The Meaning Behind the Mask
THE WOODSMAN MAKES HIS WAY TO A TREE IN THE CENTRAL AFRICAN FOREST, AX IN HAND. HIS MISSION IS RELIGIOUS, ONE THAT HAS BEEN CARRIED OUT COUNTLESS TIMES IN AFRICA OVER THE MILLENNIUMS.
THE woodsman believes that within the tree dwells a spirit that merits deep respect. To protect himself from the wrath of that spirit, the woodsman consulted a diviner before going into the forest. He then underwent a purification ceremony and offered a sacrifice to the spirit of the tree.
He strikes the tree a blow with his ax. Putting his lips to the cut, he next sucks some sap to achieve kinship with the tree. After the tree is felled, he leaves it on the ground for some days to allow the spirit ample time to find a home elsewhere. He believes that the tree has a power of its own, despite the departure of the spirit. The tree’s force is so potent that those who handle the wood of it must, for their own protection, carefully follow prescribed traditional rituals.
In the skilled hands of the carver, the wood becomes a mask. As the mask takes shape, the wood is believed to acquire increasing power. The carver is not free to make any form he likes; he must conform to the traditional imagery of his ethnic group. If he does not, he risks the reproach of his community and the anger of the spirit power of the mask.
When the mask is finished, the medicine man performs a consecration ceremony in which he applies magical ingredients to the mask. The mask is now thought to have great supernatural power and to become the abode of the spirit to whom it is dedicated. The mask is now ready to be used in religious ceremonies.
The Meaning of the Mask in Africa
Masks are used in worship throughout much of the African continent. The book Masks—Their Meaning and Function states: “The mask can have two functions: it can be used as a fetish, as is the miniature mask; or it can be worn, in which case its role is to conjure up ancestors, spirits or other supernatural beings.”
Giving a more detailed explanation, scholar Geoffrey Parrinder states in his book Religion in Africa: “[African wooden masks] are religious, whether they are naturalistic, formal or abstract. They represent the dead or attendant spirits in their rituals, or ‘secret societies’ connected with the dead or serving to suppress witchcraft. Impassive or terrifying, distorted or abstract, the masks powerfully demonstrate the awesomeness of the dead as well as the conviction that death is not the end. They are made to be worn by people who impersonate the dead, their bodies usually being covered with robes beneath the masks, and they must not be spoken of as human beings but as spirits.”
Besides their use in funeral rites and in protection against sorcery, masks play a central role in initiation ceremonies, festivals, judicial matters, fertility rites, and “communication with the dead.” Sometimes masks even feature in the celebrations and ceremonies of Christendom. In Sierra Leone, for example, masked “devils” dance to the courtyard of a church to pay their respects at weddings. In all these uses, the masks have the same basic meaning. They are, says the book African Masks, “reliquaries of divine power, whether their function is intended to be profound, or frivolous and entertaining.”
Among the over 1,000 ethnic groups in Africa, about 100 make masks. Masks vary greatly in form from one group to another, and they differ according to the purpose they serve. Yet, despite this variety, there are established patterns understood by peoples over wide areas of Africa. For example, masks depicting ancestral spirits typically have a serene look, while masks representing nonhuman spirits are often bizarre in appearance. A high domed forehead depicts wisdom and deep spirituality. Protruding eyes or a frozen facial expression indicates a state of spirit possession. White pigmentation suggests the spirits of the dead and an ‘otherworldly’ quality. Masks depicting horned animals, especially African buffalo and antelope, relate to ceremonies of exorcism, spirit transmigration, and witchcraft.
The Mask in Action
In Africa masks are not simply hung on the wall; they are used in ritual and dance. They may cover the face or the entire head of the one who wears it. The rest of the person’s body is adorned in long robes or strips of raffia palm or woody plant fiber.
The wearer is considered to be in direct association with the spirit force of the mask. The New Encyclopædia Britannica describes what happens: “Upon donning the mask, the wearer sometimes undergoes a psychic change and as in a trance assumes the spirit character depicted by the mask. Usually, however, the wearer skillfully becomes a ‘partner’ of the character he is impersonating . . . But it would seem that the wearer often becomes psychologically completely attached to the character he is helping to create. He loses his own identity and becomes like an automaton, without his own will, which has become subservient to that of the personage of the mask.”
