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Masks Throughout History

Costume Discounters

The history of masks is detailed an interesting. There is evidence of masks in paintings and hieroglyphics found all around the world. Masks that are made of wood, bone, paper, silver, and even gold have been found and to this day people around the world still wear masks on several occasions. Every country has its own history and usage of masks. Even modern-day masks worn as part of halloween costumes have a unique history. According to legend, Halloween is the day that Samhain would cross over and search out a body to possess. If people wore masks to hide themselves, Samhain would not be able to see them and they would be safe.

Ritual Masks

The performance of some rituals require the wearing of a mask. For instance, some peoples would carve a mask to represent a god and then wear it so that the god would be able to possess them. Some cultures believed that masks provided a kind of protection that would prevent the stealing of their souls while they performed rituals. Ritual masks were particularly precious and in some cases only worn by a tribe’s elder because the masks were believed to contain mystical powers or represent great

  • Ceremonial Masks From China: Discusses masks and the Chinese rituals they were used for.

  • Ritual and the Mask: An article that relates how integral masks are to certain rituals performed by different peoples.

  • Bolivian Ritual Mask: Has an image and information about an ancient Bolivian mask used in religious rituals. 

  • The Mythic Mask: Information on the wearing of masks in rituals, myth, and history.

Carnival Masks

Carnival masks were worn often to attract other people and to hide one’s identity. Since the Carnival was a time of decadence and sin, people wore masks to protect their families and reputations and also to more freely interact with people outside of their social class. People would have a passionate night with a stranger wearing a mask and go home in the morning, unashamed and unafraid that they would be vilified for their night of fun.

When thinking of carnival masks, often the image of the masks of Venice, Italy come to mind. The wearing of masks in Venice was a common part of everyday life until it was restricted severely. The wearing of masks was then limited to about three months. It was eventually shortened even more and now the masks are usually worn only during the time of Carnevale.

Masks Around the World

Although masks around the world appear very different, they have many things in common. They are usually constructed out of the same types of materials – wood in most cases. Mostly, masks are used for religious rituals to contact the spirits, protection, and performance. Many masks in Africa are carved to represent animals while Native American masks are usually heavily painted with symbols. Egyptian funeral masks were carved into a likeness of the deceased. These are just a few of the types of masks found around the world.

  • Masks of Africa: Focuses on African masks, their meaning, and their country of origin. 

  • Egyptian Funeral Masks: Discusses the masks used to cover Egyptian mummies.

  • Native American Masks: Focuses on Native American masks and their meanings.

  • The Secret of Masks: Masks around the world and the history behind them.

  • The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks: Information on the masks of the Yup'ik Eskimo people of Western Alaska.

Masks in Performance

Masks used for performances also have many different meanings. Some masks are simply worn as part of a costume such as an animal mask to portray a lion. However, some are worn to try to convey special meaning or special uses. In ancient Greek theatre, a mask was carved so that the voice of its wearer could be projected into a large auditorium. European masks were worn to enhance costumes. The masks varied by the play they were featured in. Some were carved to look very human but others were carved from pale wood and given slit eyes to convey a sense of “other-worldliness” for an angel or a god.

  • Mask and Performance: A brief description of the relationship between masks and performance in the western Pacific.

  • Greek Theater Masks: Describes why masks were used in Greek performances.

  • Japanese Theater Masks: Shows the types of masks used in Japanese theater performances with images.

  • The Noh Mask Effect: More information on the facial expression illusion provided by Noh masks.

  • Noh Theater Masks: Many examples of Noh theater performance masks.