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Masks in Magic

by Gordon "the Toad" MacLellan
Published at Lughnasa 1997

When we take up a mask to dance in, use in ritual, to work magic with, we transform ourselves. Magical masks are not there to hide ourselves from our embarrassment or to conceal ourselves for villainy but to offer a face to a character waiting "over there" to come "over here" and act.

I am sure that most of us know masks and have used masks at some point - even if not since Hallowe'en guising or a fancy dress party. Even here, in apparently casual settings, (Hallowe'en - casual?) the power of masks can be felt. The personal side, the "becoming someone else", can be liberating. The apparent anonymity a mask confers (even when everyone knows "who" is behind the mask) allows us to dance and clown in ways that we might never attempt when unmasked. In this society, however, we also have much more negative encounters with masks: the bank robber, the mugger, the security guard, may all use the anonymity of their masks to allow brutality without repercussion. Masks used magically should offer a different set of experiences again. Some people do see masks as threatening and at times, I meet people who will not work with magical masks for similar reasons; masks are a way of "hiding from yourself" or "allowing (or encouraging) oppression" or a simply "frightening".

We, of course they are frightening! I would not see a lot of hope in any magical system that did not at times leave you at least a little wobbly. And for myself, I find that masks used in magical contexts do bring in opportunities for release, letting out the hidden clown and others and through their use I do learn more about myself than I expect. More than that, however, they will tempt you and tease you, test you, challenge you and inspire you and that is only their beginning.

For when we take up a mask we transform ourselves.

Consider the mask that you are going to work with - one you may be making or one that waits ready-made in your hands - as a skin waiting to fit your face, waiting for your breath to fill it. The skin of an Otherworld, spiritworld, person waiting for your permission to enter into its mask and your body and have a chance to tell its story to the physical world.

Magical masks are just that: magical. A mask that is used or has been used in some ceremonial contexts is not a 50p plastic job from the shop down the road. It might have started like that but with use it will gather its own energy and become a face for a "spirit" to look out at the world from. This is even more true for masks made for a specific purpose rather than bought ones, for the spirit connection comes much earlier. If you are making a mask you may well find that it keeps heading off in its own direction and not the way you expected it to go in at all as the personality that the mask belongs, or will belong, to starts getting excited and adding its own suggestions.

I am using "spirit" here quite loosely. As someone who tends to work with shamanic and transformational masks (see below), my masks are very much the faces of individual characters with whom I share experiences when masked. But with other masks, the "spirit" that empowers it may not be so much an individual as a quality - a "Sun" mask may not offer a direct connection to a solar spirit but may release a whole range of solar qualities in the wearer - or embody a specific sun myth.

This article is not about making masks (1) but is an invitation to readers to think about masks, their use and our relationship with them and offer some starting points for taking hold of mask work. So now, it might be helpful to take a step back and thing about what a mask might be: not its construction, but its purpose.

Narrative Masks: - "have stories or songs associated with them that document historical and personal events." (2). To that definition, we could also insert "mythical" and find masks that may be of a character within the story or that capture a key moment (eg the transformation of seal into woman, or man into raven) or even carry an overview of the whole story. The masks and the story belong together: to put on the mask implies that the story will now be told, these songs sung, the ritual enacted. In magical terms, these are often the masks of established mythic cycles: if you work a calendar of ceremonies marking perhaps Oak King/Holly King relationships, the stories and masks here belong in the "narrative" category. Defying this pattern and picking up a narrative mask and blithely trying to do "something else" with it might have you running full tilt into an angry myth. Respect your sources. (3)

Clan or Crest Masks: - "... are associated with stories that tell how the rights to crests, names, songs and other privileges were obtained. The display of clan and crest masks at ceremonies confirms ownership of them, defines the territory in which the crests are valid and brings the power associated with the crests to life." Masks as statements of identity. Masks based on personal family crests or coats of arms are obvious candidates here, but there may be new masks waiting to be fashioned. Masks that tell the story of your group: family, coven, lodge, grove or whatever, might begin a growth of identity that will persist down the years and set to germinate the seeds of tradition. Perhaps your Deer Lodge is waiting for the Red Deer mask whose arrival marks the beginning of any ceremony. This is not necessarily a leader figure: you may still have your usual High Whatever, but a Clan Mask (4) represents the group itself, not the individual people who are part of it now, but those who are, those who have been and those who may yet be. Over time, it becomes a link between members across time: a voice and body for the group's ancestors. In most cases, these masks will have stories attached to them "Why we are the Deer People", "the story of a white mouse") but their presence need not imply that the story is about to be told, only that the people of that story are present. The Mask's presence connects those-who-know to their own story while leaving outsiders to wonder. Stories may be shared between groups as gifts of trust and mutual support.

