Masks from Around the World Part 4

Aztek Masks

When talking about masks, to ignore South America, and the Aztec culture in particular, would be a huge disservice. If you were to walk into the British museum today and explored the many artifacts it contains, you are certain to encounter some ancient masks. Among those, the most memorable will certainly be the Aztec ones. The Aztecs believed in many Gods and, as a natural result, had many rituals associated with them. Unfortunately, the Aztecs were a bit of a brutal bunch, with many of the rituals involving human sacrifice. Nevertheless, these worships produced some of the finest works of art in the history of mask making. For the Aztecs, the masks were not a means to an end as much as for other cultures. They were highly valuable and revered object that were thought to have their own special powers once created.

The turquoise mask adorned by an intricate mosaic, pieces of gold and often times an enviable set of teeth were usually not for wearing. Firstly, they were made of stone, which complicated the matter of wearing somewhat. Secondly, they were usually displayed at temples during times of worship. Possession of these masks marked the person’s social status in an Aztec society, so the common folk never really came in contact with these objects.

While these masks are some of the best preserved thanks to their material, there were other, more perishable and more infamous. As mentioned, the Aztect believed that masks themselves had powers. It was this belief that lay at the core of the practice of removing the skin from the face of a defeated enemy and to make a mask of it. There is a reliable record of this from the early Spanish that arrived in South America. The Aztecs are among the very few, if not the only culture to have made masks from human skin, as any powers that their enemy had was transferred onto them as it were. On a terrifyingly practical side, these masks were not only displayed at temples like the stone ones – they were worn. They were worn when the victorious Aztec would gather valuables from the community of the fallen warrior, who’s face he was wearing a mask.

Masks were also made for the deceased as part of their ceremony of cremation

Masks were also made for the deceased as part of their ceremony of cremation. These usually had closed eyes and an open mouth. The masks were placed on the body to be burned as a display of the deceased’s status. It was also believed by the Aztecs that masks could animate objects, give them a soul and a degree of agency. By placing a mask of the face of the deceased, the Aztecs in a way immortalised them. The death masks would then be displayed at the temple in memory of the deceased.

The masks were central to the hierarchy established by the Aztecs. The more refined, beautiful and exotic the mask, the greater the magical powers, and so the greater the owner’s connection to the Aztec gods. Turquoise was a highly rare material, which is why it was used only for the most important of nobility. Gold was commonly used alongside turquoise and was believed to have literally come from the sun. Which, as your local astrophysicist might tell you, is not entirely untrue.

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