The human species as we know it is about 200,000 years old, give or take (although our ancestors in a recognizable form go back 6 million years, and “we” have been banging on rocks for an astonishing 3.3 million years). Depending on how one defines an artifact, human material culture dates back at least tens of thousands of years. In the grand scheme of things, this makes masks a relatively recent innovation. The oldest mask we currently know of is made of stone and dates back 9.000 years, to the Neolithic period. Archeologist Dr. Omry Barzilai, of the Israeli team that found the 9,000-year-old stone mask, observed that:
“Stone masks are linked to the agricultural revolution. The transition from an economy based on hunting and gathering to ancient agriculture and domestication of plants and animals was accompanied by a change in social structure and a sharp increase in ritual-religious activities. Ritual findings from that period include human-shaped figurines, plastered skulls, and stone masks.”
Why do humans wear masks? That’s a simple question with a complicated and multifaceted answer. The obvious purpose of a mask is twofold: it conceals the identity beneath its surface, while projecting another, alternate identity outward. As such, masks have often been used in religious ritual, theater, and by groups engaged in violence who wish to obscure – and simultaneously establish – their identities.
As already pointed out by Dr. Barzilai above, our oldest surviving masks are most likely associated with religious ritual. The use of masks in ritual is an ancient and very widespread practice. Across a wide band of the African continent, elaborate masks play a central role in religious worship, allowing participants in ritual dance and ceremonies to take on the identity of an animal, spirit, ancestor, or ruler. This is not dissimilar from how masks were used in shamanic traditions in ancient Northern China, where masks have been used in variety of practices, including exorcism, for thousands of years. In religious ritual, masks are used to transcend the ordinary and impart ritualized, sacred meaning to a performer.
Religious ritual and theater undoubtedly have a lot in common: in some cases, they are inseparable. Theater, however, is worth considering as a phenomenon separate from ritual when it comes to masking. In classical Chinese opera, for example, the color of a performer’s mask signals their character’s personality, be it courageous (red), cruel and evil (yellow), violent (green), or neutral (black). Gold and silver masks are reserved for performers representing gods or demons. The ancient Greeks loved and cherished theater, which developed there as an art form starting in the sixth century BCE in Athens. The Greeks employed painted linen to make their masks, which is why our only surviving evidence of them comes from later Roman statuary lauding the art form. Japanese Noh, on the other hand, developed much later (beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries and in its classic form by the 14th century), and employs distinctive masks that are made from painstakingly carved Japanese cypress (hinoki). In all of these cases, masks are used to artistically take on another identity to tell a story.
While it’s difficult to neutrally gauge the extent to which religious ritual is involved in the enforcement activities of the government, it is not difficult to gauge the State’s embrace of theater. In some cases, this is literal. In the case of security culture and law enforcement, the relationship is subtler and, in many cases, pernicious (the study of so-called security theater is a fascinating field in and of itself). We need not only focus on law enforcement or the military to examine the role of masks, however, as the loose network of antifascists rising to meet the fascist occasion of our moment have adopted masks as well. From black bloc to riot cops, everyone’s wearing a mask these days! There are plenty of reasons for this. The first and most obvious is viral and chemical. We have a plague going on, after all, and as though that weren’t enough, Proud Boys, cops, and antifascists – all have been blanketing downtown Portland in rich, luxurious clouds of tear gas and mace for almost a year now. In a situation in which one is attempting to avoid COVID-19 or a lungful of wasp spray, wearing a mask is probably a practical choice.
Also, the Capitol Insurrectionists probably wish now that they had worn masks during their attack on Congress (although a few did, and it didn’t seem to help). When an anarchist or a storm trooper dons a mask, they do two things at the same time. By eliminating their distinction as an individual, they both disguise their identity and establish a new one as part of a group or team. This has traditionally been an integral part of both judicial and extrajudicial violence, and with the advent of surveillance capitalism and facial recognition technology, is more important than ever. Both the practice of black bloc and the practice of police officers hiding their badge numbers have been born of our age of doxing and crowdsouorced vengeance.
Within the world of theater, of course, resides the shadowy realm of horror. From the earliest days of horror film, horror stories, and horror performance of all kinds, masks have played an integral role. In my conclusion next week, we will look at the history (and present state) of masks in horror fiction.
A Baptism for the Dead
Historical horror set in the mountainous West, in a landscape of death and madness.