The meaning of the dream symbol: Mask

A mask may represent the persona, the image you present to the world. Perhaps the dream is asking you to take a fresh look at that image and also to look behind it. It may have served you and supported your ego in the past, but possibly you are now beginning - or being urged - to see yourself in a new way.

An animal or other strange mask may symbolize something in your unconscious that demands attention. Associated feelings of frenzy might suggest that what is depicted by the mask is threatening to take over control from the conscious ego. To be on the safe side, you could consult a psychotherapist.


The ancient symbolism of the mask used in divine rituals from the preparation of tribal warfare to the unification of marriage vows, refers to the spirit we present in the face of super-real events. Moreover, a majority of archaic religions, (including Judaism and Shintoism,) believed that supernatural forces entered into, and resided inside, the head and face of human beings. Consequently, a Mask worn over a face served as either a greeting to, or barrier against, spirit messengers. In the dream sense, the mask may represent the personal spirit and animated face we present in certain situations in our life. For example, a big, burly man, may become docile and remarkably tender in order to win the affections of a very feminine, young woman. As such, he may dream himself wearing the mask of a fragile and delicate child.


In the East the symbolism of the mask depends upon the use to which it is put, the main types being theatrical, carnival and funeral, the latter a special feature of Ancient Egypt.

Theatrical masks - also used in ritual dances - are one form of manifestation of the universal ego. The wearer’s personality is generally left unchanged, which means that the universal ego is immutable and unaffected by its contingent manifestations. And yet, in a different light, the very same performance may aim at modification through the actor’s identification in the part which he plays with the particular divine manifestation represented, since the mask - and especially the fantastic or animal mask - is the face of the godhead and more particularly the face of the Sun, radiating spiritual light. Thus, when we are told that the t’ao-t’i masks (see devourer) have grown gradually more human, we should not regard this as a sign of growing civilization, but rather of growing forgetfulness of the power of the symbol.

Masks also sometimes externalize demonic tendencies, as is the case in the Balinese theatre where these two aspects (of the actor’s own personality and the universal power of the mask) meet face to face. However, much more striking instances are provided by carnival masks which, without exception, depict the lower, satanic aspect with a view to repudiating it. Masks act as liberators and this is also true of those used in the Ancient Chinese No Festival, corresponding to the New Year. They worked as a catharsis. Instead of hiding, the mask revealed those lower tendencies which had to be driven out. Masks, however, are dangerous things to use or handle and are surrounded with ritual and ceremony. This is true not only of Africa, but also of Cambodia, where the masks used in the trot dance are paid particular respect. Were this not so, the wearers would be endangered.

The funeral mask is the unchanging archetype in which the dead person was judged to return. Burkhardt also observes that it was intended to preserve within the mummy the ‘bone-breath’, a ‘subtle’ lower human modality. To preserve it, however, had its dangers, especially if the person concerned had attained a certain level of spiritual elevation. Although the two forms were different, a mask designed to pin down the wandering soul (huen) was employed as predecessor of the funeral tablet. Granet suggests the eyes of the mask were pierced, just as the tablet was pricked, to show that the dead person had been born into the Otherworld.

In the dualistic concepts of the Iroquois, their False Face dances all originate from Flint, the evil one of their twin culture-heroes, who rules over darkness. There are two guilds of dancers belonging to their confederacy of secret societies. Their task is basically medicinal, preventing and curing both physical and psychic illness. In their ritual, the men are masked as dwarfs, monsters and other abortive pieces of the evil brother’s creation. In the Spring and Autumn, the turning-points in the solar cycle, they drive disease from their villages.

According to Krickeberg, these masked dances originate from hunting rituals. They probably became healing dances because animals sent disease to avenge themselves upon their hunters. This is somewhat akin to the fact that among the Pueblo Indians, animal-gods are chiefs of Medicine Lodges. The Pueblo Indians celebrate the Coco Katchina - ancestors and the dead in general - with masked dances. The festivals of these animal-gods are only held during the Winter, with the most important ceremonies occurring at the solstice, thus sharing a common symbolism with the Iroquois rituals. They are not only masters of herbal medicine and the rites of curing, but also of sorcery and black magic.

In Africa ‘masks are an established feature of fertility-, funeral- and initiation-ceremonies. From the earliest times they belong to that stage in social development at which people become settled tillers of the soil. In his book, Les arts de VAfrique noire, Jean Laude has written one of the most striking chapters on masks, ‘sculpture in motion’ and the main data for this entry is taken from this source.

