Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Masks: Revelers, Thieves, Headsmen and Soldiers

Masks have been a costume detail in nearly all cultures, initially as a tool in ancient shamanistic practices invoking the spirits of animals or gods. In classical Greek theater masks served the purpose of enabling a vast audience to perceive the qualities of a character from the exaggerated features, and to hear him better through the aid of the megaphone-like shaping of the mouth.

Masks as an item of dress for ladies and gentlemen derived from the annual pre-Lenten carnival in Venice, for they enabled a freedom that could not be enjoyed if the identity of the wearer was known. This freedom was so cherished that Venice’s carnival time grew to encompass half the year. The Venetian leather mask became an art form that is practiced even now.

The long nose of certain Venetian masks, when stuffed with medicinal wadding was thought to ward off plague. This was laughed at by the wise of the 20th century who believed plague was spread by vermin but the latest medical thinking is that the contamination was airborne – so the medicinal masks may indeed have been somewhat effective.

The Venetian mask returned to the theater as an easy means of designating the characters of the Commedia dell’ Arte, the popular street theater that, through its standard stock of characters, lampooned events of the day. The characters themselves came to be called masks, and a type of play a “masque.”

But masks have also had a more sinister history. Some Roman gladiators wore elaborate helmets with masks. The Headsman, doing the dirty work of the State, wore a black hood effectively masking his features so that in his private life he need not fear retribution by the friends of those he’d killed.

Strikingly similar to the headman’s hood are the ski masks of today. Originally devised by Andeans to keep the face warm at cold high altitudes, the knitted mask moved to sports attire for skiers, and from there to the costume de rigueur for bank robbers.

And now we see the ski mask adopted by armed men in the Ukraine. For myself I can say that this is the most chilling use in the evolution of the mask.
Soldiers in warfare have adopted disguises fairly rarely, and that most often by stealing uniforms from the bodies of dead members of the enemy. A vivid example of regular soldiers in irregular costume was in the French and Indian War (1756-63, the American branch of the Seven Years War between England and France.) 

For one woodland battle, young French officers stripped naked but for a loin cloth and painted themselves with “war paint”, intending to be mistaken for Indians as they attacked the regularly uniformed English and colonist troops. This was astonishing at a time when ladies and gentlemen never disrobed entirely, not even when taking a bath or begetting children. And the pseudo-Indians quite failed to fool their American adversaries.

Today, in the Ukraine, ski masks used to conceal the faces of men otherwise in full military garb is quite another matter. 

In the Crimea it appeared, from news reports, that these were Russian soldiers stripped of all identification of rank and individuality. Such a practice runs so counter to normal military rules that one wonders at the commanding officers. But then, recalling how Russia’s leader has been known to dispatch by clandestine means (including the poisoned tip of an umbrella) those who oppose him, it’s small wonder that Russian officers do as they are told.

And in eastern Ukraine? Last night I saw a BBC correspondent interview a man in full military outfit (without the mask) who claimed to be an ordinary citizen who had come to fight for his rights. The guns, we’re told, came from the police station taken by these protesters.

We are to believe that police stations in the Ukraine are arsenals that include in their storehouses full military costume complete with standard black ski masks. And so it may be.

Militarized citizens have been known to wear ski masks. Some of the practitioners of tribal genocide in Rwanda felt the need to hide their faces under ski masks to avoid being recognized by the neighbors they were slaughtering.

What does this concealment mean? We’ve seen uprisings in recent years all over the world. Rarely have protesting citizens sought to conceal their identity. On the contrary, proud to be taking part in their cause, they’ve let themselves be seen and identified even though it might (and has) cost them their lives.

The mask not only blocks identification, but, as in Rwanda, allows the wearer to feel a freedom from responsibility that is dangerous in the extreme.

What we're witnessing in the Ukraine seems to be unfolding as an elaborate and systematized deception. The masked troops who seized the Crimea appear to have been regular Russian soldiers. But were they? By supplying protesting Ukrainian citizens with the same costume, identification of direct action by Russian troops is made more questionable.

Whatever the purpose, the use of masks by the military is the worst development in the long history of masks. One fears its use will spread, and with it the worst activities mankind can commit when freed from identification, responsibility and inhibition.

Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort series, a four-volume novelized biography of Simon de Montfort, the founder of modern democracy:

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