Masks are a simple yet surprisingly effective way of separating a human from other humans. Probably originating in prehistory, when people dressed to mimic the prey animals they hunted in order to think like them and increase the success rate of the hunt. Masks then passed on to shamen who aided both the hunt and the wider community, thus moving onto metaphysical matters. Thereafter masks were associated with alien species and consciousness differing from the everyday.
From religious rituals, drama developed and, at first, took masks with them. Greek theatre is the example that most people are familiar with these days. As drama dispensed with masks as physical artefacts, they were replaced by makeup. Masks lived on in social encounters such as masked balls and the Venice Biennale. For many years, apart from the odd dance, masks had dropped from general usage, most notably in the West, until the dramatic appearance of COVID-19. The resulting furore in some quarters pointed up the emotional capital society views on concealing one’s face.
Nigel Pennick is a marine biologist with a prodigious output of titles related to folklore, locus genii and urban public transport as well as many scientific papers. He was a scientist for the first fifteen years of employment, leaving to concentrate on his writing and illustration. Lecturing all over Europe and the USA, he went on to found the Institute of Geomantic Research and later The Library of the European Tradition. He has exhibited in the UK and the USA and organised conferences in the UK.
This book starts off with how masks, in esoteric terms, “work”. From there it moves onto death masks and other sacred representations of faces. The concept of masks is expanded to cover disguises and, on some occasions, impersonation and camouflage. Chapter headings include Gods, Images, and Ostenta; Eldritch Beings: The Dark World of the Indeterminate; The Powers of Animal Skins; Straw Bears, Straw Men, and Jack O’Lent; Dragonry; Carnival Characters; Mumming and Mummers’ Plays; Crime, Rebellion and Ritual Disguise, and Pantomime and Futurism. There is also a glossary, a substantial bibliography and an index.
Pennick extracts a surprising amount of material about masks, although he has to extend the idea of being masked to include definitions that may not be initially associated with the concept of masks and masking, which are more usually associated with purely facial disguise. However, there is a large quantity of information, ranging from the primitive and spiritual to the activities of puppets, performers, armed activists and intrusions into the era of modern art. Whilst it is not within the spiritual world, it may have been instructive to have visited the emotions generated when our whole planet had to revisit the mask and the seriousness of its widespread adoption.
This is a fascinating read from someone with decades of experience of both the spiritual world and writing. It is approachable in the sense of not using jargon, it flows from one subject to the other easily and can be enjoyed by those fresh to folklore as well as more knowledgeable folklore students.
- Trevor Pyne