The Truth Unmasked: The Story Behind The Halloween Mask
by Marjorie Dorfman
Why do people don masks on All Hallows Eve? Are they trying to hide from someone or something or is it all merely in fun? Did the Lone Ranger hoard a dark secret behind his famous black mask? If so, how come his horse, Silver, never had to wear one? Find out the colorful truth and read on, that is, if you dare to defy the spirits of Halloween.
It is not known who invented masks, but records indicate that they were known to many ancient cultures. The first masks date back to primitive times and represented animals because hunting was such an important aspect of life. The earliest mask ever found came from a cave drawing in Southern France dated approximately 20,000 BC, which depicts a human masked in deerskin and antlers. During the Stone Age, "disguise masks" were utilized to stalk prey and later to house the slain animals spirit in the hope that it would cosmically understand why it ended up as Sunday dinner.
Masks have been designed in many ways over the course of history, ranging from the crude "false face" held by a handle to complete head coverings with movable parts. Across the centuries, a myriad of different indigenous materials have been used. Some of these include: metal, shells, feathers, ivory, clay, stone, horn, paper and even corn husks. They were usually worn with a costume, which completed the identity represented by the mask. Anthropomorphic masks depict human features while those representing animals are called theriomorphic.
In traditional societies, masks were sacred objects used for ancestor worship, healing and fertility rites. Symbolic masks were worn during ceremonies portraying gods, animals and spirits. With the advent of classic drama in ancient Greece, theater masks were introduced via the 6th century BC poet, Thespis, who is considered to be the originator of theatrical tragedy. These masks were often constructed of painted canvas and fitted at the mouth where a small megaphone was inserted for amplification of the actors voice.
Early agricultural societies used masks for harvest and fertility rituals. The Iroquois utilized cornhusks at harvest time to give thanks for and insure future abundance of indigenous crops. To this day, the Hopi and Zuni tribes of the American Southwest still perform masked fertility rites. Elaborate ceremonies replete with masked dancers representing all the elements of nature are designed to assure fertility inside the teepees and outside, all along the fields of maize and other crops.
The Japanese Theater of later years used masks to represent emotions and characters. Since the 14th century, the No drama of Japan has remained a significant aspect of national life. There are more than 125 varieties of No masks, all of which are rigidly traditional and classified into five general types: old (male or female), gods and goddesses (young or old), devils and goblins (all past the age of consent). Constructed of wood with a coating of plaster, these masks are lacquered, gilded and exquisitely carved by highly respected artists known as tenka-ichi, (the first under heaven). Colors are traditional. White characterizes a corrupt ruler while red signifies a righteous man. Black is always worn by the villain (who may or may not be a corrupt ruler. In that case, shouldnt he then wear black and white? Or is the issue merely a matter of gray? Only their dressmakers know for sure).
In ancient cultures, masks were often worn to deter demons that were blamed for natural disasters beyond the realm of ancient understanding. They were meant to frighten, even though by all accounts, the concept of the demons themselves were more terrifying than any mask could ever hope to be. This belief dates back to the Celtic fire festival of Samhain, which marked a day in the year (October 31st) when disembodied spirits returned to earth to collect monies due, return overdue library books and find bodies to possess. This festival heralds the end of the year (harvest) and the advent of winter. Divination concerns new beginnings and the dissolution of the past. Everything about Samhain is black for black is the color of winter and the underworld (and in some cases, the color of my true loves hair).
After the Romans conquered the Celtic lands, they combined two of their own festivals with Samhain. (In this case, when not in Rome, do as the Romans dont do.) The first of these festivals, Feralia, fell in late October and commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was to honor the goddess, Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol was the apple and hence, the tradition of bobbing for apples on All Hallows Eve.
Even after Samhain had merged with Halloween because it had been too potent to be banned by the forces of early Christianity, Europeans felt uneasy at this time of year. They believed the only way to avoid spirits when they left their houses was to wear masks. To avoid contact meant not to be recognized which in turn, signified disguise. All fires were extinguished as town dwellers disguised in masks and costumes did their best to ward off the encroaching spirits. It was probably hoped that they (the demon spirits) would fall off the sides of the flat earth, a myth soon to be dispelled by a most impetuous Italian named Columbus.
Despite the fact that they are often grotesque, festival masks, such as those worn on Halloween, Mardi Gras or at masked balls are meant to amuse and release all inhibition. All demons be damned when it comes time to dance! The disguise is hoped to create confusion or anonymity, resulting in humorous and harmless diversion.
The preservation or disposal of masks is a matter of tradition. Some are passed from generation to generation, like family silver, through clans, special societies and grateful and ungrateful in-laws. Burning after use in only one specific ceremony sometimes destroys others. The collecting of masks and appreciation of them as unique objets dart has only occurred since the end of the 19th century. Most have been obtained through archaeological excavations.
And so, my friends, if you are considering a disguise for Halloween, approach the matter with a new perspective this year. A mask is a symbol of continuity, of history. It may have been worn by many before you and may be worn by many long after your remains are transported to the other side of the sod. Still, you dont want anyone to run from you because your face is too horrible to look upon. Simple is best. Take a lesson from the Lone Ranger of yesteryear whose black mask covered only part of his face. To this day, no one knows what he really looks like, that is, of course besides Tonto and his faithful steed, Silver. Last I heard Tonto was dead and the horse simply wasnt talking.
A most wondrous and decadent Halloween to all!
Did you know . . .