Mayan Wooden Masks
by Tara A. Spears
Mexico’s creative traditional folk art is a true celebration of rich color and vibrant beauty. Each of Mexico’s 31 states offers unique talented artists producing a seemingly limitless collection of stunning and whimsical hand crafted art. Of all the different art forms, the hand carved wooden masks best reflect the Mexican culture and pride of the indigenous people. Carved wooden masks that portray the devil, ancient deities, jungle animals, or immortalize deceased individuals were regularly used in religious and cultural dances, as well as during war. The left photo is an example of a Mayan ceremonial mask. Mayan masks had a wide variety of uses, and the importance of the masks dictated how intricate the designs on various masks were. The abundant availability of carved masks at the tiaguis-open markets- make these a great collector’s item.
Ancient Tradition: The Mayan people inhabited the Yucatan Peninsula from 2500 BC to 1550 AD. The basic principles of the Mayan religion were adapted from the Olmec and Teotihuacan people, prior to the seventh century AD. The Mayans viewed the natural world, along with all that was a part of it, as a continuation of the sky-world above and the underworld below. The jaguar was believed to be a gatekeeper to the afterlife. According to Jeeni Criscenzo, “The ancient Maya had a complex pantheon of deities whom they worshipped and offered human sacrifices. Rulers were believed to be descendants of the gods and their blood was the ideal sacrifice, either through personal bloodletting or the sacrifice of captives of royal blood.” The deities are common figures on the wooded masks, particularly the warrior masks.
The antique masks also contain the faces of people. We know that some masks were used in wedding ceremonies, and there were masks made to commemorate many births and deaths. Not all Mayan masks were for such profound purposes, however. The Mayan’s also used masks for entertainment as well. The uses of masks by the Mayan people were as varied as the style of the masks themselves.
The Mayan’s wore masks during important events, including during battle. There is much debate among archaeologists and anthropologists about whether the Mayans wore masks meant to protect the wearer physically, whether these masks were meant to intimidate the enemy, or whether the function of these masks was ethereal in nature. It is possible that the masks were meant to protect the wearer through spiritual power. However, the exact truth about the function of the masks worn by the Mayan soldiers on the battlefield is now lost to history. Whatever the use of masks in battle was, today’s scholars are able to learn a lot about the Mayan civilization from surviving masks made by the Mayan people. Contemporary artists continue the tradition by incorporating the ancient symbols in their work.
Intricate Process: Various types of tropical wood are used to create the carved masks: acacia, cocobolo, bocote, cobal, or even ironwood. Several local artisans explained to me that the shape and characteristics of a piece of wood often suggests a motif to them as they begin carving. Skills have passed from generation to generation for over 2000 years using techniques, progressing and changing beliefs, from pre to post Hispanic periods. Early influences included: common day to day community life, nature, religious worship; superstition and mystic folk lore, war and catastrophe.
The actual carving is done with machetes, kitchen and pocket knives. After the bark is removed, a detailed outline is drawn, defining the image with greater clarity and detail. The carving alone takes up to a month, at times longer. The mask is then left to dry for up to 10 months, depending on its overall size and thickness. Next, oil or beeswax is rubbed on to protect and bring out the character of the wood grain. Some artists embellish the carving with natural dyes from plants. As with any folk art, the complexity and quality of the finished product determines the price.
Whether used as art, home décor, or a vacation souvenir, carved wooden masks are a beautiful tribute to the culture of Mexico.
Style comparison of Aztec mask versus Mayan: note the eye/nose/mouth shape differences.