In this time of self-imposed isolation, it is a rare day when we do not hear the word “mask.” The word has so many uses that it is hard to pin down. For example, it is used for protection in sports such as hockey and fencing, to inhale oxygen, or as a cosmetic. The generic meaning of the word is “a covering for all or part of the face, worn as a disguise, or to amuse or terrify other people.”
The oldest masks ever found are 9,000 years old, made out of stone, and come from the Judean hills and desert. They are creepy looking things with large eye holes, open mouths displaying carved teeth, and otherworldly smiles. The masks can fit comfortably on a face. Most researchers believe they represented the spirits of dead ancestors who became present through the masks during sacred ceremonies.
In many cultures masks function as a means of contact with various spirit powers. The mask itself can gain supernatural or spirit power. The maker of a mask is often revered and is believed to have absorbed some of the mask’s magic. The wearer of a mask is in direct relationship with the mask’s spirit forces. In fact, the wearer can literally become the spirit force.
A mask hides our true identity while creating a new one. This essential characteristic of hiding and revealing alternate personalities or moods is common to all masks, even those 9,000 years old. In addition, it is not unusual to use a mask to enhance one’s personality.
In our own culture we normally see a mask as something we wear over our faces to look like someone or something else. We identify masks with such words as disguise, conceal, hide, cloak, veil, screen, shroud, or cover. Sometimes masks hide identities for entertainment purposes such as a Halloween costume or the Masked Singers on the new hit TV show.
If you are like me, there are times a mask is worn without putting anything physical on our faces. Such a mask is known as a persona which is used to hide a part of ourselves we don’t want others to see. It satisfies the demands of the situation we find ourselves in but does not represent our inner personality. Contradiction between private life and public persona is common place. A public persona does not express who we are when we are alone.
There are times I wear a physical mask for entertainment, for fun, or to convince others I am something other than I am. There have been times when I have put on an invisible mask to keep myself from looking too closely in a mirror. Such invisible masks can be quite helpful when hiding true emotions. If we describe someone’s behavior as a mask, we mean that they are not showing their real feelings or character.
T.S. Elliot loved cats. His 1939 book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, inspired the Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway musical Cats. The book begins with the wonderful poem, The Naming of Cats. The poem identifies three names all cats have: the name everybody knows, one known by close friends and family, and a third name known only to the cat. The third name is present when we observe a cat looking off into the distance, meditating and hiding thoughts from everyone but itself. All three cat names are personas.
As people we also have three names—the name (persona or mask) everybody knows, the name known only by close friends and family, and our private persona that is the name known only to one’s self. Most of us know our first name and generally our second name. However, the third name is harder for us to discover. It requires we look honestly at ourselves, to honestly equate who we are with our persona. Once found, the name is often affectionate.
While historically a mask is used to hide who we are, today we are asked to wear a mask not to hide our identity, but to reveal it. A mask is worn not to cover or enhance our identity, enjoy a costume party, or to protect us from sharing our thoughts and feelings. Our contemporary mask is worn to protect others from potential illness.
We wear a mask to demonstrate we are all part of the answer in coping with a terrible virus. Behind the mask lives our common humanity, our unity, our sense of urgency to defeat our universal enemy and come together with a renewed spirit. We now wear a mask demonstrating we care about each other and the health of all.
The Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1994, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CNN (May 27, 2020) wearing a mask “shows respect for other people.”
There is a time to reveal ourselves and put on the mask of humility, kindness, and community. That time is now.
Written by: Hartzell Cobbs
Our Recommendation: For additional information on masks, visit “Why Wear Masks For Certain Tasks” by Patricia K. Flanigan at: CLICK HERE.
Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization. He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.
More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…
From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.
With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.
In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.