Mercea Eliade records a story from the Kwakiutl Indians of a young man who grew feverish and seemed to die. It was too cold to bury him, so they laid him at the outskirts of their village. Soon they heard the baying of wolves. In the morning they heard the young man singing his sacred song … The man said he had fallen asleep and woke in a council of shamans who initiated him into shamanistic rites. Afterward they put on wolf masks and began to howl, beating time on their sacred drums. The man emerged, sought his home, and woke. He called himself Naualakume, and was a great shaman of wolves, and had within him the transformed shaman who would make him dream “about what I should do when curing really sick ones, as he was giving instructions to me.” (From Primitives to Zen)
Most masks you find now in museums or online galleries, except at Halloween when the human tribe has license to indulge in some of the old pagan fanfare.
In the tale related above by Eliade, wolf-masks are devices of initiation; yet Eliade elsewhere notes that shamanic masks are rare. “The shaman’s costume is itself a mask and may be regarded as derived from a mask originally … Wherever it is used (and outside of the shamanic ideology properly speaking), the mask manifestly announces the incarnation of a mythical personage (ancestor, mythical animal, god). For its part, the costume transubstantiates the shaman, and it transforms him, before all eyes, into a superhuman being.” (Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964), 168-9)
So the mask is a device used to stir up a ritual frenzy but is not an end in itself. This is important, as modern humans place too much faith in literal things.
The mask in primitive use is a veil-parter and invoker. Joeseph Campbell writes,
The mask in a primitive festival is revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mythical being that it represents—even though everyone knows that a man made the mask and that a man is wearing it. The one wearing it, furthermore, is identified with the god during the time of the ritual of which the mask is a part. He does not merely represent the god; he is the god. The literal fact that the apparition is composed of A, a mask, B, its reference to a mythical being, and C, a man, is dismissed from the mind, and the presentation is allowed to work without correction upon the sentiments of both the beholder and the actor. In other words, there has been a shift of view from the logic of the normal sphere, where things are understood to be distinct from one another, to a theatrical or play sphere, where they are accepted for what they are experienced as being and the logic is that of make believe—“as if.” (Primitive Mythology, 21-22)
Karl Kerenyi’s monograph on Dionysos brings the mask into even sharper focus. He notes that wooden masks were used in the Dionysos cult, either worn by dancers or hung on a pole or tree in the center of the rite. The mask said little—it was just another human face—but the voice from behind found a deeper authority, and the eyes staring out became that of a god who was persona but also life-force, what Kerenyi calls zoë:
The zoë that is present in all living creatures became as spiritual reality as man opened himself to it, perceiving in it a kind of second sight. Man did not form a concept or idea of zoë. He experienced its immediate nearness in the animal. To those who did not wear them, the masks communicated a strangely ambivalent experience of zoë as uncannily near and yet at the same time remote. Such was the impression made by the god himself when he was only a face. He appeared to man with human features: more immediate than zoë in all other forms and yet lifeless, as though removed from every living thing. (Dionysos: Archetypal Image or Indestructible Life, Princeton U Press 1996)
Dionsysian ritual survived in Greek drama; the masks of comedy and tragedy—hilaria and trisitia—corresponded to spring and autumn festivals when dramatic competitions would be held. The heightening of emotion—those hilarious, tragic swings—were cathartic for the chorus which stood in for all of us.
Those masks survive to this day in situation comedies and police dramas on TV, the ecstasy and agony of manic depression and the buffoonery and despotic despair of authoritarian regimes like the Trump White House.
The god behind those masks survives, too. Dionysos makes our wounds tolerable because we look upon them through his fictive mask, putting an as-if proscenium between actual and imagined horrors. We can say the unsayable because the words as metaphors can’t really burn us. We can go to Hell and back, like Dante, and get the girl in the end. We can write of the darkest things and go on with our normal, quiet and untroubled lives. Melville wrote to his friend Hawthorne after finishing Moby Dick, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as a lamb. It is not a piece of feminine Spitalfields silk — but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.” The mask of Dionysos allowed Melville that precious little distance between the real and imagined that allowed him, as Gaston Bachelard once put it, “to sing reality.”
