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The Mysterious appeal of Masks

The Guy Fawkes Mask

The Guy Fawkes Mask popularized in 2006 film "V for Vendetta

The Guy Fawkes Mask popularized in 2006 film "V for Vendetta

Pre-ceramic neolithic mask 7000 BC

Stone mask is considered oldest mask in recorded history, discovered in Palestinian area of Israel

Stone mask is considered oldest mask in recorded history, discovered in Palestinian area of Israel

Symbolic variety and purposes of masks

Facial masks originated from early spiritual worship and evolved among many cultures. Through the years, people wear masks for a variety of reasons.

Mexicans celebrate "Dia de los muertos(Day of Dead)," November 1st; doll like skull masks appear in parades that include cheerful smiling and grim expressions. Mexicans regard death as a normal aspect of life. The festival honors their dead relatives.

Stag masks originated before the coming of Christ. Deer cult animal masks were first seen in Italy, Gaul, Spain, and Celtic populations.

In Alaska, Inuit Eskimos created masks with peculiar features and wore them at various celebrations. Shamans were protected by covering eye-slits of their masks; the step prevented malicious spirits from entering their bodies.

Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" first met at a masquerade ball, the scene didn't provide specific details about the mask, but Elizabethan mask styles originated from Italy and Venice.

Kids wear masks to impersonate their favorite heroes or villains on Halloween.

The Phantom of the Opera wore a mask to cover his face's deformed features; it contradicted the passionate heart he expressed to Christine Daaé, a beautiful soprano.

Samurai assassins used masks to cover their face below the eyes.

In the motion picture, "V for Vendetta," a man wears a mask to represent a dangerous political revolt.

The Mask of Shame

A medieval age torture device

A medieval age torture device

Magical masks in fiction

Goosebumps book series, written by R. L. Stine, included a juvenile book, entitled, "The Haunted Mask." Carly, an eleven-year-old girl purchases an ugly looking mask from a costume store to terrify her friends on Halloween. The mask compels her to pull cruel pranks on her friends and she is unable to remove the mask. She discovers the mask was originally an authentic human face. She removes it upon discovering a symbol of love.

"The Masks", episode 25, Season 5 of "The Twilight Zone," Rod Sterling wrote the story about Jason Foster, a wealthy man, near death. His family members are money hungry. Mr. Foster creates individual grotesque Mardi Gras' masks. Foster passes away; the family remove their masks and discover their facial features transformed into characters they personified.

Contemporary super-hero guises are too numerous to mention. For the purpose of classifying them, Batman and Spider-man disguised their face with masks to protect their secret identities. The cowl caped crusader's alter-ego is a multi-millionaire for Wayne Enterprises. Originally, the web-crawler's alter-ego had a job snapping photos for the Daily Bugle and acted like a nerd. Early westerns started a craze for super-heroes, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto," and "The Mark of Zorro."

Metal "masks of shame" covered a woman's face if she was accused of witchcraft in Western Europe. Accused witches were not subjected to wear masks of shame in actual Salem Witch trials, but the torture device was used in episode 1, season 1, "The Vow," premiere episode of "Salem", a television drama that aired on WGN, starring Janet Montgomery.

Many hero masks were inspired by mythology. Pagan deity masks are numerous in all religious cultures. Christianity, in general, avoided mask personifications. Early Christians considered it inappropriate and sinful to masquerade as Christ and wild animals.

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Roman tragi-comedy

Greek and Roman Theater Masks

Greek theater originated from Greek mythology, primarily Dionysus, son of Zeus, and vine god. Wine effected people's personality differently, it caused crazy behavior or imbued a merry festive attitude. Tragedy was based on insanity, and comedy exuded cheerfulness.

5th century Greek actors were forbidden to show their natural facial expressions. Cheap materials constructed stylized masks: linen, cork, and thin pliable wood, a significant reason masks didn't survive through the ages.

Masks covered the entire head and included various hairstyles, beards, and ornaments. Aeschylus, a Greek playwright, is credited for introducing painted masks to the theater.

