Masks - Tools of Witchcraft

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Tools of Witchcraft

Masks serve so many spiritual and magical functions that a thousand pages could easily be devoted to them alone. The invention of the mask is so primordial as to be unknown and unknowable. How old are masks? Masks are as old as art, religion, spirituality, and magic. They appear all over Earth and are common, in one form or another, to virtually every human culture.

Image A cave painting in Lascaux in southwest France (dated to c.17000—12000 BCE) depicts a birdheaded man, generally assumed to be a shaman wearing a bird mask. He is depicted near a birdcrowned staff, similar to modern African magical and spiritual staffs

Image The oldest known surviving mask is estimated to be about ten thousand years old. It depicts Coyote and was found in what is now Mexico. (See ANIMALS: Coyotes)

Masks are crafted from and embellished with wood, metal, fabric, leather, hemp, clay, quartz and other crystals, feathers, seashells, papier mâché, stone, beads, and animal hair and horns.

Masks are shamanic tools; they are portals to other realms and existences; they enable spiritual possession. Putting on the mask enables a person to enter the realm of the sacred, to become another person or another being.

They are ceremonial objects. Some masks are believed to possess or radiate their own personal power as, for instance, Balinese barong masks. Masks are power items. They are the receptacle of divine force or the manifestation of normally invisible divine forces. For centuries, masks were the most precious, valuable possessions of many spiritual traditions around the globe.

Masks are created for countless purposes:

Image Masks are used in religious ceremonies

Image They serve as talismanic shields; some are believed to deflect malevolent spirits

Image Masks have served as votive offerings

Image Masks were used to cover faces of the dead; death masks cast from corpses but preserved by the living may have served as oracles or in necromantic rituals

Image Masks are components of various magic spells, especially those for healing

Masks are also used for protection and privacy. During the witch-hunt era, many witches wore full- or half-masks when attending gatherings or dances in order to maintain anonymity and prevent identification. Many wealthy nobles allegedly wore masks while attending witches’ balls, whether as participants or observers (it was the medieval equivalent of slumming) to protect their privacy and prevent blackmail. The concept of the masked ball is believed rooted in witches’ balls.

Image Horned shamanic masks continued to exist in Europe until the twentieth century when most finally ended up as children’s toys (see HORNED ONE: Krampus).

Image The Schemenlaufen Festival is Austria’s most famous masked festival. “Witch masks” are worn. In medieval times, masked figures chased malevolent spirits away to ensure a good harvest. The festival is still held every three years in the town of Imst.

Image Ancient pre-Christian Central and South American masks are now worn during Christian festivals; many of these festivals, however, are rooted in indigenous traditions. Sixteenth-century Spanish priests disapproved of masks representing ancestors and spirits. Horns were added to the masks, which were then renamed “devils.”

Image In Russia, masks were traditionally associated with Pagan ritual, especially with mid-winter festivities. Tsar Ivan the Terrible was accused of dancing in masks as an example of his alleged sorcery.

Image The Hekataion is a carved wooden image of Hecate. The earliest may have been a pole or post hung with masks, perhaps facing in three directions, placed where three roads met.

Image In Italy and Sparta, masks were associated with Artemis. Clay masks discovered in the Temple of Artemis Orthia in Sparta, dating from the seventh and early sixth centuries BCE, were made in imitation of wooden masks used in rituals and performances dedicated to Artemis

The most famous modern Western masks are those associated with Halloween costumes and with Carnival/Mardi Gras traditions. Both derive from ancient shamanism. Halloween masks are now largely mass-produced. Fine Carnival masks are still handcrafted from beads, sequins, and (especially) feathers.