Perhaps also into this category may come masks that mark your "directions" or elemental presences in ritual. These may be masks that do not carry a story as such but are still statements of identity. Imagine a ritual where you do not "call the quarters in" but where the putting on of a charged mask heralds their arrival - or where your cry to the western night calls as Mask from the shadows ...

Shaman Masks: - linked with transformation masks (below), a shaman mask embodies the ability to journey to and from the spiritworld through trance. This may, like other "medicine bundles" (5), become a collection of items, each contributing unique aspects to a shaman's power. Using such a mask is a ceremony in itself and could take many forms. More process-based than story-based, the elements of a mask may each trigger different stages in the trance-journey there and back again or work together and simultaneously to release the shaman and guarantee her return. In other traditions, a priestess' oracular journey may be traced by the naming of components of her mask or the experience moderated by ritual release of those mask elements.

Transformatory Masks: express changes, maybe the ability to change shape or identity, or even the changes that a person goes through in a day or lifetime. In its shape-changing aspect this is probably the most familiar mask form for many of us: sliding into dual identity as crow-woman or cat-dancer. Often used for its whirling, ecstatic release, a transformation Mask could also fit into the more formal pattern presided over by a narrative Mask .... In a more intimately personal form, transformation masks may come into their own in rites of passage, as Masks who guide an initiate through his or her own transformation or as the mask that an initiate makes and works with to explore her own transition.

I am always a bit wary of trying to classify things too much, but a breakdown like this can help us think through what we are doing and ask "what is this mask trying to do?" (don't jump to conclusions about everything being transformation - a narrative mask experience is quite different and just as powerful) or "is this a story waiting for a mask?". Of course there are exceptions and masks will overlap between categories and sometimes will seem one thing and something else another. Recognise that masks develop their own identities and these should be respected. Do not treat your masks as so much costume jewellery to be chucked into the cupboard when you cannot be bothered with them. There is always someone looking out through the eyes of a mask. If you don't want it watching, ask it to sleep. Remember it may not want to.

It is interesting to explore which comes first: the story or the mask. "Story", here, could just as easily be "ritual" or "song". See it as the non-physical component of the mask's identity. In some mask traditions, it is the story that moves down the years, or is exchanged between groups, and the new masks are made when needed. The mask may change, falling into a general design category but shaped in response to modern artists working with modern materials. It remains true to the heart of the story but it is the story that is protected and cherished.

"The power of a mask does not like in its beauty but in its name and the history behind it. Artistically, however, the beauty of the carving and the painted design do enhance the power of the mask."(6)

For myself, I find that narrative masks, on the whole, attend their story - an unfolding myth "tells" me that its presentation should be masked. Transformation masks tends to be more personal and immediate with no fixed agenda but with definite personalities.

A further twist in the mask/story relationship comes when a story is due to be told. Recalling that perception of masks as threatening and oppressive, it is interesting that in some situations masks can only become "active" when the humans around them allow them to do so. This is often much more than a passive acquiescence of the "OK, so get on with it" type. At times, a Mask can only tell its story, or dance, or possess its wearer, when a human company "sing the songs that let the masks dance" (7). Among the masked dancers of Malawi's Nyau society in Africa, specific songs and masks go together, with new dancers making their own masks within a set group of songs: monkey songs, motor car songs and ancestor songs, for example, all generate different groups of masks. And for all that Nyau dancers are both frightening, imposing, dramatic and comic by turns, they can only achieve their full impact when the people around them are singing. This effect turns up, almost unexpectedly, in ceremonies here: masked dancers need their drummers and when the drumming that has carried masks along stops, the masks can come wheeling (or crashing) down to earth - and effect to be aware of and mediate. If you are a musician or other non-masked participant in some masked ritual, the Masks depend on you - they are both powerful and vulnerable.

If you want to engage in mask work, an awareness of Mask processes might help. There are lots of ways of making masks, developing drama with masks, planning ceremonies with masks and combining these with some of the ideas above might help shape your mask work. Underlying most Mask events, however, is a pattern of experiences that turn up again and again, suggesting a basic set of stages to be aware of and to work with when you are planning a masked ritual.

I shall express these in dance forms as that is how I usually work: similar stages can be found in more formal ritual settings or story performance.

1.The personal: mask becomes Mask and explores the place it finds itself in

(a)silence: putting on the mask is an occasion in itself. A time of reflection, it should be addressed with care.

