Image of  Mask
Image of  Mask

A public persona

The word persona derives from the Latin word for mask. Masks were widely used in Ancient Greek and Roman stage performances just as maskscontinue to be used to the present day around the world. The association of masks and acting remains strong, evident in the long time pairing of stylized Tragedy and Comedy mask as symbols for the Performing Arts, especially drama.

Image of  Mask
     Theatrical Masks, Mosaic, Roman, 2nd Century CE

There is always a blurred line between commemoration of religious and spiritual events, and general entertainment. The underpinning motivation of commemorating a religious holiday, or of manifesting some other aspect of faith and spirituality, will frequently merge with the more secular – but no less significant – pursuit of having a good time. Masks add color and zest to celebrations and commemorations. Even a funeral can be a lively place when a masked dancer attends the sad scene.

A masked gule wamkulu ancestral messenger, visiting a Malawian village; or a masked noh performer on a Japanese stage; or the finely honed faces inspired by comedia dell’arte beside a Venetian canal - masks are associated with events that draw people together. And people together will so often want to fight or party. A mask can be useful for either.

Image of  Mask

On the walls around you are excerpts from writings and quotations that refer more to the metaphorical and philosophical mask than to the physical. Here we encounter the notion of the persona, or mask, that is our public image. Psychologists like Carl Jung have described this mask as a projection of ourselves for the outside world. Masks are the way we want the world to see us or that have grown over our true faces, to the point where even we cannot distinguish the mask from the underlying face. These masks are our affected behavior, our mannerisms, and actions, that are intended to project who we think we are, who we want to be, or who we want others to think us to be.

Sometimes we may not even be aware that we have adopted a mask.

In this thinking, there is an assumption that there is a definable differentiation between the real face, or the true inner self, and the mask. Some philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault reject the view that there is an inner person, or a true fixed identity analogous to ‘the face’. In philosophical streams such as existentialism and postmodernism, absolutes are questioned. Instead the self is a changing thing, much as masks can change over time.

In the Noh dramas of Japan, the lead actor can change masks to demonstrate a change in the character's attitude or as a way of revealing his "true" inner self.

Image of  Mask
     Performance of Noh at Itsukushima Jinja
     (Itsukushima Jinja), Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan

Masks can represent a near complete transformation. We see this in many of the cultural uses of masks, for spiritual and ritual purposes, where the masked individual is something very different from a mere human being without the mask. In his 1915 short novel, The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), Franz Kafka opens with the ultimate change:

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous insect."

The physical mask can equally change the context and capacities of its wearer, yet has the appeal of reversibility. Unlike Gregor, who must remain an insect, the mask can be removed.


What metaphorical masks do we see in our daily lives?

Can you think of someone who you think is wearing a mask? Why do they wear the mask? How is it that you can perceive the mask?

How many masks do you have in your own wardrobe?

Wearing a mask in public makes sense. What does it mean to wear a mask in private?

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