Ancient Egyptian Ceremonial Masks

Professor Arelene Wolinski teaches ancient history and Introduction to Ancient Egypt, at Mesa College in San Diego, CA. She was educated at Queens College, NY, Cal State Northridge and UCLA. She is a recognized authority on Egyptian ceremonial masks and has contributed to a number of publications such as the British Museum's
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Her book, Ceremonial Masks of Ancient Egypt, was published by the University of Texas in 2000.

Professor Wolinski opened her lecture by commenting on the word "mask". Initially it was thought that there was no hieroglyph that could define a "mask", but a careful search turned up in Raymond Faulkner's
Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian [Faulkner, 1991, p.118], quite interestingly, (msk3 ) which he translates as "skin" or "leather". Sir Alan Gardiner in his Egyptian Grammar, gives the definition of msk3 as "hide" (of an ox) [Gardiner,1994, p.570] . It is thought that many masks may have, in fact, been made of leather.

We know that the ancient Egyptians had death masks, such as the famous golden death mask of Tutankhamun. Professor Wolinski's interest, however, centers around ceremonial masks, which she believes were worn by priests in the discharge of their ritual duties. Initially it was thought that no such ritual masks had ever been found. In the course of her research, however, Professor Wolinski learned that the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum at Hildesheim in Germany, has such a mask of Anubis. The helmet mask has half-moon cutouts in the sides of the mask so it will sit firmly over the wearer's shoulders, eye holes to see through and air holes to allow the 
wearer to breath. When she went to Hildesheim to view the mask, she learned that no one had ever tried it on, and did so with the help of the museum's curators, in order to assure that the mask had, in fact, been made for wearing.

As a result of her research, Professor Wolinski, has proposed a new artistic convention to determine when a representation - wall painting, sculpture, wall relief, etc. - is that of a human, usually a male, probably a priest, wearing a mask, vice a human or a supernatural animal-headed being. To illustrate her theory she referenced the ceremony in which a new falcon is presented each year as the embodiment of the god Horus. Reliefs picturing this ceremony feature a falcon-headed man presenting the new sacred bird. Professor Wolinski postulates that the picture is actually of the Pharaoh wearing a falcon mask, and she believes this portrayal to be an artistic convention that seems to hold true throughout Egyptian art. When only one lappet is pictured, the image is of either a man [or the king], or a non-human being. But when double lappets appear in front, laying on the chest, it is the convention for a man/priest/king wearing a mask. The lappets of the masks were probably weighted to help balance the mask. 85% of the images she has investigated display the double lappet convention. The priest's mask in the collection at Hildesheim was collected by Gaston Maspero and has been in the museum's collection since 1896. At the time Maspero suggested that it might be a priest's mask and that the images might, in fact, represent priests or priestesses wearing masks. In 1934, Margaret Murray commented with some disappointment that nobody had picked up on Maspero's "priest mask" observation. The Hildesheim mask has, as noted earlier, both eye holes and air holes, however the eye holes are not where the eyes of the Anubis figure are located. Rather they are beneath the image's chin, as there is a structure inside the mask into which the wearer's head fits, and the Anubis image actually sits above the wearer's head. The mask is ceramic, probably about 4,000 years old, and 
weights 17 pounds. Having tried the mask on, Professor Wolinski confirmed that it is possible to move about while wearing the mask. She noted, however that one has no peripheral vision, so it would probably have been necessary for the wearer to have one or more attendants to assist him, such as is shown in a relief from the temple at Dendera. The relief was sketched by Auguste Mariette in 1873, and is of a priest with an Anubis mask on his head, being assisted by a priest who walks behind him guiding him as he moves forward. The image is in the lower register on a wall in the antechamber to the zodiac ceiling room at the temple at Dendera. The image, curiously, is heading to the left, versus the right as Mariette's drawing was printed when etched. This doorway is, in fact, a logical place for an image of Anubis, the Guardian of the Seven Gates into the next world. During the 5th dynasty, images of Anubis appear most frequently in doorways.

In contemplating how a masked priest could get to the terrace in the temple, when sight was so greatly impaired, Professor Wolinski noted that the back stairway of the temple at Dendera features stairs with a mere 4-inch rise, which could be easily managed by a priest in a long robe with a mask on, possibly even alone, as the stairwell is narrow enough to rest a hand on each wall while negotiating the stairs.

In further pursuit of ceremonial masks used in Ancient Egypt, Professor Wolinski researched a wooden Anubis mask in the collection at the Louvre. The mask of carved, painted wood, has an articulated lower jaw and eye holes, and would have fit over the face of the wearer. Around the periphery of the mask are holes which were likely used to attach the mask's wig, or a combination wig and long cloak, kilt or robe.

