest in the face has encouraged a tendency to relegate to the background the many masks that, lacking a face, are simple hoods or fringes of fibers or beads falling in front of the face of the wearer. Fascination with the face has also tended to minimize interest in the costume of the mask, which has often been hastily dismissed either as fundamentally designed to conceal the wearer or as merely accompanying the mask. The mask must, however, be considered from a larger perspective so as to include the costume, the headdress, and the possible accessories, as well as immaterial factors such as the behavior, the dance steps, and the songs or texts pertaining to the mask. As Eberhard Fischer (1980) points out, among the Dan of Liberia and the Ivory Coast it is the headdress, and not the face, that immediately signals a mask's type. Consequently, the first step in the transformation of a mask from one category to another is the alteration of the headdress. The Dan also have "night masks," which comprise no tangible face but may include feathered headdresses. In ancient Egypt the priests' masks were adorned only with animal heads. The priests playing the roles of anthropomorphic deities did not require masks: the headdresses and the specific emblems of the gods were enough to identify them.

The face, therefore, is not necessarily the place where the meaning of the mask is concentrated. It follows that, when faced with an ensemble that includes all the elements of a mask (costume, headdress, dance), it is rather difficult to decide that there is no mask simply because the face of the dancer is painted rather than covered with a hood or false face. In any case, some scholars see a continuity between face paintings and masks because of the similarities between the two phenomena: both are temporary adornments, both appear on special occasions (initiation, marriage, death, or the lifting of a prohibition), and both seem to have comparable functions. On the other hand, the inclusion of tattoos in the definition of masks creates more problems than it resolves, for it is difficult to see how masks and paintings, which are temporary, could simply be classified with tattoos, which are permanent.

The Geography of Ritual Masks

A narrower definition of masksone that takes as a fundamental criterion the existence of one element of costume (false face, hood) worn in front of the faceforces the realization that even in regions that are traditionally considered the privileged domains of masks there exist extensive zones in which masks are not used. In Africa, for instance, masks are found mostly along a strip that cuts across the center of the continent from west to east and curves toward the south. In the Americas, intensive use of masks is most frequent in the western heights of both North and South America. Finally, in Oceania the mask is practically absent from Polynesia. It is extremely widespread in Melanesia, although it is not used among most of the highland peoples of New Guinea, in the main part of Irian Jaya and in eastern Papua New Guinea, in parts of the Bismark Archipelago, in the central and Southeast Solomons and the Santa Cruz group, and in the Fiji group.

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain the gaps in the distribution of masks. According to one, peoples without masks simply lack the wish to express themselves plastically and use other means to formulate and express their beliefs. Besides being an example of circular reasoning, this explanation runs against a number of exceptions that it cannot explain, particularly among peoples that have a statuary but no masks. The absence of masks in certain regions of Africa has also been attributed to the influence of Islam. However, anthropologists have demonstrated that the Islamicization of a given region did not necessarily lead to the elimination of the art of masks. On the contrary, as René Bravmann (1977) showed, some African societies created new masks after the advent of Islam in order to represent the jinn. Masks have also been said to be more characteristic of agricultural peoples. This hypothesis, however, accounts only imperfectly for the presence of masks among hunters in Asia and the Americas. The most successful general theory has been that of the historical cultural school, which explained the distribution of masks by arguing for their relationship with so-called matriarchal societies. An examination of the available data has, however, discredited this hypothesis as well. To date no global model is available to explain the geographic distribution of masks.

As a matter of fact, since being forced to abandon the broad theories of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, scholars have no longer shown much interest for the study of questions of this amplitude. Most have focused instead on the in-depth analysis of a particular society, avoiding any far-reaching comparative evaluation they consider responsible in part for those past mistakes.

Nevertheless, some interesting localized studies have attempted to specify the status of masks within certain populations. Some try to elucidate the relationship that may exist in particular societies between the mask and other religious and sociopolitical structures. Others look for the provenance of the masks of particular groups or even attempt to reconstruct its history. For instance, Jean Guiart (1966) showed that, in certain parts of New Caledonia, the development of the art of masks seems to have been linked to the development of chieftainships in the same region. And according to William Siegmann (1980), the use or nonuse of masks to manifest spiritual forces in West Africa seems directly related to the dominant features of social organization in particular areas, and especially to the role of lineages and political structures. But still lacking is a general model that explains the distribution of ritual masks, an extremely important element of this institution.

The Dating of Masks

How far back can one trace the appearance of the ritual mask? Many scholars do not hesitate to go as far back as the Early Stone Age, but this raises a number of problems. The documents on which they base their conclusions are far from clear and admit of various interpretations. A workable example is that of the well-known "Sorcerer" of Les Trois Frères cave (Ariège, France, middle Magdalenian Age; c. 12,000 bce). It is often presented as the oldest representation of a masked human, whereas paleontologists now prefer to see in it the portrayal of a mythical mixed being (half man and half beast). Such a figure may or may not be linked to the existence of masks; it may or may not constitute the inception or consequence of mask use. In any case, one cannot be categorical about it. This is true as well for an important number of the documents that have been interpreted as representing masked beings because they showed anthropomorphic figures with stylized or animal heads.

Ofer Bar-Yosef (1985) reports that, in a cave at Nahal Hemar in the Judean Desert, archaeologists have discovered fragments of several stone masks dating back to the pre-pottery Neolithic B period (seventh millennium bce). It seems unlikely that these stone masks were affixed to the face of a wearer during ceremonies. They might be funerary masks or the facial part of effigies, or even masks that were hung from poles. Nothing allows a decision in favor of one or the other of these hypotheses. Nevertheless, these stone artifacts are the oldest reliable dated documents testifying to the existence of masks in the seventh millennium bce. One cannot conclude from this find that there existed at the same time masks worn by living human beings during ceremonies. The oldest document from this point of view seems to belong to Egypt, where the representation of a masked figure appears on a fragment of a wall of the funerary temple of King Sahoure (fifth dynasty, c. 2500 bce). From a general point of view, however, it may be assumed that the plausibility of the existence of ritual masks increases with the advent of the Late Stone Age, particularly in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

What Does the Ritual Mask Represent?

