Masks by their very nature make us question reality, so it seems appropriate that the first physical mask would be one of debate. Found in La Roche, France, the stone artefact seems to certainly appear like the upper part of a face. The debate ranges about the mask, believed to be carved by Neandrathal, and whether they had the mental and abstract ability of their Cro-Magnon counterparts. It certainly is an interesting idea that abstract and artistic reaches this far back in history.Moving forward about twenty thousand years, masks appear in cave paintings dating from 13000 BCE. In Ariege, France, there is a painting in which there appears to be a human figure wearing a goat head. Dubbed “The Sorcerer” by archaeologists, it is suggested that the figure represents what appears to be a Shaman performing a ritual. The goat head is not believed to be a hybrid goat and human, but used as a mask. The common belief is that the cave could very well have been a place of worship. The figure being represented may have been someone who used masks in ceremony, possibly trying to channel the animal world or with spirits. Little more is known about the actually significance of the painting, other than there are other caves with similar images in Europe and elsewhere.
Moving forward to the Neolithic period, approximately 7000 BCE, we can find the oldest confirmed physical masks. They are stone in manufacture, with a plain face, with eyes, and open mouth. One such mask is found in the Musée de la bible et Terre Sainte in France. While we don’t know their significance, it is has been thought, that, like “The Sorcerer”, they had a ritualistic use. Unlike The mask of La Roche, there is general consensus that this is indeed a mask and not something else. There are many ideas as to what purpose the mask serves. However, what it does suggest again is that humans were using masks as a way of understanding the world around them and a way of understanding themselves since before the Common Era. In modern day Yugoslavia, there are also artefacts from the Neolithic period. They are statues of what appear to be people wearing masks. Unlike the stone masks, these show variety in shape and expression. The statues also had sculpted hair, showing different physical appearances from 3500 BC towards the beginning of the Common Era. Also during this era the Ain Ghazal in Jordan were making stone masks to bury their dead. The masks were detailed and looked more “human” than that of the mask in Terre Sainte.
Around 3000 BCE, Egyptians were also using masks for rituals and funerary rites. Dating as far back as 2600 BCE, Gold masks on found on mummies, and artefacts of masks of Anubis and other Egyptians gods have been found, the masks also appearing on Egyptians hieroglyphs. Probably one of the most well known is the mask of Tutankhamun, or King Tut. His gold mask, was discovered adorned his mummy shrouded body by Howard Carter in 1922. Masks weren’t just made of gold for mummies, however. Papyrus masks have also been found adorning the dead. Masks were important to the Egyptians as a way of preserving their dead: The masks found on sarcophagi help to “hold” the face in place, in order for the deceased to retain in their image into the next world. There is also some suggestive evidence they were used in ritual as well. Anubis mask artefacts have been found that are big enough to fit over the head, possibly suggesting a clergy use during funeral ceremonies, however this has not been completely confirmed. The mummy masks are more telling, however, combined with the hieroglyphs, of the belief of solidifying the chances of a complete afterlife in appearance.
Around 2000 BCE, the Celts in Europe were using masks as part of pagan rituals. The Celts were various tribal groups who lived during the Iron Age in Europe (1200 BCE-400 CE). The Celts had many rituals they celebrated over the course of the year, often coinciding with various seasonal transitions. The Celts celebrated, among other rituals, Samhain, the forerunner to modern day Halloween. During this time they celebrated their new year, which began on October 31, with Samhain. The fall was considered the end of the old year, with the winter time beginning the year anew. It was a time of remembering the old year, bringing in the new; not very much different from North American New Year celebrations. During this festival, the celebration of past ancestors comes heavily into play. While remembering and trying to communicate with those passed on, masks were predominant during this time. Heads of animals and other handmade masks were there to help ward away the evil spirits which could interfere with the communication with the ancestors. It was probably believed that wearing the animal heads also allowed them to stay in touch with nature, possibly trying to channel animal spirits. The connection with nature as well as with ancestors was an important rite with the Celts. There were bonfires, feasting and celebrations. Sacrifices were common during this time as well. We know of animal sacrifices, as well as the possibility of humans as well. This celebration was a combination of the celebration of the New Year and the celebration of their past ancestors.. These days were celebrated with masks of animals and spirits in their rituals. Masks would be used, depending on the celebration, to invite, drive away, celebrate, or give offerings in their various rituals.
