Masks are among the most interesting objects from the ancient world. Their use spans across civilisations, cultures, and ages. Though the usage—and ritual implications—of masks varies enormously between cultures, it is possible to divide these practices into two macro-groups related to general functions: changing the appearance of the face (and thus the identity of the wearer) or preserving such appearance for posterity.


Stunning examples of the first group are the were-jaguar masks made of jade which are among the most stunning artefacts surviving from the Olmec Civilisation. Though very little is known of the magical and religious world of the Olmecs, the were-jaguar masks probably reflect (or are connected to) the Olmec belief that, in the distant past, a union between a woman and a jaguar had produced an earlier race of were-jaguars of which the Olmecs believed to be the descendants. Often associated with the ruling power of the king, the jaguar was the most sacred beast in the animal pantheon. The veneration of this beast permeates the art of the Olmec. Thus, wearing a mask with were-jaguar features most probably allowed priests, shamans, or leaders to reconnect to a mythical past, sublimating their human identity into the mighty power of the worshipped jaguar.



A very interesting example of the second group (masks preserving the appearance of the face, and thus the identity of the wearer) are the Egyptian funerary masks. Though many of us are familiar with famous artefacts such as the funerary mask of Tutankhamen, the importance of masks depicting the features of the deceased in the Egyptian religion is not widely known. Ancient Egyptians believed that it was extremely important to preserve the body of a dead person because the soul must have a place where to dwell upon death. Preservation of the dead body was achieved by mummification but it was also considered equally important for the soul to be able to recognize the body, so it could return to it. For such reason death masks were abundantly used, made in the likeness of the deceased. Such masks were made from metal, wood, or cartonnage, a material made from papyrus or linen and soaked in plaster and then molded on a wooden mold. These masks were made to resemble the deceased but with slightly enlarged eyes and a faint smile. They also showed the fashion of the moment with painted jewellery and makeup. Still today, about two millennia after some of these Egyptians closed for the last time their eyes to the light of this world, the same eyes on their masks still look at us across the centuries, and even from beyond the veil of death.


I hope that these artefacts will be of the same interest for you as they have been to us.


Fayez Barakat