Throughout the principal regions in which ritual masks are foundAfrica, Melanesia, and the Americasthe majority of the figures depicted in masks are primordial beings, mythical ancestors, culture heroes, and gods. In fact, in most cases the mask is not limited to representing a particular figure: it evokes the events in which said figure played a role. These events are not necessarily enacted as on a theatrical stage; they can be recalled by a dance, by a song or chant, by a piece of costume, or by the recital of a text that accompanies the performance of the mask. They can even be implicit: the mask intervenes in certain circumstances, because the figure it represents was implicated in similar circumstances at the time of originsa fact known to the initiates at least.

Among the Senufo of Ivory Coast, for instance, the kponiougo (head or face) of the Poro, the men's secret society, recalls the original state of the world as it is described in mythological narratives. Among the Dan the mask of the toucan recalls the events that led God to create the earth. Although knowledge of Melanesian myths is only fragmentary, many masks of that part of the world seem to strive to recall paradigmatic events. For instance, the performance of the Mai masks of the middle Sepik of New Guinea is accompanied by the recital of totemic names and mythical texts through a bamboo megaphone. Another mask represents a feminine spirit, who, along with a masculine being often represented in the form of a crocodile, is the protagonist of events that accompanied the creation of the present world.

On the northwest coast of North America, Bill Holm (1972) has noted that the great majority of Kwakiutl masks are worn in representations, in stylized dance form, of incidents from hereditary family myths. In some cases the dance dramatizes the mythical adventure of the ancestor, whereas in others it re-creates a dance given to the ancestor by a mythical being with whom he came in contact. And according to Frank G. Speck (1949), among the Iroquois, at the beginning of each reunion of the False Faces, the chief recalls the confrontation between the original False Face and the Great Spirit, in memory of which the False Faces wear masks with crooked noses. Before entering the home of sick people to minister to them, the False Faces produce weird noises. These nasal sounds are said to be in imitation of the utterances the original False Face made during one episode of his challenge of the Great Spirit.

In the southwest United States the masked dances of the Zuni represent various episodes of their mythology. In the Shalako ceremony, for instance, some dances consist of a mimetic representation of the actions of the kachinas when they want to send rain to the Zuni.

In South America the mask rituals and their symbolisms often have an elementary character. However, careful analysis of the ceremonies reveals that many commemorate the principal episodes of the tribal mythology. The Carajá, who live along the middle course of the Araguaia River, have masks that portray a pair of supernatural parrots whose descent to humankind is related in myth. The Aruana, a dance performed in the same region, bears the name of a fish whose form the Carajá bore before they became human beings.

The use of masks may reflect the will to enact certain events as much as the desire to portray certain figures. At times, masks represent no particular character at all but only events. For instance, Carl Laufer (1970) reports that, among the Mali-Baining of the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain, the main purpose of the Mandas festival is to represent the events that took place in the primordial mythic time. While a choir of women chants the story of creation, eighty masks enact its various phases: the birth of the sea, the appearance of the earth, the primordial forest, the flora, the winds, the animals and birds, and, when the stage has thus been set, the appearance of the first human couple and their sons. In this festival the ngoaremchi masks portray whirlpools and explain thereby the birth of the sea, which swirled forth in all directions, and the ngavoucha masks show how the earth was separated from the waters.

The Dogon of Mali have a mask called sirige, a term that can be translated literally as "two-storied house." This mask consists of a rectangular face surmounted by a high sculpted mast sometimes over five meters high. Marcel Griaule (1938) was told that the sirige was recent and profane, a mere sculpture inspired by the view of a two-storied house, and that the wide movements traced by its mast served only to allow the wearer to show off the power of his jaw and neck. Later, French anthropologists were given a more complex idea of Dogon cosmology, and it appeared that both the mask and the house recalled the same series of mythical events.

When the masks are shown in the main square of a Dogon village, the rich ensemble of things, animals, and human figures is a reproduction of the world, a catalog of both the live and extinct fauna of the cliffs and the plains. This display recalls all of the public functions, the trades, the ages; it presents a host of strangers, friends, or enemies; it mimics a wide variety of essential activities, all in a specified order, at least theoretically. It is truly a cosmos. When the mask society gets under way in the public square, it dances the march of the world; it dances the system of the world.

In some cases the system within which a population lives may be represented not by the ensemble of masks but by one particular mask that summarizes the entire system. Among the northern Igbo of eastern Nigeria, the mask ijele is a lofty tableau of figures with trappings hanging from its bottom edge to conceal the performer, who carries the whole structure on his head. According to John S. Boston (1960), the theme of the tableau that occupies the upper section of the ijele is the life of a typical Igbo community. Marie-Claude Dupré (1968) also tells that, among the Bantsaya group of the western Téké, the mask of the Kidumu dancer is a true summary of the culture of the group.

Masks are thus closely linked to the founding events of a society and its institutions, as well as to its values. It is therefore easy to understand why among many peoples the mask is linked to conservative forces and plays an important role in social control, assuming even a quasi-police function. The few examples given above also show that the primary function of masks is to represent rather than to conceal.