Different styled masks represented a single character in a tragic drama; for example, in an opening act, a mask portrayed Oedipus as his normal self, later in the play, a mask portrayed him as blind.

Comic masks varied in characterization from tragic masks. Comic playwright, Aristophanes, characterized Sophocles and Euripides on stage. Masks appeared animated; Bald men and ugly women's facial and head features displayed bold characteristics.

Dionysus socialized with strange beasts that were physically formed half-human and half-animal. They participated in the Greek chorus, the term Satyr play was born. Silenus is regarded as principal leader and father of Satyrs.

Greek Satyr plays presented masks of various birds, animals, and insects.

Roman masks closely resembled Greek masks that appeared in Hellenistic Theater and constructed with terracotta (brownish-red clay), linen, and included a wig that completely covered the head.

Romans created pantomime masks. Closed mouthed masks looked more natural than tragic and comical characterization masks. Dual emotion masks featured a serious expression on one side of the face, and a cheerful expression on the other side of the face.

Ancient shields attached masks of Greek and Roman soldiers, popularly known as Gorgon masks. They were inspired from Greek mythology, the Medusa head, born with snakes on her hair, dreaded for a deadly stare that turned men to stone. Perseus beheaded Medusa and put her head on Minerva's shield, a potent power to destroy enemies.

Masks crafted by Native American artists


Indian transformation/conversion mask

Kwakwaka'wakw three layered mask

Kwakwaka'wakw three layered mask

Kwakwaka'wakw ritual mask


A variety of animal masks

Sea lion mask: an awesome guardian spirit promises material fortune.

Sunshine masks feature supernatural birds and life-like human faces

Thunderbird or Eagle Mask: flapping wings of bird causes thunder, a sign of approaching danger. Lightning flashes, an eagle beast showers pointed arrows down on earth. Relaxed wings signals peace. Eagle skin covers the beak of a wooden mask.

The Monstrous Kwakiutl bird mask is a mythological creature, modeled with a human face and open mouth that characterizes an inherit spirit. Sinew cords and leather hinges are fastened to the beak which enables dramatic movements of the face. The mask is a favorite device to foretell traditional tales of winter time ceremonials.

The Hawk mask reflects a spiritual presence with Haida roots seen by a curved linear-shaped- mustache, a facial characteristic groomed by male inhabitants of Queen Charlotte Islands.

Raven mask: The story teller dramatizes a Northwest Coast tribal theme: welcome the light of the world.

Coast Salish tribes wore Swaixwe masks, crafted with prominent eyes, carved from yellow cedar. Red, black, and white paint are traditional colors of swaixe, spirits of the sea known to heal people and bless farmers. Salish clan inhabited the "south mainland coast of British Columbia and southeastern Vancouver Island."

The Nootka mask of Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island, was carved from cedar, feather decorated, and painted black and red. The monstrous character abducts and cannibalizes children, identified in a wolf dance by "a long, running step."

Mosquito Mask: Haida are supernatural mosquitoes arising from Cannibal Giant's ashes. Mosquito’s spirit empowers a shaman cleansed by fasting to gain power and alleviate people from sickness, preventing a malicious alternative. Successful shamans resurrect forgotten souls. Evil shamans unleash mosquitoes against their foes with an unfortunate outcome.

Vancouver Island's Kwakiutl territory inhabits cannibal birds. Masked cannibal dancers greet first time members that showcase their first spiritual dance to entertain Kwakiutl Shamans’ society elders. The Cannibal Bird carving design has a looping snout (part of the wide beak's upper jaw), a variety of black, red, and white paint, stripped red cedar bark, and a feather on its head. It's a crazy looking beast.

Bear masks dramatize myths devoted to the Bear Mother. Family crests were featured. The mask wearer participated in winter dances and assumed the spirit of a guardian in the winter dances. Bear spirit's female devotees were considered respectable mothers and housewives The bear inspired men with physical endurance and hunting skills. –"Kwakiutl Mask."

Wolf mask: Strands of shredded cedar bark covered a person's face and concealed his identity. The wolf represents a guardian spirit, blesses followers with happiness and prosperous wild animal hunting.

