Due to COVID, we’ve been directed to wear masks to help stem the spread of the illness. People wear masks, whatever their feelings, and our current medical masks look very much the same. They cover nose and mouth, are generally pleated, and made of some kind of fiber.
People stuck at home have begun to make their own masks, and now masks respond to the feelings of the wearers. They come in a wide variety of materials, colors and print messages. They are cotton, silk, plaid, floral or just full of text.
I personally wear a surgical mask, given to me in a hospital, that is pink on one side, blue on the other. My son, who is a doctor, told me that my mask is 92% effective, but it’s designed to protect the patient, not the surgeon wearing it. Therefore, I am saving the world from myself, but my mask really doesn’t protect me. As a result, I have little feeling for the mask I wear.
While the surgical masks hide the nose and mouth, they don’t hide the eyes. People recognize each other mainly by looking at eyes. Last week a woman wearing a fabric mask covering her nose and mouth stopped me in the grocery store. We immediately started a fairly long friendly conversation, as if we’d known each other a long time. To be honest, I didn’t know who she was, and because her mouth was covered, I had difficulty understanding everything she said. I’m sure it was the same for her.
Although we wore masks, we shared the same feelings We both needed human contact and conversation, and the masks didn’t stop us. We acted like old friends, and I’m sure we both felt better for going to the grocery that day.
Masked Men and Feelings in History
Masks are as old as the human race. Over millennia, they’ve been used as a disguise, for medical protection, for religious rituals, and for theatrical performances. There are many famous masked men, for example, Batman and Zorro. My favorite masked man is the Lone Ranger.
The Lone Ranger was powerful and heroic; his mask gave us feelings of admiration and loyalty. Children dressed up as little Lone Rangers. They wore cowboy hats and black masks and carried shiny pistols.
But the Lone Ranger’s mask would be insufficient against COVID. It covers only the eyes and sits on the nose. A COVID mask covers nose and mouth and blocks breathing from one person to another.
Masks in Ancient Days
Masks can be found wherever people live, on every continent, Anthropologists believe some of the ancient cave dwellings in France show images of people wearing masks. The oldest physical mask, dating probably to 7000 B.C. and found in Israel, is made of stone:
The mask has vacant eyes and a toothy smile. It looks like a ski mask, something that bandits might wear when they stick up banks. These are quite different from the surgical masks most people wear now due to the pandemic. Hockey masks are reminiscent of these ancient masks.
In ancient Egypt, masks covered the faces of the dead and embalmed, in order to prepare them for the afterlife. Similarly, Andean people buried the dead with their faces covered with masks. Masks have been used for religious and ritual purposes for centuries. These masks evidently help to provide feelings of security or solace to worshipers and survivors suffering deep grief.
In the middle ages and early industrial period, people wore masks whenever they walked outside their homes in large cities. Cities were filthy places and pedestrians wore great over-cloaks and face masks to protect themselves from dirt and general pollution. The masks also provided privacy and a feeling of security.
Masks and Feelings in Performance
Unlike the ancient stone mask, ritualistic and theatrical traditions require masks to demonstrate emotional and moral expressions. In the west we are familiar with the sad and happy Greek masks that symbolize tragedy and comedy in drama.
Likewise, the classical Japanese Noh theater, which dates from the 14th century, presents performances that integrate dance, music and drama to relate classical Japanese folk tales. The masks are iconic in Japanese culture and are used to represent ghosts, women, children and the elderly.
Compared to ancient masks, Japanese Noh masks are vibrant and lively. They communicate character and emotion.
Masks for Ritual and Symbolic Purposes
In Africa, many different cultures have used masks to celebrate the interaction of humans with agriculture and the natural world. Numerous masks from various African cultures represent animals and the sprouting of grain.
In Latin America pre-Columbian traditions merged with Christian rituals, and various masquerades emerged. Carnivals and wrestling matches have used elaborate and creative masks from ancient days until today.
Similarly, native American tribes have used masks in various ceremonies and celebrations. Hollywood has portrayed great spectacles of Indian war dances with dancers arrayed in colorful and frightening masks.
Masks in Epidemics
People have long known that disease could be spread by inhaling the breath of the sick. During the Middle Ages with the onset of the bubonic plague, masks were developed that would protect the wearer from any inhalation. These “beak masks” featured a giant nose in the form of a bird’s beak. The wearer would stuff the beak with cotton and aromatic spices to prevent inhaling the “atmosphere.” Thus, the wearer’s feelings for the mask were strong: he felt it protected him from illness and death.
The beak mask became a symbol of the doctor during the days of the plague. With the wide black hat and long black robes, this image of the Venetian doctor became a symbol of death. The mask and costume became a staple of Mardi Gras and other carnival marches depicting All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead.
A Lone Ranger Story
The Lone Ranger and Tonto went camping in the desert. After they got their tent set up, both men fell sound asleep.
Some hours later, Tonto wakes the Lone Ranger and says, “Kemo Sabe. Look towards the sky. What you see?”
The Lone Ranger replies “I see millions of stars.”
“And what does that tell you?” asks Tonto.
The Lone Ranger ponders this for a minute and then says “Astronomically speaking, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically speaking, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Time wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three in the morning. Theologically, the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Why, what does it tell you, Tonto?”
Tonto fixes the Lone Ranger with a steely glare and replies “It tells that you are dumber than buffalo crap. It means that someone’s stolen our tent!”