Sometimes the masks lose their ritual value at the end of the ceremonies of which they have been a part. This widespread phenomenon has often surprised observers. For instance, Francis E. Williams (1940) wondered why the hevehe masks of the Elema of New Guinea had to be killed and destroyed at the end of the ritual cycle, only to be re-created in the next cycle, when they might pass from one cycle into the other as if living throughout. He was puzzled to see the products of years of industry and art so readily consigned to the flames. This surprise in the face of the abandonment or destruction of the masks once they have been used reveals the bias of Western interpreters. First, Western interest in the mask as an artifact highlights the finished product and underestimates the ritual value involved in its making. Further, the Western tendency is to consider the masked ceremonies as theatrical performances and to think that all the preparations that precede them find their meaning only in the performance itself. This is a distorted view of those ritual cycles; often the making of the mask is in itself a ritual that reproduces the various phases of the creation of the archetypal mask. Therefore it is vitally important that the following cycle start anew at the beginning; that is, with the making of the mask. This is probably the reason why masks can be destroyed or left to rot without regret at the end of a cycle.

The Mask and Its Wearer

The notion of a "primitive mentality" was prevalent among writers at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the principal characteristics of this mentality was the supposed inability to truly differentiate between the being and its appearance, the thing and its image, the signifier and the signified. Influenced by this view, most of the books on ritual masks spread a theory according to which the wearer of the mask not only represented a certain figure (ancestor, culture hero, god) but actually became this figure. For these authors, therefore, to put a mask on was akin to undergoing a real transformation. Some scholars took this theory even further and claimed that it provided an explanation for the phenomenon of masking itself. According to them, masks stemmed from the possibility they gave people to liberate themselves, to repudiate their current personalities, to undergo metamorphosis.

The conditions of ethnographic fieldwork do not always lend themselves to an evaluation of the precise level of reality on which the presence of a mythical being is located in a given ritual. But in light of available knowledge, the range in which the various hypotheses mentioned above may apply is becoming narrower and narrower. The best studies show that cultures that utilize masks are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the thing and its image.

For instance, in 1938 Griaule wrote that the Dogon did not fit the prevalent assumption about the attitude of Africans toward the images they create. Far from being fooled by the appearances or the material effects of the ritual, they were definitely aware of the difference between the thing represented and its image. They even had a word, bibile, to express the concept of reproduction, image, resemblance, or double. A photograph was the bibile of the person it represented. The shadow of a living being was considered a bibile because it reproduced the silhouette, the posture, and the movements of that person. A masked dancer was called imina bibile, meaning appearance or reproduction of the mask. Similar findings have been made among numerous other societies of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

Other factors also seem to reduce the applicability of the metamorphosis thesis. For example, masks are rarely associated with possession of the wearer, although that would be in the logic of the hypothesis. Also, the initiates in those communities in which masks are found constantly stress the fact that only the uninitiated believe they are actually in the presence of a spirit or a god. These statements are difficult to reconcile with the metamorphosis thesis. They have from the very first forced the proponents of that thesis to embark on often complicated explanations in order to bring their theory into harmony with the ethnographic data.

Similarly attempts to explain the ritual mask phenomenon by a desire, a need, even an instinct of the wearer were probably influenced by theories geared to explain the persistence of Carnival masks in the Western world. In one example of what Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (1965) called the "if I were a horse" type of guesswork, the feeling of liberation experienced by Western mask wearers was projected onto African, American, or Melanesian mask wearers. Even if such a feeling may exist among some of these people, it cannot be used as a general explanation of the masked-ritual phenomenon.

Moreover, wearing a mask often carries social responsibilities that make it a service rather than a liberation. This service is often compulsory: reprobation, a fine, or worse await those who try to sidestep it. Either one particular person or a category of people is compelled to perform this service: one or several members of the family of the deceased, all members of a brotherhood, all circumcised males, and so forth. Although wearing a mask can bring honor and prestige, it also burdens the wearer with various duties, such as the payment of a tax to purchase the right to wear a particular mask or several months of preparation during which the mask wearers learn the dance steps, intensively rehearse combined movements, and may have to memorize complicated texts, sometimes in a secret language.

Among the Asmat of Irian Jaya, for example, it takes four to five months to prepare the masks for the ritual called Jipae. H. C. van Renselaar reports that, during all of that time, the mask wearers have to support the mask makers (van Renselaar and Mellema, 1956). The relatives of the deceased for whom the Jipae is celebrated must in turn give daily supplies of food to the mask wearers. Furthermore, the mask wearers must act as the surrogate for the dead and adopt and provide for the children of the deceased.

The Mask and the Dead

One mask has been constantly associated with the representation of the dead: the skull mask. Some experts, such as Hans Nevermann, have considered it the most primitive form of masking (Nevermann, Worms, and Petri, 1968). Those partial or complete skulls, worn on the top of the head or in front of the face, decorated, remodeled, or covered with tight skin, have provoked a number of speculations. Frobenius considered them part of a logical continuum of mask making that began with the use of a complete skull and moved to the use of a skull mask, concluding with the mask carved out of wood. Skull masks are found in the three main mask regions. In Africa such masks are sometimes tightly covered with skin in a manner peculiar to the Cross River region, where Keith Nicklin (1974) reports this same technique is used also to cover the wooden supports of masks. In Mesoamerica the Aztec often combined the techniques of remodeling and decorating the skulls (e.g., with turquoise).

However, as noted by Hans Damm (1969), the Melanesian masks have given rise to the most speculation. In Melanesia the skull is partially or entirely remodeled or molded over with a kind of wax; it is then painted and often adorned with human hair. These techniques are not, however, limited to the making of masks. They are also used in the making of funerary effigies (for example the rambaramp of Malekula) and in the remodeling of heads that are preserved in cult houses and in dwellings. The same techniques are also used to mold human heads on wooden supports.

