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Masks of Ceremony & Ritual
By CinnamonMoon

Masks have been used in ceremonies and rituals for religious, healing, and personal spiritual growth throughout history. They can be religious, group, or private in nature. You may be asking: but why adorn oneself with a mask? Culturally speaking, totem animals and their heads (as representations of them) have been honored throughout the centuries. Whether a spiritual leader, ceremonial dancer, or warrior, putting on a mask is considered merging with that essence or "putting on" the power of that animal, deity, or spirit. Totem poles are a form of using masks as the tribal, clan, family, or personal totem represents the respective guardian spirits.

While nature traditions see them as totems, the practice became moderated as it filtered down to society, today we find athletic teams with their "mascots", as well as others, who use emblems and logos to represent much the same thing. Going to any football game you will find costumes worn by the team "mascot" to represent them. According the Sumerians, the words "mascot" and "mask" derive from the word "maskim" or "ancestral ghosts." The French word "masco" means a masked sorceress, and "mascoto" means witchcraft or anyone following the old religion (a paganistic path). In the Scandinavian countries masks were called "helms" and "grims" and these were considered sacred objects that opened doors to other dimensional realms. Legends and myths are filled with tales of these sacred helmets.

The common practice to celebrate socially wearing masks such as those worn at Halloween, have diminished over time to playful actions. Years ago the masks worn to celebrate Halloween were carefully selected for it is a time of year when we call upon our Ancestors as the Veil between the worlds grows thin. It represents the New Year in pagan circles and a time when we call forth that which we wish to experience. We sit in counsel with the Ancestors asking their blessings and shared insights insight. So the mask or costume used would reflect that which you wished to connect to throughout the year.

Today it is a playful image, but if the focus were to shift back to the old teachings people would find that they were calling upon a connection to that specific power or energy. Legends tell of those who don the mask for greed being punished, but those who put it on for good intent find themselves blessed. Think of the folktales and fables where animals talk--the truth behind them is that the animals, when acting as spirit helpers, can and do talk. We can and do communicate with them when our intent and actions are focused on achieving connection through meditation, journey work, and rituals of all kinds. There is truth behind the parables, and in the parable there is a lesson taught. In these cases it's what's experienced in the telling, in the universal archetypes and their natures, but the mask is a way to connect to them. It's certainly not the only way but it is a powerful one.

At this point I'd like to take you into the uses of masks in the following categories: Shapeshifting. Initiation. Ceremony. Healing. Soul-retrieval. Leadership. Totemic aspects of self. Concealment. Construction.

Ritual Uses of Shapeshifting:
Shapeshifting by wearing a mask often brings on that experience; there is a point where, for a
brief period of time, the individual can unite with the essence of the deity, animal, or archetype persona.

The ancient practice of shapeshifting is not always the physical manifestation (though some claim this takes place as well) but a spiritual shapeshifting where one takes on the mental, sensory, and instinctive qualities of the animal. During such times the body reacts and feels as if it is shifting internally. I've experienced my limbs changing form, my facial contours molding themselves, and the essence of the energy force filling my body. It literally feels as if you are changing shape, but it is a change in awareness that you are undergoing consciously. I will not say you cannot physically change form. There are centuries of accounts where this can and does happen. I simply have not witnessed it myself.

It's amazing to shapeshift though; your senses become acute and heighten allowing you to begin to see the world through the eyes of another. The energy shifts around you as well, and you know you have entered another dimension. At such times there are often rituals or methods applied in a ceremonial fashion (a series of steps/stages) employed leading to this successful shifting of awareness.

During these brief periods of transformation lessons are sought through meditative states of trance which have been formed within the union with one's spirit helper. This can also serve to strengthen the bond with the totem animal or spirit you are working with leading to enlightenment and growth.

As the practitioner momentarily adopts the traits of the animal they also adopt the consciousness of it. Thought processes are then awareness of what is happening but also the awareness as the animal perceives. It's a merger. You may hunt prey as the animal hunts to learn it's instinctive stalking practices. You may take down that pray to learn its eating/digestive habits. You may encounter a challenge with another creature of its ilk or one of another species (a predatory or territorial issue) leaning about its fighting skills. You may bask in the sun to see what it ponders, how it stays alert in its environment or any number of other things. You may explore how it uses its strength to survive, defend, procreate, rear the young, train them, and in this experience the knowledge the creature holds. Then when you have that insight you can call on that animal and its energy/power to assist you when you have need of it. It allows you new perspectives and awarenesses and the ability to employ them in your life and service to others with skill and understanding.

During initiations in cultures around the world, the mask is a means of metamorphoses and bringing forth the transformation of a new level of study, awareness, and ability. What was being transformed is hidden beneath the mask of what is to take form. Sometimes these mask are simple blindfolds but they serve to blind the initiate as to what is coming and allow the individual to fully experience the process through sensory input and confronting their own fears of the unknown. The purpose then is to fashion mindsets or shatter illusions. While blindfolded the initiate is led through a series of carefully constructed events that bring about this transformation and change them forever. Masks are used as well, and often portray those fears that leap out at the individual at unexpected times (of course this would be a mask worn by one
in the role of the initiator, often several individuals unite in the ritual unfolding process).

