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.