Mexican folk mask types and materials

Note* don't read across

Traditional masksMask materialsMasquerade festivals



Holy week: "Passion of Christ"



Day of the dead

Hacienda owners





Conquest of Mexico

Elderly people




paper mache

Feast of the cross

the devil


Corpus Christi



Tiger pageants in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Tobasco




Hernan Cortez



Pedro Infante




wired mesh



fired clay






sheet metal



rubber tires








Astonishing tribal Indian masks

North American Iroquois Indians practiced healing sick people with fangu masks, a type of “false face” (Latin word; persona, false face) mask constructed from wood (white pine, maple, basswood, or poplar) and corn husks. The society worshiped mythical characters that ruled the world, and prayed to spiritual deities.

Indian masks convey strength and wisdom. They're used for three main reasons:

  1. Medicinal
  2. Spiritual
  3. Entertainment

An animal mask wearer believes he is possessed by an animal spirit while he wears the mask. Different clans evolved from various animals. Popular choices included the killer whale, deer, ram, hawk, moose, and bear.

Rock and bone tools gouged, cut, and shaped masks. Indians advanced their artistic techniques using trade goods from European visitors. Controlled burning hollowed out masks, discarding dark charcoal remains.

An ominous Tlingit shaman’s mask achieves awesome continuous energy from a person endowed with sacred raw power; the wearer physically manifests spiritual power emanating from the mask, a symbol of a warrior' spirit who died in battle. Tlingit honored warrior tribal Indians. The Shamans' mask is a conduit of revitalizing life force during ceremonial battle stories.

Tlingit, Haida, Tsimsyan, showcased a Sea Bear Monster Mask: a copper mask decorated with artistic engraved fins beside the mouth, bear fur, teeth and eyes made of abalone shell, measured a foot high in length.

Northwest Coast ceremonial masks include clan and lineage crests valued as prized possessions gained in war. A Tlingit lineage-crest wooden mask was known as ‘Lord of the Hawks.’ It included a scalp piece cut from walrus hide, shell crafted teeth, copper eyebrows and a beak. The Hawk mask's beak is designed with a sharp hook and "curves back to the mouth.”

A tribal chief offers a gift to an Indian chief of another tribe at pot-latch ceremonies. Haida Indians wear realistic masks that represent clan ancestors. Participants practice spiritual rituals based on mythology. A supernatural Weather Woman wears a labret, a piercing marked on her lower lip. A large attractive labret signified upper society. Male masks designed with paint illustrated an Eagle’s spirit.

Northwest Coast Indians carved ornate cedar dance masks. Transformation masks or conversion masks showcased different masks. During a pivotal point in a dramatic story the first mask opened up to reveal a second layer, another mask. Some conversion masks included a third mask. The mechanical masks animated facial features. The mask wearer opened and closed the mouth and eyes. Indians adapted mask construction with strings and hinges, a technique they learned from Europeans.

Feathers, hair, and straw, are common items used to decorate a mask.

A mask coated with black paint implies it was used in a funeral ceremony or depicted a Negro sailor, their race occupied trading ships in Haida land, c.1800 and after.

Mexican folk mask festivals

Mexican masks have represented three races illuminating their history: indigenous, European, and African.

Traditional ritual dance ceremonies donned masks for thousands of years and proceeded the arrival of Spain. Colonial Evangelists attempted to preach Catholicism in Mexico. Evangelists encouraged new dance performances from mystery plays and allegory dramas; they dramatized a pageant play about Christians engaged in warfare with the Moors. Interestingly, masks depicted the Moors but not Christians.

Lucha Libre stands for professional wrestling and was adapted from Greco-Roman. Wrestlers wear colorful masks. The loser reveals his natural face. Wrestling began in Mexico, 1863. The mask completely covers the face and head. Plastic is set around the eyes and mouth of the mask.

Masks carved from bone that dated back thousands of years ago were discovered in Tequixquiac, Mexico. More than 30 years ago, eight masks created from the human skull were discovered in a Mexican temple, Tenochtitlán. Archaeologists believe the skulls originated from Aztec warriors.

