Things are not always as they seem.

purim mask 88 (photo credit: )
purim mask 88
(photo credit: )
Masks are a kind of veil that covers the face and hides one's identity while at the same time highlighting one's character. The Italian word maschera, the English word mask and the French word masque are all derived from the word moska that originated in Lombardy and meant dead person, because in many cultures masks were associated with the world of the dead. The earliest depiction of a mask was found in a cave painting in the Ari ge region of France. The drawing apparently shows a shaman wrapped in animal skins and wearing a horned mask. The wearer of the mask is a male shaman, a priest who mediated between the world of man and the world of the spirits. The mask in the image of an animal seems to indicate that people then believed that animals had magical powers and they somehow rolled over into masks that depict them. The mask wearer believed that the animal's magical powers passed over to him. Masks were often worn during magical ritual ceremonies in the ancient world and are still commonly used in Papua New Guinea and among African tribes. The source of this practice is the custom of trying to mislead evil spirits and demons. The masks were intended to instill fear and were a means of frightening these spirits. African, pre-Colombian, Celtic and other peoples are known to have used such masks, which were the domain of men and later evolved into war masks worn in battle in addition to some other uses, among them fighting impurity and illness, promoting fertility and assisting hunters. During fertility rites, women were actively involved playing roles that symbolized birth, growth and the like. Masks, some as old as 9,000 years or so, made of limestone with two eyeholes and a mouth filled with teeth have been discovered in Israel. These Neolithic masks do not depict specific human figures, and it is difficult to ascertain what use they had or even whether they were intended for women or just men. ONE USE of masks was to perpetuate the image of the deceased. Today, we use photographs to perpetuate our image. In ancient times, memorial masks were used and they indicate a desire on the part of an individual, family or community to preserve his image and endow him with a form of eternal life. In ancient Egypt, the use of masks was part of the belief in an afterlife and the ritual of the dead. Masks were placed on the faces of mummified bodies to preserve their appearance. Masks found in Egypt date back as early as the Fourth Dynasty and they depict both male and female images. The masks primarily highlight the eyes and lips and have hair affixed to the head. The quality of the mask was contingent on the deceased's status. During the New Kingdom, masks became more individualized. Male death masks were painted in shades of red, and female death masks were painted in shades of yellow. Royal masks were idealized depictions at least until Akhnaten's reign, as is evident in a mask of Queen Hatshepsut with perfect facial features, until beards, a clear symbol of royalty, were attached to the chin. In Mycean culture, the deceased were portrayed as accurately as possible. In ancient Italy's Etruscan culture, memorial masks were carried during funerals and sometimes placed in the mourners' home, as was also the case in pre-Colombian Mexico and Peru. Masks were very commonly used in religious rites in Greece and from this practice theatrical masks evolved, starting with the feasts celebrating the god of wine, Dionysus, in which an actor played several roles by switching masks. Women were active and important participants in these ecstatic religious rites and theatrical events, particularly when they went out to the forests in search of the god in the wilds of nature. As Greek theater further developed, women were barred from dressing up and men played the roles of women. At the same time that the formal theater was developing, a street theater was also developing in which women were prohibited from wearing costumes. DURING THE Middle Ages, the practice of using masks on stage disappeared and then a form of mass celebration began with the participation of masked individuals. This practice later spread all over Europe and women took part and wore masks with male features. These masks mark the beginning of the carnival, whose roots date as far back as ancient Egypt. These processions initially highlighted the change of seasons, until the festivities become something out of the ordinary routine, marked by chaos and upending of the usual order, with poor people dressed as rich people, rich people as laborers and the like. A sober outlook replaced the drunkenness that had been common, and it became a time during which overturning norms was sanctioned. At the end of the 16th century a new kind of street theater surfaced in Italy, a kind of standup comedy known as commedia del l'arte. This repertoire produced masked characters that have endured to this day. Women played important roles in these comedies, wearing, for example, the mask of Colombina, the character of the merry servant maid. Masks were also a common feature of Asian theater. They were already present in Japanese and Korean theater as early as the eighth century. In the 14th century, the very aristocratic Noh theater began and it permitted women to wear costumes and act. Men played female roles as they had in Greek or Shakespearean theater. In contrast, women were the founders of Kabuki theater, but very quickly the shogun government barred women from performing. Kabuki actors do not wear masks; they wear heavy makeup that is like a mask. A similar practice was common in the south Indian theater form known as Kathakali, in which women were also barred from performing. MASKS WERE not always solely associated with theatrical uses. In Italy and England, they were part of everyday life starting in the 17th century. In rural society, masks were seen as a punishment meted out to women who were unfaithful, deceitful, plotting and the like. Such women were led around the town wearing a mask as a symbol of degradation and alienation. However, in the move from the village to the city, a mask was a declaration of anonymity. The stated purpose of the mask was to protect the facial skin, but its unspoken purpose essentially enabled women, primarily, to enter the upper echelons, attend balls given by the nobility and so on. In 18th-century Venice, everyone wore male and female masks as a matter of course. The masquerade motif appears in the Bible on two different levels: an attempt to fool people and an attempt to fool God. Although the Bible was written by men, it does not indicate any differences between male and female masks, as is the case in other cultures. Twice women are described as masquerading, as in the wife of Jeroboam who masquerades before the prophet in a failed effort, because a person looks at the outward appearance and God looks at what is in the heart. Whereas when Tamar masquerades and changes her identity to fool Judah, she is successful. In addition to references in Scriptural texts, the authors of the Mishna, Tosefta, Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and the midrashim discussed changes of clothing and facial coverings at great length. Women are a major component of these discussions as they masquerade for different reasons relating to marital relations, an attempt to seduce a man, etc. MASQUERADING ON the festival of Purim has become a norm. The Book of Esther, which describes the origin of the festival, is written in a roundabout style that is a comedy of errors involving one masquerade after another and was therefore performed over the generations until it became one of the symbols of the festival. The Book of Esther features disguises and masquerades portrayed by changes in clothing and status. It has three pairs of protagonists - Vashti and Ahasuerus, Zeresh and Haman, and Mordecai and Esther. A reading of the book reveals that all the characters depict men and women at the same time. Ahasuerus masquerades as a tough ruler but turns out to be ruled by his ministers. Haman, who seeks power and respect, is revealed in all his misery, and his disgrace is apparent to all when he is hanged in public. Mordecai sits wearing a sackcloth and ashes outside the palace gate and is presented with royal garments and brought into the palace. The Book of Esther is named after the heroine who hides her identity until she puts on "the garments of royalty." These garments actually help her to reveal the truth and drop her obedience and submission. She is transformed from a passive and sheltered girl into an active woman with a royal status. Vashti, who is depicted as a successful queen, throws a banquet for women and is assertive and experienced in the ways of the world, actually is revealed in her failure - she starts out as someone with status and is sent away with none left. Zeresh, the wife of Haman who does not think too highly of her, turns out to be quite wise behind her mask, in comparison to Haman who is obtuse and stupid. The Book of Esther, whose characters are all masked, promoted the custom of wearing different facial masks. This practice is documented in 15th-century German sources, which discuss women wearing men's clothing, drunkenness and other issues. Today it is commonly thought that the Italian carnival influenced the custom of dressing up on Purim, as indicated by illustrated miniatures of the Book of Esther and other Jewish manuscripts. It should be noted that in Muslim countries the practice of masquerading on Purim was unknown. The matter of women masquerading and the prohibition against them appearing wearing masks is today a subject whose economic, social, halachic and feminist aspects are being extensively researched. The writer is a lecturer at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.