28.07.20 - 21.02.21

The exhibition «Masks: Facets of Tradition»

Among Slavs, Balts, Finno-Ugrians and Romance peoples mumming was  the most widespread during the Yule and the Butter Week. In the Caucasus using of masks was linked with meeting of the New Year and with festivals of begining and final of agricultural works. In many cultures mumming was important element of wedding. Masks can be found in traditional rituals of many peoples of Siberia and the Far East; these are birch bark masks of "bear dances" among Khants and Mansi and "wooden faces" of autumn festival among Koryaks.

In various regions of Eurasia particular traditions of masks' making existed. The simplest ones were made of a piece of cloth, leather or paper, in which slots for eyes, nose and mouth were cut. The masks comprised of many elements could be kept in family for years and passed by inheritance. Among the peoples of the Caucasus  felt masks were widespread; masks skilfully carved of wood were used among Russians and Lithuanians.

Masks represented animal heads, faces of men or mythic characters.They often created image of a "scary" being or an animal with shaggy brows, thick beard, moustaches, huge nose, protruding teeth, etc. Folk names of masks also indicated their demonic nature – devil or fiend faces. In attitude to the mummers the feeling of fear combined with the joy of waiting; they scared and cheered up simultaneously. It was believed that their visit is indispensable, otherwise there would be no hapiness, good harvest and livestock breed.

In general, transformation into zoomorphic, antropomorphic and otherworldly beings through putting on mask, skin, fur coat  turned inside out or special costume reproduced mythological notions about supernatural powers and necessity of contact with them. Not in vain, appearance of mummers is associated with the rites related to changes in environment and human life. In people's conscience mythological significance of many calendar festivals was determined by their "border" nature. The interval beetween old and new years, winter solstice and spring was believed to be dangerous for man, because hostile power rampaged on the earth in that time. Wedding was also considered the rite of passage when man "died" in one status and was born in another.

Masks occupied particular place in shamanic practice of the peoples of Siberia.They were put on during rites and ritual acts which were accompanied by singing, sound imitation and various movements that correspondes to the image of deity or spirit in which name seance was performed.  Masks performed various functions: ones facilitated shaman's moving between the worlds: the Middle – world of humans, the Upper – world of gods and the Lower – the world of evil spirits; moreover covering his face during  such "voayge" they allowed him to remain unrecognized for hostile powers in profane time. Other masks helped shaman to receive productive power, chase away evil spirits and fight them for curing of patient.

The exhibition Masks: Facets of Tradition present the most important attributes of calendar, family and religious rites, festivals,and shamanic practices. It shows rare masks which were used in theatrilzed performances by the members of male unions among the peoples of Dagestan and the mask which Buddhist monks put on during  the Cham dance. The exhibits from the the collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography belong to the culture of Slavic and Romance peoples, Finno-Ugrians and Balts, the peoples of the Caucasus and Siberia. Many of them are unique products of late XIX–early  ХХ cc., others were made in the second half of  ХХ – early XXI cc. and illustrate the link between ancient rites with modern festive traditions.

Zoomorhic Characters in Ritual Mumming among the Peoples of Central and Eastern Europe

Leading of  a zoomorhic mummer ("goat",  "horse", "bear", "aurochs") was widespread among Slavs, Balts, Finno-Ugrians and Romance peoples predominantly during the Yule and the Butter Week. He was usually led from house to house performing good wishes and receiving prizes, less frequently he was expelled from settlement. The mummer was led on a leash or by bridle and the drivers often were such characters as "devil", "grandfather" and "gypsy". People also dressed up as birds  – a crane, a hen, a stork, etc.

As a rule only men or lads dressed up as animals. There were prefered characters in different regions. In north of Karelia people dressed up as reindeer putting on genuine reindeer skins with head and fastening antlers to them. In Belorusian villages the lad performing a goat put on two sheepskins  turned inside out,(one on his legs) and a cap with antlers made of withe or straw. A man wrapped in furcoat and covered with linen or carpet  often held in his hands wooden head of a "goat" or a "little mare" on a stick. The lower jaw of mask was moving and a  rope was fastened to it which mummer pulled when "goat" was speaking. These things were widespread among Eastern and Southern Slavs, Romance and Finno-Ugric peoples. In some South Russian and Volga disticts a "horse" was lead during the Pentecost or the Green  week. It could be represented by two lads covered with curtain, one of them was given a stick or a oven fork on which the "mare head" was put.

