Going incognito

Published 08 Aug, 2015 07:05am

MASKS are worn on the face for hundreds of different reasons — as a disguise, for protection, for entertainment or a performance which could be cultural, religious or tribal.

Historically, masks have been around from a very early period and the earliest known example is that of a stone mask from the pre-ceramic Neolithic period, which dates back to 7000BC, and is thought to be the oldest mask in the world. It is further thought that the art of making masks is even older but because the materials used in making the masks (leather or wood) did not survive to this day, so the actual date cannot be affirmed.

Masks have played a very crucial historical role in the development of humans as they presented an imaginative experience of what it is like to be something you are not, a different identity, either social or spiritual, as they were used for their expressive power throughout centuries. They have been designed in innumerable varieties, from the simplest of them offering partial face covering to one that covers the head completely and may be attached to a dress.

In various cultures and regions of the world, they are made from wood, leather, metal, ceramic, plastic, hay and clay, and are adorned with feathers, beads, shell, fibre, stones, strings, colours and leaves.

In various cultures and regions of the world, they are made from wood, leather, metal, ceramic, plastic, hay and clay, and are adorned with feathers, beads, shell, fibre, stones, strings, colours and leaves.

As masks help people take on different identity, they were and are still used in various forms and ceremonies representing traditional, cultural, spiritual beliefs, curing sickness, funerary customs, therapeutic uses, etc. Let’s find out how they serve their purpose around the world.

Types of masks

‘ADMONITORY masks’ are common in China, Africa, Oceania and North America; usually, they completely cover the features of the wearer. Some African tribes believe that the first mask was an admonitory one. For instance, there was a child, repeatedly told not to follow his mother, however, he persisted in following his mother to fetch water. To frighten and discipline the child, the mother painted a hideous face on the bottom of her water gourd.

Therapeutic uses of masks

IN some cultures, the ‘chosen’ masked members perform the rituals to drive ‘disease demons’ from villages and tribes. Among the best known of these groups was the False Face Society of the North American Iroquois Indians who wore the masks to ward off evil from their village. These masks were grimacing, twisted, often with long wigs made of horsehair. Masks for protection from disease also include the measles masks worn by Chinese children, the cholera masks worn by the Chinese and Burmese during epidemics and the plague doctor mask.

Masks used in wars

A WAR mask mostly has the malevolent expression or hideously fantastic features to instil fear in the enemy. The ancient Greeks and Romans used battle shields with grotesque masks or attached terrifying masks to their armour, as did Chinese warrior. While grimacing menpo, or mask helmets, were used by Japanese samurai.

Agricultural use

SINCE agricultural societies first appeared in prehistory, mask has been widely used for fertility rituals. The Iroquois (people of North American Indian tribes), for instance, used corn husk masks at harvest rituals to give thanks for and to achieve future abundance of crops. Perhaps the most renowned of the masked fertility rites held by American Indians are those still performed by the Hopi and Zuni Indians of the Southwest US. In many tribes, masks were worn to call for rain for instance, the Pueblo tribes.


MOST masks worn in different tribes of Africa are made from wood, pottery, textiles, copper and bronze. Details could be made from animal teeth, hair, bones and horns as well as feathers, seashells and even straw and egg shells.

Animals are frequent theme of African art of mask making. They represent the spirit of an animal and the person who bears the mask becomes that animal himself, which allows for communication with that animal, for instance to ask animal to keep away from the village. In other cases, the animal is a symbol of virtue. The most common animals that are represented with masks are buffalo, hyena, hawk, crocodile and antelope.

Venetian carnival masks

EVERY year, from February to March, a carnival is held in Venice. It started in 1168 as a celebration of victory of Republic of Venice against Ulrico, Patriarch of Aquileia, and became annual event. The carnival is famous for its masks that everyone wears and are very specific.

Little is known about the reasons for wearing of the masks during the carnival but the masks can be divided in to two groups: Commedia dell’Arte masks and Carnival masks, each having a variety of masks.

Festive uses

MASKS for festive occasions are still commonly used in the 20th century. Ludicrous, grotesque, or superficially horrible festival masks are useful in overcoming nervousness, passing witty or humorous comments or coming up with a completely different personality.

These include the Halloween, Mardi Gras, or “masked ball” variety. The disguise is assumed to create a momentary, amusing character, often resulting in humorous confusions, or to achieve anonymity for the prankster. Throughout contemporary Europe and Latin America, masks are associated with folk festivals, especially those generated by seasonal changes or marking the beginning and end of the year.

Theatrical uses

MASK as a device for theatre first emerged in Western civilisation from the religious practices of ancient Greece. In the worship of Dionysus, god of fecundity and the harvest, the communicants’ attempt to mimic the deity by donning goatskins eventually developed into the sophistication of masking. When a literature of worship appeared, a disguise, which consisted of a white linen mask hung over the face (a device supposedly initiated by Thespis, a sixth century BC poet who is credited with originating tragedy), enabled the leaders of the ceremony to make the god manifest. Thus symbolically identified, the communicant was inspired to speak in the first person, thereby giving birth to the art of drama.

In the Middle Ages, masks were used in the mystery plays of the 12th to the 16th century. In plays, dramatising portions of the Old and New Testaments, grotesques of all sorts, such as devils, demons, dragons and personifications of the seven deadly sins, were brought to stage life by the use of masks.

Then the 15th century Renaissance in Italy witnessed the rise of a theatrical phenomenon that spread rapidly to France, Germany and England, where it maintained its popularity into the 18th century.