Because of the radical changes these traditions have undergone, many of the assumptions made and questions raised about them may never be checked or resolved. However, an examination of some other Melanesian masks portraying deceased historical persons (as opposed to those that portray the dead as a class) help define a general context in which the skull mask can most probably be placed.

In the Jipae ceremony of the Asmat, for example, masked men represent the dangerous dead, especially children, great warriors, and the victims of headhunters. Beginning at dusk the masqueraders dance, imitating the waddle of the cassowary bird. At sunrise the dancers move toward the men's house followed by the women. Suddenly the men of the village attack the masks with sticks, forcing them to enter the men's house and thus ending the ritual. In the Jipae the mask represents a specific dead person, but several solar characteristics are also ascribed to it. This ritual begins at nightfall, when, according to the Asmat, the sun puts on its mask to descend into the land of the dead. The dancers imitate the cassowary, which the Asmat associate with the sun. Finally, the ritual ends at sunrise; that is, when the sun leaves the land of the dead and removes its mask.

To understand the meaning of a ceremony of this type one must keep in mind that for a large number of societies, in Melanesia as well as in other parts of the world, it is not death itself but ritual that opens the way toward the next life. This ritual fulfills several functions linked together: it prevents the spirit of the dead from wandering among the living; it allows deceased persons to enjoy the status due to their rank in the hereafter; it removes the risk thatin despair about their unresolved fatethe deceased might act against the living to force them to celebrate the appropriate ritual. This ritual may also mark the end of mourning, it may be the occasion of the redistribution of the land, or it may serve as a framework or a background for initiations. It is mostly during this kind of ritual that masks representing deceased individuals intervene.

Early-twentieth-century scholars were so preoccupied with the idea that the mask wearer was adopting a new personality that they overlooked one of the mask's main purposeswhich may have been to identify the dead with his or her paradigm (the first dead human, a culture hero) and not just to associate the mask wearer with the spirit of the dead. This is nevertheless one of the important elements of such rituals as the Malanggan of New Ireland, the Ne-leng of Malekula, the Horiomu of the Kiwai, the Jipae of the Asmat, and the Mbii-kawane of Mimika (New Guinea).

This identification can take various forms that fall between two extreme poles. In some cases nothing is done to bring the appearance of the masked figure, as it is defined by tradition, closer to that of the deceased. In those cases it is mainly the attitude of kin that expresses this identification; they act toward the masked figure as they would toward the departed they are mourning. The ceremony called Mbii-kawane described by Jan Pouwer (1956) is close to this type. In other cases a considerable effort is made to ensure that the masked person will resemble the deceased as closely as possible. In this case the identification with the paradigmatic figure is made through the text, which is sung or recited, and through the dance steps. This seems to be the case with the Horiomu of the Kiwai as reported by Gunnar Landtman (1927).

The above remarks also pertain to a number of funerary masks. This term has been used to categorize various types of masks found on mortal remains, on mummies, on funerary urns, or among the funerary furnishings found in certain tombs. Some of these masks are realistic and seem like portraits, and they have on occasion been molded directly onto the dead person's face. Others, sometimes called "idealistic," reveal traits that obviously did not belong to the deceased. In between those two categories, variations such as idealized or stylized portraits are found. Others, finally, do not have a real face. In some cases the mask could have been worn by somebody during a burial ritual, whereas in other cases there is no evidence to support that interpretation.

Given the extensive variations that may be found from one tradition to the next, funerary masks seem to have two basic purposes: (1) to prevent the spirits of the dead from wandering among the living (by offering them a new support, by luring or forcing them away from the living); and (2) to insure that the deceased will safely reach his or her resting place in the hereafter. The identification with a paradigm should not be overlooked as a means to achieve this goal.

Masks, Women, and Secret Societies

According to the Viennese school of the "culture circles," in a former era women played a leading role in society, and in order to resist their economic, social, and religious supremacy, men created secret societies. The theory postulated a quasi-organic link between secret societies and masks, the latter being the means used by men to seize power from women and secure their own domination. This link was even noted by authors who did not necessarily accept the hypothesis of matriarchy. Here, summarized in four points, is how Felix Speiser (1923) expressed it: (1) the goal of secret societies is to terrorize the uninitiated, in particular women; (2) this is achieved through the use of masks representing spirits; (3) for masks to represent spirits the wearer must not be recognizable; and (4) it follows that originally masks must have disguised the wearer's entire body.

This theory was immensely popular, for it offered a logical and unique framework for an array of puzzling facts. However, along the road taken by anthropology since the 1930s, every one of its elements was disputed and abandoned. Regarding secret societies, the apparent simplicity of the theory stemmed from the fact that its authors had amalgamated extremely diverse institutions under the term secret society (e.g., brotherhoods of men, age-group organizations, initiation societies, societies based on social rank, and more or less restricted cultic societies). Furthermore, later studies showed that masks could very well exist independently of secret societies and that many secret societies had no masks, while others had only recently adopted them. Therefore the concept of a primary and original link between masks and secret societies could no longer be taken uncritically.

As for secrecy, it is true that, in many societies with masks, the uninitiated must not speak of matters concerning masks, or they must only speak of them in a certain manner, or they are supposed to remain ignorant of certain things. However, the best-documented reports from Africa, Melanesia, and the Americas acknowledge that women in particular know the true nature of masks and that a large gap often separates that which they are supposed to know from that which they actually know. Secrecy, or the pretense of it, is but one element that helps delineate and maintain the identity of the various groups in a given society, but it cannot be taken literally.

The theory contended that masks were meant to terrorize women. However, because in many cases women were aware of the true nature of the masks, they could not be fooled by a ritual, the purpose of which would be to deceive them. Yet they display emotions, sometimes violent ones, during the performance of certain masks. If they are not fooled by appearances, then how can those feelings be explained?

