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masks
February 24, 2005 9:03 PM   Subscribe

I have been thinking about masks lately. Masks are ancient and universal, our ancestors put on masks to become an other, to become a god, even unto this day. Greek tragedy and comedy began in the worship of Dionysos, the god of wine, intoxication, and creative ecstasy, in rituals where worshipers often wore or worshipped masks. Indeed, the word for mask in Greek drama was persona, now commonly used to describe constructed online identities. And so we understand ourselves as wearing masks, whole series of masks--behind which we find only emptiness, for we can never see ourselves truly.
posted by y2karl (30 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, if one Googles the word mask with the words sacred, religion, god, ritual or role, to name but a few, one at a time by turn, one comes across so many links. Here are a few at random:

Masks : Reflections of Culture and Religion

Roman statuettes of actors and theatrical masks

Masks from Origin Myth of Acoma and Other Records

Masks of the Sacred Clown

Ancient Greece Theater Masks, Actors

Dog With A Human Mask from Dog With A Human Mask

The Mask Performers

The Ghost Head Mask and Metamorphic Shang Imagery

Masks by George Ulrich

Rites of Passage: Initiation Masks in French Speaking Black Africa

Common Ground for Uncommon Cultures

Reproductions of Greek Theatrical Masks
posted by y2karl at 9:04 PM on February 24, 2005


Oh, and Theater Masks is good, too.
posted by y2karl at 9:10 PM on February 24, 2005


Thanks for not using the small type. Much easier to appreciate your post! I've always been a fan of Noh masks.
posted by shoepal at 9:16 PM on February 24, 2005


I had nothing to quote.
posted by y2karl at 9:18 PM on February 24, 2005


y2karl opined: "[W]e understand ourselves as wearing masks, whole series of masks--behind which we find only emptiness, for we can never see ourselves truly."

Speak for yourself. I understand myself as basically maskless -- I don't even bother to hide from you.
posted by davy at 10:05 PM on February 24, 2005


I understand myself as basically maskless

You have no shadow, no dark side, no unconscious and perfect
self-knowledge then ?
posted by y2karl at 10:42 PM on February 24, 2005


yay! i love masks, y2k. I have at least four decorating the homestaed, one of which is (bonus!) a card-modeling representation of a Northwest Coast spirit, Dzunokwa. I built her in the midwest and her hair comes from the cedars along the banks of the river Jordan that runs though my hometown.
posted by mwhybark at 11:12 PM on February 24, 2005


Nice, karl. From elsewhere on the "The Mask Performers" link, I found this interesting bit about "larval masks", which I hadn't heard of before.

Here's a site for a mask museum in Germany (maskenmuseum mi.stöhr diedorf). While there is unfortunately not much info about the individual masks, it still quite interesting because the galleries here are grouped by continent, so you can sort of compare and contrast the various styles geographically. (Plus, you know... eye candy.)
posted by taz at 1:38 AM on February 25, 2005


Indeed, the word for mask in Greek drama was persona

I feel hideously hair-splitty for doing this, but the Latin word for a tragic mask is persona. Greek, as ever, is more diffuse and more interesting - terms for masks include prosopeion, which is closely cognate with prosope - face - and also skeue, which is one of the most versatile words in the language - it changes meaning depending on what it is applied to, having a neutral meaning something like "gear" or "trappings". There's a great word - autoprosopis - which is used to describe an actor who is appearing on stage as himself - that is, wearing his own face as his actor's mask. Love that.
posted by tannhauser at 2:13 AM on February 25, 2005


Theatre masks. Ugh. Don't theatrical organisations realise how naff the smiley-frowny mask logo has become?
posted by raygirvan at 4:22 AM on February 25, 2005


Excellent post, y2. Here's some Korean Hahoe masquery to add to your pile 'o links.
posted by MrBaliHai at 5:39 AM on February 25, 2005


"[W]e understand ourselves as wearing masks, whole series of masks--behind which we find only emptiness, for we can never see ourselves truly."

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." --Kurt Vonnegut
posted by jonmc at 5:57 AM on February 25, 2005


Great links. I've been re-reading Jung and this dovetails perfectly.

