History of Clay Masks

Written by hazel baker | 13/05/2017
History of Clay Masks
Clay masks have been created and worn by many cultures throughout history. (mask image by Lovrencg from Fotolia.com)

From the death masks of ancient Egypt and other civilisations, to the masks of ancient Greek theatre and beyond, masks have a wide and varied history. While masks have been made out of a variety of materials throughout the centuries, clay masks are thought to be among the first and oldest types.

Clay as a Medium

History of Clay Masks
Clay occurs naturally in many different environments and locations. (clay slope image by Andrey Andreev from Fotolia.com)

Clay is made up of a mixture of different minerals and occurs naturally in the soil in various geographical locations and climates. When clay is combined with water and hardened, it becomes a very durable and useful material for many different applications. Some of the earliest pottery and other artefacts, including masks, dating back to prehistoric times are made of clay.

Earliest Clay Masks

History of Clay Masks
Clay masks were often worn in ancient tribal rituals and religious ceremonies. (Reed Dance in Swaziland - tribal chiefs image by Elzbieta Sekowska from Fotolia.com)

There is evidence that clay masks were used in ancient times in many tribal rituals and celebrations and, in some cases, to scare away enemies. Clay and other materials were used to make death masks, and the majority of American Indian "spirit" or "totem" masks were also made from clay.

The Psychology Of Masks

History of Clay Masks
Masks have often been used to conceal a person's identity, as well as their emotions and feelings. (masque de lion image by Oliv from Fotolia.com)

There are many theories as to why masks were worn and why they are still made and used in different societal applications. According to ScienceJRank.org, from an anthropological perspective, it makes sense that humans, once they established that they were different from the animals and the world around them, searched for ways to establish connections with the natural world.
Many people also wore masks depicting evil spirits in an attempt to make these frightening figures seem less frightening. Throughout history, masks have also served as a way to hide and conceal a person's true emotions and feelings.

Types And Purposes

History of Clay Masks
Masks are a common component of theatre and dance. (mask image by Lovrencg from Fotolia.com)

Early clay masks were often combined with leather, bone and other materials and used ceremonially. American Indians and African peoples created masks depicting various types of animals as well as masks meant to represent the changing of the seasons. In ancient Japanese culture, masks made out of canvas, leather and clay were used in many Buddhist, Shinto and other religious celebrations, as well as in theatre and dance.

Modern Masks

History of Clay Masks
Masks continue to play an important role in modern culture. (fancy dress party time! image by Renata Osinska from Fotolia.com)

Clay masks are still used today in theatre performances and in religious ceremonies all over the world. The practice of wearing masks in general lives on most strongly in the traditions of Halloween, the night when people wear costumes and masks in an attempt to conceal their true identities and emulate other people, animals and evil spirits and to represent ideas and events.

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