Thiis practice continued until around 43 CE (Common Era), when Romans invaded and conquered most of the Celtic lands. As is with conquering armies, the Romans brought over their own traditions. Not wanting to totally eliminate the beliefs, for they were still needed to “convert” the Celts, instead, the name and direction of ritual was changed. Samhain was replaced with other Romna celebrations such as Feralia. The Feralia was an ancient Roman public festival celebrating the Manes (Roman spirits of the dead, particularly the souls of deceased individuals) which fell on the 21st of February as recorded by Ovid in Book II of his Fasti This day marked the end of Parentalia, a nine day festival (13–21 February) honoring the dead ancestorsRoman citizens were instructed to bring offerings to the tombs of their dead ancestors which consisted of at least "an arrangement of wreathes, a sprinkling of grain and a bit of salt, bread soaked in wine and violets scattered about. Additional offerings were permitted, however the dead were appeased with just the aforementioned, Interestingly, it is believed that this is where the origins of modern day bobbing for apples originated. The Romans would continue carrying on these traditions, also with masks like the Celts, for the new seven hundred years. The Romans use of ritual was a little different than the Celts. The Romans used theatre as a way of telling their stories and performing their rituals. Masks were used during these performances to tell stories of gods and goddesses, origins, and other history. One could say the names of the gods and goddesses changed, and the form of ritual may have changed, but the celebration was the same. Romans would have a fair run with their own celebrations, combined with the Celts, until approximately the 9th century. The Greeks were also using masks in their theatre and celebrations. the earliest masks dating to 6BCE Masks at that time were used in ritual to communicate with Dionysus, the god of harvest. These rituals gradually took the form of theatre. Masks of demons, humans and animals would tell the stories, which were a way of trying to communicate with the gods. In Greek drama, stories were limited to three speakers, so the three would wear many masks as they portrayed many characters to tell the story. It is easy to think that this theatre carried into the middle ages, however, this was not there seems to be. There seems to be a bit of a historical black hole during the period of the start of the Common Era to around the 10th century. Because of Christianity flowing over the Western and Eastern Roman empires, Theatre was at best a tool for teaching the bible, at worst pagan in origin and against the beliefs of the church. What theatre was performed was strictly for the education of the Old Testament. Masks during this time would have been to portray the historical figures of the bible and the teachings of god. Masks of this time cannot be found, as they were often made of organic materials, and were often given as offerings at the end of performances. With the fall of Rome in 410 BCE, the “Dark Ages” is considered to have begun. They would continue until around the 4-5th century CE, though there were slow beginnings around 1st century CE.
With the fall of Rome in 410 BCE, the “Dark Ages” is considered to have begun. They would continue until around the 4-5th century CE, though there were slow beginnings around 1st century CE. As Europe crawled out from the Dark Ages, where theatre seems to have no history, the first millennium shows a rebuilding and an interest in the arts again, not seen since just before the beginning of the Common Era. In France and Rome, medieval drama was starting. Storytelling started in the churches, in the form of bible history. These were seen as a physical alternative to sermons. The visual nature of the plays was meant to appeal to the parishioners. In 800 CE, Christianity was pouring into the Roman Empire, including the formerly Celtic lands. Believing in the singular deity, the idea of worshipping multiple gods was abhorred by the Christians. The Christians, therefore, were believed to be understandably shocked at the rituals involving the passing of the dead, and of multiple god and goddess worship. Wearing masks was seen as idolatry or devil worship, as well as other celebrations that they deemed as “pagan”. To convert these believers, they kept the celebration of honouring the dead (like the Romans before them), but changed the idea, turning it into a three day festival. This was not changed at once, but their days were allowed to melt into the now Romans (and Celts) beliefs. To help the conversion of the days, the 31st of Halloween was now called All Hallows Eve, the day set aside to be to be hallowed to the past ancestors.
As the centuries passed, The churches felt that they had to get the stories to the larger populations outside the churches. As a result, the stories were told to bigger and bigger audiences, and simple ritual storytelling evolved to theatrical productions. They would eventually take their stories outdoors, and in the 12th century, there are records of priests setting up a platform and performing in France. Called “The Mystery of Adam”, the play tells the story of Adam and Eve, but also with the inclusion of devils and demons. It was the performing outside, on a platform, that allowed performer to get more elaborate with the story. This t story sums up as Adam and Eve are dragged away by the demons into a smoking pit. No doubt there were many masks in these productions, particularly for the demons. Also during this time we see the beginnings of farce. There is question as to how farce evolved. Some suggest at this time that it was storytelling adapted from pagan stories; others suggest that the drama stories that were being told had some farcical elements to break up tension.
