Tag Archives: mask symbolism

Masks in America: Hiding, Revealing, Transforming

It would not be surprising if the words for “mask” in the world’s languages 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.
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