It would not be surprising to learn that the various words for “mask” around the world have been used more in the past year than in all recorded history combined. That is impressive, given the length of time masks have been around. In 2018, archeologists discovered a 9,000-year-old Neolithic stone mask in the Middle East. One could argue that the earliest masks, although not face masks, were worn by Adam and Eve when they donned fig leaf coverings and tried to hide from the Lord.
Ancient Egyptians wore masks in religious rituals. They also placed masks on the faces of the dead to protect them on their crossing to the afterlife. In the Far East, masks were worn both for religious ceremonies and for theatrical productions. Classical actors routinely performed in masks, which explains why the ancient Greek word for actor was “hypocrite,” which means, “the one under the mask.”
Masks sometimes serve as identity markers. The mask marked the stage performer as an actor, the shaman as a healer, the chief as an authority. In West Africa, certain masks identified their wearers as intermediaries through whom petitions might be delivered to the dead.
More often, though, masks are worn to hide one’s identity. In ancient religious ceremonies, masks sometimes hid the wearer from malicious spirits. Historically, judges in many cultures have donned masks to protect themselves from reprisal from both friends and enemies of the accused. Today, companies are working to design “masks” that hide people’s identity from facial recognition software.
The KKK’s white, cone-shaped hood served both purposes. It both identified its wearer and hid his identity. Whenever anyone saw the white hood, they knew what its wearer stood for and with what group he was associated. At the same time, it concealed his personal identity from authorities who might call him to account.
There is third reason, particularly in primitive rituals, that people wore masks: to transform their identity. When Pueblo ceremonial dancers wore masks, they believed they were taken over by the spirit whose identity they had assumed. In many cultures, masks were considered a means by which their wearers could become one with the character they represented.
In Max Beerbohm’s story The Happy Hypocrite, a dissolute aristocrat falls in love with a virtuous young woman. She refuses his proposal, telling him that she can only marry a man with the face of a saint. The aristocrat then buys a remarkable mask which provides him with a saintly appearance. He marries the girl and immediately begins to change how he acts, returning ill-gotten gains, giving to charity, and adopting a simple lifestyle.
He is, however, soon confronted by a woman who knows his true identity and insists he remove his mask. A scuffle ensues and in the fracas the mask is torn off. To his surprise, his face has come to look like the mask.
It seems to me that the facemasks that people around the world are now wearing serve each of these purposes: to identify people, to hide people, and to transform people.
Today’s ubiquitous masks are certainly meant to hide us (or others) from COVID-19, but they also identify us. In the United States, facemasks – or the lack thereof – quickly became identity markers. Conservatives who wear masks are mistakenly thought to be liberals and liberals who don’t wear masks are assumed to be conservatives. People are identified – or misidentified, as the case may be – by their masks.
Today’s masks also have had a transformational effect, both on those who wear them and those who don’t. By wearing – or refusing to wear – a mask, many people have aligned themselves with a cause. Whenever people do that – whether the cause be political, social, or religious – they adjust their thoughts, attitudes, and actions to the support of that cause.
This transformational effect of masks could be put to good use. Christians should perhaps wear masks that say “Christ-Follower” or feature a Bible verse like John 3:16. All of us could wear masks that simply say, “American.” If we were to adjust our thoughts, attitudes, and actions to these identities, the transformation would be positive and the world would be a better place.
(First published by Gannett.)