I'm also continually surprised at the number of people who truly believe they fully know and understand who they are.
posted by lyam at 6:19 AM on February 25, 2005


Great post, y2karl. I agree with a lot of what is being said here about the inability to perceive one's true self; but I don't understand how that leads to "only emptiness" behind the mask. Darkness, I could understand, because dark is only that which we can't percieve.
posted by adzm at 6:27 AM on February 25, 2005


Great post indeed. Thanks for taking the time to dig up so many thought-provoking (or just plain beautiful) links. The "ancient" link made me want to see a performance using masks (this photograph especially whetted my appetite). And African masks and secret-society traditions have fascinated me for years. Allow me to quote the start of Léopold Sédar Senghor's "Prayer to Masks":
Masks! Masks!
Black mask red mask, you white-and-black masks
Masks of the four points from which the Spirit blows
In silence I salute you!
Nor you the least, the Lion-headed Ancestor
You guard this place forbidden to all laughter of women, to all smiles that fade
You distil this air of eternity in which I breathe the air of my Fathers.
Masks of unmasked faces, stripped of the marks of illness and the lines of age
You who have fashioned this portrait, this my face bent over the altar of white paper
In your own image, hear me!...
(French text here.)

tannhauser: I feel even more hideously hair-splitty than you, but the Greek word for 'face' is prosopon, not prosope, and skeue isn't defined as 'mask' in LSJ ("equipment, attire, apparel... esp. of the dress of a singer or actor"). Actually, I think the commonest word for 'mask' is simply prosopon ('face'); the modern Greek word is prosopida, from prosopis.
posted by languagehat at 8:15 AM on February 25, 2005


good post

Museo delle Maschere Mediterranee


MetaFilter -- I Had Nothing to Quote
posted by matteo at 8:42 AM on February 25, 2005


Thanks y2karl. This brings to mind Eyes Wide Shut—a most insightful and misunderstood exploration of (not sex but) masks. For example, Tom Cruise wears the “Doctor” mask, which confers status, wealth and influence. But when he goes to the costume party he must abandon all this, and he escapes the threat to his life only with the help of a woman who wears no mask.

This is the paradox of anonymity. When we put on a mask, we bare ourselves, because we relinquish our bigger mask: a lifetime of carefully cultivated credentials and postures and possessions.

This is why the Internet disturbs some people.

MetaFilter: the mask that unmasks.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:56 AM on February 25, 2005


I feel hideously hair-splitty for doing this, but the Latin word for a tragic mask is persona.

You are right. I am embarrassed for making such a bone headed error--I should have figured it out by the sound alone but I was very sloppy. Is skeue a variant spelling of what I saw somewhere as skene ? I gather it is the root for scenery and scene.

What came to mind for me was R. A. Lafferty's wonderful time travel story Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne, wherein the Institute for Impure Science--including Epikt the Ktistec Machine, a recurring character in his work--change history over and over, but change themselves and their memories over and over as well.

After one transformation, they sitting around a fire in a cave and Epikt is a mask on poles--they take turns running up behind the mask and speaking in its voice. That scene has lingered in my memory ever since I read it.

Nous sommes si accoutumés à nous déguiser aux autres qu'enfin nous nous déguisons à nous-mêmes.

We are so accustomed to disguising ourselves that we wind up disguising ourselves from ourselves.

Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld

posted by y2karl at 10:14 AM on February 25, 2005


y2karl: See the small print at the end of my comment for "skeue." (And click the LSJ link for more.)
posted by languagehat at 10:19 AM on February 25, 2005


Oh, I see--skene is a different word.

Skene

The skene of the theatre showed the background and is a little like a modern day stage. It has the scene like picture on the background. In the foreground is the actual stage. There might be tables, there were exits and entrances, and whatever kind of buildings may be needed. The hypocrits, actors, moved around the skene to make it appear that they were doing something. If they were writing, they would sit at the table and do so, or pretend to do it. They would have a pen, or some kind of writing tool, to write with.

Inside a permanent skene, were machines. One machine, the Aeorema, was a crane that enabled the gods appear on the stage. Another machine, the Periactoi, was placed inside pillars on the left and right side of the stage. It changed the background of the skene. The last machine used was the Ekeclema, a platform on wheels to bring the bodies of the dead out to show the audience. This was necessary since murder and suicide never took place in front of the audience.


