Masks are found throughout history the world over. They can have religious or artistic origins, and while their use is not as prevalent in the 21st century, in the past they were commonplace. Likewise, Korean has a rich history of mask use. They were used in funeral services and plays dating back to the prehistoric age. Whether in a museum or in use, Korean masks have a long history.
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Korean masks, called tal or t'al, originated with religious meaning among Koreans. Their predominant use in Korea's early history was at funeral services to help banish evil spirits. They were also used for shamanistic rites and were kept within temples where they were honoured with offerings. By the 12th century, the masks became part of elaborate dances and dramas.
Colour plays an important role in Korean masks. They are painted bright, vibrant colours (black, red and white being the most common) and those colours help to establish the age and race of the figure. In some masks there are even moving parts. Eyes wink or shift, mouths move. To further add to the lifelike features of the masks, black fabric is draped from the top of the mask over the wearer's head to simulate hair.
Prior to the rapid industrialisation of the Korean peninsula, funeral processions were always led by a masked individual. This mask was called the Bangsangssi and had four golden eyes. They served a dual purpose of being used not only in the funeral service itself, but also as a way to banish evil spirits. The person serving as the Bangsangssi in the funeral service would wear a red jacket and black skirt. He would also carry a spear and a shield.
The origin of the characters traditionally found in mask dances are shrouded in mystery. Legend states that a man was told by the gods to create 12 masks. He finished 11, and the one that remained unfinished is still unfinished to this day. Each mask represents a different person found within a village (old woman, drunkard, barmaid, etc.). Local villagers were the first to perform the dances and are likely to be the ones who first created the masks used.
Originally, the mask dramas (or dances) were performed as a way for common villagers to make their opinion on the local nobility known. Masks portraying the local nobility are generally deformed in some way (a harelip is most common). It was a way for the villagers to rebel against the higher classes in a way that would not result in punishment. The plays have many different characters and cover a wide variety of themes much like folk literature.
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