History & Meaning of African Masks

The African mask is an ancient form of human art, religious worship and ceremonial costume. Most often made of leather, metal, fabric or types of wood, the mask has cultural and traditional significance within many of the native societies on the African continent. The use of the mask in African culture goes far beyond the era of recorded or even oral history, with records indicating the use of masks in ritual and ceremony before the Paleolithic era.


The mask was worn among African cultures during the celebration of various events, including initiating a child into adulthood, the harvesting of a crop and preparing for or marking the end of war. A dancer wore the mask either as a helmet, a device covering the entire head or as a crest. The mask often represented the spirit of an ancestor during these celebrations, and it was commonly believed that the spirit of the ancestor possessed the dancer wearing the mask.

A common mask in this category is the Punu mask of the Gabon people. The mask represented the spirit of an ancestor and was painted white. The mask was worn during festivals and celebrations. These masks were also sometimes worn to represent the ancestors as part of a masquerade dance.


During ritual ceremonies, the mask generally represents a deity, the spirit of an ancestor, a mythological being or an animal spirit. The dancer wearing the mask often went into a deep trance, during which he would communicate with the ancestors. He brought messages back to the people from the spirits.

A common mask in this category is the Guro mask, made and worn by native people along the Ivory Coast. The mask represented the spirit of Gu, the wife of a supernatural being from the tribe's mythology, and was worn during gatherings, funerals, celebrations and other ceremonies.


Some masks were worn during the mourning and funeral ceremonies following the death of a tribal member. The Bete people had a face mask that was worn during funeral processions and to frighten away sorcerers who might cause harm. These masks had a protruding forehead, large mouth, narrow eyes and horns.

The Yoruba people of Nigeria also had a funeral mask. This mask embodied the spirit of the person who had died and sometimes allowed the wearer to communicate with the deceased.

Secret Societies

Masks often were worn by members of secret societies. Among the Fang people, a tribe found along the Atlantic Coast, members of a male secret society wore the Ngil mask during the initiation of new members. The masks also were worn by members of the secret society when they were punishing sorcerers. These masks were elongated and featured a heart-shaped face with a long nose.


Some masks were made by native societies of Africa to honour a particular king, chief or other authority. The pieces were thought to have great power and were displayed, though rarely worn, during rituals and ceremonies. The masks often included symbols to illustrate the greatness of the people they were created to honour. The masks might be displayed during the planting and harvesting of crops, at the opening of a hunt or before the people went to war. These masks were especially common among the Bamileke tribe of the Western Grassland region of Africa.

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About the Author

Bethney Foster is social justice coordinator for Mercy Junction ministry, where she edits the monthly publication "Holy Heretic." She is also an adoption coordinator with a pet rescue agency. Foster spent nearly two decades as a newspaper reporter/editor. She graduated from Campbellsville University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in English, journalism and political science.