What is it about wearing masks that in a sense you are less afraid to really be yourself more freely? Perhaps masks remind us of the invisible masks we wear every day to pose as the good employee, the confident business person, the compliant citizen, the submissive partner, or whatever it may be you play on the world’s stage. By subverting our ego masks with a physical mask we can allow more of our stripped down real selves to emerge.
At Halloween, guising in masks is the most enduring tradition from old Samhain rites. At the end of October you can be something else or maybe really yourself for a day. Is it any surprise that I usually dress up as a witch? Even at work I can masquerade as the real me in striped socks and a wide brimmed hat.
In the sense that the mask serves to kill the ego masks for the duration of Halloween night, we can face death itself head on. Traditionally masks and guising served to trick ghosts and goblins into thinking the living were one of them and pass us over, or to threaten and scare the dead and unseelie hosts back into the underworld. The dead hanging around was unlucky perhaps because they tempted their living loved ones to join them, they might have drawn power from the lonely, or maybe the dead just needed some forceful encouragement to move onto their next lives. Whatever the reason, people wore masks to face death, fairies and the underworld beings at Samhain.
Masked rituals to merge human with gods or animal powers are evident in animist rituals all over the world and history. In witch trial records sometimes the horned leader was described as having a hollow voice and cold hard skin indicating he may have been one of the assembled witches in costume and mask. Masked rituals were condemned repeatedly from as early as 4th century into the early modern period. We can track the enduring nature of these traditions through the edicts against stag plays, mumming calf and beat rituals, bear dances, processions of celebrants donning masks of dead warriors, and horse guisings and games all across Europe. These customs continued in folk festivals and secret societies and have been revived in modern witchcraft rites for Samhain.
Samhain marks the witch’s new year, a recognition that life begins in darkness, a sense of rebirth from the tomb to the womb and the night before morning. At this liminal time, donning a mask of a primal being or a fearful death creature brings the witch to the origin via regression to before their beginning. Whereas some spiritual paths focus on transcending to the godhead, traditional witchcraft tends to go back to it through atavism either via beastialness, childlikeness, or relating to death.
In my personal practice guising in masks has played an integral part. I think the first time I used a mask for magic was in a healing ritual for a chronic pain problem I faced for years despite taking the advice of several doctors. I wanted to embody an animal that displayed excellent health in the area I lacked. I chose a cat mask to wear for a shape changing and power raising enchantment for transforming myself viscerally into a healed figure. My magic manifested in finally meeting a doctor who was able to identify my problem and successfully treat me. After extensive treatments and thanks to that magical medical meeting I was cured.
At another time my coven chose to make masks for animal spirits that would teach us valuable lessons for the following year. We began before Samhain by planning to do a trance journey to meet the animal that would have something to help us learn. I remember my journey distinctly, I was driving to coven when I lost time and found myself on the other side of town in front of a rainbow. At the crosswalk where I was stopped a bird was calling to me standing directly in front of my car instead of getting out of the way like they usually do, and there didn’t appear to be any nest nearby or food for it. I accepted this as the sign this bird was to be my teacher, so I committed to making a mask and costume for the holiday. When I arrived late and spirit led finally at my covenmate’s house, I led the rest in a visualization to meet their animals. We were quite the procession on Samhain night, howling and squawking as we danced and circled in our homemade costumes.
- Gary, Gemma, Devil’s Dozen: Thirteen Craft Rites of the Old One.
- Jackson, Nigel, Masks of Misrule: The Horned God and His Cult in Europe.
- Jones, Evan John, Sacred Mask Sacred Dance.
- Hasting, Charles, “Evolution of Harlequin,” The Quarterly Review Volume 196.
- Pennick, Nigel, Pagan Magic of the Northern Tradition: Customs, Rites and Ceremonies.