Tattoos often draw their inspiration from Japanese and tribal masks, or the theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy. Yet what do masks symbolise and why are they used?
A mask is an artificial image worn to cover the entire face or just the eyes. It has been used since pre-historic times in ceremonies and religious rites, in theatrical representations and in festivals such as Carnival. Yet masks can also be used to cover other body parts: the native cultures of Australasia (the region that includes Australia, New Zealand and the neighbouring islands of the Pacific Ocean) have spawned giant masks that cover the wearer’s entire body, while the women of the Inuit Eskimo tribes wear small finger masks during ritual dances and story-telling (look at another picture of Inuit finger masks).
Masks are a key element in many folkloristic traditions, just as they are in theatre, ceremonies, rituals and festivals: for each of these occasions their origins may be ancient, the original meaning lost in the mists of time: yet the mask-wearing tradition remains as strong as ever.
A mask is usually a component of a costume that adorns the entire body; it embodies a tradition and is tied to the social or religious life of a community. Masks are used all over the world and everywhere they exude power and mystery for wearer and onlooker alike. Anyone in any doubt as to the overwhelming popularity of masks need look no further than Carnival or Halloween.
Ancient masks and larvae
The 5,000-year-old Sumerian mask of Warka (maybe a representation of Inanna, Sumerian goddess of love) is the world’s most ancient; discovered by archaeologists in 2003, it is currently exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Baghdad in Iraq.
The meaning of the word mask remains uncertain: it might derive from the medieval Latin word màsca, meaning witch, a term still used in this sense in the dialect of Piedmont. Traces of its origins are also glimpsed in the Provençal terms masc, witch. In the wake of the original meanings one then begins to discover the more sinister ones of ghost, larva and camouflaged.
A larva is that intermediate stage in the life of an animal in which it becomes an adult by undergoing one or more transformations; just think of larvae that hatch from eggs and later become insects, or the caterpillars that change into butterflies. This “passage” from one life form to another is intrinsically bound to the use of masks as symbols.
The mask as symbol
All transformations start off as hidden, concealed and all have a deeply mysterious side to them: so the link with masks is an easy one to make. Masking interlocks with transfiguration, that is, the easing of the change from what you are to what you want to be: this is the magical nature of the symbol, present in Greek masks and Oceanic or African religious masks; that symbolism also occurs in certain styles of tribal tattoo (e.g. Polynesian) where it is part of a more complex overall design.
The mask, then, is a sort of chrysalis. In the traditional initiation rites of the peoples of Oceania, young people close their eyes as their faces are covered by a mask made of pasta or clay. At first it appears that they neither listen to nor understand the orders imparted by the elders; then, gradually, they become more responsive: the following day they wash off the white crust of clay that they had spread on their faces and bodies – and so ends their initiation. This essential meaning of passage and transformation aside, the mask represents an image. And here it takes on another symbolic meaning that brings us back to Roman times.
In ancient Rome the term persona meant mask; it was also a word that referred to those with full Roman citizenship. A Roman citizen could demonstrate his lineage via imagines, the funeral masks of his ancestors. These were wax reproductions stored in the lararium, the family shrine. Rites of passage, such as youths’ initiations into adulthood, were conducted under the “gaze” of ancestral masks. At funerals, professional actors led the procession while wearing these wax masks, probably modelled directly from the face of the deceased.
Ritual masks and tattoos
Ritual masks are found in every culture and vary enormously. Their function might be magical or religious, they may appear in rites of passage or as props in stage plays; they might cover the faces of the repentant or oversee important ceremonies, or be used aids in shamanic rites (to achieve contact with the spirit world); they might be tools of aggression or protection.
Symbolism varies greatly according to use: funeral, votive, Carnival and theatrical are the main symbolic types.
Perhaps the best known funeral masks are the ones used by the Ancient Egyptians: each mummy-containing sarcophagus featured a mask depicting the face of the deceased. Ancient theatrical masks, which were also those of the sacred dances, represented the Divine Face.
The Greek theatrical mask has given rise to the what is now the universal symbol of theatre: the twin masks of tragedy and joy, the former in tears and the latter laughing. In the theatre of Bali and other Eastern countries the mask represents demoniacal tendencies: yet it does not hide them but, rather, reveals them so that they can then be chased away and defeated. Where an object of ritual ceremonies, the mask is neither used nor manipulated with impunity as this could place the “layman” in danger.
The religious masked dances of the Native Americans celebrate god-animals or ancestors. In other cultures masks have magical qualities that protect their wearers against malefactors and wizards.
Images of gods and demons are, by necessity, masks: their true faces cannot be seen by human eyes as the merest glimpse of them would blind or petrify. So when they appear, they wear a “mask” on top of their true faces.
In the tattooing world the most common masks are Japanese, tribal and theatre’s ‘twin masks’ of tragedy and comedy. In Northern Europe Celtic mask tattoos, often with the image of the Green Man (a sort of north European Pan whose face takes the form of leaves, branches or vines), are common.