Warriors wore animal masks such as jaguars and eagles for spiritual strength.

A burial mask was made for Mayan King Pakal. Burial masks were made of jade, shell, obsidian, and hematite.

During Holy Week, a pageant called "Pageant of Christ" includes Jesus and Mary, but they are unmasked characters. Facial masks are crafted for Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate. Antagonists such as the Romans and Pharisees are also masked.

Devil masks are favorite choices of the fantastic mask's category. They appear in many pageants. Devil mask making contests are held in many areas of Mexico.

Popular woods

  1. Zompantle: a common soft white wood
  2. Red cedar and ayacahuite: repel insects
  3. Poplar: thin and pliable
  4. Mesquite and avocado: hardwoods

Early traditional masks were painted with oils and enamels, but later, acrylics became a popular choice.

Facial hair is often color painted or sculpted. Artists also apply authentic hair on masks from humans or animals, tampico fiber, and cotton.

Eyes are made from various materials: marbles, silicate minerals, glass, and mirror glass.

Teeth: human or animal teeth, metal, cactus spines, and corn.

Tongues are made out of leather or tin.

Devil masks include horns taken from cows, goats, and deer.

Animated masks include lip, tongue, and eyelid movements.

Mexican animal spirit mask

tiger/jaguar mask

tiger/jaguar mask

L'Inconnue de la Seine: mysterious girl never identified, her alluring appearance captivated imagination of German and Russian women, that inspired art and literature

Historical personaType of death maskPurpose

Tutankhamun: ancient Egyptian ruler

Death mask: resembled facial likeness, diameter of eyes expanded, subtle smile, precious gold, painted head dress, gems

Resting place for soul after death

Ludwig van Beethoven: German composer and pianist

Plaster cast

Facial mold of musical composer taken for later artistic renditions. Likeness a shallow reflection of living composer

L'Inconnue de la Seine

1880s forensic wax plaster mold

Patholigist made face mold of drowned girl in Paris Morgue to help family identify her

Napoleon Bonoparte: French revolutionary leader

Bronze cast taken from wax or plaster mold

A traditional custom to mold faces of great military leaders

Dogan mask of Mali


Egyptian death mask

Different mask choices

Tribal masks of Africa

The African mask used by the wearer in ritual dances is possessed by a spiritual ancestor. The mask is worn three different ways.

  1. vertical, worn across the face
  2. helmet head covering
  3. A crest rests on head and attached with head dressing

Ritual ceremony masks represented mythological characters, ancient gods, ancestor spirits, good spirits, demonic spirits, recently diseased family members, and animal spirits.

Tribal members were focused on supernatural deities that exerted spiritual forces over mankind.

Marabout witch doctors bless African masks and use them for healing the sick.

African tradition considers the exterior mask as the outer head. The mask wearer is considered the inner head, endowed with a deity or spirit, some spirits are represented by a goat. The belief originates from animal origin. The Great Mother mask includes a white beard. A shaman uses it while possessed in a mental state during a spiritual journey.

In Mali, Africa, people believe the mask maker uses masks to harm people.

Masks of India

India masks represent deities, heroes, and demons.

Dance rituals include masks depicting animals: lions, tigers, jackals, bulls, snakes, insects, horses and cows.

The mask wearer adorns a mask that represents the Goddess Durga. She is accompanied by a person wearing a lion mask while she kills a demon.

The Hindu epic, Ramayana, is celebrated by a Ramlila procession dramatically praising Lord Rama. Ramlila masks are crafted with brass and golden thread coated with a glittery substance.

The Madhya Pradesh tribe wear masks called Mukhada, popular at festival ritual dances. Mukhadas are constructed from cheap materials: hallowed out pumpkins, hallowed out gourds (hard-shelled fruit),scrap paper, cardboard, and wood. Gourd shaped masks are long and narrow. Peep hole eye-slits are cut-out in the mask. Honey-bee wax coats the nose. Pumpkin seeds and rice seeds are craft items that form teeth. Eyes are made out of bangles. Goat and bear hair construct beards, mustaches and hair. A blood-reddish tint is apparent in certain masks. Colorful designed masks include peacock plumes. Gloss paper and aluminum foil create a glittering artistic effect. Like Greek masks, many India masks were perishable.