In the East Slavic tradition an outdoor clothing turned inside out could be used for dressing up as "bear"; among the Baltic peoples skilfully carved wooden masks were used and in the Romance tradition costumes made of straw, sheep skin or bear pelt served for this purpose.

The mummer copied behavior of an animal; he butted, jumped,  waved his tail, imitated animal voices: "bleated", "baaed", "roared", and danced clumsily together with rider or drover. Funny scenes were performed: gypsy sold horse, blacksmith or doctor cured animal.

Zoomorphic masks incartnated the notion of fertility, they were attributed particular  fecundity force  which sometimes was expressed in very frivolous, erotically accentuated behavior of mummers, inadmissible in other times.  "Goat" jumped and butted girls trying to raise their skirts and make them blush. "Horse" sprinkled them with his "tail" a brush wet and dirtied in soot.   "Bear" caught girls' legs and could even knock them down on the floor. The scene of animal's "dying" or "killing" was perfromed at final stage. "Death" and subsequent "ressurection" of the character ("goat" or "mare") should trigger off the most rapid coming of prosperous year.

The  costume of "bull" – mumming character. Karelians. The Governorate of Olonets. Late XIX– early ХХ cc.

In vast territory of the European North among Russian and Finno-Ugric population the Yule mumming play "killing of bull" was widespread. The base of theatrilized performance was the notion of ritual sacrifice and fertility cult. The mummer   generally old man in Karelian tradition and youth or young man among Russians fastened to his head a pot, threw on turned inside out   skin or caftan, put on felt boots, woollen mittens and socks. Lads and men pulled the "bull" on the rope across the entire village and he resited and roared frightfully. This scene provoked genuine fear among women and children who  observed the performance aside. The "bull" was pulled to certain house and then "killed" - broke the pot on his head and unfold furcoat. After that  feast with drinking beer and home-made brew and accordion playing started in house.

The costume of "bear" – the character of  Malanka, mummers' parade. Romanians. Ukraine. The District of Chernovets. 2015 г.

The costume was made by Vasily Isopel for his three-year-old son who particpated in the festival Malanka in 2016. Similar costumes but of bigger size are made for adult particpants of festival. 

The "bear" is the most colorful character of Malanka annual mummurs' parade which is held on in the night from  January 13 to 14 on the eve of the old New Year. The name Malanka is linked with the Saint Melania whose feast falls on January  13.

The "gypsy" leads the "bear"  on the rope and the mummer is dancing, roaring and resisting.  The sense of performance is taming of "bear".In Krasnoil'sk Malanka is held on in five districts (kuts) simultaneously. Groups of mummers compete with each other by diversity of characters, showmanship and expressiveness of performance which is especially manifested in costumes of "bears". In the Districts of Dyal and Trazhany they are made like big straw overalls. Making of such costume requires about  150–200 kilograms of straw;  straw bunches are fingered, crumpled and twisted in long "thread". Costume in made directly on the person who will wear it; legs and torso are wrapped with straw thread joining ends with rope.  Costume is decorated with artificial flowers, the New Year flippery, fir branches, sometimes electric garlands. In many respects the "bear" dance is determined by heaviness of costume; he moves slowly  raising his legs with difficulty in turn  and swinging his "shoulders",  whirls and  whengetting tired rests periodically sitting or reclining.


Zoomorphic characters of Caucasian peoples

Animals played important role in various rites among the peoples of the Caucasus. Their horns and skulls were fastened on fence poles or house door to scary away evil spirits.  

Particular significance in ritual life had goat which cult was associated with agriculture. In theatreilized performances during calendar festivals and weddings death and resurrection of the fertility god was presented. In course of time this character was changed by a man in “goat” mask or doll. The masks of black or brown felt were usually made by girls of young women exclusively for every solemnity.

