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A mask is defined as an item that is typically placed on one’s face and is usually worn for either performance, protections, amusement or to hide ones face. The act of masking started with the worshipping of the wine god, Dionysos. At the festival, actors wore large colorful masks that were shaped in a way that it express their emotions and expressions. Aside from theater, masks have become a symbol and tradition of Mardi Gras. This tradition dates back to the 18th century when during this time, the prestigious and the very wealthy would wear masks to hide their identity and the poor and lower classes would wear the masks to disguise themselves so they would be allowed in. This was a concealment that at face value made the wealthy and the poor equal for the night, since nobody could tell who was who.
Resources about Masks
sysu.edu: In this “Masks” section, you are going to learn about the world of masks and how they are used in different cultures.
African Masks: The African masks in this exhibition are dramatic portraits of spirit beings, departed ancestors, and invisible powers of social control.
Princton.edu: Laurence Hutton Collection of Life and Death Masks
What is Mardi Gras?
“Mardi Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday” has been celebrated in Paris since the Middle Ages, but it is thought to have started in America in 1699. During this year, a French explorer, Sieur d’Ibervielle, entered the shores and set up base 60 miles south of what is known as the City of New Orleans.. The official start of Mardi Gras begins on or after Epiphany and end the day before Ash Wednesday. Epiphany is a Christian day, which involves a feast and celebrates Jesus Christ, and Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. The festival is joyous and usually involves dancing, parades, social conventions and, of course, mask wearing.
In today’s Mardi Gras, Krewes are known to wear masks to conceal their identities. What are creepers? Krewers are known as members of secret societies who throw items from their floats. Other festival goers simply wear the masks to suit the festive fashion and to follow traditions that were set many years ago. The spirit of Mardi Gras is about letting out one’s alter ego and stepping out of your normal routine to become someone your normally not. Since freedom is one of the main pillars of the event, the mask acts as a perfect camouflage to give you the freedom to be someone else with few repercussions.
Today Mardi Gras masks come in all shapes and sizes. Common colors are purple, green and gold. These are the symbolic colors of the Mardi Gras, which were introduced by the Grand Duke ALexis Romanoff who visited New Orleans from Russia in 1892.
- What does purple mean? Purple is the symbol of justice.
- What does green mean? Green is the symbol of faith.
- What does gold mean? Gold is symbolic of power.
Many masks have flowers, feathers and other designs and are made from a range of materials varying from flimsy paper to actual plaster and even gold.
Masks are worn at Mardi Gras events all around the globe and are not specific to just the famous New Orleans celebration. In addition to New Orleans, festivities take place across other cities in America. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil attracts a large crowd every year and is one of the world’s most elaborate and popular carnivals. The annual Mardi Gras parade in Sydney, Australia, has now become the symbolic event for the gay and lesbian community. In each event, participants wear colorful and sometimes scary masks to add to the fun and festive spirit.
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