Wooden Masks

Pacific Northwest Ceremonial Masks (http://www.technogypsie.com/science/?p=3807): Pacific Northwest Tribal Art (http://www.technogypsie.com/science/?p=3803)

Wooden Masks
Article and research by Thomas Baurley, Technogypsie Research, August 7, 2017

Throughout history masks have been made for various reasons, and wood was a common medium for making them in. Every culture had examples of them. Masks are atypically worn on the face usually either for ritual, ceremony, magical rites, disguise, performance, theater, entertainment, or protection. They were believed to have first been used for religion and magic. The first written reference of mask comes from the Middle French “masque” meaning “covering to hide or guard the face” in the 1530s. “Masque” was derived from the Latin word “masca” meaning “mask, specter, nightmare”. It could have also originated from the Arabic maskharah مَسْخَرَۃٌ “buffoon”. Masks are also worn for protection during battle as armor, during hunting or sports for protection, and as entertainment / ornamentation during feasts/performances. Some masks are ornamental or religious and not meant to be worn, but as sacred objects or artifacts. Today they are commonly used in psychotherapy and drama therapy.

Anthropological theory suggests the first use by aborigine peoples was to represent some unimpeachable authority of being a supernatural entity like a God/dess or magical spirit / creature. This was also potentially used to promote a certain social role. Earliest found masks date over 9,000 years BP (Before present). Earliest anthropomorphic artwork dates to approximately 30,000-40,000 BP depicting face paint, war paint, leather, vegetative material or wooden masks. Even at the Neanderthal Roche-Cotard site in France there is a likeness of a face over 35,000 BP depicted in cave drawings, but unknown if it was really a mask. Anotolia around 6,000 BCE (Before Common Era) shows a young naked ithyphallic God wearing a horned mask, attributed to the cult of Shiva. The Dionysus cult of Greece also shows mask use allowing participants to participate hidden in debauchery. Iroquois tribes were known to use masks for healing. One of the magical societies were the False Face Society. The Yup’ik were known for their 3 inch finger masks as well as ten-kilo masks hung from the ceilings. Masks were used to create mediators for supernatural forces in the Himalayas. Historic masks were used for disguise, protection, as well as for plastic surgery applications for those suffering mutiliation or birth defects. Masks permitted the imagination to go beyond limitations, from the sacred to the playful, giving imaginative experiences of transformations into other identities. This comes into play with performance and entertainment as well, letting actor/resses to become and manifest into their roles.

In ceremony and ritual the mask allowed transformation, role playing, possession, sacrifice, and presentation of supernatural entities. They also represented a protective role with the mediation of spirits. They can also represent a specific culture’s idea of feminine beauty such as with the Punu of Gabon.


Most, if not all, of the original peopling of Africa involved Masks. In the West, they were utilized in ceremonies set up to communicate with the ancestors and spirits. These wooden masks are carved by special mask makers who were known as “master carvers”, often passed on through heritage and family lineage. There were fang masks used by the ngil to hunt out sorcerers. Most of the African masks involve animals or the representation of them – believing that the tribe can communicate with the animals spirits by wearing them. Today most African masks are made for the tourism industry.


Fascinating masks come out of Australia, including full body covering masks that envelope the body.

North America:

Northeastern tribes like the Iroquis had special wooden “false face” masked used in ceremonies of healing. They were made from living trees, carved in ritual, with a variety of shapes based on function.

Pacific Northwest:

Pacific Coastal original inhabitants were known for their wood craft – many of their masks were prizes of art with moveable jaws, masks within masks, and other moving parts. Some of them were combined with totems, poles, houses, canoes, and shields.

The North American Northwest and Columbia Plateau Tribes have a distinct form of ceremonial and utilitarian masks within their culture and archaeological record. The Artwork of the Native American Pacific Northwest Cultures is phenomenal, embedded with myths, legends, and spirituality that empowers their people. Masks are also utilized as representative totems. Inuit peoples have varying languages and mythology, with masks varying just as much. Many of their masks are made either of driftwood, bones, skins, and feathers. Inuit women use finger masks to tell stories and conduct dances in storytelling.

