The following article offers a cross-cultural, historical survey of the use of masks in different societies, ending with the motif of masking in the Bible and the Purim story. Reprinted with permission from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
Masks are a kind of veil that covers the face and hide one’s identity while at the same time highlighting one’s character. The Italian word maschera, the English word mask and the French word masque are all derived from the word moska that originated in Lombardy and meant dead person, because in many cultures masks were associated with the world of the dead.
The earliest depiction of a mask was found in a cave painting in the Ariège region of France. The drawing apparently shows a shaman wrapped in animal skins and wearing a horned mask. The wearer of the mask is a male shaman, a priest who mediated between the world of man and the world of the spirits.
The mask in the image of an animal seems to indicate that people then believed that animals have magical powers and they somehow roll over into masks that depict them. The mask wearer believed that the animal’s magical powers passed over to him. Animal masks date back to very ancient times. In those days people believed that masks could be used to communicate with the supernatural.
Masks & Magic
Masks were often worn during magical ritual ceremonies in the ancient world and are still commonly used in Papua New Guinea and among African tribes. The source of this practice is the custom of trying to mislead evil spirits and demons. The masks were intended to instill fear and were a means of frightening these spirits. African, pre-Colombian, Celtic, and other peoples are known to have used such masks, which were the domain of men and later evolved into war masks worn in battle against various tribes and other groups in addition to some other uses among them, fighting impurity and illness, promoting fertility, and assisting hunters.
During fertility rites, women were actively involved playing roles that symbolized birth, growth, and the like. Other very ancient masks–some as old as 9,000 years–made of limestone with two eyeholes and a mouth filled with teeth have been discovered in Israel. These Neolithic masks do not depict specific human figures, and it is difficult to ascertain what use they had or even whether they were intended for women or just men.
One use of masks was to perpetuate the image of the deceased. Today, we use photographs to perpetuate our image. In ancient times, memorial masks were used and they indicate a desire on the part of an individual, family, or community to preserve his image and endow him with a form of eternal life.
In ancient Egypt, the use of masks was part of the belief in an afterlife and the ritual of the dead. Masks were placed on the face of mummified bodies in order to preserve its appearance. Masks found in Egypt date back as early as the Fourth Dynasty and they depict both male and female images. The masks are frozen images and primarily highlight the eyes and lips and have hair affixed to the head. The quality of the mask was contingent on the deceased’s status.
Masks were very commonly used in religious rites in Greece, and from this practice theatrical masks evolved, starting with the feasts celebrating the god of wine, Dionysus, in which an actor played several roles by switching masks between each role. Women were active and important participants in these ecstatic religious rites and theatrical events, particularly when they went out to the forests in search of the god in the wilds of nature. As Greek theater further developed, women were barred from dressing up, and men played the roles of women.
At the same time that the formal theater was developing, a street theater was also developing where women were prohibited from wearing costumes. During the Middle Ages, the practice of using masks on theater stages disappeared, and then a form of mass celebration began with the participation of masked individuals. This practice later spread all over Europe and women took part and wore masks with male features.
Masks & the Carnival
These masks mark the beginning of the carnival whose ancient roots date as far back as ancient Egypt. These processions initially highlighted the change of seasons, until the festivities become something out of the ordinary routine, marked by chaos and upending of the usual order with poor people dressed masqueraded as rich people, rich people masqueraded as laborers, and the like. A sober outlook replaced the drunkenness that had been common, and it became a time were overturning norms was sanctioned.
At the end of the 16th century, a new kind of street theater surfaced in Italy, a kind of standup comedy known as Comedia dell’arte. This repertoire produced masked characters that have endured to this day. Women played important roles in these comedies, wearing for example, the mask of Colombina, the character of the merry servant maid.
Masks were also a common feature of Asian theater. They were already present in Japanese and Korean theater as early as the eighth century. In the 14th century, the very aristocratic Noh theater began and it permitted women to wear costumes and act. Men played female roles, as they had in Greek or Shakespearean theater.
In contrast, women were the founders of Kabuki theater, but very quickly the Shogun government barred women from performing. Kabuki actors do not wear masks. Their faces wear heavy makeup that is like a mask. A similar practice was common in the south Indian theater form known as Kathakali, where women were also barred from performing.
The Masquerade Motif in the Bible
The masquerade motif appears in the Bible on two different levels: an attempt to fool people and an attempt to fool God. Although the Bible was written by men, it does not indicate any differences between male and female masks, as is the case in other cultures.
Twice women are described as masquerading, as in the wife of Jerobam who masquerades before the prophet in a failed effort, because a person looks at the outward appearance and God looks at what is in the heart. When Tamar masquerades and changes her identity in order to fool Judah, she is successful.
In addition to references in Scriptural texts, the authors of the Mishnah, Tosefta, Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, and the Midrashim discussed changes of clothing and facial coverings at great length. Women are a major component of these discussions as they masqueraded for different reasons relating to marital relations, an attempt to seduce a man, etc.
The Purim Masquerade
Masquerading on the festival of Purim has become a norm in the Jewish community.
The Book of Esther, which describes the origin of the festival, is written in a roundabout style that is a comedy of errors involving one masquerade after another and was therefore performed over the generations until it became one of the symbols of the festival. The Book of Esther features disguises and masquerades portrayed by changes in clothing and statuses. It has three pairs of protagonists, Vashti and Xerxes, Zeresh and Haman, and Mordecai and Esther.
A reading of the book reveals that all the characters depict men and women at the same time. Xerxes masquerades as a tough ruler but turns out to be ruled by his ministers. Haman, who seeks power and respect, is revealed in all his misery, and his disgrace is apparent to all when he is hanged in public. Mordecai sits wearing a sack and ashes outside the palace gate and is presented with royal garments and brought into the palace.
The Book of Esther is named after the heroine, who hides her identity until she puts on “the garments of royalty.”
These garments actually help her to reveal the truth and drop her obedience and submission. She is transformed from a passive and sheltered girl into an active woman with a royal status. Vashti, who is depicted as a successful queen, throws a banquet for women and is assertive and experienced in the ways of the world, actually is revealed in her failure–she starts out as someone with status and is sent away with none left. Zeresh, the wife of Haman, who does not think too highly of her, turns out to be quite wise behind her mask, in comparison to Haman. who is obtuse and stupid.
The Book of Esther, whose characters are all masked, promoted the custom of wearing different facial masks.
This practice is documented in 15th-century German sources, which discuss women wearing men’s clothing, drunkenness, and other issues. Today it is commonly thought that the Italian carnival influenced the custom of dressing up on Purim, as indicated by illustrated miniatures of the Book of Esther and other Jewish manuscripts, although it should be noted that in Muslim countries the practice of masquerading on Purim was unknown.
The matter of women masquerading and the prohibition against them appearing wearing masks is today a subject whose economic, social, halakhic [Jewish law], and feminist aspects are being extensively researched.
Pronounced: PUR-im, the Feast of Lots, Origin: Hebrew, a joyous holiday that recounts the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period.