Masks from Around the World Part 1

You will struggle to find a region in this world that doesn’t have a history involving masks. The mask as a symbol is universally associated with identity, and masks had different purposes that in one way or another were connected to the idea of identity – whether changing it, concealing it or even preserving it. Masks were perhaps the most mystified wearable items human ever invented. A great deal of significance were given to them, as they were essential with many of the rituals all around the world.


The Egyptians

The Egyptians are among the most famous mask makers even though they are not immediately regarded as such. If you ask a random person on the street to describe a pharaoh’s face, they will be basing that description on the mental image of a mask they saw in a history book or a documentary about Egypt. Indeed, it is the famous mask of King Tutankhamun that most people think of. On basic examination of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs you would be forgiven to think that they mainly manufactured masks that looked like animal heads. After all, their depictions of various deities are animal based. Like most cultures, the Egyptians had their variety of ritual masks, but there is little record of widespread manufacture of these ritual masks, or the rituals for which they were made. One of the only ritual mask artifacts that survived to this day was the mask of Anubis, the jackal god. The greatest significance was given to the death masks. The Egyptians regarded those to be essential not just for aesthetic reasons of honoring the kings and nobility; they had a utilitarian purpose for the afterlife.

The Egyptian death masks are connected to the practice of mummification. The ancient Egyptians believed that the condition of the body of the deceased was connected to, if not completely dictated, their abilities in the afterlife. Thus, for example, if the mouth of the mummified body was damaged, they believed that the soul would be unable to speak, unable to introduce itself and take its rightful place in the spiritual realm. The face was of equal importance for the very same reason – recognisability. The mummification process didn’t flatter the face. While the skin remained intact, the dead face would still become unrecognisable even if the person was known during their life. Egyptian death masks were designed to address that exact problem.

The masks had two main functions – to bear maximum resemblance to the person being mummified, and to last forever. So naturally, the death masks of ancient pharaohs were made of gold, which was also believed to be what the skin of gods was literally made of. The shape of the face is based on a plaster cast of the deceased person’s face to be as accurate as possible. The soul should have been able to recognise its own body by the mask. Certain features were exaggerated, such as the eyes. The facial expression of the masks were mostly neutral with a faint smile. The rules for these masks were strict and the results are highly impressive.

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