Ceremonial rites:
Ceremonial leaders such as shamans, healers, priests and priestesses have used mask to invoke the powers of the animal or deity the mask imitates. In this way the individual can become possessed by the spirit represented in a positive manner. Ceremonial leaders often utilize masks to shapeshift or invoke higher powers and merge with them as the physical representative.

Dancers wear masks to honor the animal or deity in performances where they take on the persona and actions through their ritualized movements. Shamanic practitioners use masks as a means of attunement and a tool to shapeshift and become the creature they are focused on. Ritualistic usages of masks may be utilized to enact the ancient myths and stories that form a cohesion for a society or culture through undertaking sacred plays during such times as that culture deems appropriate to honor their teachings.

In this light they are a form of worship, honoring with praise as well as the desire to be in union with higher forces and call upon them for help. But to dance with these things in mind or wear a mask in ritual use is a tool to bring on states of trance and heightened awareness of that creature. Masked, the practitioner can call upon the knowledge that brings forth as well as the physical senses and spiritual characteristics. It is often seen in ceremony where the individual who enters such a state of trance becomes empowered and capable of performing feats that they would otherwise not be able to accomplish. They are in that sense wielding that particular Medicine and directing its energy to serve a need.

Governing leaders, such as kings and rulers of different cultures, have throughout history worn masks in ceremony to represent their transition into their station, or call upon the totemic animals that were the guardians of the culture or throne. For instance, a king with the Bear standard in heraldry might wear the pelt of a bear or a bear head when going to war and often a necklace with claws or teeth as well. In the use of these items, the essence of the beast is called upon to strengthen, sustain, and conquer.

There are many reasons a societal leader would utilize that ability, putting to use the right to do so by his or her very rank. Because those who follow that leadership recognize the power behind the costume and masks, they are inspired and willing to follow their leader, they know what it means when put to use, and in this way they become an empowered force--often wearing a mask or skin of their own. The Berserkers did this with their fur pelts and headgear as it made them ferocious fighters. Costumes and masks carry the same significance in this light as both serve to summon the essence of the creature depicted by those items.

Healers have long used the mask as a means to summon the healing wisdom of their spirit helpers. This practice also serves in helping the practitioners to summon shards of the patient's spirit in practices of soul-retrieval. They are also used at times for transitions into death. In the case of soul-retrieval the practitioner knows that when a patient shifts animal teachers (often
unaware of that transition) an illness can occur (especially if the individual is losing focus on their spiritual path). The spirit that has backed away brings an essence of "loss" to the individual, something is "missing" which can lead to a state of depression or melancholy. Then the new animal helper must get the individual's attention and it does this by speaking through the body. The Healer knows these things, and this is part of the process of examination.

While wearing a Healing Mask and calling upon the practitioner's own spirit helper for this purpose, a process of elimination is explored on spiritual levels that let the Healer determine the proper course of action. Through the spirit helper (initiated with the wearing of the mask) the Healer is able to open to the patient's energies and scan them. Often an animal mask will appear over the face of the patient in spirit form, or in other words, a totemic spirit will reveal itself allowing the Healer to recognize a change that needs to be addressed and the assimilation of those energies that the patient is experiencing to be dealt with.

On other occasions the patient's spirit helpers may come forward and assist, along with the Healer's spirit helpers that are called upon. In a unified manner the examination and prognosis bring forth successful treatment. The Healer often wears a mask of their spirit helper that is chief among many others that individual works with when it comes to healing practices merging and shapeshifting with that essence to accomplish their work.

Aspects of Self:
Masks, like personas and facial expressions, are frequently used to convey the images we wish others to see. In light of the use of a mask we often present ourselves differently for the sake of others...parents, bosses, employees, friends, siblings, children, and strangers alike. The difficulty arises in the use here only as these different aspects of self-become conflicting issues. Sometimes we don our masks to change our image when we have grown dissatisfied with ourselves. Children love to wear masks and play pretend, adults use their facial expressions for this same reason.

A shamanic practitioner is going to often *see* a totemic image (or several of them) around or overshadowing the face of an individual as their spirit helpers reveal themselves. This same practitioner applies their skills to see beyond the physical dimension into others. In this way the practitioner knows various aspects of the individual and can help them to discover those aspects or utilize the information to help the individual see them in some other way if they are not open to seeking shamanic understanding. In that case, the shaman/ess is going to "read" the patient or individual seeking their help to learn the truth behind the request.

