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  • Luise Stromberg


Between the pandemic and Halloween, I have masks on the brain. They are the latest accessory I grab with my keys, phone, and wallet before heading out the door. I've had to learn how to communicate while wearing a one by using exaggerated body gestures, expressive eyebrows, and clearer enunciation. (We have lots to learn from women who wear niqabs!) When the pandemic is over, I wonder if I will keep gesturing like a mad mime when I talk?

With the arrival of the season of spooky, it occurred to me to take a deeper look at the meaning of masks beyond their health protection benefits. The entertainment factor of Halloween costumes can easily overshadow the role of masks in human history. They have played roles in how humans connected to ancestors or the gods, in plays to tell stories, by soldiers to create fear, to hide one's identity for fun, protection... or for a crime, and so much more. Masks are potent symbols of power, protection, danger, and mystery.

The oldest known masks date back to the Stone Age. Possibly used in ceremonies to connect to ancestors.

Ancient Greek actors wore masks depicting the mood or "persona" of their character. By using masks, one actor could portray multiple characters.... possibly the earliest "quick costume change"!

The Japanese Noh theatre developed their masks into an art form that is still practiced today. Noh masks range from eerily human to frightening demons. There are 60 types of Noh masks and 400 variations within them!

Masks still play a role in our entertainment industry. From heroes to villains, full face covering to full face paint, masks define some of the most iconic images on stage and screen today.

Maybe some of our fascination with masked villains and heroes goes back to their use in the military. For centuries, soldiers have used armor to protect themselves and to terrify their enemies. Japanese samurai included frightening visages with their armor, possibly painted red with exaggerated features so that the enemy far away would tremble before them.

European medieval armor sometimes included fantastical decorative masks on the helmets. The most extravagant of them were for ceremonial and decorative purposes rather than functional for battle. I have to wonder if they may also have been a marketing ploy to showcase the skills of the artist. (I don't know the symbolism of the chicken, but wow... I'd buy from him!)

One of the most ominous masks, and so apt for our current times, is the so-called "Plague Doctor" mask. This was a real outfit invented in the 1600s for doctors who would stuff the "beak" with herbs and plants they thought would filter out the dangerous "miasma" from their sick patients. What I didn't know was that it didn't exist during the worst outbreak of the Black Death 300 years earlier when the plague wiped out a third of Europe's population.

Masks are often conduits to nature. Wearing a bird mask may imbue the wearer with the dream of flight. Wearing a lion mask may award them majesty. Wearing an elephant mask may enhance their strength. And ceremonies using these masks blessed the audience, the family, or the tribe with the potential and power of the animal symbolized in the mask. Some of my favorite animal masks are from Africa where they whittled away at the realism of their subject matter in an attempt to capture its essence.

My mask journey isn't done. There are more continents, cultures, and ceremonies than I realized when I started this post. Chinese dragons. Aboriginal. Mardi Gras. Inuit. Lucha Libre. Venetian. Aztec... The 3000+ masks on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's page alone has kept me quite entranced, so, if you need me, I'll be checking out the masks online... planning for the day when I can see them for real again.

Stay safe and healthy everyone!

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