Masks in Ritual Work

I’ve had a few people ask me specifically about this topic as of late, so for the curious, here you go–a late Solstice present!

Some of you dear readers are already acquainted with the purpose of ritual garments and the like. For those who are not, the short version is that rituals are special occasions. It can be powerful to have a set of clothing that is reserved solely for spiritual practices. Just putting them on signals to your subconscious mind that it’s time to do special things you don’t normally get to. To an extent, it appeals to that part of us that likes to play dress-up with costumes and fancy clothes and the like–it touches on Homo ludens, the part of us that learns and develops through play. (Of course, as grownups we often feel we have to come up with some “serious” reason to dress up in funny clothes any time besides Halloween–though there are those of us who will come up with any reason to don a costume of some sort, hence steampunks and cosplayers and SCAdians and…)

At any rate, most religious traditions have some form of ritual garments that are worn by the officiant(s), and sometimes for the laypeople as well. Even churches are full of congregants in their Sunday best. These clothes and other wearables are also often a form of identifying people of a similar tradition–if you see someone with a kippah you can pretty well bet they’re Jewish, while someone wearing a cross is likely to be Christian of some denomination or another. In paganism, there’s no single set of garb that will denote “that person is pagan!”, though flowing robes, historical clothing, and a variety of symbolic jewelry (far from limited to the pentacle) will be in abundance at many pagan events. (There will also be a cranky minority grumbling about how we all need to dress like normal civilized people, not Harry Potter or our long-lost Viking ancestors.)

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2012.

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2012.

Masks are a particularly specialized form of ritual wear. We most commonly focus on a person’s face when identifying them and communicating with them. (I’ve yet to meet someone who could tell who was approaching by carefully examining their elbows.) A mask covers up the face, and thereby the person’s identity. A person putting on a mask also temporarily puts on a different persona. Even someone trying on a rubber werewolf mask will briefly “get into it” by making claws out of their fingers and going “RAWR!”

We like to imitate other people and other beings. It’s a skill that we’ve evolved over millions of years as social beings. We like things we can relate to; it’s safer than being different. So we developed the tendency to imitate others in our social group (whether that’s goths or Young Republicans). And, by extension, we enjoy imitating other animals. Our ancestors may have done so in part to teach the young how to recognize threatening behavior on the part of other species, but these days we mainly do it–you guessed it–to play.

The masks help with that. Most of us could imitate a Tyrannosaurus Rex without any costumery–just stomp around with your arms pulled up close to your chest and roar! But put a T-Rex mask on, and you may very well find yourself hamming it up in order to make yourself even more convincing as a giant scaly lizard with big, sharp teeth and teeny arms.

We can channel that into ritual purposes as well. Instead of just pretending to be an eagle flying in the sky, flapping our arms while running around an open field for the fun of it, we can instead use that imitation to draw on the energy that is Eagle. By creating a mask that looks like an eagle, we get into that aquiline mindset even more deeply. The same goes for wearing masks for other totems, for deities, for spirits, and so forth. The mask allows us to set aside our own identity temporarily, and take on another.

Some people even feel this invites the spiritual being itself into us, through the process of evocation. In this way, the mask is a channel for that being to enter into the ritualist. When the mask is removed, the connection is severed. That’s part of why the process of removing the mask and other costumery should be done with as much care as the preparation of putting it on.

The construction of the mask adds another layer to consider. Using natural materials such as paper, grasses and other malleable plant material, wood, leather, fur, and other such things can help a person connect to the type of being that provided said materials. For example, when I wear a wolf mask, I am connecting to both the totemic, archetypal Wolf, and the spirit of the wolf who once wore the skin (which, incidentally, is one of the main reasons I work with these sacred remains and skin spirits in my art and spirituality).

The process by which the mask is made also contributes to its purpose. A mask may be mass-manufactured and still be effective, but a handmade mask may be created with the specific intent of embodying a particular being or spirit. When I make wolf masks, for example, I am intentionally working in the energy of both the wolf spirit and Wolf the totem. Creating masks and other ritual wear may be a ceremony in and of itself, depending on the artist, and some work only within a strict spiritual setting.

If you have a mask you would like to work with, here’s one possible way to connect with it:

–First, find a safe space where you won’t be disturbed for at least an hour, and preferably where you can move around unencumbered. Turn off phones and other distractions, and prepare the space for ritual however you see fit.

–Sit with the mask in your lap. Look at it, touch it, and otherwise examine it. What impressions do you get? How does it “feel” to you? What emotions does it evoke in you? Do you get the sense that it has a spirit or personality, or is it connected to some being already in existence such as a deity or totem? If it’s from natural materials, do you get a sense of the living beings they came from?

–If you feel comfortable, put the mask on. Don’t get up yet; just sit and wear the mask. How do you feel now? Do you feel your sense of self shifting at all? Do you feel closer to the mask and the energies it embodies?

Silver fox mask by Lupa, 2012

Silver fox mask by Lupa, 2012

–Again, if you feel comfortable, get up and move around a bit. Don’t rush it; if you don’t feel like dancing, walking is perfectly acceptable. See how that changes your perception of yourself and the mask. Do you still feel that you’re yourself? Do you feel different? How does it feel to wear the mask?

–Spend as much time wearing the mask as you like. If you feel scared or otherwise uncomfortable, sit back down and carefully take it off, then set it on the ground in front of you. Once you have taken the mask off for any reason, spend a few minutes grounding, without physical contact with it; breathe deeply and slowly, and come back to yourself. (If you feel really disconnected from yourself, recite your name, address, and phone number over and over again.) Reflect on your experiences with the mask, and write them down or otherwise record them if you wish.

This is just an introductory exercise. If you feel comfortable continuing to work with the mask, feel free to try it again, and perhaps elaborate on it. You can even create rituals specifically for the mask; for example, you can do a ritual to celebrate the spirit, totem, or deity it’s connected to, or incorporate it into Sabbats and other seasonal celebrations as appropriate. (If you choose to do so in a group setting, check in with the other group members first, and especially the ritual coordinator(s).)

On the other hand, if the mask makes you uncomfortable, spend some time trying to figure out why. Is there something about the physical mask you dislike? Or did the energy just feel too intense? Was it weird shifting out of your “normal” mindset? Give yourself a couple of days to sit with these feelings and examine them. One bad experience doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to get rid of the mask. If you like, try just sitting with it again, and perhaps striking up a conversation. Often the beings who scare us have valuable lessons through that fear, and many times aren’t as threatening as we first felt.

I do recommend sticking to one mask per ritual. It can be exceptionally difficult to shift mindsets mid-stream, as it were. One exception would be a deliberate transformation ritual, for example a rite of passage in which you start off wearing a mask that represents your old self, and then change to one that represents your new self.

Finally, what to do with masks that just don’t fit you in some capacity? I am a firm believer in “waste not, want not”. You can give the mask away to someone for whom it’s better suited. Or if you want to dispel the energy it carries, do a purification ritual to cleanse it; you may even wish to disassemble it and find new uses for the materials. You may also just wish to let it sit on a shelf a while, and perhaps later on you’ll feel better about it.

This, of course, is just the beginning! There are some good resources out there on further mask work; one of my favorite texts is Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance, which came out a few years ago but still possesses a wealth of information, ideas, and rituals. And, as always, I’m happy to field questions as well!

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