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Death mask of Napolean Bonaparte

10 Sacred Masks for Hunting, Ritual, Shame and Death

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Masks are one of the few things on the earth that connect all of humanity throughout time. We have created ritual masks since our very beginnings in order to disguise, protect, or entertain. They have been used by cultures around the globe for performances and rites, ceremonies and festivals. Most notably, masks hide our identities, and allow us to become something we’re not.

The eerie masks that preserve history and breathe life into the dead

Death Mask of Napoleon Bonaparte. (The History Blog)

Death Mask of Napoleon Bonaparte. (The History Blog)

The closed eyes and uncannily peaceful expressions of death masks are frozen in time and show us a side of royalty, of military and political masters, of profound thinkers and artists, and of the everyday public that are long past and largely unknowable. They give us an impression of history that no written description or photograph can provide.

Death masks are clay, wax, or plaster casts of someone’s face, taken to preserve their image shortly after death. In antiquity, this was done often following a death to identify rank or standing, to use in funerary rites, and to perfectly preserve the image of honored or eminent people.

Mummification preserved the deceased’s facial features in a satisfactory way for the ancient Egyptians, so early masks were stylized by artists and not made from a cast of the face. Such representations of the dead not only honored the deceased, but created connections to the afterlife, and its associated power.

Ancient Romans used wax to capture the faces of deceased family members, and then later, carved stone replicas were sculpted from the castings. And it was during the late Middle Ages that Europeans began casting death masks in plaster or wax.

A negative cast of the face was made which acted as a mould for the positive image.  Several copies of a death mask could then be created. These masks were not interred with the dead, but preserved and used to create bronze or stone busts. These masks provided a final viewing of the deceased and commemorated their legacies.

European Metal Masks Would Shame You into Good Behavior

People being publicly humiliated with shame masks and the stocks. (

People being publicly humiliated with shame masks and the stocks. (

Shame masks were a type of embarrassing punishment device used in Europe and New World colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was meant to humiliate the person who was forced to wear it. The masks were made of cold, unyielding metal and would have been tortuous when fitted tightly on the offender’s head.

One variation, the ‘scold’s bridle’ was essentially a mask or metal cage that encased the head of the wearer, and it was attached to a locking iron muzzle. In the 16th century ‘scold’ was used to describe a woman who was a gossip, a shrew, or bad-tempered. To prevent the woman from speaking, this device was also fitted with an iron curb that projected into her mouth and rested on the top of it. Sometimes the curb was studded with spikes, which inflicted pain on the woman if she tried to speak.

Shame masks were also used to punish people, in particular women, who were found guilty of gossiping, gluttony, eavesdropping, and lying. These masks had different designs meant to inflict further discomfort and / or humiliation, as well as to indicate the type of offence its wearer had committed.

Some masks, for example, were shaped like the heads of certain animals. A cow-headed shame mask meant that its wearer was lazy, and donkey-headed or rabbit-headed ones were used by fools and eavesdroppers respectively. Other shame masks were designed with exaggerated facial features, such as long noses to indicate someone guilty of lying, being nosy, or being proud and arrogant. Gossiper shame masks had long tongues attached.

Some masks also had a small bell attached at the top or apparatus to make a loud whistling sound when the person breathed, to announce the arrival of its wearer and increase their humiliation.

Incredible collection of Neolithic spirit masks

One of the masks that will go on display. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel )

One of the masks that will go on display. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel )

More than 10,000 years ago, ancient people living in the Judean Desert and Hills abandoned their nomadic lifestyles and established permanent settlements. Around this time, art, culture, and religious belief began to flourish, reflected in part by the creation of facial masks carved out of limestone and painted with colourful pigments.

Weighing in at one or two kilograms apiece, each of the masks depicts a face with unique characteristics – some appear old, others young – but they all contain cavities for the eyes, mouths with teeth or grins, and a set of holes along the outer edge, which may have been used to attach the mask to the face with string.

One of the masks still contains remnants of pigments, which suggests that the masks were originally painted. The varied features of the masks suggest that they may have represented specific individuals. Scholars believe that the carved limestone masks were used as part of an ancestor cult, and that shamans or tribal chiefs wore the masks during a ritual masquerade honoring the deceased. They were masks to represent spirits, not living people.

