A Look at Cultural Masks Around the World

Masks have been used around the world for centuries for all kinds of religious and cultural celebrations. Some masks honor those who have died, some represent animals or spirits and some simply disguise a person’s identity. Now, as we are all tasked with wearing masks for protection during the coronavirus pandemic, Newsweek is taking a look at the types of masks that were used long before they became a part of the world’s daily wardrobe.

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1. Hunting Festivals, Alaska

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The Yup’ik and Inupiaq peoples wear masks during special ceremonies, the most important being the midwinter hunting festivals. Carved by—or under the supervision of—a shaman, these masks sometimes represent a shaman’s spiritual helpers and can also be hung in homes to ward off harmful spirits.

2. Mardi Gras, New Orleans

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The legalization of masks in New Orleans dates back to 1827. Though only legal on Mardi Gras wearing masks is a big part of traditional Cajun and Creole events and minimizes class differences.

3.Día de los Muertos, Mexico

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The Day of the Dead commemorates family members who have passed away. During this end-of-October celebration, people will often paint their faces or wear masks of clay or papier-mâché that resemble skulls, as well as create altars, or ofrendas, to celebrate the departed.

4. Bailes, Guatemala

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Since the colonial era, masks have been worn in various fully-scripted performances, known as bailes or danzas. These tell stories both historical and mythical. They are performed at indigenous festivals and Catholic feast and often depict animals, saints, conquistadors or Mayan warriors.

5. FESTIMA, Dédougou, Burkina Faso

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The biennial Festival International des Masques et des Arts (FESTIMA) celebrates and exhibits traditional masks from various West African countries. Worn by dancers, these masks are made of leaves, straw and wood and symbolize the worship of ancestors and spirits and also honor traditional mask-wearing at rituals like weddings and funerals.

6. Carnevale, Venice

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Dating back hundreds of years, Venetians would disguise themselves during the Carnevale di Venezia, an annual festival that draws thousands of tourists. During the French conquest and Austrian occupation, the wearing of masks was forbidden, though the tradition resurfaced in 1979.

7. Kandyan Dances, Sri Lanka

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A variety of traditional dances ward off demons, provide entertainment and heal the sick. Most incorporate masks made during a lengthy process using wood from the local Kaduru tree. Each mask is linked to a particular piece of folklore or character.

8. Balinese Masks, Bali

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With roots in animism—the belief that plants, inanimate objects and other natural phenomena have souls—these masks are seen as a way for spirits to visit the physical world. They are reserved for use only during sacred ceremonies, but tourists can purchase masks crafted specifically for decorative uses.

9. Noh Theater, Japan

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The all-male Noh Theater, developed in the 14th century, is the oldest major theater art still regularly performed. The lead character, or shite, will wear a mask made of Japanese cypress that tells the audience what kind of character to expect.

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