The Caucasian wedding long and crowdie was filled with humor and festive spirit. During its celebration various theatrelized scenes were performed. One of personages was the mummer in felt mask of “goat”. He jumped and butted, chased children and women, accosted passers-by with jokes and requirement of ransom. The mummer “goat” could joke on every participant of wedding, even the master of ceremonies. According to people’s beliefs, he not only cheered up the party guests but also scared evil spirits.

Among the peoples of North-Western Caucasus every undertaking (haymaking, livestock pasturing, kidling, start of ploughing, etc.) was accompanied by great festivities and merriment. For instance, among the Karachays mumming was linked with the start of haymaking. Sacrifices and prayers were performed before beginning of works. The old man mummer who was in every group of haymakers should have particular qualities such as force, wittiness, sense of humor and actor talents. The goat-bearded mummer could mock laziness, poor handling of working tool and incapacity for labor.

The feast of ploughmen was known to all the Adyg peoples. After finish of fieldworks they returned to village and made a feast in which the entire community participated. The main actor was the mummer chosen among ploughmen lived in the same village. Even princes couldn’t pass by the mummers and join the feast without obtaining his permission or paying a ransom.

During the feast the target for arrow shooting k’abak’ – a high pole with figures of different animals, birds and horsemen was placed on a cart. One should hit the target riding, the most successful shooter received a prize, and moreover, according to folk tale he became endowed with the magic of good luck in his undertakings. .

The Maimuli Mummer at the Uastyrdzhi Feast

 In the Ossetian tradition shrines dzuares, where various festivals were carried out, played important role. One of the most important events was the Saint George Feast or Uastyrdzhi which celebration started on November 23 and lasted one week. On the eve men gathered near dzuar and seven persons – the organizers of the feast were by casting lots.

The feast stared with procession of villagers to a shrine dzuar tying red ribbons on the horns of sacrificial animals. On the way the participant of procession sang songs addressed to Uastyrdzhi to make him help wanderers and give everybody good life. Coming to the shrine they removed ribbons from horns and prepared a banquet.  

In course of the feast its organizers chose a mummer maimuli (“the monkey”) In the dzuar he was dressed in a fur coat turned inside out and put on a mask of felt or skin, he was also given wooden dagger, saber and watch. The mask was “decorated” with small horns, thick moustaches, woolen or horse hair beard. Exiting the dzuar maimuli scared and entertained the gathered public, stroke his legs with saber and danced. 

Moreover, the mummer gathered alms for the needs of the dzuar.When he threw his wooden saber or gun to one of observers, he should give him something, usually money.As a rule the maimuli chose  of wealthy fellow-villagers but he could also put on arms on a girl whom he liked.

According to tradition the maimuli was considered to be mute and communicated by gestures or through translator. During the feast a priests prayed the Saint Uastyrdzhi to pardon the maimuli all his sins and to give him human speech. The culmination of rite was the acquisition of capacity to speak by the maimuli.


The Cham Masked Dance

The Cham ("dance" in Tibetan)  is the dance of mystic content during which monks dressed in costumes and masks of the characters of the Buddhist pantheon represented the triumph of the Buddhist doctrine over evil spirits, life over death and goodness over evil with help of symbolic gestures and movements.  

The origins of the Cham dance date back to theatrilized mystery plays of South and Central Asia. Every year the Cham dance was performed in all Buddhist convents which traditions determined  the time of its carrying out. This grandiouse treatrilized performance with big number of participants gathered thousands of believers and could last several hours. Every Buddhist convent had its own set of masks, costumes and musical instruments to perform the Cham dance.

The Cham dancing  masks were made in convent workshop; they were usually made of papier-mache or carved wood and painted with mineral dyes. Some masks were decorated with corals, turquiouse, malachite and embellished with gilt earrings and crowns. Masks were sancrtified before their using. Their crafting was equaled to high art and the names of masters were immortalized in religious traditions. Masks especially those which were passed from generation to generation were considered to be the sacred relics endowned with magic gualities. 

The Cham dance was performed by specially prepared monks, only few roles, for example the roles of warriors and the Raven could be played by laymen. Only men participated in the Cham dance. The role which was trusted to a certain lama depended first of all of his knowledge in the spheres of  Buddhist philosophy  and mystic foundations of the Cham dance.

