A mask is an artefact normally worn on the face, typically for protection, concealment, performance, or amusement. Masks have been used since antiquity for both ceremonial and practical purposes. They are usually, but not always, worn on the face, although they may also be positioned for effect elsewhere in relation to the wearer's own head.
The word mask came via Frenchmasque and either Italianmaschera or Spanishmáscara. Possible ancestors are Latin (not classical) mascus, masca = "ghost", Hebrewmasecha= "mask" and Arabicmaskharah = "jester", "man in masquerade".
Throughout the world masks are used for their expressive power as a feature of masked performance. They are a familiar and vivid element in many folk and traditional pageants, ceremonies, rituals and festivals. Many of these are of an ancient origin. The mask is often a part of costume that adorns the whole body and embodies a tradition important to a particular society of people.
It is often assumed that masks are exotic artifacts limited to Third World cultures, whereas masks are used almost universally and maintain their power and mystery both for their wearers and their audience, retaining an important place in the religious and social life of the community. The continued popularity of wearing masks at carnival, and for children at parties and for festivals such as Halloween are reminders of the enduring power of pretence and play.
The mask is also used in theatrical performance. In many cultural traditions the masked performer is a central concept and is highly valued. In the western tradition it is sometimes considered a stylistic device which can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans. The masked characters of the Commedia dell'Arte included the ancestors of the modern clown. In contemporary western theatre the mask is often used alongside puppetry to create a theatre which is essentially visual rather than verbal, and many of its practicioners have been visual artists.
Masks, as well as puppets, were often incorporated into the theatre work of European avant-garde artists from the turn of the nineteenth century. Alfred Jarry, Pablo Picasso, Oskar Schlemmer and other artists of the Bauhaus School, as well as surrealists and Dadaists, experimented with theatre forms and masks in their work.
The modern effort to restore the mask to the stage derives from Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) who in A Note on Masks (1910) proposed the virtues of using masks over the naturalism of the actor.  Craig was highly influential, and his ideas were taken up by Brecht, Cocteau, Genet - and later by Arden, Grotowski and Brook and others who "attempted to restore a ritualistic if not actually religious significance to theatre". .
The first real sustained and developed use of masks in contemporary theatre can be traced back to the work of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, founded in 1959, and to Peter Schumann and his Bread and Puppet Theatre, which was established in New York in the early 1960’s. Schumann, born in Silesia in 1934, combined aspects of European festival masks with a highly distinctive American sensibility, and his strongly humanitarian and anti-war polemic has continued to exert an influence on the use of masks in theatre, especially on street-theatre. Other US and Canadian companies, inspired by Bread and Puppet, developed including In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater of Minneapolis; Arm-of-the Sea Theatre from New York State; Snake Theater from California; and Shadowland Theatre of Toronto. These companies, and others, have a strong social agenda, and combine masks, music and puppetry to create a visual theatrical form.
In Europe Schumann’s influence combined with the early avant-garde artists to encourage groups like Moving Picture Mime Show and Welfare State (both in the UK). The practice of performing with masks is also studied by many performers, often derived from the Commedia dell'Arte traditions. The work of Jacques Lecoq has been particularly important in the revival of interest in this discipline.
Mask-based theatre has been taken to high levels of narrative sophistication by Horse and Bamboo Theatre (founded in 1978), and Trestle Theatre Company (1981), although Trestle Theatre has now abandoned its commitment to mask theatre.
There are an enormous variety of masks used in Africa. In West Africa, masks are used in masquerades that form part of religious ceremonies enacted to communicate with spirits and ancestors. Examples are the masquerades of the Yoruba, Igbo and Edo cultures, including Egungun Masquerades and Northern Edo Masquerades. The masks are usually carved with an extraordinary skill and variety by artists who will usually have received their training as an apprentice to a master carver - frequently it is a tradition that has been passed down within a family through many generations. Such an artist holds a respected position in tribal society because of the work that he/she creates, embodying not only complex craft techniques but also spiritual/social and symbolic knowledge. African masks are also used in the Mas or Masquerade of the Caribbean Carnival.
