The Way of the Mask


"Masked Ball", Charles Hermans ( 1839 – 1924), Belgian

"But no! it's just a mask that tricked our sight,

Fooling us with that exquisite grimace:

On the reverse you see her proper face,

Fiercely convulsed, in its true self revealed,

Which from our sight that lying mask concealed." - "The Mask", Charles Baudelaire


Inside almost each of us, there is a Gothic Romanticist who enjoys the images of the plastic splendour we see in films inspired by the sentiment. The Great Masquerade Ball of Vampires, the dark reds, the laces, the roses, the chandeliers, the music, and the allure of the unknown are usually its parts. Masquerade balls and carnivals have been part of the Western cultural heritage, but the usage of masks is far from only a European practice. Masks, appear, to be almost an universal component of culture as such. The title of this essay itself, is borrowed from the book of Claude Lévi-Strauss, which goes by the same name, and in which he connects the myths and meanings of the masks used in Amerindian cultures. Although often highly decorated and of great aesthetic and artistic value, the role of masks was not simply an aesthetic one, nor the one of concealing.

The Sacred and Profane

In short, the majority of men "without religion" still hold to pseudo religions and degenerated mythologies, There is nothing surprising in this, for, as we saw, profane man is the descendant of homo religiosus and he cannot wipe out his own history—that is, the behavior of his religious ancestors which has made him what he is today. This is all the more true because a great part of his existence is fed by impulses that come to him from the depths of his being, from the zone that has been called the "unconscious," A purely rational man is an abstraction; he is never found in real life. Every human being is made up at once of his conscious activity and his irrational experiences. Mircea Eliade, "The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion"

Most of human cultural practices and norms, have a sacred origins. Poetry, music, theatre, wedding celebrations, funerals, all have been inseparable from the sacred rituals. In our age, the majority of humans live in such a world and context, in which, we usually do not move towards any activity with the idea of sacred in the mind. Even when our ceremonies are religious, there is a split between that, and the profane world. We may find it hard to truly feel the sacredness of, for example, a funereal because the death has ceased to be a sacred experience. For us, as "inhabitants of the profane world", the sacred is not the self - evident reality and truth, the sacred has become a philosophical concept, and not a reality that we live in. At least not consciously. At the same time, we often witness people doing things that resemble a ritualistic, religious practice, while claiming that the same practice is entirely secular. That's the irony, in which, the Eliade's "homo religiousus" is found. The nudist movements, seen from that perspective, for example, would be nothing but expression of desire to "return to paradise", the realm without sin, and therefore, the realm without shame. In the book "The Way of the Masks", the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, gives many examples of how the masks were used in sacred rituals of the Amerindians. For example, the Swaihwe mask, worn and used among Cowichan tribes of Cowichan Valley, was in possession of select few lineages. Only those high rank lineages could wear them to ceremonies. The mask was transmitted through marriage; a woman, who is a member of the mask - owning lineage, passed this right to her children. On the Vancouver Island, the wearing of the masks had a purificatory role - the spectators were "washed" by watching it. The mask performances were also highly connected to the myth: "The island versions relate that, in earliest times, when the ancestors of the masks dropped from the sky, their faces were in every detail like the present masks." If we take a journey to Asia, more precisely, Tibet, there we can find masked performances as well. Among Tibetan Buddhists, there is a sacred, monastic dance which involves usage of masks and is called Cham Lama dance. The masks are worn by monks and nuns, and the dance is performed in the courtyard of the monastery. The masks represent Buddhist teachers, saints, dakinis, deities, animals and other significant elements of Tibetan Buddhist practice. The dancers whirl around in an allegorical dance that represents the dance of victory of Buddhism against demons and other dark powers. In Africa, especially in the Sub-Saharan Africa, masks are an essential part of spiritual practices. For example, among Dogon people of Mali, there are three main cults: cult of nature, cult of the communication with the spirits, and the cult of death. Each of the Dogon cults have their own masks, resulting in about seventy eight different types of masks used in rituals and sacred ceremonies. Masks were, and still are, used in theatre and all arts related to it. Theatre and play have their roots in sacred ceremonies as well. It is well known that, the ancient Greeks, had a theatre festival called Dionysia, which was dedicated to the god Dionysius. The actors wore masks during those plays. The same case is in Japan, with Noh drama, which is based on traditional literature, which usually speaks about supernatural beings taking human forms; masks are used in this form of drama. Similarly, in India, Kathakali dance performances often use either make up that resembles a mask or a physical mask. When a performer puts on a mask, and performs the ritual, they do not just "act" as a deity, but rather, become the deity or the spirit itself. The mask of the god or spirit, was a way for humans to become gods. Putting on a mask, erased the distance between the spirit and the matter, gods and humans. Instead of thinking of gods as a philosopher, the masked person, embodied the very spirit of the god. The mask removes a boundary, allowing for the transformation of the matter.

The Face and the Identity

"The Miracle of Saint Justus", Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), Flemish

In many religions and traditions, there are decapitated deities, and saints. In Christian art, cephalophore, is a saint who is depicted carrying their own head. The Sufi faqir, who is loved by other "God's fools", Sarmand, was beheaded by Aurangzeb, and he was said to have died while saying "There is no god but Allah". In Tantra, the goddess Chinnamasta, cuts her own head; in Vajrayana Tantra, she is known as Ucheyma. Similar to Christian saints, she holds her own head in her hands. Headlessness and decapitation is such a common religious motif because the head, that is, the face is the source of identity. We identify who we are, and who others are, mostly on the basis of face and our facial features. Is it a wonder then, when upon applying make up, one says to "feel different" or even as a "different person"? The reflection in the mirror is different, and we relate to that reflection with a different sentiment. Head, is also, the source of rational thought and ego - identity, which is the very core of the separation, but that is a topic for another essay.


We are, on a subconscious level, and sometimes conscious, aware of how important and crucial the face is in the creation of both inner identity and the identity created in relation to other people. The masquerade balls, carry the allure of being able to "free one's self" of the identity, and for a night, be whoever one desires to be. In the darkness of a masquerade ball, one may converse, dance, kiss, fall in love with someone they would normally not consider. They can be a different person from how they present themselves normally. Despite the fact that these balls and events are far from any sacred ritual, we seem to know, that putting on a mask, invites a transformation. Wearing it, one would become free of having to maintain the identity, and its components which, were often not, a conscious choice. Humans love their identities, and often hold tightly to their content, but, paradoxical as they are, humans also tire of the identities and the maintenance they require. We sometimes, maniacally seek to free ourselves from the face and the name we did not choose. Putting on a mask on the ball, putting on make up, gives a little of control. It allows for the fantasy to penetrate the reality - the fantasy in which we are fully "self-created" and completely unaffected by anything before us. Barred for the ritual and communion with spirits or gods, the only thing left to commune with are more self-identifications. Until we become weary... and ask for someone or something to decapitate us.

Links "The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion", Mircea Eliade "The Way of the Masks", Claude Lévi-Strauss Orphic Inscendence Playlists Buy Me A Coffee Patreon

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