But do they come from the same root ?

I am going to have to do an I. F. Stone some day and actually try to learn Classical Greek in my dotage.
posted by y2karl at 10:33 AM on February 25, 2005


I'm also continually surprised at the number of people who truly believe they fully know and understand who they are.

Could you be more arrogant? Who are you to judge that other people don't or can't understand themselves? I recall an exercise in which I once participated:

I was asked to think of somebody whom I greatly admired. After deciding, I wrote down six (6) of their traits which I admired most on the sides of a cube, and wrapped the cube in paper. Eventually I came to learn that in order to witness and admire those traits in other person, I must have possessed those traits, to some degree, myself.

In conclusion, lyam, you don't know nor understand yourself. And before somebody turns this around on me: yes I am arrogant, and I like it.
posted by crazy finger at 10:56 AM on February 25, 2005


Me? I like me some commedia dell'arte masks.

And, of course, death masks.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:02 AM on February 25, 2005


Oh, if one Googles the word mask with the words sacred, religion, god, ritual or role, to name but a few, one at a time by turn, one comes across so many links.

Just for the record, I did not construct this post at random. Those were just some of the search terms I used. I was actually looking for something specific in regards to masks--a passage from Rene Girard about masks in sacrifice--which I never found to my satisfaction, for a post on a whole other topic. But then I began to look for a page about masks and the roots of religion, also which I never found to my satisfaction, and these links were parts of a whole I have yet to see in itself.

I did find the most interesting things, though, besides the links above--like Robert Christgau's
The Dionysus Theory: Rock as Ecstatic Release, Tragic Knowledge, and/or Unmitigated Romantic Bullshit, for example.
posted by y2karl at 11:37 AM on February 25, 2005


Great post. Thanks y2karl.
posted by plep at 12:01 PM on February 25, 2005


Don't forget Confessions of a Mask.
posted by plep at 12:06 PM on February 25, 2005


crazy finger, yes I could be much more arrogant. I could assume that I really and completely know who I am.

I might be arrogant but I tend to assume (based on the scant few years I have under my belt) that almost nobody really has any idea about who they really are.
posted by lyam at 12:31 PM on February 25, 2005


tannhauser: I feel even more hideously hair-splitty than you, but the Greek word for 'face' is prosopon, not prosope, and skeue isn't defined as 'mask' in LSJ

Quite right - sleepy brain mixed propopon up wth prosope, a hapax (AFAIK) alternate for prosopsis - character. Apologies. porosopon is used to mean "mask", but does not have the specific meaning of "mask", hence my citation of the variant prosopeion, which again AFAIK is only ever used to mean a dramatic mask.

However, I would respectfully suggest one might dig a little deeper on skeue - one might start with skeuopoios - a maker of stage-properties (LSJ again), including masks. Likewise skeuopoiema - the mask is, I would offer, one of the trappings of the actor described by skeue.


y2karl - on skene and skeue - unlikely, I think. It doesn't show in English, but those are different "e"s - skene is sigma-kappa-eta, skeue is sigma-kappa-epsilon. Languagehat - any thoughts? Your Greek is clearly fresher than mine...

On the mask in tragedy - I'm trying to find a substantial link about Greek Tragedy in Action, by Oliver Taplin - can anyone with better web skills find anything?
posted by tannhauser at 3:44 PM on February 25, 2005


No, no relation that I can see: skene is probably related to skia 'shadow,' skeue/skeuos to Old English hégan 'perform, achieve.'
posted by languagehat at 5:09 PM on February 25, 2005


One of my professors was telling us about a coffee table book she saw at some forensic doctor's house. Basically, it was a book of pictures of cadavers in every position imaginable...but each picture was prefaced with a mask picture. The theory was that the book was going to show you these terrible pictures, but to ward off the "evil" associated with the pictures, the mask pictures were there.
posted by tozturk at 4:19 PM on March 2, 2005


Masks for Warriors
posted by techgnollogic at 9:04 AM on March 3, 2005


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