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The Functions Of Masking

Masquerades have many functions, yet they appear to cluster into particular categories. There are masks associated with rites of passage such as adolescents' initiations, other age-related ceremonies, and death. Masking in seasonal festivals and renewal rituals is associated with the earth's fertility and the path of the sun as it appears to us from Earth. In other masquerades, men play women, generally as the maiden, mother, and crone. Masks also evolved into theater as, for example, in ancient Greece or the Noh drama of Japan. In some sports and in hazardous occupations, masks are worn to protective the face.

As people change physically, especially at adolescence, old age, and death, masking rituals are performed to mark the transition and make it safe. Adolescent energy, for example, can be dangerous and destabilizing to society. To insure a safe transition, groups of young boys, for example, may be gathered and kept away from their village for long periods of time while they are taught the ways of masculine adulthood. Masquerades are performed in order to teach the adolescents and to communicate to the village that the transition has been blessed by the appropriate spirits in the invisible world and is a success. Frequently, masks that accompany the dead in burial are placed over the face or head, thus assuring their safe journey or passage through the underworld and to a place where their spirits can assist, not hinder, their people in the visible world.

Other masquerades celebrate the changes of the seasons, which are associated with renewal and fertility. The Corpus Christi masking festivals of Ecuador celebrate the fertility of Christ's body and its positive impact on the fertility of crops and the harvest. Musical bands play as the processions of masqueraders move through the streets of Pujilí. The many plastic dolls on the mask superstructures serve as metaphors for fertility. The mirrors reflect the powerful light of the sun, which makes all life possible. Urban festivals, such as Carnival and its pre-Lenten celebrations, were all at one time associated with fertility.

In Bulgaria, masquerades are intimately associated with agriculture and human fertility, while in Basel, Switzerland, and Trinidad and Tobago there is far less emphasis on fecundity and more interest in the renewal of social and individual identities. These festivals often address local political, health, and economic issues, as well as global themes concerning war and other events reported in the popular media.

Within most masquerade festivals, only men play the roles of women, which fall into three categories: the maiden, mother, and crone. In general, men play women's roles, first because men monopolize the masking process, and second, in order to communicate to both sexes the kinds of behavior they believe are appropriate for women. Maringuila maidens in the masquerades in Michoacán, Mexico, represent idealized beauty and how young women should conduct themselves in public.

Among the Yoruba Gelede of West Africa and in some Latin American countries, men dress as mothers and convey, through the round forms of their costumes and masks, women's promise of fertility and ability to bring stability to society. The two-faced Gelede mask reminds participants that each person has an inner and outer self, and that it is the inner face that keeps the outer appearing cool and collected during stressful times (Nunley, 1996, p. 1782).

Men have always feared old women, most likely because the latter cannot give birth and are no longer sexually desirable. Old women might, from the men's point of view, pose a threat to society, as they are often accused of witchcraft. Thus males play the crone to neutralize the potential destructive force they fear.

Masks are also associated with physical and spiritual dangers, in other words offense and defense. Shamans in full ritual dress, including masks, enter the invisible world on behalf of clients or even an entire community to eliminate dangers posed by disease, weather, particular people, or enemy communities. A Siberian shaman once wore such ritual dress while dancing to the rhythm of a drum and the rattling sound of his medicines and metal objects attached to his garment. While spinning and mimicking the flight of birds, he once traveled in the invisible world and dealt effectively with both good and bad spiritual forces, thus protecting his clients. Likewise, an Oku sorcerer's ritual dress, complete with a hooded bird mask, fulfilled the same function.

In industrial societies space suits and helmets (masks) are used to protect astronauts on their flights into space. Like the shaman, who could look back on the visible world from his spiritual space, the astronauts looked back from the moon and showed the world from a new perspective. Looking back at the world from the moon, people learned how small and interconnected the world is and, as well, its vulnerability. The environmental movement was inspired by this realization.

Masks are also used in theater and in films. Greek theater masks, which evolved from the old Dionysian cults, were concerned with death, rebirth, and fecundity. They were worn by actors who played specific roles in the tragedies. In Asia, masks are frequently found in live theater in the great epics about Hindu deities, Japanese Noh theater, Chinese New Year pageants, and in Balinese street theater celebrating the exploits of the forceful crone known as Rangda. In Western films such as Star Wars or the popular television series Star Trek, masks cover the faces of beings from other galaxies as well as cyborgs, characters that are both biological and mechanical.

Masks and masquerades are inextricably linked to the development of culture and human identity. In the ludic performances of masks, social bonding occurs and roles are defined on many levels, including gender. Masks play to the spirits of the invisible world; they are the "x" commodity in the equations of the many worldviews invented by humans. Masks have existed from ancient times to space explorations. While masquerades were and are integral components of traditional societies, they have found new meanings and purposes in film, sports, and modern warfare. I am a soldier, I am a hockey goalie, I am Darth Vader, I am the spirit of the bison: in other words, "I am not myself," a conceptual tool that has led to individual and social reinvention, the essence of being human.


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John Nunley

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Macrofauna to MathematicsMasks - Origins, The Functions Of Masking, Bibliography