Masks of the Cham dance participants. Buryats. Eastern Siberia. The Transbaikalia region. Early ХХ c.

The mask was an element of costume of a follower of the war god Jamsaran, a fierce protector of the Buddhist doctrine. Jamsaran usually entered in the circle and performed his ritual dance accompanied by eight followers-sons whose roles were played by huvaraki - children novices dressed in red costumes and masks.

Fierce and sinister appearance of masks was to scary and to fill with terror the enemies of Buddhism.The mask of Jamsaran which distinguished by big size in comparison with other Cham characters especially impressed. Sometimes it was embellished with large number of corals for this reason it was given name the "coral mask".

The carved figurines of the Cham dance participants. Mongols. Mongolia. Urga. Early  ХХ c.

The figurines represent monks and laymen dressed as the characters of the Cham dance.In total the set includes  76 wooden figurines painted with mineral dyes. They were made by lama artist on comission of Ya. P. Shishmarev, the General consul in Urga.


"Scary" and "Alien": Fantastic and Antropomorphic Masks of Eurasian Peoples

In traditional culture the time of transition between old and  new years and one season to another was always considered dangerous; demonic powers rampaged on the earth during the Yule and the Butter Week. These notions corresponded with ritual acts - mumming when man explicitly emulated the beings from "other" world.

The masks of devils, demons, witches, dead men and other fiends were considered as the "scary ones". Shaggy and horned with hypertrophied noses and grinning teeth they sometimes provoked serious fear. The "scary" mummers behaved themselves fiercely: they could tease passers, roll them in  the snow, push them, fliped whips. Entering the house they turned pots and vats upside down, scattered cords of wood, dispersed rabbish in izba. However, it was believed that "everything is permitted for mummers", their actions explicitly reflected mythological notions and should create the scaring effect.

Apart of  the "scary masks" large number of "beautiful" or "clean" masks of everyday characters existed. They danced with members of household, congratulated them with festival, cheered up and made them laugh. Creating these characters the "our" was opposed to the "alien". Men dressed up as women and women as men, youths as old men, people of advanced age as groom and bride. Numerous group of mummers represented the members of "other" ethnic, social and professional environment. 

The characters of masked parades and various funny scenes were the "professionals" whose occupation differed from peasant labour: "smiths" and "millers", "potters" and "chimney sweepers", "priests", "soldiers", "doctors", "musicians". Representatives of  different social strata became the mumming characters: on one hand "wealthy man", "sir", "scribe", "voevode", on the other hand "pauper", "wanderer", "brigand".

The image of "stranger" was presented in parody way. In the masquerade tradition of Eastern Europe the most common characters were "Gypsies" and "Jews". In the Russian North people also dressed up as Lapps and Samoyeds and in the Eastern Finland mummers played "Russians with bear". Among Khants and Mansi the mummers dressed as "priests" and "Russian oficials" appeared during the Bear Feast.

The sense of such transformation wasn't mocking but ritual-carnival reincarnation-representation of the "world turned upside down". At the same time  comedy presented in the images of "others"; mummers danced, messed around, spoke in changed voices. According to folk notions laugh was endowned with vital force, moreover it was consdered as alternative to the state of everyday life when everyone both mummers and spectators found themselves in other world changing their behaviors.


Costume of "Jew" – The Character of Mummers Parade Malanka. Romanians. Ukraine, The District of Chernovits 2015.

The costume was presented to K.Bruzha who put it on festivals in 2015-2016. It consist of "robe" and mask, the face part of which is made of papier-mache and the upper one is "hat". The making of mask starts with the creation of plaster cast of "face" on which pieces of journals or newspapers, patch of jeans fabric are glued in layers, then it is covered with layers of paper inside and outside.When the mask gets dry, nostrils and hole for mouth are burnt with glowing iron bar, then it is covered with paint. Traditionally dark colors brown, black sometimes blue and red are chosen for the masks of "Jews". The "face" of this mummer as of many others must scare and amaze. The mask is supplemented by a hat with high crown on carton base to which animal skins. horns, claws and other scaring elements are fastened. The mummer indispensablyy holds in his hands bag or small suitcase. Usually this character leans on a stick kyrzha made of tree route to which skin of recently killed rabbit or hare is fastened. During mummers' parade Jews keep apart of the other characters. Their actions is playful attack with purpose to "reach" a man who has to buy off. 

