The Ritual Mask—A Project

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Awhile back, I wrote about the ritual technique of adopting the “mask” of a Quality, attribute, natural phenomenon or even god/dess for purposes of embodying that personality in a ritual. I called the technique the “God mask”.

While this technique can be used without an actual physical mask, it’s far more effective using one. And this means that among our ritual tools, it’s a good idea to have one or more masks that we can use in our work.

As it happens, I own quite a few masks. I have a small collection of Sub-Saharan African artworks, among them some masks, and I have a few others as well, from places like New Guinea and Indonesia. However, I do not use these in ritual; their meanings are culturally specific and I feel it would be unethical and appropriating to “hijack” these cultures’ symbols and ritual tools for use in my own Atheopagan rituals.

Masks have been used for ritual purposes for thousands of years. The oldest known mask is made of stone and was found in Asia Minor; it is 9,000 years old. Far older depictions of what appear to be men wearing masks are found in Paleolithic cave paintings dating 30-40,000 BP.

Wikipedia:  “In the cult of Shiva, found in Anatolia from circa 6,000 BCE, the young, naked ithyphallic god appears in a horned mask. In the Greek bacchanalia and the Dionysus cult, which involved the use of masks, the ordinary controls on behaviour were temporarily suspended, and people cavorted in merry revelry outside their ordinary rank or status. René Guénon claims that in the Roman saturnalia festivals, the ordinary roles were often inverted. Sometimes a slave or a criminal was temporarily granted the insignia and status of royalty, only to be killed after the festival ended. The Carnival of Venice, in which all are equal behind their masks, dates back to 1268 CE. The use of carnivalesque masks in the Jewish Purim festivities probably originated in the late 15th century, although some Jewish authors claim it has always been part of Judaic tradition.”

Ritual masks, therefore, are a time-honored and powerful tradition. Lets’ make one!

I recommend that you make your mask in ritual space. Center yourself, light candles, burn incense and do whatever else you need to do to achieve the shift into Ritual State. A ritual mask is a work of intentionality, and everything about how it is created and handled from its very inception should be done mindfully and with respect for its power and purpose.

There are a couple of directions you can go with developing mask tools for ritual. One is to create a single mask that is your tool for all rituals; in that case, you will want the design not to be too specifically themed on any one particular Quality or personality. Alternatively, you can create multiple masks for different Qualities and select from them when planning a ritual which requires “wearing a Mask” of a particular character.

There are advantages to each approach. In the former case, the ritual mask becomes a tool you will come to associate with accumulated years of ritual observances—an association that will steadily increase the sense of power and gravitas felt when putting it on. In the latter, specialized masks can be developed which communicate the characteristics you embody when wearing them, allowing more “targeted focus” on those particular Qualities represented by a particular mask.

In any event, whether you stop with just one or develop a collection, it all starts with the first. So let’s get started.

Spend some time thinking about your design. Think about what your ritual and observational life feels like, and the emotional tone you want to communicate with the mask. Do sketches and search online to look at the wide range of masks that are out there: Carnivale masks, indigenous masks, etc. Remember: this is a powerful ritual tool, and you want it to provoke a feeling of fascination and riveted attention when your fellow celebrants see you wearing it.

I prefer to use a half-mask that leaves the lower part of the face exposed. This maintains a “humanity” about the mask that is otherwise lost if the entire face is covered, requiring fellow celebrants to relate to a stiff and unmoving “face” (usually with a muffled voice, too). While there are some times when an alien, inhuman face may be the most effective for use in a given ritual, I find that in most cases the half-mask feels more appropriate and enables me to project the personality of the “mask” I am wearing/carrying more effectively. Another, quite dramatic option is to shape the mask in a “Phantom of the Opera” style, leaving nearly half of the face exposed.

Now, for a base armature, you can start with a commercial papier-mache mask like this one. But I think it’s better to model the base mask to your own face so it is really, really personal. Here are some instructions for how to do that: it’s easy. You can add papier-mache extensions (claws, tentacles, the Sun’s rays, etc.) to fit your design.

I do like to add one additional step beyond those listed there: I glue a layer of muslin cut to the shape of the mask on the inside, to protect the papier-mache from being softened by sweat and my face from getting dusty white when I wear the mask. Another alternative is to coat the back of the mask with clear lacquer. Be sure it has completely dried before putting the mask on, as fumes can burn the eyes.

Now comes the fun part: to decorate it.

Start with a base coat of paint to establish the overall color. Then you can add painted designs, sequins, beads, feathers, buttons, bones, shells or any other decorative items using a hot glue gun. Colored fabric glue can be used to established raised lines or beads. Coat with clear lacquer when finished, to protect your design.

When your mask is ready, consecrate it with a ritual intended to give it ritual power. You may want to keep it on your Focus, pass it through incense smoke or sprinkle it with moonwater, invoke Qualities you hope to embody with the mask, or otherwise perform ritual actions that reinforce to your subconscious mind the importance and specialness of the mask. Remember that you, too, are to be “fooled” by the mask: it is essential that you are able to suspend disbelief and “be” what the mask represents in order for others also to see you this way.

Keep your ritual mask on your Focus or somewhere else where it will be respected, such as hung on the wall in a special place in your home. Always remember: this is/will be The Face of the Ineffable for your fellow ritual celebrants. It should always be treated with reverence—doing so will increase its effectiveness in facilitating ritual transformation both for you and for fellow celebrants.

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