Masks are symbols for the surrender of as well as the transformation of identity. By way of masking, we have the power and the freedom to take on a new persona and experiment with new ways of being and feeling. These are the gifts of Dionysos, whose idols were often simply a mask set atop a post or pillar draped with vegetation. At the mystical level, the gift of masking goes deeper than tinkering with identity; it is the call to lose one’s self entirely within Dionysos, to be filled with the god himself, possessed by him. The mask – an extension of Dionysos’ power – obscures the identity of the wearer and allows the wearer to fall into the Dionysian current, to be as a maenad in an ecstatic revelry or as a player in ancient Greek theatre creating a character by shedding his own.
In early August of last year, I gathered with two witches in the pitch of night around a blazing campfire in the woods of southern Illinois to honor Dionysos, he who is God of Ecstasy, Lord of the Vine, and Leader in the Dance of the Fire-Pulsing Stars. We invoked the god, burned fragrant incense, and poured libations of local wine in the god’s many names. I pulled a mask over my face and allowed myself to slip into Dionysos’ power. As I beat a slow steady rhythm on my modest frame drum I settled into the liminal space betwixt and between the self and other, between the internal and external. In the space between I could feel Dionysos’ might begin to fill me. I lifted my voice in his honor and I knew for a moment a sliver of what the maenads feel when enveloped within him. I played on and we witches danced around the fire shouting Dionysos’ many praise names into the night.
Earlier this month, I gathered again with a small group of witches and we allowed ourselves to fall into his mysteries, dancing his might into ourselves. This August I did not wear a mask but I donned colorful, flowing skirts, wild locks, and a grape-colored tank top. These carefully selected clothes stood in for a face mask. They essentially did the same energetic work, allowing me to shift from egocentric individual consciousness into something transcendent.
On both occasions I reveled in the life that filled me and the life all around me. I felt connected to the ground beneath my feet and the people shouting “io euoi” all around me. This is a part of Dionysos’ gift as I experience it. He brings an unrelenting awareness of life and connection with the vital forces of being. Identity shifts, ecstasy consumes, and Dionysos emerges.
Masking is only one of Dionysos’ mysteries but it has blessed me a great deal in the time that I have been experimenting with it. It is a way to slip out of one’s own skin, to loosen ego/personality, to shift and shape self, and to experiment with various ways of being. It is powerful magic and as such it is not without its risks. There are many ways to mask; it is not limited to placing rubber or plastic on one’s face and stomping around in the woods. Masking can be done by way of the clothes we wear, the voice we put on, the make-up we wear, the smile we strategically assume, and a slew of other physical and behavioral props. Depending on how you mask, when, and why there are different potential challenges and risks involved.
Masking requires that one know one’s self (at least somewhat well) before willing to lose one’s self, whether it’s undertaken for fun or to serve Dionysos. Masking in his honor is truly awesome and quite beautiful, but remember that Dionysos is not all fun and games. Disrespect for or misuse of his mysteries can manifest a host of psychic ailments. At best, careless masking can leave one adrift inside with little to no sense of grounding and connection. Among other things, such a state could make a person overly reliant on other’s perception of them and/or more likely to accept and wear the masks (or psychological projections) that others place upon them. At its worst careless masking can result in character erosion (like telling lies and eventually believing them), madness, and soul loss. Basically to avoid the negatives, be mindful and aware of both yourself and the nature of the mystery as you enter its practice, especially if it is something that you plan to do on a regular basis.
Masking is an amazing Dionysian magic and mystery, and one with tremendous potential to stimulate self-exploration, ecstatic release, and mystical union. I look forward to continuing this work each year, when the witches gather and beyond.