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Masks - a bit of politics and a bit of history

By Paul Watson on .

Bark Mask, by Paul Watson

I wrote about the more philosophical side of masks in a previous blogpost Masks, Deception, and Truth. This post is more about the history of masks.

Get yourself comfortable - this one could go on for a bit:

An introduction and some politics

When using masks in artwork, the obvious initial reference is Picasso, who was heavily influenced by a mask from the Dan region of Africa shown to him by Henri Matisse, and by an exhibition of African art at the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadéro in the early 20th century (probably “obtained” by the expanding French empire in Africa).

My own use of masks in my artwork has been accompanied by a belief that such cultural appropriation (not to mention the military colonial expansion that enabled it) is not something I wanted to condone by replicating it.

My current artwork is based around neolithic, bronze age, and early iron age mythology and history, particular of my native country. This is sometimes difficult for two main reasons.

Firstly, England’s pre-Christian cultures have been lost due to a lack of written records, and most oral history has been very thoroughly erased by many centuries of history and Christianity. The hints and traces that still exist in folklore have evolved and changed over many re-tellings, and have doubtless been coloured by various social mores through the ages. As such, I do sometimes reach beyond England’s borders to the neighbouring countries such as Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France (and sometimes a little further afield in Europe) for inspiration and fragments of tales and mythologies.

I do this mindful of the facts that national borders and even countries/nations/states are ephemeral things, especially when you’re looking back over a timeline of many thousands of years. Cultures generally swept across the European continent, washing across the British Isles and Ireland like waves, erasing/redrawing territorial lines, and sharing new cultures and people over many millennia.

Badb Catha photograph
Badb Catha (2) by the author
© 2013 Paul Watson

So when I read of the Irish/Celtic myth of Badb Catha (Old Irish: “battle crow”), and discover a similar Gallic mythological character of Catubodua (Proto-Celtic: *Katubodwā, "battle crow") referenced on an inscription in Southern France, then I feel I can assume with a reasonable degree of confidence that a similar goddess might have been extant in the land now known as England, situated geographically between these two points, and I can happily create some artwork (although I retained the name Badb Catha in acknowledgement of the much richer records of Irish myths that informed the artwork so much). I hope that it’s clear that this is an interpolation from, rather than an appropriation of, Irish and/or Gallic mythology.

Secondly, the other area of difficulty when producing artwork based around pre-Christian culture is that it can be erroneously read as somehow being nationalistic. Certainly various far-right groups in Europe over the past hundred years have appropriated pre-Christian symbols and legends - this is particularly noticeable with Norse symbolism, but has also happened with Germanic and British pre-Christian symbolism.

I’m not trying to re-imagine something quintessentially and nationalistically “English”. England only became a unified country in the 10th century, by which time Christianity was firmly in control. Prior to that it was a heptarchy of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms—East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex—although sometimes a king of one of the kingdoms might be powerful enough to make the the others subject kings.

Moving further back in time, before the Roman occupation, the islands of Britain and Ireland, and much of Western Europe, were divided into a large number of smaller Iron Age Celtic tribes. And that’s probably the limit of our knowledge about political boundaries other than archeological evidence of the British Isles and Ireland being the subject of many waves of immigration from Europe bringing new technologies, new ideas, and new cultures from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age - a process which continues right through to the present.

Short history lesson aside, I just want to make it very clear that this particular liberal, left-wing, artist is not trying to “re-claim” or construct some non-existent proto-England to further a right-wing nationalist agenda. Quite the opposite.

Politics over, now onto the history:

A brief history of masks in Europe, and particularly in England

sketch by Henri Breuil
from Les Trois Frères, sketched by Henri Breuil
(Copyright Expired - Public Domain)

The oldest potential representation of a mask in Europe can be found in the Dordogne in France: the “masked figures” depicted in the paleolithic cave art of Trois-Frères and Lascaux. Lommel (1981) wrote:

The mask as it existed in classical antiquity, or even in the neolithic or paleolithic ages (as some of the rock-engravings of southern France and northern Spain prove) has not survived as a modern art-form in Europe. Remnants of the old art have been preserved in folk art only, and though much research has been done in this field it has not been possible to ascertain the historical origins or the original meaning of the masks still used.

Pernet (1992) discusses the interpretation that these are masked figures rather than gods or spirits with human bodies and animal heads, citing many of the arguments for and against. The problem with defining with any confidence the first use of masks in Europe is that masks don’t stand the test of time. Lommel and Pernet both agree that most masks would have been made from perishable materials—leaves, straw, twigs—and so have rotted away leaving no archeological trace, and Pernet also suggests that “in numerous cases the mask is ritually destroyed after its use.”

