Image of Mask
Image of Mask


Masked characters often attend the major rites of passage in people’s lives: birth, initiation to adulthood, transforming from an ordinary person to a community leader, and in that most final of all transitions, the move from this life to the next.

In these times of major personal and communal change, masks can unify the community, draw on spiritual support for the transformation, and assist those who are in passage to make the transition safely.

Image of Mask

The rites of passage in our lives can mark more than just our getting older, and even more than the acquisition of new knowledge or skills. In many cultures, these are times when we evolve into something different than we were before, in some cases, approaching a new individual.

Through initiation, children become adults and assume a new status in the community, one that heralds marriage and generations of more children. This is a momentous change, and the masked characters can assist in the transition and in conveying advice to those who are in metamorphosis.

Image of Mask
     East New Britain Papua New Guinea –
     baining fire dance Celebrated at birth, harvest,
     and right of passage for young men into adulthood 2008;
    photographs by Doris Neilson

A chief is often not only a secular leader. He or she can be an important link with the ancestors or spirits, and can be responsible for many ritual practices that safeguard the community from harm. A successful transformation to this elevated status is assisted by many rituals and religious practices, and masked characters are often key agents.

Moving from this life to the next is an especially traumatic passage. Masked entities are common participants at funerals, comforting the mourners, and facilitating the ancestral or spiritual support that will see a safe passage of the deceased.

To achieve connection with the spirit world and the ancestors, proper practices and taboos may be required. This can involve abstention from certain behaviors, and often include sexual taboos. Having drawn the living and the spirits close together through ritual and taboo practices, it is only sensible to maximize the efficacy of the effort. Thus it is common for communities to combine passage events. For example, in an African community a funeral may be combined with initiation of young adults. If the ancestors are happy, they can assist in both transitions. On those occasions, masked dancers will be especially in evidence.

Image of Mask
     Costumed character for Day of the Dead in Mexico City 2010;
     photograph by Alejandro Linares Garcia from Wikimedia Commons

Image of Mask
     Silver painted Aztec performing on Madero Street
     in Mexico City for Day of the Dead 2010;
   &nbs photograph by Alejandro Linares Garcia from Wikimedia Commons

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