Professor Wolinski believes that the repeated masked images on wall reliefs are "working priests". At the temple at Edfu a train of priest wearing masks - Anubis, Horus, etc.- have been defaced. Only the faces have been hacked out, however. She suggested that it might be that some of these reliefs had inlays in the place of the faces, which were most desirable to pillagers. When thinking about how the ancients came to "masking" as a ritual activity, one needs only to look at feathered headdresses and ritualized costumes. The golden falcon mask from the Tutankhamun treasures, though more a headdress than a mask, has piercings around the bottom edge to which a robe or other garment was probably affixed. It is natural for people 
to want to "see" their gods so that they may relate more directly to them. Masks and 
costumes related to those masks, which may be worn by a consecrated group of religious officials, are a natural means of representing the gods/goddesses that are part of a culture.


Many cultures, both ancient and modern-day, use masks to represent deities or spirits. African tribes south of the Sahara who have a long history of using masks to represent the spirit world. In North America, southwestern Indians, particularly at Hopi and Zuni, likewise have a long history of using "katcina" masks to impersonate deities. Throughout the Northwest Coast of the US and Canada, coastal tribes have used masks, dance hats and frontlets for centuries to represent supernatural beings, and particularly animals who are believed to personify supernatural powers. When personifying a deity, many cultures believe that the spirit of the deity is manifested in the wearer during the time the costume or mask is being worn. Though there is scant evidence for costumes that accompanied masks in Ancient Egypt, the British 
Museum does have in its collection, a crocodile suit, made of crocodile skin, and with a hood of crocodile skin that could quite easily have been attached to a mask of the god Sobek. There are very few representations of female deities wearing masks. Almost all are of males deities. Only Bastet and Sekhmet are sometimes represented as masked priestesses. Professor Wolinski suggested that additionally, priestesses wore only face masks, not helmet masks. It would be easy to obscure the edges of a face mask with a female wig so a helmet to cover the entire head would not have been needed.

In support of her theory, Professor Wolinski noted that the Pharaoh had to be crowned by the gods. The wearer of a mask therefore assumed the power of the god when donning the mask, so was a logical "stand in" for the god. At the conclusion of the coronation ceremony, the king was then authorized to wear the mask of Horus whom he now personified. Another supporting find, is that some statuettes of 
gods/goddesses have removable masks. A particular example is a small statuette of Isis holding the infant Horus in her lap. Isis wears a gold mask that can be removed by sliding it forward away from her head. The infant's face is only partially formed in the casting of the metal, suggesting that it too once had a gold mask affixed to the face, now missing.

Other masks of interest include a mask of Bastet, found by Petrie under the foundation at the Kahun with a collection of midwife materials. A birth brick recently found at Abydos shows a Hathor image on a pole that Professor Wolinski suggested is, in fact, a mask that may have been worn during the actual birth. At Ancient Nekhen [Hierakonpolis] two terracotta, predynastic masks have been found during excavation, which are face sized, and clearly were used ceremonially, but by whom is unclear. Possibly by a priests, but it is also possible that they were used by mourners, or even placed on the face of a deceased person. One mask has cat-like eyes, and the remnants of hair which was attached, possible as a headdress. The other is almost diamond shaped with almond shaped eyes and a smiling mouth. It seems to have had small horns attached on each side of the forehead. Storage of powerful masks is an important consideration. In her book,
Ceremonial Masks of Ancient Egypt, Professor Wolinski notes, "that the ancient Egyptians kept their most powerful ritual objects inside the cult temple is not questioned and that they kept the most important mask(s) inside the innermost rooms is beyond 'reasonable doubt'. Other masks were probably kept in different storerooms and the treatment of these masks was probably similar to those we can study in other masking societies in Africa." [Wolinski, 2000, p.63] There are surviving reliefs that may also tell us how 
masks were stored. In the tomb of Piankaf a wall relief depicts a series of "mummiforms" some with gods heads, but two with human heads. Professor Wolinski believes that these mummiforms served as stands for the masks, and that the two human headed forms are forms whose masks are out and in use, so to speak.

The materials masks were probably made from [stiffened linen, plaster, papier mache, woven reed, leather, quilted fabrics, etc.] were, for the most part, highly perishable. Just as no ancient Egyptian crowns, which are postulated to have been made of woven reed, plastered linen, etc., have survived, only a very few masks have survived. That there are five in existence is quite remarkable. The two oldest date from about 3600BC and are from Nekhen. Additionally we have 
the 12th Dynasty cartonage mask of Bastet found by Petrie at the Kahun (now in the collection of the Manchester Museum), the wooden Anubis mask (in the collection at the Louvre), and the clay Anubis mask (at Hildesheim). In closing, Professor Wolinski postulated that the Greek tradition of theater masks may very well have developed out of the Egyptian mask tradition. The timing is right in terms of when masks first appeared in the Greek theater.

Nancy Corbin

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