So the conjunction of the hallowed days and the use of masks in theatre continued. The practice of the Hallows Eve continued with the 31st, 1st of November would be All Saints Day, where past saints would be remembered, and in 1000 AD Nov 2 became All Souls Day, the final day of memorial for past souls. The idea of masks and costumes was further developed, for the belief of keeping evil spirits at bay. The masks were either encouraged to be more Christian ideals, like angels, or if demon faces were insisted, it was the idea to scare off other demons, not to idolize them (as the Christians believed was happening). Along with this was the practice of “souling”; going door to door asking for soul bread. The bread would then be brought home to offer to the ancestors.
The path to the well known Venice Carnival starts in 1094. The word ‘Carnival’ actual derives its name from the phrase carnem levare, ‘to put away meat’. In many Mediterranean cities up to this point the holiday stemmed from agriculture, celebrations of Dionysus and other gods of harvest. The celebrations were of ritual, of masks and dancing, celebrating the upcoming year for harvest and thanks for the previous. As Christianity rose, the rituals would die down. The Christians still wanted to convert the people, so, like Hallows Eve, festivals were held, including “Feast of Fools” and “Feast of the Innocent”, which were variations on previous pagan celebrations. These were held between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. Fancy dress balls and Masquerades were very popular during time and these would carry forward. Each city has tailored their own celebrations since then. Thus Carnival was used as a way of ingratiating others into Christianity (and in this case, Catholicism). The earliest reference to Carnival is in a charter written by Doge Vitale Michael. He makes reference to ‘carnis laxatio’, or ‘forsaking of the flesh’. The indication is even at this time in history; the Venetians were finding were very wealthy and constantly looking for diversions and entertainment. In 1162, The Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulhico attacked the town of Grado with twelve armies from various towns. The people ran over the city and took it over in short order. The Venetians , under Doge Vitale Michael grouped and gathered an armada of ships. With troops and ships, Doge recaptured Grado and defeated Ulhico. Doge captured Ulhico and many of his army. Instead of killing them, they spared their lives and sent them out of the town. Although this seems like mercy, it was not without a price. In return for their lives being spared, Ulhico was obligated to send a bull(it ended up being an ox) and 10 pigs each year to symbolise the defeated army. In a form of great pageantry, every year the ox and pigs, the “prisoners”, were marched like the condemned through the streets, with the crowds watching. The pigs and ox were “executed” by a town butcher picked for that year, and the meat would feed the festival which followed. The celebration was allowed in San Marco square, where Carnival finds its roots.
In 13th century Europe and Venice, masks were coming into use in lent related celebrations. Lent is the Catholic ritual that involves the abstinence of a vice for a period of 40 days. The forty days were symbolic of the forty days Jesus was said to have 1wandered the desert until he found his ministry. Therefore, the celebration would allow drinking, sex or other vice, before settling down for forty days. Masks meant you remained anonymous during these celebrations, and would not be held against you at later times. Masks also meant that the “higher” classes could associate with the “lower”, thus making an equal social ground. Eventually there had to be some restrictions, in the form of laws. The first written example of masks in any capacity during this time is from a law in 1268. It pertains to masqueraders being forbidden from playing a game called “eggs”, a game in which Venetian boys would throw perfumed eggs at passerby or from balconies. During this period, Carnival would start on St. Stephens Day (December 26) and continue to Ash Wednesday. The Tuesday before is known as Shrove Tuesday, also known as “Fat Tuesday”, or Mardi gras? This proceeded Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent. Different countries celebrate differently, some use the whole time between New Year and Lent as Carnival, others like Venice had a slow ramp up, with the last two days being the pinnacle of the celebrations. In 1339, law was introduced of masqueraders being prevented from being on city streets at night. In 1458 male mask wearers were forbidden to dress as women and enter convents to partake in less than “pure” social relations. There seemed to be a problem with inappropriate activities with nuns. And in 1608 mask wearers were finally told in law that they were obligated to wear masks only during carnival and official banquets. The question may be what type of punishment awaited those who wore their masks flagrantly? Quite severe it seems. Breaking one these laws would see a man sent to two years in prison, or eighteen months of rowing servitude (rowing in slave ships). Women who broke the rules were whipped. Having a mask did not give you free reign to do what you wished. Coming back to Carnival itself, there were spectacles to see. There were different sections of town with different activities. In one section would be a human pyramid and other feats of strength. There was a masked ballet performed by women in another. A bloody bull beheading contributed to the sacrificial aspect of Carnival. The highlight of the carnival was the “Dove Flight”. A rope was strung from the bell tower to Doge place. A condemned that was chosen prisoner would walk this rope. If he made it to the end, he was given gifts and his freedom. The only other alternative was to fall to his death. Over time this was replaced with a metal dove that slung down the rope to Doge place. Eventually the practice was returned with an “Angel Flight”, which has a supported performer now resuming the symbolic trip.
