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Masks of Ceremony &
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
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 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
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
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
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