Masked processional dances at the end of the seasonal agricultural tasks of ploughing, sowing and harvesting conjure up the series of events from the beginning of the world, the regulation of the universe and the ordering of society. They do more than simply recall them, they repeat them in order ‘to manifest the here-and-now and in some sense to reinvigorate the present by relating it to that past and legendary age when God with the help of the spirits brought it into being.’ As an example, the masked Kurumba dancers ‘imitate the actions of the culture-hero, Yirigue, and his children when they came down from Heaven bearing masks.’ Dogon dancers wear Kanoga masks - significantly the word means ‘Hand of God’ - and imitate ‘with a circular motion of their heads and the upper portions of their bodies the motion made by God when he created the world and set the bounds of space.’

At regular intervals the masks breathe fresh life into the myths which claim to explain the origins of the customs of daily life. In symbols, morality is shown as the replica of cosmogenesis. The masks perform a social duty, masked ceremonies being cosmogonies enacted to reinvigorate time and space. By their means an attempt is made to restore humanity and the forces entrusted to mankind to the pristine state which all things lose when subject to time. However, they are also truly cathartic displays, during which human beings take stock of their place in the universe and see life and death depicted in a collective drama which gives them a meaning.

Masks assume a slightly different significance in initiation ceremonies. The masked mystagogue incarnates the spirit which teaches mankind. Masked dances infuse the youth with the realization ‘that he is dying to his former state to be bom into adulthood.’

The masks sometimes partake of a magic power which protects their wearers against sorcerers and those who would harm them. Contrariwise, members of secret societies use them to impose their will through fear.

Masks are also instruments of possession: ‘they are designed to trap the life force which escapes from a human being or an animal at the instant of death. The mask transforms the dancer’s body, he preserves his own individuality but uses the mask like some living and moving adjunct to incarnate another being, spirit or mythical or fabulous animal which is temporarily called into being’ and its powers tapped.

If the life force set free at the moment of death were allowed to wander, it would disturb the living and upset the universal order. When it is trapped and brought under control in a mask, it can, so to say, be capitalized and then redistributed to the benefit of society as a whole. However, the mask also protects the dancer, who needs to be defended during the ritual from the power of the instrument in his hands.

Masks are designed to subjugate and control the invisible world. These forces move about in so many different shapes as to explain the varied combinations of carved human and animal figures unendingly and sometimes monstrously intertwined.

But masks can bring their wearers into danger. When trying to trap the vital force of another by luring it into the snares of his mask, the wearer may in his turn become ‘possessed’ by the other. The roles of mask and wearer become interchanged and the life force concentrated within the mask may possess the person who had placed himself under the mask’s protection. Protector becomes controller. Accordingly, wearers of a mask, or even people who wish simply to touch it, must from the outset make themselves worthy to make contact with the mask and make preparations beforehand against any adverse reactions from it. This is why they must, over a longer or shorter period of time, abstain from certain foods and from sexual intercourse, purify themselves with baths and ablutions and offer sacrifice and prayer.

It is all rather like the preparations for a mystical experience and ethnologists have, in any case, already compared the use of masks with the practical methods of access to the mystical life. Carl Einstein defined the mask as ‘motionless ecstasy’ and with more moderation Jean Laude suggests that it might be ‘the means dedicated to the attainment of ecstasy at the moment when it contains within it the god or spirit.’ Although the examples given by M. U. Beier are not conclusive, he states that some Yoruba masks might display the expression of a living individual in ecstatic communion with the Bazimu. The facial expression, the swollen features - and especially the eyes - the rounded prominence of the limbs as if puffed out by the force springing up within them, all make one think of them as expressions of receptive concentration such as may be seen on the faces of the faithful in adoration, either about to take God into the soul or immediately after the mystic marriage with God has been consummated.

In this context, it should be remembered that different definitions of mysticism depend upon the levels of the different theologies of the religious life.

The trapped force is neither to be identified with the mask, which is a mere representation of the being for which it stands, nor with the wearer, who simply handles it without appropriating it to himself. The mask is the intermediary between the two forces and indifferent to whoever will emerge the victor in the dangerous struggle between the prisoner and his captor. In each case, the relationship between these two terms varies and each tribe gives them a different explanation. Although the coded language of the masks is broadcast throughout Africa, its deciphering is not always, everywhere, or in every detail precisely the same.

Celtic languages have no word for ‘mask’, but borrowed it from the Latin. Archaeology, however, has discovered a limited number of Celtic masks and plenty of depictions of them, while Irish mythological descriptions lead one to conclude that some persons or messengers from the Otherworld wore masks. From the disappearance of any Celtic word after the introduction of Christianity, it would be legitimate to infer the existence of traditional data no longer available to us .

When shaped like gods or spirits and worn on the clothes or hung on temple walls, masks were ‘the very image, all the more expressive as they were only faces, of the supernatural powers invoked by worshippers’.

But this, perhaps, brings us back to the Chinese and Hindu myths of the lion, the dragon or the ogre which besought the god who had created them to supply them with victims to eat and which were given this answer: ‘Feed upon yourselves.’ They then realized that they were no more than masks, appearances, longings, insatiable greed, but void of all substance.

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