We love Halloween masks. And why not? Who wouldn’t want to be someone else – just for a little while? Put on a good mask and you’re free to do exactly that! Our fascination with masks is as old as culture itself. We use them to protect our identity and our health; we employ them in ritual and for entertainment. Masks are sacred, profane, funny, scary…
In the early days of civilization, masks were used to communicate with spirits. The earliest masks, those used before the Paleolithic era, represented spirits of animals or ancestors. The makers of these masks held positions of distinction in their communities due to their proximity to the spirit world. In ancient Egypt, the mask transformed the wearer from the mundane to the divine. In Bali and Java, dancers wore masks in Topèng, masked dance-drama used both for religious ceremonies and historical re-enactments. In Topèng, the dancer infused life into the masks (not unlike that 1990’s Jim Carrey movie, The Mask). Masks and masquerade balls were popular during the Renaissance when the upper classes could freely mingle in costume with the ‘commoners’ without being recognized.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word mask comes from “French masque, from Italian maschera, mascara, probably from medieval Latin masca ‘witch, spectre’, but influenced by Arabic masḵara buffoon.” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/mask)
Witch. Specter. Buffoon. Now we’re getting into the spirit of the season! Halloween masks date back to the Celtic festival of Samhain, the festival of the dead. To the Celts who lived 2,000 years ago, October 31 meant the death of summer and the birth of the long, dark winter. On this day the ghosts of the dead were believed to return to earth. November 1st was new year’s day. For some, it was a holy day.
“To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.” (http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween)
When you dress up for Halloween, choose your mask wisely. It has a history.