Masks are important in our work as poets. Here is Rilke:
… More and more in my life and in my work I am guided by the effort to correct our old repressions, which have removed and gradually estranged us from the mysteries out of whose abundance our lives might become truly infinite. It is true that these mysteries are dreadful, and people have always drawn away from them. But where can we find anything sweet and glorious that would never wear this mask, the mask of the dreadful? Life – and we know nothing else —isn’t life itself dreadful? … Whoever does not, sometime or other, give his full consent, his full joyous consent to the dreadfulness of life, can never take possession of the unutterable abundance and power of our existence; …To show the identity of dreadfulness and bliss, those two faces on the same divine head, indeed this one single face, which just presents itself this way or that, according to our distance from it or state of mind in which we perceive it – : this is the true significance and purpose of the Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. (letter translated and anthologized in Stephen Mitchell’s The Selected Ranier Maria Rilke)
Louise Gluck was just awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—an extremely rare honor for an American poet (T.S. Eliot was the only other one; Bob Dylan was named for the prize but he’s a songwriter, not a poet). I’ve always loved the Rilkean detachment of her voice, oracular and personal at once: To me the very essence of the mask. Here is a poem from her 2014 collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night:
Small light in the sky appearing
two pine boughs, their fine needles
now etched onto the radiant surface
and above this
high, feathery heaven—
Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine,
most intense when the wind blows through it
and the sound it makes equally strange,
like the sound of the wind in a movie—
Shadows moving. The ropes
making the sound they make. What you hear now
will be the sound of the nightingale, Chordata,
the male bird courting the female—
The ropes shift. The hammock
sways in the wind, tied
firmly between two pine trees.
Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine.
It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them
because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?
I have used the screen name of Brendan in my posts of online poetry. The full name of Brendan MacOdrum pays homage to a pair of mythological figures, that of Brendan the Navigator and MacOdrum of Uist, the poet who was said to come from the seal-tribe which I believe is the primal background of St. Oran, my blog’s namesake. The use of a screen name hearkens back to the mask. By speaking through the Brendan mask I can dramatize my dailiness; my history becomes the exempla of mystery; the narrative becomes impersonal the song of humankind. (That is, when I’m not wearing out my readers with bitching and bemoaning.)
Dionysos makes our wounds tolerable because we look upon them through his fictive mask, putting an as-if proscenium between actual and imagined horrors. We can say the unsayable because the words as metaphors can’t really burn us. We can go to Hell and back, like Dante, and get the girl in the end. We can write of the darkest things and go on with our normal, quiet and untroubled lives. Melville wrote to his friend Hawthorne after finishing Moby Dick, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as a lamb. It is not a piece of feminine Spitalfields silk — but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.” The mask of Dionysos allowed Melville that precious little distance between the real and imagined that allowed him, as Gaston Bachelard once put it, “to sing reality.”
We have desperate need now for earth-masks, vehicles of transport from human to nonhuman. Masks can help free us of our literal bondage to an only-human existence in place since late Mesopotamia. Neoliberalism has us so locked into a suburban lifestyle that it seems madness to reject our fossil-fueled comforts; it may take a mask at the window at midnight to break the consumer enchantment in which we are imprisoned.
So, for this week’s earthweal challenge, take up a mask and start singing. Your mask can be tribal or mythic, literary or psychological. Assume the persona of a ghost or ancestor, a sea-beast or an eagle. What does the mask empower you to say and sing? How different is the world when viewed through the mask? Does the mask allow you to enter collective or personal cellars or sidhes or spookhouses it would be devastating to do otherwise? How does your voice change? What happens to language devices like music, metaphor, meaning, rhyme? Does the mask allow a bridge from human to nonhuman earth? Do new imagined futures emerge from its oracles?
You are welcome to use any of the images in this post for your mask, find one of your own or write the verbal semblance of one, which is what you will do regardless.
Let’s summon a wild choir with our MASKS!