Many African masks represent animals. Some African tribes believe that the animal masks can help them communicate with the spirits who live in forests or open savannas. People of Burkina Faso known as the Bwa and Nuna call to the spirit to stop destruction. The Dogon of Mali have complex religions that also have animal masks. Their beliefs are in three main cults - the Awa, cult of the dead, Bini, cult of communication with spirits and Lebe, cult of earth and nature. These three main cults nevertheless use seventy-eight different types of masks. Most of the ceremonies of the Dogon culture are secret, although the antelope dance is shown to non-Dogons. The antelope masks are rough rectangular boxes with several horns coming out of the top. The Dogons are expert agriculturists and the antelope symbolizes a hard working farmer.
Another culture that has a very rich agricultural tradition is the Bamana people of Mali. The antelope (called Chiwara) is believed to have taught man the secrets of agriculture. Although the Dogons and Bamana people both believe the antelope symbolises agriculture, they interpret elements the masks differently. To the Bamana people, swords represent the sprouting of grain.
Masks may also indicate a culture’s ideal of feminine beauty. The masks of Punu of Gabon have highly arched eyebrows, almost almond-shaped eyes and a narrow chin. The raised strip running from both sides of the nose to the ears represent jewellery. Dark black hairstyle, tops the mask off. The whiteness of the face represent the whiteness and beauty of the spirit world. Only men wear the masks and perform the dances with high stilts despite it being a “female” masks. One of the most beautiful representations of female beauty is the Idia’s Mask of Benin. It is believed to have been commissioned by a king of Benin in memory of his mother. To honor his dead mother, the king wore the mask on his hip during special ceremonies.
The Senoufo people of the Ivory Coast represent tranquility by making masks with eyes half-shut and lines drawn near the mouth. The Temne of Sierra Leone use masks with small eyes and mouths to represent humility and humbleness. They represent wisdom by making bulging forehead. Other masks that have exaggerated long faces and broad foreheads symbolize the soberness of one’s duty that comes with power. War masks are also popular. The Grebo of the Ivory Coast carve masks with round eyes to represent alertness and anger, with the straight nose to represent unwillingness to retreat.
Today, the qualities of African art are beginning to be more understood and appreciated. However most African masks are now being produced for the tourist trade. Although they often show skilled craftsmanship and they will nearly always lack the spiritual character of the traditional tribal masks.
The variety and beauty of the masks of Melanesia are almost as highly developed as in Africa. It is a culture where ancestor worship is dominant and religious ceremonies are devoted to ancestors. Inevitably many of the mask types relate to use in these ceremonies and are linked with the activities of secret societies. The mask is regarded as an instrument of revelation, giving form to the sacred. This is often accomplished by linking the mask to an ancestral presence, and thus bringing the past into the present.
Arctic Coastal groups have tended towards rudimentary religious practice but a highly evolved and rich mythology, especially concerning hunting. In some areas annual shamanic ceremonies involved masked dances and these strongly abstracted masks are arguably the most striking artifacts produced in this region.
Pacific Northwest Coastal indigenous groups were generally highly skilled woodworkers. The carving of masks are an important feature of that craft, along with many other features that often combined the utilitarian with the symbolic, such as shields, canoes, poles and houses.
Woodland tribes, especially in the North-East and around the Great Lakes, cross-fertilized culturally with one another. The Iroquois made spectacular wooden ‘false face’ masks, used in healing ceremonies and carved from living trees. These masks appear in a great variety of shapes, depending on their precise function.
Distinctive styles of masks began to emerge in pre-Hispanic America about 1200BC, although there is evidence of far older mask forms. In the Andes masks were used to dress the faces of the dead. These were originally made of fabric but later burial masks were sometimes made of beaten copper or gold, and occasionally of clay.