11,000-year-old Spiritualized Deer Masks Whisper Tales Of A Forgotten World

One of the three Mesolithic deer skull headdresses from the Star Carr exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. (Josh Murfitt / MAA)

One of the three Mesolithic deer skull headdresses from the Star Carr exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. (Josh Murfitt / MAA)

Deer skulls with carved eyeholes dating to 11,000 years ago have been discovered at Star Carr Mesolithic archaeological site about five miles (8.0 km) south of Scarborough in North Yorkshire, England.

The Cambridge archaeologists involved at Star Carr raised the postulation that the deer headdresses “may have been items of camouflage worn while hunting.” While the visual of 30 plus hunters creeping through a woodland dressed as deer sets one’s imagination on fire, Dr. Joy told reporters that “part of the antlers were removed… One suspects the deer wouldn’t have been fooled!”

To better understand why ancient people made such elaborate sacred objects, we must adopt a different world view and consider ‘animism.' Imagine for a moment a reality in which every material object and phenomena has an unseen life force; where material and spiritual realms are simply different parts of ‘one thing.’ In that world, free of pre-scientific reasoning, our forebears projected concepts of soul, spirit, and sentience onto fern and fauna, light and shadows, thunder, wind, rain and sunshine.

Haunting Death Masks of an Ancient Siberian Warrior Race

Tashtyk death masks found earlier are held in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, along with other museums. Pictures: Boris Dolinin

Tashtyk death masks found earlier are held in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, along with other museums. Pictures: Boris Dolinin

Made of gypsum, these ancient death masks recreate the - at least partially - European look of the Tashtyk people who lived mainly around the Yenesei River.

They were unearthed at the Shestakovo-3 tomb, where the bodies were substantially cremated, leaving only large bones. Then the remains were put inside dummy bodies made of leather or fabric. Next the gypsum mask - showing the likeness of the recently departed man or woman - was put on the dummy.

The crypt functioned for one year or more. First of all, they dug a hole in the ground, built a stone wall around it, made a decking and covered this with logs. Then gradually the crypt was filled with the dummies (containing the remains of the dead and their masks).

Masks, Sex, Laughter, and Tears in Ancient Greek Theater

Mosaic, shown Gargoyles in form of Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Roman artwork, 2nd century AD. (Public Domain)

Mosaic, shown Gargoyles in form of Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Roman artwork, 2nd century AD. (Public Domain)

While the extent to which early tragedy borrowed from Dionysus' traditions remains unclear, the basics are evident: performers (who danced as much as they acted) donned masks and costumes and followed a mythological script that relied heavily on the dichotomy between gods and men.

The masks were especially important in the practice of performance—maybe more-so than in the Dionysian rituals—as they were a way to ensure with absolute certainty that the actors could take on any guise necessary. Whether this guise was human, god, demi-god, or monster, it was valuable to the tale being told, and thus masks were central to the theatrics of all performances.

Many masks survive, as well as literary descriptions of the masks and artistic recreations in frescoes and vase paintings. One can see the evidence of the importance of masks at almost any surviving theater—Greek or Roman (as the Romans borrowed heavily from Greek drama before devising their own). Statues depicting the grotesquely laughing, crying, or raging masks stare down at innocent viewers, their lips largely engorged and eyes so rounded and saucer-like, one would think the mask itself had a mind of its own.

Half A Million Dollar Mask With Otherworldly Origins

This rare ritual mask fuses together the exotic beauty of Luba with the hypnotic power of Songye art.

This rare ritual mask fuses together the exotic beauty of Luba with the hypnotic power of Songye art.

Tribal African masks are highly sought after by artifact collectors and museums all over the western world, where they are generally appreciated only for their aesthetic qualities. To tribal insiders however, they are multi-interpretational matrixes of ancient ancestral knowledge, holding the secrets of creation and the otherworldly origins of mankind.

Masks are known as Kifwebe in both the Luba and Songye languages. Non-initiates cannot even begin to grasp the layers of significance given to these masks which allude to Congo cosmology and the perceived cycles of planets, animal breeding patterns, and mythical heroes.

