Image of Mask
Image of Mask

Good and evil, beauty and the beast

Good and evil are concepts in all human societies although their exact perception and delineation may differ from one culture to the next. All societies have community values about what constitutes proper behavior, and what does not.

Masked characters in our traditions reflect good and bad human traits and behaviors. Indeed, masked characters often exaggerate the best and worst in humans. The manifestation of good and evil is often closely tied to our perceptions of beauty. Masks can capture social ideals of beauty, and can reveal evil through ugly and distorted features.

Masks allow mortal humans to enact and to witness the great battles between good and evil. And, masks prompt us to contemplate the nature of true beauty.

Image of Mask
     Mask in Venice Carnival 2009;
     photograph from Wikimedia Commons

Idealized beauty is a common depiction in masks. Beauty is often associated with a calm and even temper, which can project in the tranquil visage of the mask. Yet masks more frequently caricature the human appearance, exaggerating features to amuse, frighten, or reveal traits that might be hidden from sight in a real human being.

In traditional Christian belief, the ultimate manifestation of evil is the Devil. The Devil is characteristically depicted in art and legend as of roughly human form, but typically with grotesque features, horns and other animal attributes, suggesting a beastly character. Devil masks will typically bear horns. The faces are often snarling and angry, a physical manifestation of negative behavior in societies around the world.

Image of Mask
     Japanese dancer wearing the traditional “demon” costume 2006;
     photograph by Mike Dockery from Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless, there are ‘good’ – or at least relatively harmless - devils as well. The Dancing Devils of Yare (Diablos Danzantes del Yare) in Venezuela are a good natured part of public festivities, and in their finale kneel in submission at the church, reflecting the victory of good over evil. While masked devils in Mexican religious festivities can be aggressive and menacing in keeping with their inspiration, many are playful and engaging, more a part of the entertainment of the audience than a depiction of pure evil.

In most African and American pre-Christian/pre-Islamic cultures and belief systems, there is no traditional equivalent to the Devil as a separate personification of evil. Yet evil exists. It is often perceived as one side of traditional gods – who had both good and bad qualities. Evil may be present in angry and malevolent spirits that are all about but especially in the wildness of the bush; it may be within individuals in the community who have become self-centered, greedy and antisocial; and it certainly resides in witches, the ultimate manifestation of evil. Horns are commonplace on African masks and often suggest a connection with the wild bush, and reflect danger or power. The horned character may be dangerous or may be just powerful, although in all human societies, the two are frequently linked. In power, there is danger. A mask depicting an evil spirit or a witch will often be adorned in horns - sometimes many horns - reflecting the danger of powerful medicines and spells.

Image of Mask
     Bolivian Carnival 1998; photograph by Doris Neilson

Other elements of a mask can give insight to the true nature of the character. Colors can capture aspects of human nature – both the good (courage, honesty, loyalty)

and the bad (anger, cruelty, duplicity). There can be a complex code of colors and physical attributes that requires an understanding of the symbolism of each to fully appreciate the meaning of the mask.


Look at the masks and come to your own conclusions about beauty. Is the nature of the mask asking us to consider the visualization of human character?

Can you see goodness and beauty, evil and ugliness? Do you regard most of the masks as beautiful or ugly?

There are many horned masks. Do they all seem evil?

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