Things are Not Always as They Seem

Masks have a long history in the world's culture, and they play an important role in the Purim story.

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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 face of mummified bodies in order to preserve its appearance. Masks found in Egypt date back as early as the Fourth Dynasty and they depict both male and female images. The masks are frozen images and 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.

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 between each role. 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 where women were prohibited from wearing costumes. During the Middle Ages, the practice of using masks on theater stages 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.

Masks & the Carnival

These masks mark the beginning of the carnival whose ancient 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 masqueraded as rich people, rich people masqueraded as laborers, and the like. A sober outlook replaced the drunkenness that had been common, and it became a time were 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 Comedia dell'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. Their faces wear heavy makeup that is like a mask. A similar practice was common in the south Indian theater form known as Kathakali, where women were also barred from performing.

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Dr. Pnina Galpaz Feller, teaches Bible and Ancient Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. She is the author of Exodus: Reality or Illusion, and most recently, Women Be Upon Thee, Samson.