Animal Masks and Spirits
From earliest times, animals have been a theme in art, rituals, and celebrations around the world. Animistic beliefs are linked to the spirits of nature and place. Masks express both real and mythical creatures such as the dragons, garuda, and hudoq. Animals mythic and real, great and small from land, sea, and skies abound in mask images from throughout Asia and the Pacific region.
Mask makers in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan create masks representing five animals known as the five dignitaries. These animals include the dragon, wild yak, and snow lion, tiger, and garuda.
The dragon represents unwavering steadfastness, the experience of fulfillment, and unconstrained spontaneous achievement. The dragon is representative of the water element.
In Borneo, mask maker-dancers of the Kayan tribes represent various nature/animal spirits or combinations of them in their masks. A common variation will have the bared teeth, fangs, and giant eyes of a dragon with the beak of a hornbill, both sacred animals representing the lower world (dragon) and the upper world (hornbill). But others may show characteristics of wild boars, rhinos, tigers, monkeys, etc., although this imagery is not always clear as they often morph the characteristics of more than one creature.
The dancers assemble in the jungle or outside the village, dress up in the full costumes, and then march into the village as if they emerged from the jungle, like all wild beasts would do. The ceremony can be used to welcome important guests but generally it is performed during the harvest or planting season to protect the rice spirits and to ensure a good, healthy harvest.”
Tiger-Jaguar spirits were expressed in images and forms of the Aztec during pre-colonial times in Mexico. As early as 1631, masks were brought out for Tecuan dances. The expiatory (atoning) slaying of the tigers at the end of the dance expresses victory of the world over the untamed nature of the forest world.
Spanish chronicles of the Conquest period mentioned a wide range of animal disguises: today these are no less varied. Creatures indigenous to the New World include monkeys, badgers, armadillos, rabbits, hares, boars, owls, vultures, fish, alligators, lizards, serpents, and many others. The monkey was traditionally associated with song and dance; today monkey characters appear most often during carnival. Other animal facemasks are frequently found in carnival traditions of Central America, derived from Pre-Columbian models and borrowed from European examples.