For the Aztecs human skulls were prized as war trophies and skull masks were not uncommon. Masks were also used as part of court entertainments, possibly combining political with religious significance.
In post-colonial Latin Americapre-Columbian traditions merged with Christian rituals, and syncretic masquerades and ceremonies, such as All Souls/Day of the Dead developed, despite efforts of the Church to stamp out the indigenous traditions. Masks remain an important feature of popular carnivals and religious dances, such as The Dance of the Moors and Christians. Mexico, in particular, retains a great deal of creativity in the production of masks, encouraged by collectors. Wrestling matches, where it is common for the participants to wear masks, are very popular and many of the wrestlers can be considered folk heroes. 
Masked characters, usually divinities, are a central feature of Indian dramatic forms, many based on depicting the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. Countries that have had strong Indian cultural influences – Cambodia, Burma, Java, Thailand, Vietnam – have developed the Indian forms, combined with local myths, and developed their own characteristic styles.
The masks are usually highly exaggerated and formalised, and share an aesthetic with the carved images of monstrous heads that dominate the facades of Hindu and Buddhist temples. These faces or Kirtimukhas, 'Visages of Glory', are intended to ward off evil and are associated with the animal world as well as the divine. During ceremonies these visages are given active form in the great mask dramas of the South and South-eastern Asian region. 
Japanese masks are part of a very old and highly sophisticated and stylized theatrical tradition. Although the roots are in prehistoric myths and cults they have developed into refined art forms. The oldest masks are the gigaku. The form no longer exists, and was probably a type of dance presentation. The bugaku developed from this – a complex dance-drama that used masks with moveable jaws.
The nō or noh mask evolved from the gigaku and bugaku and is the supreme achievement of Japanese mask-making. Nō masks represent gods, men, women, madmen and devils, and each category has many sub-divisions. Nō plays are acted entirely by men. The masks are worn throughout very long performances and are consequently very light. Kyōgen are short farces with their own masks, and accompany the tragic nō plays. Kabuki is the theatre of modern Japan, rooted in the older forms, but masks are replaced by painted faces. 
Masks are used throughout Europe, and are frequently integrated into regional folk celebrations and customs. Old masks are preserved and can be seen in museums, and much research has been undertaken into the historical origins of masks – most probably represent nature spirits, and many of the associated customs are seasonal. The original significance would have survived only until the introduction of Christianity, which then incorporated many of the customs into its own traditions, also changing their meanings so, for example, old fertility gods became devils, and goddesses became witches.
Many of the masks used in these festivals belong to the contrasting categories of the 'good', or 'idealised beauty', set against the 'ugly' or 'beastly' and grotesque. This is particularly true of the Germanic and Central European festivals. Another common type is the Fool, sometimes considered to be the synthesis of the two contrasting type of Handsome and Ugly. 
The oldest representations of masks are animal masks, such as the cave paintings of Lascaux in the Dordogne in southern France. Such masks survive in the alpine regions of Austria and Switzerland, and may be connected with hunting or shamanism, and tend to be particularly associated with the new year and carnival. The debate about the meaning of these and other mask forms continues in Europe, where monsters, bears, wild men, harlequins, hobby horses and other fanciful characters appear in carnivals throughout the continent. It is generally accepted that the masks, noise, colour and clamour are meant to drive away the forces of darkness and winter, and open the way for the spirits of light and the coming of spring. 
As well as their use in ritual and theatre, masks of many different kinds are in everyday use for a wide range of utilitarian functions. There is an interesting example of overlapping categories of mask usage in the use by penitents of masks in ceremonies to disguise their identity in order to make the act of penitence more selfless. The Semana Santa parades throughout Spain and in Hispanic/Catholic countries throughout the world are examples of this, with their cone shaped masks. Masks were adopted by the vigilante groups, and the cone-shaped mask in particular is identified with the Klu Klux Klan in a self-conscious effort to combine the hiding of personal identity with the promotion of a powerful and intimidating image.
Protective masks usually have the following functions: