I've been fleshing out the priesthood that controls key aspects of the island inhabited by the winged, lactating, egglaying species I've been talking about for awhile now. The second draft of the novella is going pretty well, but as I expand out the storyline I wanted to do a bit more with the masks the priests wear. So I went in search of inspiration and discovered:
- Elite Romans during the Republic and early Empire had actors wear wax ancestor masks during funerals to commemorate politically prominent family members.
- Anthropologists think that masks and masking played a significant role in Neolithic rituals, specifically those meant to reenact death-related mythological narratives. These rituals probably took place in special purpose buildings with lots of visual symbolism.
- 9,000 year old stone masks from Israel might be the oldest masks and date from the transition to agriculture (pre-pottery Neolithic period). There are only about fifteen known, some of which might be forgeries.
- Homicide masks worn in the men’s secret society among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea could spread through enemy communities after its owner committed a ritual murder. Click through, it's a particularly interesting article.
- Despite the movies, medieval rulers with facial disfigurements like leprosy didn't wear masks. Apparently the masks are mostly a costuming cost saving measure.
Classification is Difficult
There's apparently a bunch of controversy over even the term "masks" and what it means; take for instance this incredible quote: the only thing they all have in common are some presumptions on the part of anthropologists. Classification is hard, y'all, but broadening the category of "mask" to include all signalling systems seems like a bit much? The general argument seems to be that although Westerners recognize "masks" instinctively and are familiar with and comfortable with them, from a social anthropology perspective it's not a useful distinction. I'm not sure I buy it, but it's an interesting perspective I had never considered...
A Range of Expressions
Mesoamerican masks may have had a variety of purposes. The Aztecs used masks during battles, festivals, and public ceremonies — including having been offered to the gods. Olmec masks generally have disfigured expressions distorted into grimaces and suggesting transformation into animals like cats, birds, and lizards. Masks found in Teotihuacán have serene, peaceful expressions, no suggestions of animals or divinity. The ones we know of were generally funerary offerings.
Greek masks were generally used for theatrical purposes and to that end had multiple uses. Masks served as a useful bit of costuming to help the audience keep track of which character a particular actor was playing at any given time, since just as with modern community theater productions some actors might have multiple roles. They also served to exaggerate expressions that exemplified the role. My favorite use is the way they may have been constructed to help voices project farther into the crowd, like mini-microphones. Generally these masks were made out of non-durable goods like linen, cork, and wood.
Some scholars believe that Carthaginian masks, which generally resemble facial paralysis may have been intended for use in rituals aimed at curing diseases by banishing demons. Although this description of modern Iroquois using masks in modern rituals of healing was fascinating, what I find particularly interesting is that facial paralysis is also commonly depicted in Inupiaq ceremonial masks, half the world away in essentially the opposite biome. Scholars believe that the role these masks play have implications about the role of palsy in relevant cultures, but the latter paper talks about how extreme cold makes facial nerve injuries more common. I found a promising historical perspective review of facial paralysis but I unfortunately wasn't able to get a copy of it to read.
📗 If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my article about social signalling and tips for creating realistic symbolism.
💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.
🎭 Do you have a favorite story about the history of masks? Please reach out — I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).