We as individuals can do this too and standard methods of *seeing* are employed through meditation and guided visualization. Another is through working with mirror introspection (see the article in the Library under that title for more information). In mirror introspection and through a simple exercise/ritual, you can visually see your own totems coming forward by summoning them and inviting them to show themselves. When they appear you will need to embrace that they are real spirits, entities that are working to guide and help you to grow. The form of appearance is as a mask or superimposed image over your reflection. You will literally witness your reflection changing form, shapeshifting, and know for yourself that you have undergone a spiritual experience transforming your reality.

Study the natures of these spirit helpers, and expand your horizons of understanding. See the similarities that are aspects of yourself reflected in the teachings they offer. Then seek them out and begin working with them, they have much more to teach you and they understand your needs so those teachings are quite personalized. You may find a mask (purchased or crafted by yourself) of those animals proves to be a valuable tool.

Masks allow us to conceal our real identity, character, or intentions...or set aside the self and assume the form of another. Some people feel that not knowing who or what is behind a mask is deceptive, and that it connotes a deceitful desire. This brings in a negative connotation to the usage and creates fears of the unknown. Some feel it is a means of disguising the truth and find it to be a tool of intimidation of seeking privacy, ambiguity, or secrecy as they wonder what's being hidden and who it's being hidden from.

Facial expressions are often used to mask a situation or the feelings of the individual, so to see an adorned mask tends to bring this to light from those with skeptical natures with even more dramatic effects. There are some who will see it as a form of hypocrisy and that it is a means of hiding the truth. For these reasons, masks cause many to react with caution and even fear. Perhaps you wonder yourself as to what a mask used in ceremonial fashion or pathwork would do to you if you were to wear it, the unknown factor that causes hesitation, fear, and eventually repulsion if you look at them from a negative perspective. I can only advise you to see them from a positive perspective, for the tools that they are, and the benefits they bring.

Masks come in many forms: wood, clay, natural mutable materials that can be given form serve well and have done so throughout the centuries. Feathers, beads, paper Mache, nuts, berries, leaves, sticks and twigs, fabrics, jewels, and precious metals, the list goes on and on. Colors are important and emphasize or denote certain characteristics as well as invoking the energy of those colors.

Highly symbolic, masks combine with the facial forms and adornments to them to soothe, intimidate, or lend humor as well as terror to those who are exposed to them. Such reactions as I've just noted are naturally dependent on the purpose and intent of the person wearing them, as well as the perspective of the observer.

Masks are often an intrigal part of ceremonial costumes and you will find, in Native American practices as well as other cultures, these tend to be frequent representations of animal forms. Included in those forms and a very common form are birds. Often the Eagle, Hawk, or other bird of prey will represent spiritual aspects of the ceremony in which they are used: I.E.: Eagle Dancers.

Full costumes tap the power and the magnificence of these creatures and the archetypal forces they represent. The symbolic mask is a form of transformation just placing it on one's head. It then becomes a part of the role that is being undertaken and creates a shift of perspective instantly. This is taken deeper through the intent of the individual and dancing, chanting, drumming, or some form of aid to focus on that intent is then brought into play to act as a beacon and help maintain the objective.

As the actions take place a state of trance is achieved. Since most of this work requires us to use the higher mind, the element of Air is dominant. Birds are creatures of the Air, but they also have the ability to land and be creatures of the Earth as well. In this light, they are excellent emissaries of both realms and can enhance our enlightenment, allow us to fly higher for the bigger picture and bring it back to "land" so we can ground and utilize that information. Bird masks often dominate in ceremonial and ritual use.

I want to discuss the use of a bird mask as an example for this reason as it is a very good place to start for beginners and it does not require that you develop a full costume to accompany it (though high ceremonies will present dancers in full regalia).

The shamanic practitioners of Siberia are known for their bird costumes, and many shamanic Pathworkers of various cultures will use a staff with a bird's head carved on top, or a skull, and a mask of plumage adorning it to create a tool that will aid them in shamanic flight.

As a prayer stick these staffs are powerful tools to assist one with the travel of their own spirit into other dimensions. The feathers used must be gathered from that specific bird, and crafted into the object or mask that becomes the tool. In construction it is common to stay with natural products rather than man-made synthetics. Glues are those formed from processing the hooves of animals or their hides, tethering things to a staff with rawhide is also used. The object in construction is affixing them in ways that will not involve nails and staples such as beading them into the item. I'm going to be doing a separate article on feathers themselves shortly so please watch for that as I will not be going into them beyond this.

If you are interested in crafting a mask for yourself, I suggest that you research Native American costume making as a source of some amazing work and "how to" steps.

Libraries are on this row
INDEX Page 1
(Divination & Dreams, Guides & Spirit Helpers)
INDEX Page 2
INDEX Page 3
(Main Section, Medicine Wheel, Native Languages & Nations, Symbology)
INDEX Page 4
(Myth & Lore)
INDEX Page 5
(Sacred Feminine & Masculine, Stones & Minerals)
INDEX Page 6
(Spiritual Development)
INDEX Page 7
(Totem Animals)
INDEX Page 8
(Tools & Crafts. Copyrights)

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