Unlike modern masks, which are designed to frighten and amuse people, African ritual masks formerly served as agents of social control, enforcing allegiance to the rulers. Believed to be imbued with magical supernatural powers, even today, women and children are forbidden to see them outside rituals.

The craft skills required to design and then create these masks was inherited and remains a fiercely guarded secret within family groups. Firstly, the choosing of raw material was ritualized and its preparation required knowledge of soaking and drying wood so that expansion and contraction all happened before the creation of the mask.

Light colored masks with striations and a black band running up the nose represent females, whereas those representing males are multicolored, yet predominantly red, and the striations are generally bolder with larger crests. The largest are called kya noshi, which are the most powerful and feared masks only worn by elders. The crest-masks with higher and more prominent crests - are said to evoke a mountain and also represent the World Tree.

The Mysterious Ancient Sanxingdui Masks

A bronze mask of Sanxingdui. (Asian Civilisations Museum)

A bronze mask of Sanxingdui. (Asian Civilisations Museum)

Amid the once-tranquil village of Sanxingdui, in a quiet part of Sichuan province in China, a remarkable discovery took place which immediately attracted international attention and has since rewritten the history of Chinese civilization.

By far the most striking findings were dozens of large bronze masks and heads represented with angular human features, exaggerated almond-shaped eyes, straight noses, square faces, and huge ears, features which don’t reflect those of Asian people.

The artifacts were radiocarbon dated to the 12th-11th centuries BC. They had been created using remarkably advanced bronze casting technology, which was acquired by adding lead to a combination of copper and tin, creating a stronger substance that could create substantially larger and heavier objects.

Some of the masks were enormous in size and the three largest masks have the most supernatural features of all the Sanxingdui artifacts, with animal-like ears, monstrously protruding pupils, or an additional ornate trunk.

The World’s Oldest Japanese Mask

The oldest known Japanese mask was discovered at the Daifuku archaeological site in Japan. The fragment consists of the left side of what would have been a whole mask made of Japanese umbrella pine. It is 23 cm (9.05 inches) long and 7 cm (2.76 inches) wide and contains an oval hole for the eye and a smaller hole which would have been for a string to keep the mask on the face. There are no artificial patterns or colors on its surface.

Japanese masks are part of a very old and highly sophisticated and stylized theatrical tradition. Although the roots are in prehistoric myths and cults they have developed into refined art forms. The oldest masks are the Gigaku, which were used for an ancient dance drama.

There are 14 different Gigaku masks, which were typically made out of materials such as clay, dry lacquer, cloth, paper, and wood. All these masks are different because they cover the whole face as well as the ears. Hair was sometimes put on the masks for decoration with black outlines for facial features. Some masks were lion heads, bird- beaked creatures, demons, and super humans. A lot of the Gigaku masks were influenced India, Indonesia, and China.

Some experts compare the masks to the ones worn by fangxiangshi (magicians) mentioned in Zhouli, an ancient Chinese text describing the rites of the Zhou dynasty (12th century BC-256 BC). Exorcism rituals involving fangxiangshi, in which a mask was worn on the face and a pike and a shield were held in the hands, are said to be an origin of the demon-chasing rituals that continue to this day in Japan.

$530k Hopi Masks Bought by a US Charity and Returned to the Tribe

The tribal mask is revered as a sacred ritual artifact by the Native American Hopi tribe in Arizona. These ritual masks are worn by dancers during religious ceremonies and are considered living beings. When they are not used, they are stored behind muslin screens so they can ‘breathe’ and are ritually ‘fed’ corn pollen. They are considered so sacred, in fact, that a US charity spent $530,000 to rescue 24 Hopi artifacts from an auction in Paris, in order to return them to their rightful owners.

"These are not trophies to have on one's mantel, they are truly sacred works for the Native Americans. They do not belong in auction houses or private collections,” said Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, director of the Los Angeles-based foundation that funds non-profit organisations around the world, "It gives me immense satisfaction to know that they will be returned home to their rightful owners, the Native Americans."

Top Image: One of the three Mesolithic deer skull headdresses from the Star Carr exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Ritual masks and headdresses served many different purposes. Source: Josh Murfitt / MAA

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