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Masks of Transformation

Updated: Jun 4

Photo of Glow-in-the-Dark Workshop Mask by author, 2010

I once attended a workshop that included a day spent reliving one’s teenage years. Participants were divided into high schools and assigned a variety of tasks: adopting a school mascot and motto, painting papier-mâché masks to reflect a school identity, writing a class song, and competing against other schools in a variety of silly, playful contests.

A lot of triggers there, but also lots of laughter and fun for all involved . . . except for one couple in their seventies, who seemed at a loss.

Yuki and Miko had traveled from Japan for this workshop. Their formal education followed a far different trajectory than those of us born in the United States, which made it difficult for them to relate to the assigned activities. With no shared cultural experience to draw on, they were quiet, reserved, almost painfully shy, in contrast to the casual and convivial informality of their schoolmates.

Nevertheless, Yuki and Miko gamely volunteered to represent their school in the dance competition, to the song “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie.” Rehearsal, however, proved awkward and stiff, despite helpful tips and demonstrations from others––no rhythm, no flow, no sense of joy to their movements.

That evening, when the elderly couple stepped up and the lights dimmed, they surprised everyone by donning the full face masks they had painted earlier––and then, as the first notes sounded, Yuki and Miko vanished, replaced by two young, lithe masked dancers who twirled, dipped, bounced, and boogie-woogied through the high energy portions of the piece, then segued into a supple, sinuous, sensual embrace as the music slowed, bodies swaying as one, like two high school sweethearts at the prom.

The music stopped. Yuki and Miko removed their masks, bowed, and all forty participants burst into cheers and applause. There was momentary speculation they were professional dancers who had fooled us all; how else could they have spontaneously performed such an intricate, elaborate, well-choreographed dance?

Miko, who had a somewhat better command of English than her husband, smiled at the idea. “That not us. Too embarrassing to do alone, and never around people.”

Then just who were we watching?

“The masks. The masks danced for us!"

Acting “as if”

The masks of God invite us in the direction of the experience of God; they are composed, you might say, to fit the mentality and spiritual condition of the people to whom these masks are directed. In the naive relationship of popular religion, people actually think that what I’m calling a mask of God is God—but they are intermediates between divorce from God and movement toward the mystery. (Myth and Meaning: Conversations on Mythology and Life 74)

How does Joseph Campbell arrive at this metaphor of the mask? Is it simply a clever literary device, no more than instructive analogy? Or does the mask worn in rituals present an embodied experience, serving as the vehicle for archetypal energies that actually transform the wearer?

Masks have long provided a gateway to other dimensions, other realms, beyond the senses. According to Campbell, “The mask motif indicates that the person you see is two people. He’s the one wearing the mask and he is the mask that’s worn—that is, the mask of the role” (Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine 37).

This is very much the way an actor dissolves into a role. The mark of a good actor is to become the character they portray. The audience meets the actor more than halfway; when we watch a movie or attend a play, we expect to suspend our disbelief. We know that Harrison Ford isn’t really a dashing and daring archaeologist, and Nicole Kidman no southern belle, but we go along with the pretense. If the actors are skillful and the drama well written, then we are able to enter into this “play world,” experiencing the adventure and its accompanying emotion as if they are real.

It’s not surprising to learn that the earliest theatrical productions in ancient Greece evolved from sacred rituals –– which brings us back to masks, for the actors in these plays wore masks. (That is not unique to Greece: the same can be said for the development of theater in many parts of Asia; even today, in Japan, masks are worn in Noh plays).


The masks that in our demythologized time are lightly assumed for the entertainment of a costume ball or Mardi Gras—and may actually, on such occasions, release us to activities and experiences which might otherwise have been tabooed—are vestiges of an earlier magic, in which the powers to be invoked were not simply psychological, but cosmic. For the appearances of the natural order, which are separate from each other in time and space, are in fact the manifestation of energies that inform all things. (Campbell, The Historical Atlas of World Mythology: The Way of the Animal Powers, Part I 93)

According to Campbell, the mask serves as a conduit for the community to powers which transcend the individual. But the mask is also used in many cultures as an agent of individual transformation.

