Article related image

A Cultural History of Masks, From King Tut to Halloween

In 1914, three brothers stumbled onto a mysterious cave in the south of France. As they crawled inside, they discovered something remarkable: Hundreds of strange drawings on the rock walls — birds and mammoths, lions and bears, grasshoppers and reindeer. But the most mysterious painting in the Cave of the Trois Frères — as it’s now known — was “The Sorcerer.” It had a human body, a skunk-like tail, the face of an owl, and a pair of antlers.

Years later, anthropologists determined that the cave art was approximately 15,000 years old, dating all the way back to the late Paleolithic period. They concluded that the “The Sorcerer” was possibly a picture of a shaman performing a ritual.

If correct, that makes “The Sorcerer” the world’s oldest-known depiction of a human wearing a mask.  

Ceremonial Concealment

False Face Society mask
Credit: Werner Forman/ Getty Images

Masks have been part of human culture for millennia. The earliest face coverings, it’s believed, were used to help disguise hunter-gatherers as they stalked prey. But the vast majority of masks, like the one depicted in “The Sorcerer,” had a distinctly spiritual purpose.

Most ancient peoples were animists, meaning they believed everything on the earth possessed a spirit that could be good or malevolent. For centuries all over the globe, from the Cherokee in North America to the Wiradjuri in Australia, animistic beliefs went hand-in-glove with totemism: The idea that plants and animals possessed powers or special traits — and that humans could forge a mystic relationship with them.

For tribal cultures, ceremonial masks were a way to help humans channel a totem. In fact, it’s the reason many ancient masks you see in museums today depict creatures in the natural world, like wolves or eagles.

Look at early medicine, for example. In tribal cultures, it was the job of shamans and priests to help people heal. They treated disease, exorcised spirits, and even tried to control the weather by channeling totems. Among the Iroquois, the “False Face Society” were medicinal healers who wore grotesque humanoid masks — contorted faces, with wildly toothy grins and tongues sticking out — to rid villages and people of harmful demons.

Totems also helped solve other social ills. In western North America, the Pueblo people donned birdlike Kachina masks whenever they needed to channel the rain god. And in Papua New Guinea, native tribes drove away angry spirits by wearing barkcloth masks called hevehe. These impressive masks loosely resembled brightly decorated canoe paddles, and could tower over their wearers at up to 20 feet tall.

Maskers of Disguise

Tubuan Dance In New Britain, Papua New Guinea
Credit: Eric LAFFORGUE/ Getty Images

Masks often served devious, and sometimes plainly violent, purposes. In Papua New Guinea, a secret society called the Duk-Duk wore fanciful costumes that resembled leafy Koosh Balls. The Duk-Duk worked as tribal judges, punishers, and executioners — and, in some opinions, as terrorists — and used these masks to hide their identities. (They also believed the mask transformed them into divine beings, making their judgments infallible.)

Later, in Ancient Greece and Rome, warriors could be seen wearing Gorgon masks, and the Samurai in Japan developed special half-masks called menpo. These masks served two purposes: They protected the warriors, and terrified the enemy.

But of the many adversaries people have battle for centuries, perhaps none has been as persistent as sickness. In Sri Lanka, the ethnic Sinhalese didn’t wear N-95s. Instead, they wore “Sickness demon masks” that, according to archaeologist Paul S. Wingert, had a “dragon-like appearance” with splashy colors, menacing eyes, and fangs to scare off disease. And during the plague in 17th century Europe, doctors purportedly wore beaked masks, which held a bouquet of perfumes and herbs to drown out unpleasant stenches. (However, there’s no evidence that these famous masks were widely used.)

Funerary Masks

Golden funerary mask of Tutankhamun
Credit: Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images

Of course, while masks could be used to kill or ward off death, they were also used to remember and honor the dead. Wingert wrote for Britannica that, “Among nonliterate peoples who cannot record their own histories, masked rituals act as an important link between past and present, giving a sense of historic continuity that strengthens their social bond.” In the West African country of Guinea, it was traditional for tribes to wear masks that resembled the faces of dead ancestors during ceremonies. In Ancient Rome, an actor often joined the funeral procession wearing a mask resembling the deceased.

Masks were also made for the dead themselves. From Egypt to the Andes, cultures routinely dressed corpses in masks of their likeness that were believed to offer protection in the next world. But even the afterlife was unequal; as Wingert notes, Incan royalty were often buried with gold masks while those lower on the social ladder got clay. The same could be said around the world — likely the most famous funerary mask in history is the elaborate, 22-pound gold mask for King Tutankhamun, circa 1323 B.C.

Decorative Disguises

Various Venetian masks assorted on a table
Credit: Radu Razvan/ Shutterstock

Today, while most people might not practice animism or channel totems, they continue to use masks to celebrate religious initiations and festivals. Carnival, for instance, is a time to throw on a satirical mask and party the night away, but it’s also fundamentally rooted in the Christian observance of Lent.

In particular, Venetian masquerade masks, called bauta, are inseparable from religious observance. In medieval times, Venice had strong sumptuary laws — regulations that restricted people of the lower class from wearing extravagant clothing. These laws had a way of reinforcing — and stratifying — the social classes, making it clear who was who. But as Lent neared, these laws were suspended. The bauta became a way for the upper classes and lower classes to mingle without revealing their caste.

Even our most secular-looking masks have ties to old belief systems. Halloween masks, for example, harken back to the pagan belief system of early Celts, who may have celebrated the autumnal festival of Samhain — a time when the souls of the dead returned home — by wearing masks representing their spiritual visitors.

To this day, a similar practice still exists in Mexico as millions celebrate Dia de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Centuries ago, the Aztecs honored the deceased by placing skulls and bones on an ofrenda altar. When the Spanish arrived to Latin American, they altered the tradition and began using skulls made of sugar instead. These “sugar skulls” have become a symbol of the holiday. As festivities have grown in popularity, so too has the practice of wearing “sugar skull” masks and elaborate displays of facepaint.

But whether the masks are spiritual, cultural, or just spooky fun, the human inclination to wear masks likely predates our own written history by thousands of years. Surely “The Sorcerer” would be amazed by that level of enchantment.

You Might Be Interested In