Image of Mask
Image of Mask

power, authority, and threat

Masks can reinforce perceptions of authority. The mask covers the face of the wearer, obscuring weaknesses and fallibility. At the same time, the mask conveys an authority that may devolve from the powers of a supernatural or spiritual origin. This authority may be more secular too, reflecting a political or social force including the moral codes of society. Sometimes, the mask can be a potent symbol of threat.

In wearing the mask, we can assume the character and authority of the mask.

Image of Mask
     Procesión Jesús Nazareno de Medinaceli,
     Madrid. 2008; from Wikimedia Commons

Human families and societies are characterized by levels of authority. Wherever we live, and in whatever culture, we have become accustomed to demonstrations of power, and accustomed to living within powerful social frameworks. This need not always mean a strong hierarchy of power; some societies have been very egalitarian. Yet societies around the world have had rules and laws of various forms, and these have been advocated and enforced by way of various mechanisms.

Ancestral and spiritual communication is one of authority over the living, and the mask conveys to the wearer the authority of the ancestors or spirits. The masked individual is no longer just a human being. They have transformed into something more than human, something that may be capable of great good, or great bad – or both, depending on their mood and your behavior. Masked messengers may be entirely benign and well mannered, or they may carry threat and punishment. In many traditional African initiation rituals for young people coming of age, it is common for the instructors to wear masks, and to threaten –and in some case punish – the initiates, so that they learn how to behave properly as adults.

Image of Mask
     Two children wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods stand
     on either side of Dr. Samuel Green, Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon,
     at an initiation ceremony 1948;
     from Wikimedia Commons

Masks can imply far worse threat. The traditional image of the masked hangman conveys the effect of anonymity, in hiding the identity of the executioner, but also of ultimate authority, that over life and death. Ku Klux Klan masks similarly disguised the wearers, but in their immediately recognizable ghost-like hoods, also communicated malevolent power and threat. (The origins of the KKK costume are uncertain but there is a strong similarity to the Spanish Roman Catholic Nazareno garments worn to symbolize penance at religious festivities such as Holy Week.)

Image of Mask
     TGule Wamkulu reflecting power and authority,
     Malawi 2007; photograph by Gary Morgan

Masks that explore the context of good and evil, also explore the applications of power. A mask that portrays the devil or a witch, will also suggest the power in that vile entity. Many African masks show power through symbols such as animal horns. Horns were used as storage containers for medicines that had strong powers. Horns in masks may represent a link with nature and animal forms, but can also reflect the power in the character.

Image of Mask
     Gule Wamkulu dance reflecting the power of the chief,
     Malawi 2007; photograph by Gary Morgan

Protective masks also reflect power. This may be as mundane as the power of a hockey mask to protect the face. Or it may be power to dispel spirits who otherwise might intrude on the affairs of the house or village. These spirit repelling masks can be attached to houses, walls or at sites of spiritual significance. Many New Guinea masks serve this role.


What symbols of power are commonly worn today?

Do you know anyone who uses a lucky charm or has some favored habit that they repeat to convey good fortune?

Have you ever felt threatened by someone wearing a mask?

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