A Look at the Cultural Roots behind Face Coverings Throughout the Ages

In recent times of COVID-19, wearing a face mask is strongly encouraged to prevent the spread of Corona Virus via respiratory droplets. While wearing a mask may simply seem like a forced fashion accessory to some, or a medical staple to others, this seemingly “new” and “modern” item is not the first of its kind. In contrast, many cultures have their own form of a face covering that is a bit more interesting than the modern medical or cloth face masks of today. Let’s take a look at three of the different forms of face coverings that have been used by various cultures for religious, ceremonial, utilitarian, or customary purposes throughout the ages:

Funerary Masks: Ancient Egypt, Inca, & Rome

Ancient Egyptians used face coverings called funerary masks to cover the face of the deceased, which they preserved as mummies. These masks, sometimes called death masks, were made out of cloth, stucco, plaster, and paint for commoners or silver and gold for kings or other significant figures. These masks were fashioned in the likeness of the deceased, and were made for religious purposes. Anthropologists believe that they were used for the purpose of leading the dead member to the Egyptian afterlife, or to protect the individual from demons and evil spirits as they journeyed to the spiritual world. Ancient Inca and ancient Romans also adopted a similar mask. Roman masks were made of wax and were typically worn by an actor during the burial ceremony and then preserved to save a reminder of the image of the deceased. The masks of the Inca royalty were formed of gold, while the commoners had masks of wood or clay. Some Incan masks even had movable parts! From the famous funerary masks of the Egyptians, to the lesser known masks of the Incans and Romans, one thing is certain: these often intricate and expensive death masks showed great care and respect for the dead, highlighting one of the key virtues of the ancient world.

The Plague Mask, 17th century Europe

The Bubonic plague outbreak started in about 1346 A.D. and killed over 20 million people in the continent of Europe alone. This horrible disease, commonly called the black death, was brought to Europe by 12 ships coming from Asia who docked in the Sicilian port of Messina, with nearly all of the sailors onboard dead. The Bubonic plague caused symptoms such as fever, chills, vomiting, body aches, and death, and it was extremely contagious. In the unsanitary conditions of medieval Europe, it is easy to see how nearly 1/3 of the continent died from the black death. Many physicians fled rather than attempt to treat the ill and risk almost certainly ending up dead themselves. However, some brave doctors administered to plague patients with the best protection the could come up with- and that included the famous beaked plague mask. This mask, which was made of a leather beak stuffed with herbs, was thought to protect the wearer from contracting the disease by blocking the stench of the disease that came directly from the ill. In addition to this, other “PPE” was worn such as a full gown, crystal goggles, leather boots, leather gloves, and other thick materials. These efforts had little effect on the disease, but wearing thick garments granted the wearer the semblance of safety. While the plague beak is a far cry from the mask technology of today, it has become an icon of the medieval doctors of Europe.

Calacas: Dia de los Muertos Masks (present day)

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Latin American holiday celebrated on November 1. This festival focuses on celebrating the lives of the deceased with food, drink, dance, marigolds, decorated altars, and parties. Dia de los Muertos originated from the indigenous practices, likely of the Aztecs, of remembering ancestors, but is now blended with the beliefs of the Spanish conquistadors as well as Catholicism. One way in which people celebrate this special holiday is by donning special masks called Calacas. These masks, decorated as skulls, were traditionally made of wood and painted with bright colors. These masks were thought to scare the dead away at the end of the holiday, but in modern times, face painting has replaces Calacas in this purpose.

And finally, that brings us to the modern medical masks of today, a technological invocation that is critical to our society in this time of COVID-19. While these medical masks might not be quite as interesting as the funerary, plague, and calacas masks described in this article, they sure are useful! By examining the use of masks throughout human history, we can feel connected to our past by the masks we wear in the present. Learning about the history and cultural significance behind these masks unites us together and helps us better appreciate other cultures. Finally, in comparison to the smelly beaked masks of the European plague, wearing a medical mask probably seems like more of a medical miracle instead of an annoying inconvenience.


Article Sources: https://www.britannica.com/art/mask-face-covering/Funerary-and-commemorative-uses

https://www.azcentral.com/story/entertainment/holidays/day-of-the-dead/2016/10/14/day-of-the-dead-dia-de-los-muertos-face-painting/91500656/

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/dia-de-los-muertos/

https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death

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