(b)body dance: the Mask gets to know the body it is using, a time of stretching, breathing, turning, sounds.

(c)space dance: initial exploration of the space - with free movement this often becomes a seemingly restless roaming around the working space, in formal settings it might become a time of careful observation from a particular position.

2.The communal: Mask reaches out to the community around it (if there is one there: if working alone, this may become the most active phase, supported by two quieter periods).

(a)people dance: discovering musicians or other non-Masks - "active scenery" as it were - they may be touched, sniffed or looked at very carefully (decide beforehand on general responses here from non-Masks: usually keep it low key, like being careful with an unknown dog, or you may end up with everyone swallowed up in one Mask's dream and lose any other main purpose in the event).

(b)interaction dance: with musicians, "people dance" may run into this as the Mask becomes aware of the music that it moves to, any may experiment with this a bit. Where other Masks are present it is often at this stage that they become aware of and start interacting with each other - have relationships been planned? (Narrative Masks and the stories they tell? The unpredictable dynamic of mixed Transformation Masks?)

(c)purpose dance: at last we get around to what this gathering was about. It often takes this long for the Masks to become established here and ready to start dancing up the energy that will empower the purpose of the event: to raise the spell or spin the dancers into ecstasy.

3.A return to the personal: Mask relaxes out of the tension of the communal phase.

(a)winding down: a slow dance, a letting-go dance: releasing energy but not Mask identity yet.

(b)the return: separation of Mask, mask and human: usually a quiet time alone, even within a company: farewells.

(c)silence: even after the mask has been removed, the human may well spend a little while in silence. Separation after a strong Mask is emotional and the dancer's need for reflection and personal recovery should be respected. Don't rush in to offer lots of comfort. Wait and see if they need it.

Depending upon the situation, these stages may run into one another or one may last only a moment or two. If you are planning, do not try to set definite time limits on these and ring a bell when it is time to change. Once a person becomes a Mask, remember that you now need to deal with the Mask's view of what should be happening and precisely structured plans can dissolve in a moment. This is as likely to happen in a formal ceremony as in a more freeform shamanic dance: Masks may well discard carefully composed speeches and patterns of movement in favour of an imposing silence and the power of their presence ... Masks usually know what they need to do and may well know better than us how to do this to achieve their ends.

In encouraging you to develop your own mask work, two final points about patterns need to be made:

1.Somewhere among all those sequences above, there often comes a slump, a moment when the Mask stops, saying to itself "Why am I doing this? I think this is over now?". After many years of work, I still find this moment catching me unawares: it is not about experience or confidence, it is simply a mental pause. It can work as an escape-point and I can take my mask off and walk away here, but usually it serves more as a few moments to catch up with myself. I find that I have stopped and am standing, or sitting, breathing quite quietly, listening to the music outside the stillness inside and then we, mask and myself, set off again, renewed as Mask and the work proceeds more strongly from there. Again, this is something to be aware of - musicians and other non-Masks should watch for the moment and if no "ending signal" is given, keep going.

2.In groups and especially with numbers of new Masks, a "Master of Ceremonies" is a vital role. This person should be an experienced mask-worker, or a trusted group member, who can watch the event, guide musicians, call a halt, and, if need be, gently provide comfort and support at the end. Beforehand, the extent of the MC's authority needs to be established and his right to tell a Mask to stop made clear. If the MC stands apart as Masks are in "space dance" or "people dance", she will usually be encountered and possibly acknowledged by emerging Masks and that authority confirmed.

Oh, mask, Mask, dance and ceremony are powerful occasions and I could ramble on indefinitely about them. So instead, I shall stop here. This article set out to either offer a beginning or a moment of new ideas for you: masks are a challenge and a delight. It is up to you to find a way of bringing them into your work. The may "tempt you and tease you, test you, challenge you and inspire you." They will leave you richer for their presence.


1.As a mercenary old amphibian, I would recommend you to my books Talking to the Earth (1995) and Sacred Animals (1997) which both contain chapters on making and using masks.

2.This classification of masks and accompanying quotes are based on Native American ideas from: Wyatt, Gary: Spirit Faces, Thames & Hudson, 1994, a book to be enthusiastically recommended.

3.You might have a look at an interesting new book by Jones and Clifton: Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance, Llewellyn, 1997.

4.For the sake of promoting confusion, mask = the physical object, while Mask = the composite identity that is composed of mask + wearer + mask-spirit.

5.Try Sacred Animals again.

6.As (2) above.

7.This and and comments on Nyau dancers from personal experience.