Masks have always possessed a certain air of mystery that has fascinated people for centuries. Legend tells us that at ancient Greek festivals in honor of Dionysus, the god of theater, actors began wearing very large masks. Because the structures used to present the plays were so colossal, these masks bore exaggerated expressions so the actors could convey to their immense 25,000+ audiences different emotions and reactions. When the Romans conquered Italy, they adopted the Grecian love of theater, and the use of masks in celebrations and plays passed through Europe by way of their massive empire.

However, this is not the first, nor the only place that the integration of masks into a particular culture has taken place. Many nationalities held and some still hold celebrations and ceremonies annually to honor the dead or the natural change of seasons.

Many thousands of years ago, our ancestors were already aware of the power of the mask. In the south of France, in caves used for religious ceremonies, they made paintings of the animals they hunted, amongst which are the first tentative drawings of people. In these drawings the figures are shown wearing animal masks. A hunter, to give himself courage and to get into the spirit of the animal he wished to hunt, would wear the mask of that animal and would enact the scene of the kill he hoped to bring about. This is still done today amongst some hunting tribes of the world as far apart as Africa and Alaska.

In ancient Egypt, animal masks were used to represent the spirits of the dead. In Africa and in the South Pacific islands, masks are still used for this purpose. The people there believe that the spirits of their dead are very important and, through the power of the mask, can be called upon to help in the growing of crops, in the calling up of rain and in protection from enemies and illness.

The ancient Egyptians also made human masks. These were used in tombs to protect the dead from demons in their afterlife. Death masks were used too in the ancient civilisations of China, Mexico and Peru.

In Sri Lanka, masks represent the spirits of sickness. Ritual mask dancing drives out these spirits, so the illness may be cured.

Masks were important in the fertility rites of ancient Europe. These rites were abolished with the coming of Christianity, but fertility masks are still used in inaccessible areas of Europe such as the mountain villages of Switzerland and Austria.

All over the world, in different cultures and at different times the mask has given people the courage to face the known as well as the unknown forces in their lives.

The earliest theatre as we know it began in Greece in the 5th century BC. Before this, ritual dramas were sung and danced by a chorus, with a narrator telling a story based on the legends of the gods.

Eventually a poet by the name of Thesis of Athens wrote a play, giving the storyteller the task of speaking in dialogue. To make it easier for the audience to tell which character was speaking at a particular time, the narrator used different masks to represent the various characters. These plays were performed in natural amphitheatres on the hillside and, to make the narrator?s voice travel over the whole area, the masks were given large funnel-shaped mouths like megaphones. (The Greek word for an actor is ‘hypocrites’. So our word, hypocrite, is derived from the fact that an actor wore a mask and was ‘two-faced’.)

The Romans borrowed the Greeks’ ideas of theatre, including their use of masks. But, as often happens with borrowed things, they lost their vigour. So the Romans added sensational effects, such as wild animals fighting to the death. They even filled the Colosseum, their great amphitheatre in Rome, with water and performed great sea battles there. All this was eventually abandoned with the fall of the Roman Empire.

In Italy, in the 16th century, a new, exciting style of theatre called the Commedia dell’Arte began. The actors were masked, but with half masks so that the audience could see changes in the actors’ expressions. A Commedia dell’Arte play had no written script, only a rough plot. The actors each played a set character whom they studied and believed in so strongly that, when any situation arose, they knew exactly how that character would react.

These characters, known as ‘zanni’, were favourites in Europe for over 200 years and have never really been forgotten: Punch, Harlequin and Pierrot are their direct descendants.

In the East, masks have always had a place of great importance in the theatre while in many western parts of the world masks have simply become a form of disguise - something with which to hide faces and give a touch of excitement to carnivals, masked balls and Hallowe’en. But don’t treat your mask too lightly, for it has had a very powerful past!