As much as there was celebration in Europe, there was horror, In 13th century Europe, the Black Death. Masks have a role to play even in this dark period. The pandemic wasted the country side, killing hundreds of millions of people. During this time, plague doctors would go from home to home to tend the sick. The mask they wore, while intending to be protective, also became a symbol of the plague itself. The mask, called the bird mask, looked just like that. It had a long beak, sometimes up to half a metre (1.5 feet) in length. The protective intent was in the beak itself; they were believed to be filled with herbs to help protect them from the airborne virus. The herbs also helped to stave off the smell of the dead and dying around them. It was believed during that time that the virus was from birds, so possibly the bird head was a way to try and ward off other birds and possibly the virus in some manner. What is also interesting to note, though seldom mentioned, is that the bird head often resembled that of a raven, a bird associated with death. For the poor person suffering from the plague, a visit by the doctor was a signal that the end was near. Many died with the beaked head being the last thing they saw before leaving this world.
Masks would have another dark use duing the middle ages. Rome was advancing quickly with technologies, such as running and heated water, paved roads, and a bustling economy. Rome was also becoming a bloodthirsty society, and the dungeons were filled with those who had felt Rome’s wrath. Torture was in regular use, and masks would play a violent part in this age. Ranging from simple iron masks which held the captive in perpetual darkness (respectively speaking a symbolic “slap on the wrist”), to head pieces which would choke, maim and kill. The masks, often in grotesque shapes and forms, had a psychological effect on those who were to sentenced to wear them, instilling fear in the intended victims. Masks ranged from a “bridal’s scold”, a mask that had a hinged piece of metal that went in the mouth, forcing the victim to close their mouth in order to relive pressure, but also preventing them from talking. Similar masks, often adorned with long tongues and big ears, were worn by shamed people accused of gossip and heresy. They would often sit in town squares to be humiliated and jeered by the townsfolk.
From the 14th to the early 16th centuries, processional theatre went on the move, and masks went with them. Travelling in carts and carriages, theatre troupes would travel from town to town, performing for alms, food and shelter. In Spain, we can also see performers putting on mini performances, going from town to town, with a number of “sets” making up one play. These productions would become often more farcical with bawdy humour, much to the delight of the townsfolk. This continued until end of the 16th century. At this point, Protestant Reformers were growing in the countries. They took offense at this theatre and attempt to quash it and the masks they wore. It seemed a repeat of the 5th Century “Dark Ages”. An exception is with the Catholic Church, who feels theatre is important, provided is “dogmatically correct”, so theatre survives in some places under this form until the 18th Century.
The Age of Enlightenment was growing. Spirituality, theatre, and symbolism were slowly becoming seen as unnecessary. Logic, science, and a greater understanding of the universe were now important. Masks would disappear with the arts and rituals for the next century as an attempt to place science at the forefront of society. So during this time masks were once again confined to the dustbin of history. The enlightenment would continue until the close to the 19th century-the French revolution and similar started to change the tides.Some suggest that, while logic and intelligence was important, education was also important. Because it was only the upper classes that could obtain education, it became a case of “have and have not”. As a result, the poor were seen as unimportant and pushed down. The revolution would change this as freedom of expression, including art and spirituality would again come to the forefront. Masks would come forth again in theatre and Carnival.
The celebrations continued, though even the celebrations seemed to be getting carried away. Violence and out of control rowdiness brought things to a close. The Carnival in Venice was stopped in 1797, which is surprising considering that it survived through the days of Enlightenment where the rest of Europe was asked to put down mask use and theatre.