Lord Krishna is popular among Gonda and Raj-gond tribal people. Children wear masks honoring Krishna and Gopis, the Lord's female companions.

A sun god mask is used in dances that dramatize the banishment of malevolent forces from mythological stories. Prophetic predictions are uttered by the mask wearer.

The Vaishanava period (15th-17th century A.D.) spanned Indian religious history dominated by Krishna and Vishnu. Sacred wooden masks appeared in ritual dance dramatizations. Satriya masks honored Lord Krishna and could reach ten feet high. Head and face masks varied. The mask's interior was layered by bamboo strips, and covered with stringy plant material from sugar cane. The mask composition included cow dung, clay, cloth and paper. Vegetable pigments colored the mask.

Papier-mâché masks were much lighter in weight. Facial masks are produced in Purulia, West Bengal. Individual artists conceptualize their own masks. Papier-mâché pieces are applied to a clay model and coated with riverbed clay. A rough mask dries in the sun after it's removed from a mold and then sculpted with a wooden chisel. Gods and goddesses are represented by star-spangled facial masks that are embellished with feathers and jewels. The demon-king Ravana, Mahishasura, a buffalo headed demon, and evil spirits are represented by grotesque masks.

Bian Lian opera mask

Chinese opera face mask changes character faces

Chinese opera face mask changes character faces

Chinese masks varied styles

Popular categories of Chinese masks include:

  1. Sorcerer's mask
  2. Tibetan
  3. Shaman
  4. Theatrical
  5. Dragon mask

Shaman's masks were the earliest form of mask, dating back 3,500 years ago. They were used in spiritual ritual, a prayer to the gods for healing and request to abolish deadly diseases.

Wooden sorcerer's masks were placed on a person's head or covered the face. Yunnan and Guizhou plateau is located in southwest China. Their people welcomed the God of Fortune and calmed family and friends of diseased loved ones. Their culture is known for totem worship and sorcerer ritual.

Exorcism masks that banished demons, and diverted malevolent ghosts away from homes, originated thousands of years ago. Cultural folks from the southern Yangzee River practiced exorcism and totem worship. Opera productions were inspired from it and entertained military men.

Sichuan opera face changing masks originated from the time of Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). The masks vary from colorful silk, gauze, and elastic fabric. Red stands for anger, and black stands for fury. White is villainous and red stands for righteousness, according to Professor Chan Sau-yan, director of the University's Chinese Opera Information Centre. The performer wears numerous prepared facial masks and either rubs, rips, or blows them off his face. New masks continually take their place.

The Xiangdong Nuo Mask originated in the Hunan province, a mask style important to Nuo culture for ritual, dance, and opera. They are recognized by superior craftsmanship, ornate design, bright colors that represent gods, facial features are normal or exaggerated, characteristic attributes of the mask vary.

Dragon masks are popular at Chinese New Year parades, many are colored red, it symbolizes success. During ancient times, the dragon was a good sign for farms, harvests, and beneficial rainfall. Dragon masks are colored gold, red, and blue. Feathers and fur embellish the mask. The masks are recognized by a "round wide mouth or yawning jaw."

Venetian-style masks

Venice Carnival masks are popular at Mardi-Gras Festival, New Orleans

Venice Carnival masks are popular at Mardi-Gras Festival, New Orleans

Mardi Gras masks of New Orleans

The grandest carnival celebration in North America, the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans, is famous for masquerade disguised costumes and masks. Masks magically bring out hidden personalities of people. Ritual performance inspired the creation of Mardi-Gras masks.

The French Quarter's Masquerade store includes numerous masks designed from native and international artists. Old traditional Venetian style masks are sold; Italian artists crafted their design.