Masks have the power to transform even when they are not worn. A classic scene appears on a wall fresco preserved beneath volcanic ash in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii. A youth bends over and peers into a silver bowl held up by a bearded figure, generally thought to be playing the role of Silenus, the satyr who served as teacher to Dionysus. The youth is told to look in the metal bowl to see his own true face––but the bowl acts as a concave mirror. Behind the lad an assistant holds up a mask; instead of his own face, the initiate is shocked to see the face of old age: ”the whole body of life from birth to death.”

Campbell explains the significance of this reveal:

Now suppose one of his friends, before he went in there, had said to him, “Now look, this guy in there is going to have a bowl and he is going to tell you that you’re going to see your own face. You’re not! He’s got another fellow there who’s holding this mask thing up behind you so that what you will see is nothing more than a reflection.”

If this happened, there would be no initiation. There would be no shock. This is why mysteries are kept secret. An initiation is a shock. Birth is a shock; rebirth is a shock. All that is transformative must be experienced as if for the first time. (Mythos I: The Shaping of Our Mythic Traditions, Episode 3: “On Being Human”)

Masks within masks

Raven/Sisutl transformation mask, closed, by Oscar Matilpi, Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, 1996. In the permanent collection of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis (Photo by Randy Johnson). CC BY-SA 3.0

The indigenous tribes in the American Northwest, from the Kwakiutl to the Haida, are known for their Transformation Masks. This is a double mask, with the outer mask usually in the form of an animal. After fasting in the woods, then dancing into a frenzy in the lodge house, the masked dancer reaches a state of ecstasy and opens the hinged outer mask to reveal the interior: the image of an ancestral spirit. The dancer experiences a double transformation, identifying not just with the Animal whose mask he wears, but also with the Ancestor.

Raven/Sisutl transformation mask, open, by Oscar Matilpi, Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, 1996. In the permanent collection of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis (Photo by Randy Johnson). CC BY-SA 3.0)

The masked dancer enters a realm that once was and yet still is, a dimension where humans and animals are able to change form, hidden behind the world of waking reality. The wearer experiences the unity of all life: hunter and hunted; animal, human, and ancestral spirit––these are but masks for the one Life that animates All.

Are such realizations possible today? After all, ceremonial masks seem somewhat archaic in this secular age––art objects to be collected, rather than tools for transformation. Surely, we have moved beyond the magic and the mystery today.

And yet, my thoughts keep returning to Miko and Yuki. Their masks put them in touch with something greater than themselves, beyond their lived experience, that connected them with everyone in the room . . . which may be why “mask” is such an apt metaphor for myth:

Myths are the “masks of God” through which men everywhere have sought to relate themselves to the wonders of existence. (Campbell, The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work xx)

MythBlast authored by:

Stephen Gerringer has been a Working Associate at the Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF) since 2004. His post-college career trajectory interrupted when a major health crisis prompted a deep inward turn, Stephen “dropped out” and spent most of the next decade on the road, thumbing his away across the country on his own hero quest. Stephen did eventually “drop back in,” accepting a position teaching English and Literature in junior high school. Stephen is the author of Myth and Modern Living: A Practical Campbell Compendium, as well as editor of Myth and Meaning: Conversations on Mythology and Life, a volume compiled from little-known print and audio interviews with Joseph Campbell.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 6, and The Hero's Journey


Latest Podcast

Joseph Campbell speaks at Cooper Union in New York in 1964 on the many functions of ritual and how it shapes the individual, the consequences of the degradation of ritual, and the role of creativity in ritual. Host, Brad Olson, offers an introduction and commentary after the talk in this episode of the Pathways podcast.


This Week's Highlights

A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

"Myths are the “masks of God” through which men everywhere have sought to relate themselves to the wonders of existence."

-- Joseph Campbell, The Hero's Journey, xx



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