Photo:Susie Lang

Mask Traditions

The Hopi and Zuni Indians of the Southwest United States use masks in their agricultural rites to ensure a good harvest. Animal masks may be worn in ceremonies to ensure a successful hunt or to imbue the wearer with an animal’s characteristics such as strength, stamina, or courage. Eighteen foot (6 meter) New Guinea totem masks are meant to frighten away evil spirits. In East Asia and Sri Lanka, masks are worn to protect against, or provide healing powers for, certain diseases. The Zooba mask, worn by dancers of the Sande society of the Vai of Liberia, is an initiatory mask representing the transformation of a girl to a woman. Once the mask is removed, the wearer is expected to act and be treated as a woman.

Ritualistic masks are believed to embody the essence of the figures they represent. They hold great power. They are used to invite the spirit or energy of deities, ancestors, or other entities, which are thought to have the ability to heal, protect, or bring good fortune to those who wear or display them. The mask is thought to possess supernatural powers and is thus able to accomplish superhuman acts and endeavors.

Some masks also represent potentially harmful spirits. For example, the Dukduk members of a secret society in New Guinea wear masks that terrorize wrong doers in order to enforce social codes. Such masks are generally called upon to help restore balance.

In some societies, it is presumed that the spirit the mask represents must be strongly felt by the mask maker. This enhances the power that the completed mask will carry.

When wearing a mask, it’s traditional that the wearer loses his or her former identity and assumes that of the mask. By incorporating the new identity through movement, poses, speech and sound, the mask, and hence the power of its spirit, is brought fully to life.

Photo: Larry Lindahl

Masks have been used for ritualistic purposes in cultures around the world since Paleolithic times or longer. They have been made in all shapes and sizes, using all types of materials, and decorated in countless ways.

When worn or displayed, completed masks are historically held in high esteem and witnessed with utmost respect.