History & Use of Ancient Masks

Written by john yargo
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History & Use of Ancient Masks
These masks would be found at a celebration of Carnivale. (Masks image by Alexis Rose from Fotolia.com)

Ancient masks were used in a range of activities from civic rituals to religious services to theatrical performances. Many of these uses are still common in practice today, with masks used in centuries-old traditions like Carnivale and contemporary theatrical productions like John Wright's "Trestle Theater."

Ritual Masks

The use of masks during rituals varies widely throughout different cultures. African cultures, such as the Yoruba, Ebo, and Igbo civilisations, considered the masks and the craftsmen who designed them to have spiritual and religious authority. In China, the Shigong mask was used in rituals in celebrations of the gods.

Theatrical Masks

In ancient Greece and Rome, actors wore highly stylised masks during performances. This was the case before and during the Golden Age of Greek Drama, between the Persian War of 480BC and the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404BC. Some of these masks were even outfitted with brass megaphones. Because ancient Greek theatrical productions used a few actors in many roles, the masks helped distinguish different characters in a play. Other ancient examples of dramatic uses of masks can be found in Nuo drama in China.

Death Masks

Alternately known as "life masks," death masks are prepared soon after a celebrated person's death, usually by moulding metal or plaster around the person's face. The most famous example is Mycenae Gold Death Mask, found by the 19th century archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who probably mistakenly identified it as the "Mask of Agamemnon." That mask is made of gold, is 12 inches long, and was found in a burial shaft in Mycenae. It is currently in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The practice of crafting death masks was common until the late 19th century, with a model of Abraham Lincoln a notable example.


A variation on the death mask, the "imagines" was a Roman funerary object for individuals who held public office. After the person's death, these wax masks were also worn by hired actors during funeral processions. The actors, wearing the imagines, would perform stylised accounts of the person's life as part of the parade. These masks would later be used by the person's ancestors during public festivities to celebrate the ancestor's lineage.

Battle Masks

Protective masks were also common in ancient cultures. During gladiatorial matches in ancient Rome, human fighters wore characteristic and stylised masks, which also protected the wearer from facial injuries. Those masks could be seen as a forebear to sports masks such as those worn frequently today by wrestlers. Samurai culture, which also made use of stylised, protective masks, in Japan persisted until the 19th century.

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