Clear identification of a whether something is/depicts a mask seems to be a major issue in the archaeological literature I’ve read. Pernet cites the case of an excavation of a site at Star Carr, near Scarborough in North Yorkshire dating back to 8000 BC where Dr Grahame Clark excavated twenty-one red deer skulls from the Mesolithic period that had been worked in an interesting manner:

sketch by Henri Breuil
Red deer antler head-dress from Star Carr
Image © Trustees of the British Museum

…the beams as well as the brow tine were reduced and the remaining part hollowed out in such a way that it seemed to make the whole lighter without depriving it of its essential characteristics… In the best preserved specimens, the skull was perforated as if to allow thin straps to pass through it. Several hypotheses were proposed: these “frontlets” could be simply trophies, or could have served as headdresses (for hunting or rituals) accompanied by masks or not. Given the poor state of the pieces, which moreover bore marks of transformations and previous damage, it is hardly possible to determine their exact use without excessively resorting to ethnographic parallels.

Milner et al (2013), who have all worked in the excavations at Star Carr, are more confident about the finds:

Based on the way they had been worked, Clark suggested that the frontlets had been worn as masks or head-dresses. In particular he argued that the cutting and hollowing of the antler would have made the frontlets lighter and easier to wear, whilst the holes cut through the skull could have been used to tie the frontlet in place. Clark also suggested two possible functions for the frontlets: that they could have served either as a form of hunting disguise, which would allow the wearer to get closer to the deer without startling it, or that they were worn as head-dress during ritual practices or dances. While both of these interpretations can be supported by data from the archaeological and anthropological record, Clark suggested that the frontlets had probably been used as a hunting disguise.

More information about the Star Carr excavation in Yorkshire can be found at

Gimbutas (1982), on the other hand, sees a plethora of masks stretching back to the Paleolithic:

The mask was not invented by the earliest agriculturists; it is as old and as universal as art and religion. Neolithic man followed a tradition established by his Paleolithic forebears, adapting the mask to his own modes of ritual and artistic expression.

The early examples Gimbutas provides in the book, however, are not masks to be worn (as far as I understand them), but rather flattened stone or clay heads. Gimbutas is not wrong: these are indeed masks in the true meaning of the word, and may indeed have been held by hand in front of the face as part of a ritual, but my personal interest is in masks that are worn.

Pernet, the more conservative of the authors that I’ve read, provides his summary after weighing the archeological evidence:

…it is possible to observe that the presence of the ritual mask in Paleolithic times remains doubtful but that with the Neolithic period, the probability of the existence of ritual masks increases, especially in the Near East, in Africa and in Europe. However, it remains impossible to fix a precise date or place for the appearance or appearances of this institution.

So even if we pick Pernet’s most cautious interpretation of the archaeological evidence then we can say we confidence that ritual masks were probably used in Europe from as early as the Neolithic.

My feeling is that the first thing any person would do with the hollowed-out Mesolithic stag skull from Star Carr is to hold it up against their face as a mask (I certainly would!), so I’m personally inclined to think that masks were used in the British Isles at least as long ago as the Mesolithic and probably earlier. Whether they were used for ritual purposes rather than as a hunting disguise is a different matter, of course.

Despite the amount of academic reading and citations in this post, it should also be remembered that I’m not attempting to create archaeologically-accurate reproductions of real masks, but rather to use my imagination and a substantial amount of “artist’s licence” to re-imagine and invent a mythology for personal artistic reasons. My research of the subject helps me keep a toe-hold on possible realities (as well as being something I find genuinely interesting), but my artwork claims only to be a product of my imagination.

Actual historical evidence of masks being used in Europe only really starts to appear during the final years of the (then Christianised) Roman Empire. Alford (1968) tell us that “The three earliest animal masks to be vouched for by historical references are the Stag, the Horse and the Calf” and they are known to us mainly because the early Christian priests were particularly vociferous in their hatred of them, and of the people’s love for them. Alford writes:

We first hear of the Stag in A.D. 370 when the Bishop of Barcelona torments himself with the idea that his description of the Stag disguise helped people to make it and thus renew its pagan life. “The Stag” he wrote [in Du Cange, Glossarium 1678]:
“turned out to be more or less accurately made and more carefully performed. I believe they had not known what the Stag had to do had I not shown this clearly to them… What have I committed? I think they would not have known how to act the Stag play if I had not shown them by criticising them”

Alford also finds evidence in 5th century Provence of Caesarius of Arles issuing a decree against dressing up “with the heads of beasts”, and St. Isidor of Seville in 636 AD complaining that the Spanish peasantry were wont to “dress up in the shapes of beasts on the Kalends of January, cattle and bull-calves, to run about hither and thither.”