In 1873, parade floats were entirely created in New Orleans. Paper mâché animal masks appeared. The Comus parade organizers made fun of Darwin's origin of species theory.

Mardi Gras masks are popular in many areas of the world. North American Indian, African, Mexican, Asian, India, and other cultures also feature prominent mask in their festivals, but various international masquerade festivals apply more emphasis on costumes and make-up than an artistic stylized mask.

German paperkratlter mask

Narrensprung 2005 carnival parade

Narrensprung 2005 carnival parade

Movies with masks

Movie TitleActorsAdapted workMask typeComment

1925 Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin

Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra

Simple mask hides deformed face

Silent film inspired talking picture remakes and musical adaptations

1964 The Masque of Red Death

Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher

1842 short story by Edgar Allan Poe

corpse-like appearance

Roger Corman directed 8 Poe films, 7 featured Vincent Price

1994 The Mask

Jim Carrey

Dark Horse Comics' comedy series

A green mask resembles Asgardian Loki, God of mischief, wearer's introverted self is wild and romantic

Cameron Diaz film debut

2005 V for Vendetta

Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt

1988 DC/Virtigo Comics' limited series

Political activist mask, smiling face, dark eyebrows, long mustache, Van Dyke beard

Comic series created by Alan Moore and David Loyd. Moore also created "From Hell" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"

1978 Halloween

Donald Pleasance, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.G. Soles, Nancy Loomis

Original screenplay written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Original "Star Trek" mask from Sci-fi T.V. program starring William Shatner, face spray-painted white, hairstyle changed, and eye-holes redesigned

Franchise produced 9 sequels, Nick Castle debuted as Michael Myers, 10 other actors played serial killer

1998 The Man in the Iron Mask

Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malcovich

1847-1850 The Vicompte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later by Alexandre Dumas

Iron mask conceals identity of evil Louis XIV's twin brother

1929 version starred Douglas Fairbanks, James Whale directed "The Iron Mask" ---1939

2015 Beyond the Mask

Andrew Cheney, John Rhys-Davies, Kara Kilmer

Original screenplay written by Paul McCusker

Revolution vigilante mask, Zorro and Lone Ranger styled black eye-mask

Film popular with Christian community

Lelooska carves a Transformation Mask

Belgian Carnival of Binche

The Gilles use wax masks and hold wielding sticks to protect themselves against spirits

The Gilles use wax masks and hold wielding sticks to protect themselves against spirits

Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of Red Death

Short fiction published 1842

Short fiction published 1842

Additional resources

Theater, a history of the art, Jerry V. Pickering, Copyright 1978, West Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota, page 48

History of Theater, 3rd edition, Oscar G. Brockett, Copyright 1977, Allyn and Bacon, Inc. 470 Atlantic Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts, pages 19-22, 29-32, 70-71

Indian Masks and Myths of the West, Joseph H. Wherry, Copyright 1969, Funk and Wagnalls, New York

Movie references:


Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on March 17, 2020:

Thank you memesera, I'm glad you thought it worthwhile to send me a message.

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on May 27, 2018:

Thanks for reading the article, Ann. I'm surprised masks around the world don't get more attention, but I have to admit quite a few of them are creepy.

Ann Carr from SW England on May 27, 2018:

A fascinating insight into the world of masks. The variety is astonishing and the examples interesting.

I find masks rather spooky, especially the Venetian kind. The fact that they hide identity and most of the eye means that all sorts of skullduggery and intrigue can be practised anonymously.

This is a well-researched hub and covers many aspects of masks, from the sinister to the representational to the fun.


Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on March 31, 2017:

Thanks for reading the article, Marlene. I hope you learned there was more meaning behind the purpose of using masks than masquerades during Halloween. But whatever you learned, you're still frightened of them.

Marlene Bertrand from USA on March 31, 2017:

Since I was a child, I have always been afraid of masks. Just looking at them frightens me. Your article is very enlightening and a lot of what you shared here explains some of my fear of masks. I am glad I read this.

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on February 09, 2017:

Thank you Larry. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on February 09, 2017:

Masks have certainly been around for a day or two:-)

Tremendous overview!

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