To approved onlookers—nearly always men only—the mask does not merely represent a supernatural person. They believe that a living supernatural person becomes embodied in the mask. Thus, the mask itself is sacred, and any breaking of the rules is strictly punished by the community, sometimes by death. For his protection, the wearer, like the woodsman and the carver, must follow approved procedures.
The Meaning of the Mask to the Collector
Particularly during the past 100 years, African masks have been collected enthusiastically throughout the world. To the collector the mask means something quite different from what it means to those who practice traditional religion in Africa.
Instead of viewing it as a sacred, religious object, collectors regard the mask as a work of art reflecting African culture. Rather than evaluating the mask according to its function in society, they judge the mask for its directness, vitality, and emotional depth. Collectors ask: To what extent does the carver have a feeling for the wood itself, its grain, its structural pattern? How skillfully does the carver use creativity and ingenuity and yet stay within the style imposed by cultural tradition?
Of course, the collector does not overlook the role of religion in the quality of the work. Usually, because of differences in the motivation of the carver, there is a big difference between masks used in worship and the replicas carved for the tourist industry. The book Masks of Black Africa states: “The carver . . . derived the inspirational elements from his deep conviction, his reverence for his mission to give form to an all-powerful, spiritual being, and, in this capacity, to fulfill his special social responsibility. As soon as this religious faith . . . degenerated, his work, despite its obvious technical achievements, became lifeless and of inferior artistic quality.”
Those who collect masks for museums usually give closer attention than do collectors of art to the role a mask has served in the society from which it came. However, such specific information is often lacking because of the way most masks have been acquired over the years. Some were gathered as souvenirs, others were part of the booty from military expeditions, and still others were collected in large numbers for the commercial market. As a result, the original meaning and use of individual masks is often not known.
The Meaning of the Mask to Christians
Thus, masks have one meaning to those who practice traditional religion and another meaning to those who collect them as works of art and culture. To Christians, they mean something else.
The Bible makes it clear that there is no supernatural power inherent in either the mask or the tree from which it comes. The prophet Isaiah describes the senselessness of a person who uses part of the wood from a tree to cook his food and to warm himself and then carves the remainder into a god to whom he looks for aid. (Isaiah 44:9-20) The same principle applies to religious masks.
Nevertheless, Christians do recognize that there are “wicked spirit forces in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) Under the power of Satan, they mislead people by means of false religion.—Revelation 12:9.
Christians also acknowledge that the demons use material objects to communicate with humans. Thus, servants of God do not keep anything that has to do with spiritistic religion, whether it is a charm, an amulet, a magical ring, or a mask. In this they follow the pattern of the early Christians in Ephesus. Concerning them the Bible says: “Quite a number of those who practiced magical arts brought their books together and burned them up before everybody. And they calculated together the prices of them and found them worth fifty thousand pieces of silver.”—Acts 19:19.
Those who wish to serve Jehovah do not use or keep masks or anything else associated with false worship. Typical is the comment of Pius, a Christian elder in Nigeria: “Masks reflect the religious thinking of those who use them. Masks have names and are venerated or feared depending on the god they represent. I would never display a mask in my home because this would displease Jehovah and also because visitors might assume I agree with the religious beliefs it represents.”
True Christians know that God’s clearly stated law given to Israel was: “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them, because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.”—Exodus 20:4, 5.
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Masks in Many Cultures
What does the word “mask” mean to you? In some cultures the term is a figure of speech to denote the disguising of something. If you are interested in sports, you may think of a mask as something to protect the face from injury, such as in baseball and fencing. Perhaps you think of the gas mask, the surgical mask, or the party mask.
To many peoples today, however, masks mean religion. States The New Encyclopædia Britannica: “Masks representing beneficent and maleficent sacred or holy forces in religious dances—particularly in Buddhist monasteries of Nepal, Tibet, and Japan and in the majority of primitive societies—constitute [a] category of sacred representational objects. They are usually worshipped just as statues are worshipped.”
Religious masks are found in all cultures and date from earliest times. To our ancestors they likely played an important role in religious and social life. The book Masks—Their Meaning and Function states: “Originally, every mask was imbued with significance, and the mask itself or the person wearing it mysteriously represented some power or spirit.”