Transformation is a common purpose for Northwestern use of masks, especially those on the Northwest Coast and area known as Alaska within ritual dances. Many times these are depicted with an outer animal visage hosting moveable parts revealing the inner human face carved in wood. The Northwestern tribes held ceremonies known as potlaches which illustrated the myths in shamanic rituals depicted by the masks. These peoples involved the tribes of Tlingit, Haida, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth and other First Nations. Common depictions such as the Ancestral Sky Spirit of the Thunderbird that when it ruffles its feathers causes thunder, and blinks its eyes for lightning.

Northwestern coast mask art is well known for its use of formlines, ovoids, U and S forms. Pre-European contact, these masks were made out of wood (particularly Western Red Cedar), stone, and copper. After European contact, most of the masks were made with canvas, glass, paper, and precious metals. Most of the masks and art were done with red, white, black, and sometimes yellow. Patterns are notoriously that of ravens, bears, thunderbirds, sisiutls, eagles, orcas, and humans. Many were implemented in totem poles. After European contact and their attack on the cultural ways of the peoples, much of the art and style was lost. Recent years (decades) a revival has been born bringing back these art styles, masks, and the formerly banned potlach ceremony. Masks were known to be passed on from father to son to grandson.

Southeastern United States:

    ” Wooden Masks: The carved and painted masks probably represents animals. The animals represented here includes a wildcat, pelican, and cormorant, which is a type of bird. The masks likely were worn during religious ceremonies. ” ~ Diorama/display in the Florida Museum of Natural History, Tallahassee, Florida. (Photo 091712-037.jpg) Wooden Masks: http://www.technogypsie.com/science/?p=1367 (Expected publication January 2013).

” Wooden Masks: The carved and painted masks probably represents animals. The animals represented here includes a wildcat, pelican, and cormorant, which is a type of bird. The masks likely were worn during religious ceremonies. ” ~ Diorama/display in the Florida Museum of Natural History, Tallahassee, Florida. (Photo 091712-037.jpg) Wooden Masks: http://www.technogypsie.com/science/?p=1367 (Expected publication January 2013). Division of Historical Resources – Florida Museum of History – Where I used to work – September 17, 2012: A Walk Down Memory Lane – revisiting College Town – Tallahassee, Florida. (c) 2012 – photography by Leaf McGowan, Thomas Baurley, Eadaoin Bineid – technogypsie.com. To purchase this photo or to obtain permission to use, go to http://www.technogypsie.com/photography/?tcp_product_category=photo
For more information visit:
Tallahassee: http://www.technogypsie.com/reviews/?p=5093 (Expected publication November 2012)
Florida: http://www.technogypsie.com/reviews/?p=5079 (Expected Publication December 2012)
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Southwestern United States:
Southwestern tribes like the Pueblo, Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni took on the forms of supernatural spirits in very distinctive and elaborate masks utilized in religious ritual as kachina’s or Gods/spirits forms. These were made of wood, decorated with fur, feathers, leather, and/or leaves.

Research is being conducted, please come back for more information and photos.

Pacific Northwest Ceremonial Masks (http://www.technogypsie.com/science/?p=3807): Wooden Masks: (http://www.technogypsie.com/science/?p=13678); Pacific Northwest Tribal Art (http://www.technogypsie.com/science/?p=3803); Pacific Northwest Tribes (http://www.technogypsie.com/science/?p=3467) Exhibit – Denver Museum of Art/ Art Museum (http://www.technogypsie.com/reviews/?p=838). Wandering around Denver, Colorado. New Life in Colorado: Chronicle 26 – Chronicles of Sir Thomas Leaf and Prince Cian. Adventures in Colorado. Photos taken Saturday, August 5, 2017. To read the adventures, visit http://www.technogypsi

e.com/chronicles/?p=21965. To read reviews, visit: www.technogypsie.com/reviews. All photos and articles (c) 2017 Technogypsie.com – by Leaf McGowan and Thomas Baurley. All rights reserved. www.technogypsie.com/photography


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