Finally Alford provides us with some evidence of masks in England from St. Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury, who again bemoaned the masks used by the local people in a letter in the late 7th or early 8th century, and says that “long ago horses and stags were worshipped in temples in crude stupidity among the impious.” Alford suggests that the worship of horses and stags was probably still going on at the time, and that St. Aldhelm was engaging in wishful thinking if he thought it was restricted to times “long ago”.

I don’t think that it’s too much of a leap of logic to think of these English horse masks as distant but direct ancestors of the various Spring/May Day Horse Rituals still extant in some English folk festivals such as Padstow’s 'Obby 'Oss celebrations, in Minehead, and in Combe Martin. Alford also cites similar horse masks used in rituals and festivals in St Lumine de Coutrais and in the province of Soule in France, and Midwinter festivals in Wales and Cheshire that include horse masks of the skull-and-pole type.

Wilder Mann 6 by Charles Fréger
Wilder Mann 6 by Charles Fréger
Copyright © 2010 Charles Fréger -

In his book Wilder Mann: Image of the Savage Charles Fréger (2012) identifies a number of archetypal masked characters used in seasonal festivals across Europe:

The masquerades focus mainly on winter and spring. Winter is the period during which the population has most need for the power of the mask. In effect, nature dies, the sun shines more rarely, life is harder. It is essential to act so that winter leaves us and spring, with her vegetation, returns. From a practical point of view, winter is also the period during which the peasants, the principal actors of the masquerades, had more spare time. During the spring, on the other hand, they had to be involved in the replanting of crops.

The primary purpose of Fréger’s book is to display the many excellent photographs he has taken of masked characters from surviving rituals across Europe.

If you can’t get hold of his book, which is unfortunately out of print at the time of writing, then the Wilder Mann gallery on his website provides a very good taster of some of the photographs.

Photographer Sarah Hannant documented many of the surviving English rituals, festivals, and ceremonies in her book Mummers, Maypoles, and Milkmaids (2011), although it’s worth cautioning that many of the rituals documented are recent revivals and so the costumes and masks may not have evolved from earlier versions of the rituals.

The mask/costume depicted in her photographs of the Straw Bear Festival in Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire, revived in 1980 after being banned in 1910, bear (no pun intended) a striking resemblance to similar costumes used in Germany for a similar festival. The English costume for the revived festival was probably based on its existing German counterpart (which is photographed as part of Fréger’s book).

Despite these great photographs, there’s not much for an artist to draw on for inspiration when looking for English masks. The masks I have made for my photography owe far more to my imagination than to any historical record, but this background research has inspired some of the designs in less direct ways.

You can see some of the masks I've made for use in my artwork in my Paul Watson: Photography 2012-2014 gallery on this website.

References and Suggested Reading

Violet Alford (1968) The Hobby Horse and Other Animal Masks, Folklore, 79:2, 122-134, DOI: 10.1080/0015587X.1968.9

Charles Fréger (2012) Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage. Trans. Emma Lewis. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Marija Gimbutas (1982) The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 BC: Myths and Cult Images. Revised Ed. London: Thames and Hudson.

Marija Gimbutas (1999) The Living Goddesses. London: University of California Press.

Sarah Hannant (2011) Mummers, Maypoles, and Milkmaids: A Journey Through the English Ritual Year. London: Merrell Publishers Ltd.

Ronald Hutton (1991) The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Herbert Inhaber (1997) Masks from Antiquity to the Modern Era: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Andreas Lommel (1981) Masks: Their Meaning and Function. London: Ferndale Editions.

Nicky Milner, Barry Taylor, Chantal Conneller, and Tim Schadla-Hall (2103) Star Carr: Life in Britain after the Ice Age. York: British Council of Archaeology.

Henry Pernet (1992) Ritual Masks: Deceptions and Revelations. Trans. Laura Grillo. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Myth and Masks bookNote: A version of this blog post has since been published, along with others on the subject of myth and the “English Eerie” and pieces of my artwork, in my 2016 hardback book of art and writings Myth and Masks, available exclusively from our online shop.