Masks, Shamans, Wizards, Magic, Rituals, and the Supernatural
The belief in the existence of supernatural beings and their power to affect people’s lives resulted in the necessity for some sort of communication with them. “Magic” masks were created to engage, explore, and bridge humans and the supernatural. Magicians, wizards, shaman, priests, and communities performed rituals with masks to reach an unconscious state to experience a connection with ancestors, gods, demons, and spirits.
One of the [Eskimo] names for shamans is tungalik (demon intermediary) or angutkuk (man of many tricks). The shamans interpreted the mask’s physical shape, either from his own vision or from traditional forms and delegated a good carver to carry out his design. The majority of masks were made this way, but under certain circumstances a carver could make any mask without a shaman’s guidance, except that of the shaman’s personal guardian spirit masks.
By use of prayers, song, recounting, myths, and so forth, the Kwakiutl [Northwest Coast of Canada] link themselves to the spirits: secondly, in placing the masks on themselves, by analogic causality they become the spirits; and third, by dancing, they both move the spirit power in the direction they wish and also recreate the moment in the past when the spirits came down from their homes in other worlds and created mankind and his world.
In Ceylon decidedly hostile spirits, which are represented by masks, are overcome in special mask healing ceremonies. Stylistically, these masks belong to the realm of Indian folk art. The spirits and beliefs that are represented in these masks are sickness-demons rather than ancestors. These demons may be rendered harmless, even turned into spirit helpers, by the application of correct procedures. The psychological techniques employed by Ceylon’s magician priests could be linked to the shaman of Siberian hunter-tribes.
Although the sale of artwork is a way of survival, to the Huichol people of Mexico, art is deeply symbolic, and nierikas — bead or yarn-work “votive paintings” — are petitions to the gods. The masks are not worn in ceremonies but are used to record information about mythology and traditions learned through their ceremonies, visions, and dreams. These detailed, colourful, and somewhat psychedelic-inspired mask designs continue the traditions of Huichol in the region of Sierra de Nayarit, north of Guadalajara. The Huichol understand themselves to be mirrors of the gods.
Masks are used to cover long yams in a ceremony showing the merits of gardening prowess. The Abelam believe only men can grow long yams. Their success is dependent not only on hard work but complete abstinence from contact with women during the six-month growing period and spiritual assistance from ancestors. A fine yam is named for the ancestral spirit and that spirit is brought into being by the mask and decoration.
Ceremonial dance was recorded by A.C. Haddon who along with a team of seven scientists from Cambridge University who conducted studies in the Torres Strait, Mer Island, Australia, 1898.