However, 20th century saw the breaking down of primitive and folk cultures, into mask increasingly becoming a decorative object, although it has long been used in art as an ornamental device. In Haiti, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, and Mexico, masks are produced largely for tourists. The collecting of old masks has been a part of the current interest in so-called primitive and folk arts.

Egyptian masks

IN ancient Egypt, masks were primarily used for two purposes: as death masks and as ritual masks. Ancient Egyptians believed that it is very important to preserve a body of the dead because the soul has to have a place where to dwell after the death. It was also considered very important for the soul to be able to recognise the body so it can return to it. For that reason were used death masks.

Death masks were made in the likeness of the deceased and from the different materials. For the lower class, cartonnage was used. It was a material made from papyrus or linen which was then soaked in plaster and then moulded on a wooden mould. Royal death masks were made from precious metals like gold or gold leaves on bronze.

One of the most famous funerary masks is the mask of the Tutankhamen. These death masks later evolved into a full body inner coffin in the human shape with same decorations and ornaments.

Ritual masks were worn by priests during rituals. Those masks were also made from cartonnage and then painted. They were made in the likeness of animal heads and heads of gods of ancient Egypt.

New Guinea

THE Sepik River area in north central New Guinea is the source of an extremely rich array of mask forms mostly carved in wood, ranging from small faces to large fantastic forms with a variety of appendages affixed to the wood, including shell, fibre, animal skins, seed, flowers and feathers with various colours. They often represent supernatural spirits as well as ancestors and therefore have both a religious and a social significance.

Chinese masks

THE origin of Chinese masks is in shamanic rituals where they were used for exorcisms and during funeral rituals. Masks developed during the time and entered other parts of life and culture, and today they have many uses from births to funerals, dance performances, during celebrations, masks for newborns, masks made for protection against evil and theatrical masks.

During the welcome celebrations of gods and spirits, groups of people wear ‘sorcerer’s masks’; ‘shamanic’ masks are used in exorcisms and in funeral rituals of northern parts of China. Festive masks are used during celebrations, especially during the Chinese New Year.

Theatrical masks are worn or even painted on faces in Chinese opera and other theatrical presentations. With masks, the audience is able to read character of a role at one glance because of strict symbolism of colours that are used for painting the masks. One of the greatest celebrations in China is the Chinese New Year and the most important is mask of the dragon. Dragon mask is a symbol of fortune and prosperity in Chinese culture and it is usually made to be very complex, coloured red, gold and blue, and decorated with feathers and fur. Some dragon masks are so big that more people must carry them.

Korean masks

AMONG other country-specific masks which became famous are Korean masks, having a long history of various uses such as being worn by soldiers in battles and there were also special masks for horses. Jade and bronze masks were used as funerary masks.

Korean also used masks in theatrical plays as a means of expressing criticism against everything that was considered wrong, like powerful aristocracy, Buddhist hierarchy, corruption, drunkards, gossips and flirts. In a way, they freed people to talk about the things that were by law or socially unacceptable.

The weirdest of all!

The plague doctor/the plague mask

PLAGUE doctors wore a mask with a bird-like beak to protect them from being infected by the disease, which they believed was airborne. In fact, they thought the disease was spread by miasma, a noxious form of ‘bad air.’ To battle this imaginary threat, the long beak was packed with sweet smells, such as dried flowers, herbs and spices. However, though the beak mask has become an iconic symbol of the Black Death (plague), there is no evidence it was actually worn during the 14th century epidemic.

However, the earliest textual description of the mask dates from the 17th century. Where medical historians have in fact attributed the invention of the ‘beak doctor’ costume to a French doctor named Charles de Lorme, chief physician to Louis XIII (in 1619). He designed the bird mask to be worn with a large waxen coat as a form of head-to-toe protection, modelled on a soldier’s armour. The costume was worn by plague doctors during the Plague of 1656, which killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples.

Madame Rowley’s toilet mask

THIS is one of the creepiest of masks in history — the creepiest in its appearance! Madame Rowley’s “Toilet Mask” was a beauty treatment in the 1890s that promised to beautify, bleach and preserve the complexion of the wearer.

Madame Rowley was a milliner and dressmaker in Van Wert, Ohio, and was 51 when, in 1875, she patented her invention, which she stated to be a “Mask for Medical Purposes”. According to the patent, users were to put the mask on while they slept and allow perspiration to “soften and clarify the skin by relieving the pores and the superficial circulation.” The mask was soft and pliable, made of flexible India rubber.

Mickey Mouse mask

IT sounds so cuddly and cute but in reality it was weird and no one would want to wear one. In early 1942, during the times of WWI and WWII this mask was produced to protect children in case of a chemical attack against the US. It is now preserved at the United States Army Chemical Museum.

If you haven’t seen a gas mask, then let me tell you that they are quite creepy in their appearance, unacceptable to adults, let alone kids! Even the baby versions looked more like helmets, which gave infants a scuba-diving alien appearance.

Visard mask

IF you were a woman in the 16th century, it was perfectly acceptable to go around town with a ghoulish black mask covering your entire face. These velvet masks, called ‘visards,’ were multipurpose, as they served to both protect the woman’s skin from the sun and give her an air of mystery. Behind the mouth slit, there was a small bead that the woman would bite to hold the mask in place — effectively making her faceless and mute. These masks fell out of fashion during the 17th century.


QUITE recent, the Facekini mask was produced in Qingdao, Shandong Province of China. The ‘Facekini’ offers protection from the sun’s rays and completely covers the face except for the nose, mouth and eyes. Usually paired with a bodysuit or wetsuit, their purpose is to preserve the skin’s fairness and prevent tanning. In China, having a tan is considered a sign of being a peasant who works in the fields all day.

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