What’s Behind the Mask? Exploring the Many Faces of the Peabody’s Mask Collection

Contributed by Emma Lavoie

As Halloween draws near and the October chill finally takes hold, I enjoy getting into the Halloween spirit with either a frightening book or movie. Recently, I have taken an interest in a Netflix show called, The Haunting of Bly Manor. It is the follow-up series to The Haunting of Hill House and the second entry in The Haunting series. This series is loosely based on Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw (for any avid readers out there.)

As I watch each episode of Bly Manor (no spoilers here!), a “hidden” ghost has captured my attention. A figure with a beaked mask lurks in the shadows in the background of several scenes, most of the time not moving, but watching and hiding. Something so obscure has had such a profound impact that I find myself continuing to search the background of every scene in each episode I watch. A significant part of this obscurity is the ghost’s mask. The mask itself disguises the true identity of the character, but its design reveals a significant clue – the ghost was a plague doctor.

Suddenly, I had so many questions – Who is behind the mask? What is their story? What role will this “ghost” play as we unravel the terrifying history of Bly Manor? So many questions and predictions I began to make, yet, one thing became clear – I was going to write a Peabody blog on masks! 😃

The history of the mask is extensive and has changed across time and space. The Halloween tradition began as an old Celtic, pagan celebration (known as Samhain) marking the end of summer and the coming of winter. It was believed on this night that the veil between the world of the living and the dead diminished enough to allow ghosts to cross over and wreak havoc on the living world. To avoid and drive away these spirits, it was custom to wear masks and costumes. People would wear masks before leaving their homes at night so that ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. Other masks were designed to scare away spirits and protect people’s homes and identities.

During the Renaissance, the Halloween mask became popular in masquerade balls. They were not scary, but beautiful and extravagant. However, instead of scaring away spirits, these masks disguised the identities of the upper class giving them the ability to take part in activities society typically frowned upon.

Today, for many Halloween-goers, masks and costumes take on various designs that are scary or inspired by characters, historic figures, or pop culture. No longer a means to ward off unwanted hauntings from ghosts, Halloween masks are still used as a disguise and give trick-or-treaters a new identity for one night each year.

For more history on Halloween and Halloween masks click here and here!

There are so many “faces” in our world’s mask history. There are “death” or “funeral” masks like those used in Ancient Egypt. Masks to show expression for plays in Ancient Greece. Some masks were designed for war, celebrations, and dances. We also now, more than ever, see the presence of masks in our world today. There are masks used in rituals and ceremonies by many cultures around the world. In pop culture, there are masked characters in movies such as Darth Vadar, Zorro, and Scream. There are masks in music such as Daft Punk, Kiss, and celebrity talent shows like The Masked Singer. There are functional masks used for work (welding masks) or protection (sport masks.) And most popular of all, we see face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. As we have come to realize, masks cannot be easily defined to one category or function, but they all have a purpose and cultural meaning behind them.

Click here for an interesting infographic and cultural guide to the history of masks.

The Peabody has a fascinating collection of masks and I would like to share some with you! These masks are primarily from Mexico and Guatemala. All the masks are hand-painted with some masks including other materials such as fabric, mirrors, glass, horse hair, and animal teeth. Some of these masks were created to specifically scare evil spirits in cultural rituals, so some of these masks may appear scary or have an eerie appearance to them, which is their intended purpose.

Deer mask from Guatemala

The first mask is from Guatemala and depicts a deer with silver painted antlers and a fabric headdress with attached mirrors. If you look closely you can see bottle caps strung between the deer’s antlers.

Wood and polychrome paint, shaman’s mask

This wood mask is a shaman’s mask from Mexico, carved and painted with polychrome paint. The upper half of the mask depicts a human face with the lower half of the mask depicting the face of a jaguar. The use of two faces may symbolize the duality of life. The jaguar is a popular symbol used in Maya and Aztec mythology. Some cultures had a jaguar god, while others believed in a “were-jaguar,” a human-jaguar hybrid similar to what we know as a werewolf in various folklore. It is unlikely that the mask was worn by anyone, as there are no eyeholes.

Green ghoul festival mask
Carved and painted festival mask

These next two masks from Mexico are festival masks representing a green ghoul and red face with yellow slanted eyes. Although there is little known about these designs, the green ghoul mask has similar features to masks used in the Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) ceremony, while the red face mask has similar design features to Pastorelas (plays performed around Christmas) masks that depict the devil. These masks would have been used in holiday festival ceremonies or dances.

Wooden black devil masks

Next are two painted, wood masks depicting the Devil. This design features a black face and horns with red eyes and mouth. The teeth of these masks are traditionally real animal teeth. The expressions of the devil masks vary between angry and laughing. The fangs and color schemes are carried on from depictions of ancient Aztec gods, as the devil is a post-Hispanic idea in Central America. Before Spanish Conquest, Mexican cultures had no equivalent to the Devil. Masks like these would have been used in ritual dances such as Los Tecuanes (re-enacts a jaguar hunt) and Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians), where the devil was associated with death. The masks would have also been used in ceremonies during festivals such as Carnival and Holy Week.

Purepecha Devil Mask

This mask is a devil mask from Michoacan, Mexico and is most likely from the village of Angahuan belonging to the Purepecha indigenous group. The mask is made of painted, carved wood with dark hair decoration and pigs’ teeth. The bottom jaw was moveable in performances and the seven small devils on the forehead represent the seven deadly sins. This mask would have been used during Christmas Pastorelas when many devils are humorously trying to prevent the shepherds and hermits from getting to Bethlehem to pay homage to the new born baby Jesus.

Purepecha Old Man Mask

This mask is a very old mask from Charo, Michoacan, Mexico. The mask is from the Purepecha indigenous group, which is now today described as the Mestizo, as most inhabitants no longer speak Purepecha. The mask itself represents an old man and was used in La Danza del Toro y Los Viejitos (The Dance of the Bull and the Old Men) during Carnival celebrations. An example of the Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Little Old Men) can be found here.

Many of these masks were researched by past Phillips Academy work duty students who helped provide further information on mask designs and depictions that were not originally known or available.

The Purepecha devil mask and old man mask were identified by Bill LeVasseur, an American collector of Mexican ceremonial masks from San Miguel de Allende. Bill owns and operates a gallery of over 500 Mexican masks called, Another Face of Mexico. Explore the gallery here!

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