When women express fear when confronted with the masks or when they recognize in them the deceased of their own families and implore them with cries and tears, one is forced to wonder if such a display of emotions is not an essential part of the ritual itself. There is no doubt that women are frightened in many societies. But they are afraid of the consequences that would follow if they did not behave as tradition requires or if they breached the prohibitions surrounding the masks. Depending on the situation and the society, a fine would be levied; a sacrifice would have to be made; the woman would become sick, sterile, or even die; the men might kill her; the mask wearer would die; or the entire community would disappear. But this does not mean that women act merely out of fright and that their emotions (for instance, their grief) are not genuine. Indeed this does not rule out sincerity in any way, but a sincerity that is addressed to what is represented in the ritual and a sincerity that cannot be understood unless one first accepts that all the participants may experience the ritual at the level of what is being represented while remaining perfectly aware of the means used to create the performance. The deeper meaning of masked rituals can only be perceived if one acknowledges that the behavior of everyone concerned is meaningful, the women's as well as the men's, both contributions being at once necessary to the ritual and constitutive of it.

The elegant "culture circles" hypothesis presented the relationship between masks and women as one of incompatibility, ignorance, and credulity. A detailed examination shows that the situation is more complex and differentiated. Indeed the prohibitions to which women are subject sometimes only cover a particular part of the mask or a special circumstance. It is also impossible to ignore the particular position that certain women occupy within the masking society (among the Dogon, the Kono, or the Mende, for instance). In certain cases women contribute to the preparation of masks or dancers or are entrusted with the care and preservation of the masks and other ritual objects otherwise prohibited to women. In addition, the wives of chiefs and the wives of the heads of initiation societies are sometimes initiated into the secrets of masks, and, from a more general point of view, numerous elderly women are exceptions to the "rule" that all women be excluded from masking rites. Last but not least, there are of course casesattested in Africa, Melanesia, and the Americaswhen masks are worn by women, often during women's initiations. Due to the anthropocentrism of early scholarship, little information was available on these ceremonies when the theory was proposed. Fortunately, since the 1970s this situation has been changing rapidly (for instance, see Sidney L. Kasfir and Pamela R. Franco [1998]).

However, even taking into consideration the numerous cases mentioned above, a simple statistical study will show that in most instances masks are worn by men, even though women are said to have discovered and owned them to begin with. Thus, if the masked ritual must be viewed in the context of a symbolism shared by men and women, the dialectic between the two sexes that the ritual reveals must not be neglected. It comes back to the sacredness peculiar to each sex and to the ambivalent attitude of men toward the extraordinary power of women: particularly with regard to women's ability to conceive and to self-regulate their uncleanness through their menstrual cycles.

See Also

Ancestors, article on Mythic Ancestors; Bodily Marks; Carnival; Culture Heroes; Dogon Religion; Griaule, Marcel; Kulturkreiselehre; Paleolithic Religion.


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Henry Pernet (2005)

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Masks, which function to conceal a person's face, occur in a variety of forms and can be made from numerous kinds of material, including wood, cloth, and vegetable fiber (the three most common) as well as paint, metal, clay, feathers, beads, bark cloth, and plastic. Masking is an ancient tradition, dating back to the Paleolithic sculpture and cave painting of southwestern Europe (30,000–15,000 b.c.e.) and to rock paintings from the Tassilli area of northern Africa (4,000–2,000 b.c.e.). The Tassilli masks appear very similar to types that are still being worn in West Africa. Additional examples of early masking can be found in rock painting located in parts of Asia and North America.

Masks cover all or part of the face and have been used for many reasons. Some masks function to protect an individual. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Japanese, European, and Middle Eastern armor included a helmet that safeguarded the head and, in some examples, also frightened an enemy. Numerous other kinds of protection masks exist including gas masks, hockey masks, and space helmets. Yet masks usually imply a type of disguise or transformation in which a person's identity or appearance is clearly altered. Anonymity is often desired when a person acts in an antisocial or criminal manner and does not wish to be recognized. This would include bank robbers, members of terrorist organizations—including the Ku Klux Klan—and revelers that appear on festive occasions, such as Halloween, Carnival, or Mardi Gras.

In a number of examples, a mask may allow the wearer to transcend his—or in some cases her—ordinary physical nature and take on the identity of another creature, ancestor, or supernatural force. In fact, the majority of masks are associated with ceremonial or ritual activity of a social, religious, economic, or political nature. In a performance context, they often express the otherworldliness of the spirits and make visible what is invisible. Such masks tend to act dynamically when they appear either to a few initiated individuals or to a larger segment of the population—moving, speaking, or gesturing in a dramatic fashion. When considering masks of this category, it is best to employ the more inclusive concept of masquerade, since a masquerade involves more than concealing the face of a person. In most cases, it consists of a total costume functioning within a performance context. The costume may also include objects held or manipulated by the masquerader, which function as props in the performance or help clarify the character's nature. The creation of a masquerader can require the specialist talent of many individuals, and the actual performance requires the involvement of additional people, such as dancers, musicians, masquerade attendants, and audience members. The exact function and meaning of every mask is culturally determined. A mask may have different functions through time or it may have two or more functions at any given time. The focus of this entry is on what masks do and what they mean in different sociocultural systems. The structure presented below suggests one way that masks can be organized into functional categories.

