We’ve been making masks for thousands of years. Why? Masks conceal, but they also reveal, transform and share – they are metaphors. Our minds are made of metaphors.
In this fourth Tale of Mogpog, the town in the Philippines where the masked Moryons re-enact the Legend of Longinus during Easter Week, I share the deeper meaning of masks, and why they are so important to us.
The earliest known mask was carved from stone around 7000 BC in the Middle East. It would have been heavy to wear and might have been a burial mask. They used the most permanent medium available to them, that is why we still have it. But masks are more often made from perishable materials: the Inuit use animal skins, bone and feathers; in Papua New Guinea they carve masks from wood or weave them from vines, fibres and leaves. None of these materials last long enough to be found by archaeologists – we could have been making masks for 50,000 years, 100,000 years.
We are all familiar with metaphors, used by artists and writers. A metaphor hides an idea or image by covering it with another that reveals its meaning in a new way. It transforms the original idea into something deeper, clearer, because the metaphor links directly to ideas and experiences already in our own minds. The idea that was hidden and transformed is still there, of course, underneath, because metaphors allow us to appreciate more than one idea simultaneously. And so it is with masks, as we shall see.
But not only artists and writers, we all use metaphors, all the time. Our brains are structured to process information as stories, we think in narrative; it is part of our in-built capacity for language. We evolved language because we are social beings: we need to understand others, to relate, co-operate, or disagree with them.
But before we could do any of these things, we had to become aware of ourselves, and others, as independent conscious beings with different – sometimes conflicting – intentions and needs. We developed a sense of personal identity, and became aware of an inner reality – our own – alongside an outer reality in which we have to operate.
Without conscious awareness and language we would have remained smarter-than-the-average Great Apes rather than become human. But it posed a dilemma: how to resolve the inner and outer worlds with their spiritual, physical and social dimensions, and make sense of them? What did it all mean? And what should we do about it?
Given our predisposition to think in stories, it should be no surprise that our ancestors sought and shared meaning through myths, rituals and symbolic objects – including masks, although masks do more than simply ‘stand for’ another identity.
Masks are used in some form in almost every culture. Details of their structure and purpose are specific to the peoples that created them, but there are common elements.
Like a metaphor, a mask conceals the wearer inside it, while revealing something greater on the outside for others to see and experience. The inside and the outside exist together – a paradox – because onlookers know it is a masked figure, but at the same time they know and experience the outer reality that is expressed through the mask. As in fiction, writers use unreality to reveal deeper truths and other states: we know they are made-up stories, but we are still affected emotionally by them; we accept the revelations of a story without believing it is literally true.
Perhaps even more significantly, masks both create and show a transformation. Whether in identity, social status, or spiritual awareness, there is always a transformation in the mask wearer, and sometimes in those who witness it. Like any good story there is always someone or something that changes. No change, no story.
In Moryonan, the re-enactment of the Christian Passion, the masks worn by Moryons have several purposes. At the core is the panata, the vow to wear the mask. This is no casual commitment, the same word is used for taking religious vows.
Moryons are penitents – the masks are extremely uncomfortable to wear, and part of their role is to be publicly ridiculed – but just as often, Moryons wear the mask as an expression of gratitude for restored health, or the granting of some other request made through the saints.
Moryons are ridiculed and jeered at because they also represent Pharisees, Romans and other enemies of Jesus of Nazareth. This is both part of the penance, and part of re-enacting the events of the Passion, the story that takes place day by day in the town of Mogpog, witnessed by the community.
At one level, Moryons change their identity to play their role in the Passion story, at another, their transformation is one of personal spiritual renewal. The key transformation during Moryonan is the conversion of the Roman Centurion – Longinus – to a Christian martyr. A spiritual experience for Longinus, but also for the community that witnesses the foundation of their faith played out in real time around the familiar spaces of their town.
But Moryons are not as sombre as all this may seem. They also prance and dance in colourful burlesque as they roam the streets each day. They attract attention and provide amusement – another vehicle for the message.
[This is an archived post originally posted in 2011 and based on field research carried out during 1995-7. Doubtless much has changed in Mogpog, but it is good to record and remember the recent past for future generations.]
Rituals, enactments, street theatre – they are all part of Story’s rich repertoire, along with myths, fables, epics, sagas, legends, folktales and novels, a heritage that has sustained us physically, spiritually and socially since our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. Learn more in A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity.