Herstory of Masquerades

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By Hella Goode

The function of a mask can seem obvious-to hide. People use them to hide emotions, to hide their acts, or to hide their identity. Throughout human civilizations, from ancient Africa, long ago Mesopotamia, the Maya and other indigenous groups in the Americas, and Asia, people have used masks for religious ceremonies, theatrical performances, and one must assume that when a mask is covered in jade, for displaying social rank. Egyptian royalty would not have been entombed without their ceremonial masks so that they might be recognized in the afterlife.

What is fascinating then, about the development of masks, is that in a masquerade, masks were used to deceive, but also to liberate. Masquerades, or masked balls, became commonplace in the 1100’s in Venice. The act of wearing masks to these events was necessary so that attendees were free to do as they pleased, regardless of social rank and status including dancing with someone otherwise considered “low class” (strangely the mask of alcohol serves the same purpose today), and even to be able to get away with sexual behavior or partners they would never be allowed to have when showing their face. These balls became so popular that eventually the maskmakers in Venice were recognized as a guild in the 1400’s. Of course, there were many who were not happy about these events, but the Masquerade prevailed. Although not entirely the same, Mardi Gras masks, used since the 17th century, also serve the same purpose.

Why are masks so appreciated today when we don’t have to hide our social class? Or need them on our tombs? Well, masks are fun. You can scare, you can make others laugh, or use them to rob a bank (although I do not encourage this). The reasons we use masks may have changed, but as long as masks have purpose, we will wear masks at every opportunity.

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