Entertainment and Storytelling

In both Europe and Asia, there is a tradition of covering the face with a mask for theatrical productions. Festivals in ancient Greece used masks, made from linen, cork, or lightweight wood, for both dramas and comedies. For tragedies, masks depicted highborn men and women as well as gods. Animal, bird, and insect masks were only found in comedies. Roman culture continued to utilize theatrical masks and from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Italian and French touring troupes employed masks or half masks to exaggerate the traits of stock characters in popular theater (commedia dell'arte). The improvised performances were never subtle but usually quite bawdy. Satire or social commentary is a feature commonly associated with masking traditions.

A connection between ritual and theater is strongly evident in Asia. Indonesian face masks are used widely for dramatic performances honoring ancestors and telling stories with a moral or historical reference. A spectacular example can be seen with the Barong-Rangda dramas of Bali that depict the age-old conflict between the forces of good and evil. These masks have sacred power and when not in use must be stored in a temple. Rangda, the queen of the witches, represents the forces of evil and both her mask-image and costume are viewed as frightening. She has a long mane of hair with flames protruding from her head and a fierce face with bulging eyes, gaping mouth, huge teeth or tusks, and a long tongue. Around her waist is a white cloth, an important instrument of her magic. Rangda's opponent in the play, Barong—a defender of humanity, can be presented in a range of animal forms. The most sacred type of Barong is called Barong Ket, a shaggy-haired creature with large eyes, grinning mouth, and a huge curved tail embellished with a red flap and tiny bell. His face is overwhelmed by a huge headdress with large earflaps.

In Japan, No developed from rice planting and harvest rituals to theatrical performances that deal with social issues that spotlight past events, supernatural beings, and contemporary concerns. Men wearing lavish costumes and small wooden face masks with serene, neutral expressions perform all the roles. No masks, carved from Japanese cypress wood, represent young and old men, young and old women, deities, and demons. The specific character is brought to life through subtle movements of the actor's body. Actors have a long period of training, wearing their first mask—in a supporting role—as an early teenager. By the time he is sixty years old, an actor is permitted to play a major character that may wear more than one mask during a single performance.

Halloween has evolved from an Anglo-Saxon and Celtic ritual, to become a major American masking event involving both children and adults who wear costumes that depict aspects of popular culture, political issues, cross-dressers, social transgressions, or personal fantasies. In some communities adults have organized elaborate street fairs and parades to celebrate the holiday. For many college towns, Halloween has become a major public event associated with revelry.


Among a number of cultures, masquerades are seen as the embodiment of the vital powers of the wilderness and its inhabitants. A major concern of the Baining of New Britain (Papua New Guinea) is the transformation of the products of nature into social products through collective human activity. Baining masks, representing spirits, usually consist of a variety of large bamboo frames covered with beaten tree bark and decorated with leaves, feathers, and elaborate patterns, painted red and black against a white background. All of the designs are named, usually after different types of trees, plants, or creatures of the bush. The mask ensembles refer back to the natural domain and during the dances they mediate between the bush and community. The masks in part derive their importance from the fact that they are made out of bush material that has been transformed by human work into finished products. Although there are many types of masquerade, all can be organized into two broad categories: day dances and night dances. Day dances are associated with females and the gardens while night dances relate to males and the bush; not every village has both. These night masks, consisting of a wide variety of plank and helmet types, are named after products of the bush, especially those that men hunt and gather. The day masks, on the other hand, are usually tall, vertical structures up to forty inches high. The designs on these masks relate to the growth of domesticated plants.

The Kalabari Ijo of the delta area of Nigeria believe they share their environment with water spirits (Owu) who play an important role in providing benefits to the community. Throughout West Africa, spirits of the water are seen as more positive and more helpful than spirits associated with the forest or wilderness. For the Kalabari, wooden masks are used in the ritual cycles that honor these spirits associated with a body of water, usually a creek. Although each water spirit has its own costume, music, and dance, and appears at different points in the festival, they all dance together at the end of the ritual cycle. Water spirit masks, in the form of fish or other

aquatic creatures and humans, are worn horizontally on the head and are characterized by a swollen forehead, a long nose, and a projecting mouth. The masqueraders also wear a costume made from different layers of cloth.

The masks of the Alaskan Eskimo populations function to provide protection from potentially dangerous nature spirits and to ensure successful hunting. For the Eskimo, animals are not just food products but spiritual beings that must be treated with respect. They believe that all natural forms have a soul (inua) that will usually reveal itself to a person in the form of a small, human-like face on the back, breast, or in the eye of a creature. Masks represent supernatural beings who control the forces of nature, the spirits of particular mammals and fish, or natural phenomena such as air bubbles, a particular season, or even the wind; their specific form is based on the dream or trance of a shaman (religious leader who has an extraordinary ability to intercede with the spirits). Masks, normally made from driftwood, are created by shamans or by carvers working under their direction; they are found in a variety of shapes including a basic human

face, an oval form with some facial features, or abstract forms full of distortions and additive features. Twisted mouths, eyes of different shapes, peg teeth, encircling hoops, feathers, miniature legs, arms, small animal forms representing the shaman's spiritual helpers, sometimes frame the face and project outward into space. Masks are used in dances and elaborate winter ceremonies, which take place in the men's house and the ceremonial center of a village. A mask is usually worn by the shaman or by someone he selects and, in large part, is designed to appease the animals killed and to ensure that they continue to reproduce.

Healing and Community Well-Being

Among the Bamana of Mali, the powerful Komo association is a high-level institution, under the leadership of blacksmiths. It functions to protect the community against sorcerers and other malicious beings. The Komo horizontal helmet mask is carved and worn by a blacksmith at special secret night ceremonies. The Komo mask is a conglomerate medicinal assemblage that moves swiftly and aggressively like a wild beast. It essentially functions as a wooden support for many different kinds of power substances. Protective amulets and feathers that symbolize the celestial realm, antelope horns that symbolize the power and mystery of the wilderness, and porcupine quills that symbolize knowledge are added to the Komo mask as they are believed to constitute the necessary ingredients to effectively combat sorcery. Moreover, the surface of the mask is impregnated with kola juice, millet, and chicken blood, all of which contribute to the awesome power and frightening appearance.

The girl's four-day puberty rite of the Apache is more than an initiation ritual as it is significantly concerned with the well-being of the entire community. This ceremony invokes the benevolence of the deity, Changing Woman, to bring good fortune to everyone in the community. On the second night of the puberty ritual, Gan masqueraders, wearing plank headdresses made of slats of yucca or agave stalk and a black cloth hood (originally buckskin), impersonate mountain spirits who bless the area and help protect the community from dangers and disease. Originally the mountain spirits lived with ordinary people, but in order to avoid death, they fled to the mountaintops to seek a world of eternal life. Before departing, the mountain spirits taught the Apache how to conduct the curing ceremonial and how to construct the appropriate costume. The headdresses are painted with black, blue, yellow, and white with patterns that protect the dancer from evil forces. During the curing ceremony, both the Gan spirits and the initiate are able to purify the community and expel illness.

The Society of Faces of the Iroquois (New York and Ontario) use masks in the communal longhouse during the mid-winter ceremonies to drive away disease and to cure those who are sick. Private curing ceremonies can also be performed in the house of a sick person. Once someone is cured by the masks, he is able to join the society. Most masks portray humanlike spirits that reveal themselves to people in dreams or by suddenly appearing in the forest. These medicine masks also participate in seasonal renewal ceremonies held in the spring and fall. At this time they run through the village, shaking rattles, to cleanse the community from all afflictions. The masks are empowered to heal an individual and to protect an entire community from the evil that supernatural powers could inflict upon it.

The carved masks are usually made from basswood, but other soft woods can be used. Ideally, a mask should be carved from a living tree. Only men are permitted to carve and wear the False Face masks. Horsehair, paint, and metal to surround the eyes are applied to the wooden face. Most masks depict capricious forest spirits that have come to serve human beings with their medicine power through gifts of food and burnt tobacco offerings. Cornhusk masks, on the other hand, worn by either men or women, are used in curing ceremonies, which follow those of the wooden masks. Iroquois women create them by sewing together coils of braided husks; they represent vegetation spirits responsible for the renewal of growth from season to season.

Agricultural Fertility

The Hopi of northern Arizona have established a yearly ceremonial cycle divided into two parts. The first from the winter solstice in December to mid-July is marked by kachina ceremonies. Five major and numerous one-day ceremonies are held during this time. The purpose of a kachina performance is the bringing of clouds and rain but it also includes promoting harmony in the universe in order to ensure health and long life to the Hopi. Kachinas, who are invisible forces that reside in the San Francisco Mountains, are associated with clouds and rainfall. All in all, there are about 250 kachinas, but only 30 are major ones. During the winter, kachinas participate in rituals held in the ceremonial center (kiva). When spring arrives, kachina dances are held in the village plaza. In the intervals between dances, when the main kachinas are resting, clown kachinas enter the plaza and afford comic relief. The cycle ends with the home dance (Niman), a sixteen-day ritual that begins just before the summer solstice. Although any kachina can participate, it is normally performed by a group of Hemis kachinas, characterized by an elaborate wooden tablita (crest form) depicting rainbow, cloud, sun, and phallic images. The tablita surmounts a case mask, usually half of it painted green while the other half is pink. The body of the impersonator is painted black and decorated with light-colored half moon motifs.

The best-known mask type of the Bamana of Mali is the Chi Wara, a graceful and decorative carved antelope, which appears when the fields are being prepared for planting. The primary purpose of the Chi Wara association, also concerned with the training of preadolescent boys, is to encourage cooperation among all members of the community to ensure a successful crop. Always performing together in a male and female pair, the coupling of the antelope masquerades speaks of fertility and agricultural abundance. The antelope imagery of the carved headdresses was inspired by a Bamana belief that recounts the story of a mythical beast (half antelope and half human) that introduced agriculture. The male antelopes are decorated with a mane consisting of rows of openwork zigzag patterns, and gracefully curved horns, while the female antelopes support baby antelopes on their backs and have straight horns. These headdresses are then attached to a wicker cap, which fits over the head of the masker, whose face is obscured by black raffia coils, hanging from the helmet.

Initiation and Coming of Age

Many societies in different parts of the world institutionalize the physical and social transformation that boys and girls undergo at the time of puberty in order to ritually mark their passage from childhood to adulthood. In the West African country of Sierra Leone, Mende girls begin an initiation process into the female Sande association where they learn traditional songs and dances and are educated about their future roles as wives and mothers. After successfully completing all initiation obligations,

the girls dress in fine clothing, form a procession, and parade back to town led by Sande members and a masked dancer who represents a water spirit and symbolizes the power of the Sande association. In Africa, the Sande is unique in that it is the only documented association in which women both own masks and perform masquerades. The Sande masked dancer wears a costume of black raffia and a carved helmet-type mask. The masks—characterized by fleshy neck rolls, delicately carved features, a smooth, high forehead, and an elaborate coiffure—is seen as expressing a Mende feminine ideal. The shiny black surface of the mask alludes to the flowing river, the water spirit's home when the Sande association is not in session.

Variations of mukanda, a male initiation association, are found in the western Congo and Angola. Here, masks are worn by both initiated novices and senior officials for final initiation celebrations and during the period of seclusion when boys are socialized into men. Taken together the initiation masks symbolize the authority of males, including the ancestors. Among the Yaka people, one type of mukanda mask is associated with elaborate headdresses surmounting a human face which is either naturalistic or, more commonly, a schematic interpretation where the features are abstracted and enlarged. A large and distinctive turned-up nose resembling a beak is frequently found. Lines may be incised into each cheek and refer to tear marks associated with the pain of the initiation. The headdress sometimes presents ribald sexual imagery with didactic and proverbial meaning. Worn by camp leaders these masks are said to protect the fertility of the mukanda members and to both demarcate and elucidate gender differences

As part of the puberty ceremony carried out among Sepik River peoples in New Guinea, boys undergo a period of seclusion during which masks depicting bush spirits appear. After appropriate training, the newly initiated boys enter a men's meetinghouse, the political and religious center of the community, and in the open space in front of the meetinghouse, initiation dances are held. Various mask types appear at this time, ranging from face masks to large fiber costumes to which wooden faces can be attached. Leaves and large orange fruits can also be attached to a costume. Most of these masquerades impersonate clan or bush spirits.

Among the Kwakiutl of the northwest coast of America, male initiation rituals take place in large ceremonial houses during the winter months. The most important Kwakiutl initiatory society is hamatsa, the cannibal society, which cuts across family and clan ties. After spending time in the forest and being introduced to the spirit world, a young man must be formally reintroduced back into society. This reentry is a four-day public event featuring dancing, singing, and masquerading. Masked dancers of animal and human form represent spirit beings associated with particular kinship groups or with the wilderness. The most theatrical of masks are those capable of transforming into another form. In this case, a single mask will have more than one identity. This feat is accomplished by the dancer who manipulates strings to open the outer mask to reveal another face within. An important component of this event is the appearance of large mythical cannibal bird masks, such as Raven and Crooked Beak of Heaven, who reside in the north end of the world. These enormous masks with a movable mouth are worn on the dancer's forehead at an upward angle. Kwakiutl masks, which have large bulging eyes, heavy curved eyebrows, and flat, rectangular drawn-back lips, are often embellished with broad geometric painted patterns. The most frequently used colors are black and red; blue-green and yellow are also found.

Social Control and Leadership

Masks from the Dan, a politically noncentralized group in southeastern Liberia, function primarily as agents of social control. In the nineteenth century, these masks provided the only unifying structure in a region of autonomous communities. Dan masks, known as gle (spirit), derive their authority from the possession of supernatural power. For the Dan, a spirit will select a man to be its owner by coming to him in a dream or vision, instructing him to have created a specific style of mask and costume. Stylistically these masks can be divided into two basic types. The first type, called Deangle is an oval face form with recognizably human features, representing a female spirit. These masks portray a gentle, peaceful spirit whose attributes of behavior are seen as feminine. The costume of the Deangle mask normally consists of a conical headdress, a commercially made cloth draped around the shoulders, and a raffia skirt. A second type of mask, Bugle, which represents male forest spirits, is grotesque and enlarged with tubular features and angular cheek planes.

In general, Bugle masks are responsible for important social control functions such as judicial decisions, law enforcement, criminal punishment, fine collection, and military supervision. Although a Deangle mask may begin its life history in an initiation camp or as an entertainment mask, its status can become elevated to that of a more powerful judge mask. Moreover, any Dan mask can function as the powerful great mask, which settles important matters like stopping wars between villages. When a mask assumes greater social control responsibility, its costume will change to reflect a new status and personality.

The Bamilike and Bamun kingdoms of the Cameroon grassfields perform masquerades owned and danced by men's regulatory associations responsible for maintaining social order. The most important regulatory society of the Bamilike is Kwifyon, which serves to support the royal establishment, but also counterbalances the power of the king by playing an important role in government, judicial administration, and policing activities. Grassfields wooden masks depicting human beings are characterized by rounded faces, prominent cheekbones, bulging almond-shaped eyes, and semicircular lateral ears. They exhibit considerable variation in form, ranging from a crest worn on top of the head to helmet forms with carved elaborate headdresses revealing symbols of authority. Attached materials, such as shells, beads, and brass, indicate high status. Animal masks symbolize important attributes of leadership and power, particularly the leopard and elephant.

The Kuba kingdom located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has developed a masking tradition to function in a leadership context. The three principal royal masks, Mashamboy, Ngaddy a mwaash, and Bwoom, may dance separately at royal initiation and funeral ceremonies or perform together when portraying the mythological establishment of the Kuba nation. Mashamboy, the most important royal mask, represents the legendary ancestor who founded the ruling Kuba dynasty. The mask's structural frame is made of wicker, covered with leopard, and cowrie shells. The second mask (Ngaady a mwaash), which symbolizes the sister-wife of the legendary ancestor, is a more naturalistic wooden face with slit eyes. It is decorated with an overall pattern of painted striped and triangular motifs, seeds, beads, and shells. The third mask (Bwoom) represents a person of modest means or the nonroyal members of the society symbolically balancing the royal establishment. The Bwoom mask is a wooden helmet decorated with sheets of copper, hide, shells, seeds, and beads. Although the added materials enhance the mask, the carved form itself makes a powerful aesthetic statement.

See alsoCarnival Dress; Ceremonial and Festival Costumes; Masquerade and Masked Balls .


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

Colleyn, Jean-Paul, ed. Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali. New York: Museum for African Art, 2001.

Corbin, George. Native Arts of North America, Africa. and the South Pacific. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.

Jonaitis, Aldona, ed. Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1991.

Mack, John, ed. Masks: the Art of Expression. London: British Museum Press, 1994.

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

Perani, Judith, and Fred T. Smith. The Visual Arts of Africa: Gender, Power, and Life Cycle Rituals. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1998.

Pernet, Henry. Ritual Masks: Deceptions and Revelations. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. 1992.

Fred T. Smith

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