In the blinding afternoon sunlight it seemed as though the roads weren't going anywhere. Just one old car was moseying along on the remote, dirt road in the Orissa region, in northeast India. This was nine years ago. A woman was in the car, along with a tour guide in traditional dress, and another passenger in a police uniform. They were headed to the nearest city.
Suddenly, a group of people sitting in a circle near the road caught the woman's eye. Getting out of the car to approach the circle, she found 10 women sitting in the scalding sun. In the center there was a statue of a woman, made of clay, and studded with pieces of corn. The women were dressed in plain white clothing, and lacked any trace of the colorful fashions characteristic of the area. When the ceremony began, each woman offered colorful pieces of cloth, and some rice and coconut, to the woman seated next to her. The rice was placed on a large leaf and put in front of the statue.
One of the women suddenly bowed toward the ground, and started to rub her cheeks and breath deeply and rapidly. Soon she appeared to be in an ecstatic state; her face, with cheeks puffed up well beyond their natural size, became the center of the ceremony.
Dr. Pnina Feller swears that hard rain began to fall just a few moments after she and her companions started to observe the ceremony. But for Feller, an expert on Bible and ancient culture, the rain and fertility ritual was especially interesting for its use of clothing, and for the way the main participant used her costume and changed her appearance. A puffed-up face, Feller explains, serves as a mask, just as makeup on faces in Japan's traditional Kabuki theater also serve as masks.
Feller, a lecturer at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, collects masks. Periodically she goes on long journeys to Africa, India, Nepal and Tibet, to research beliefs and ritual in various cultures, and to compare them to customs and ideas known from the Bible. Twenty years ago, she lived among the Masai tribe in Africa, where she conducted a study on polygamy, which was once common in the Near East. A few years ago, she researched the phenomenon from another angle, traveling to a region in Nepal known for its polyandrous families (in which one woman is married to several men). She has stayed in monasteries in Tibet for months, to gain an understanding of perceptions of God and also of death.
Feller has studied costumes and clothing for 30 years. Many of her research trips abroad were timed so that she could observe traditional carnivals, whether in India or Europe, Venice or even Berne, Switzerland, for the spring festival. Sometimes she returns with masks (occasionally, full costumes) worn by ceremony or carnival participants.
Receiving guests at her home in Jerusalem, Feller stands at her front door, wearing a contemporary mask - a particularly off-putting "blood-mask," featuring a skeleton in a black hood. The mask is taken from the "Scream" movies, and is one of the biggest sellers nowadays at costume stores. It comes with a long plastic tube which can be squeezed, to make blood ooze around the mask.
After this ghoulish reception (which, it turns out, was staged for educational purposes), the enthusiastic, energetic host shows the large storage space she has set aside in her home to hold her masks. There are more than 200, most of them authentic, stored away in boxes - leather masks from the Commedia del Arte in Italy, wooden masks with human teeth from Africa, masks with ostrich feathers from carnivals in Venice, elegant, fragile masks from Japan. Feller keeps her favorite masks on display in her living room.
The atmosphere evoked by the large table on which the most important masks are placed is a little eerie. Human-looking faces, some of them very threatening looking, peer from every angle. Only a few are friendly looking, such as those worn by children in carnivals that recreate great myths of Indian culture. Each of these masks represents a traditional story. Feller describes each one, taking her visitor on a lightning tour of different cultural worlds.
There's the mask from Africa with the genuine human teeth, and another with a beard made out of real human hair. A black-and-red-and-white monster mask from Mongolia sits on the edge of the table: Half man, half bull, the mask can be adjusted to threaten the audience with frightening-looking teeth. Then there's a mask with a mane of hair which has to be treated with tender loving care. It has to be sprayed regularly or else it becomes infested with lice.
In the 1980s, Feller observed a ceremony in Zaire in which a shaman wore a large upper-body mask in order to exorcise an evil spirit from a local resident. Today, the eye-popping, bizarre object is kept in an aquarium-sized box in her home. Feller strokes the mask, pointing out the intricate art work. Clearly it's her favorite.
By training and by profession, Feller is an anthropologist. Her interest in masks dates from work with death masks in Egypt. The Egyptians believed that the soul returns to the body of a man after death. They made masks that were supposed to represent death - and were supposed to help the soul identify the man to which it belonged.
"I was amazed by how much work went into these masks," Feller relates. "And think about how much work is invested today at, for instance, the Carnival of Venice, or before a theater performance in Japan. I was interested in studying why this culture of costumes and masks has been preserved to the present day - how these mask rituals serve people, and why they are important."
In Western culture, costume-wearing is limited to particular times and holidays, and is generally geared to children only. Purim exemplifies this rule in Jewish culture; in America, Halloween is an example of a children-oriented costume holiday. But in cultures where many elements are preserved intact from earlier times, costumes and masks have a larger variety of uses and purposes. When Feller lived among the Masai tribe in Africa, she observed the tribal head donning the skin of an animal before a hunt, in order to gain strength from it. Evidence of the survival of this rite from prehistoric times can be found in Stone Age illustrations on caves in France.
In another ceremony, Feller watched a shaman dance with the mask of a tribal patriarch, hoping to draw strength from him.
Masks are a source of power - they revive sprits and subdue them, and they provide wearers a cathartic sense of becoming someone or something else.
"There is always something frightening about wearing a mask," explains Feller. "There's something inside us which is confirmed and releaed when we wear a mask. And as a particular period becomes more violent, as is happening in our society, masks become more violent."
Mask wearing appears in carnivals, in different cultures. Masks provide wearers a chance to escape from their routines and troubles, and to change, to be something else for a moment: "When a small boy at a festival in Tibet, held at the end of the monsoon season, dances with a mask [at the carnival], he appears like the adult who is next to him. Differences are blurred. He draws strength from that."
The sense of release and power sweeps up spectators at a ceremony or carnival, even though they are not actively taking part in the event. This is particularly evident at carnivals in Brazil, which are conducted in a blaze of color and joy, defying hunger and want in the setting outside.
Feller believes that the Purim megillah (scroll) describes a carnival atmosphere, even though it does not refer explicitly to costumes or masks. The entire megillah, she explains, is a comedy reminiscent of Italy's commedia del arte festivals; it is a period farce. It features role reversal: the weak Esther saves her people; the mighty ruler Ahasuerus, becomes a weak king. Mordechai rises to glory, wears distinguished clothing, and rides off on a horse.
Over the years, illustrations on Purim megillahs have featured depictions of masks and costumes, despite the lack of specific references to them in the holiday's narrative.
Purim, Feller explains, forces celebrants to confront evil, and feel as though they overcome it. The commandment is to rejoice, laugh, break the routine. The holiday is, in fact, a centuries-old form of spiritual cleansing and therapy. For this reason, she explains, Maimonidies predicted that though many Jewish holidays might not last into the future, Purim would always be celebrated.
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