Costume of "witch" – the character of the Butter Week Parade. Lithuanians. Lithuania Samogitia.Early ХХ c.

Witch is harmful being, devil's helper who can transform into various animals and fly. This character is common in carnival parades of Europe which are held on the Butter Week before the start of Great Lent. In Lithuanian tradition this festival is called "Uzhgavenes" that is the eve of fast. Witches and devils alongside other masks accompany the dummy of More, a woman figure incarnating winter which mummers rode in sledge. According to traditions it must be burnt, but today the dummy is sometimes kept untill next year.


Shaman's Masks of the Peoples of Siberia and the Far East

Shaman's masks and  maskoids the objects resembling them are  one of the most interesting phenomenon in traditional culture of the peoples of Siberia and the Far East. Unlike the masks which were  used during festivals and predominantly had play character, the meaning and functions of shaman's masks were much broader. Ones were put on for incarnation, second ones  chased away evil spirits and the third ones personified shaman's helpers-spirits or shaman's ancestors.

Among the peoples of Siberia and the Far East mask was important attribute of shaman's costume. Covering of the face helped to concentrate and to enter in  ecstasy condition facilitating communication with spirits more rapidly.  It was believed that donnig  mask of ancestor shaman absorbed his spirit  which helped him during shamanistic ritual. Mask was among necessary attributes of the Nanai shaman during spring festival Undi aimed to provide fertility and health of people.Masks were also donned during curing rituals.

Sometimes wooden and metal maskoids were placed on the shaman's clothes or personal belongings. Their use is known in shamanic traditions of Evenks and Samoyedic peoples (Nenets, Enets, Nganasans). Maskoids  – the images of protecting ancestors and mythic characters as men and women faces were on the headdress of Tuvinian shamans. 

The Borto ongons of Buryat shamans are also maskoids.  They were chiefly made of wood, with hair, moustaches and beard of sheep or bear skin.  They were worshipes as the protectors of line, fed with lard and kept in yurt. If the line ended, ongon remained in hole made in special pole placed near settlement.

Material for mask making was diverse. Metal masks and their miniature copies were made by smiths under supervision of shaman. Holes were near the mouth, eye brows and the exterior age of mask to which pieces of animal skin or fur were fastened.Wooden and birch bark masks were painted with dyes. Some masks were covered with leather and decorated with fabric and beads. Like on the Udege mask of the shaman of the highest consacration headdress was sewn up to masks. Small metal cone-shaped pendants were hanged on the Buryat maskoids - the Borto ongons.  In some masks metal inlays were made  instead of slots for the  eyes. Nenets embroidered the eyes and the mouth on the cloth masks-veils or sewed buttons instead of them.

Shaman's masks and maskoids were sometimes kept together with other sacred objects, passed on wtihin the family and considered to be the protectors of lineage. The Evenk shamans as rule "took" their masks in other world leaving them near a tomb.


The Dagestan “Shah” Or Shah Games

Among the peoples of Dagestan (Dargins, Kaitagtsi and Kubachintsi) ritual mumming was practiced by members of male unions who finished   their annual meetings with bright theatrical performance. The time of carrying out the ritual was called gulala-abiltzil –“the last three days of bachelors”.

The main characters of performance were “shah” or “khan” chosen among old men who wore an iron mask, his wife, four or six courtiers and a body guard. A jester was always in the “shah” retinue whose task was to make his master laugh.

The festival started with solemn carrying of “shah” to the village square filled with spectators and his placing on the special dais. During games twelve unmarried lads paraded in masks and ancient armory before the public so that nobody could recognize them. In course of festival shah’s enemies suddenly appeared trying to abduct his wife and courtiers. Fighting started between the shah’s retinue and the abductors and the participants of game started to persecute the abductors. In pauses between fighting various running and shooting competitions were organized. Performance was ending with returning to “shah” his wife. In evening “bachelors” headed by “shah” returned home and during festive dinner “shah” put off his mask.  

We use cookies (cookies with data about past visits to the site) to personalize the services and user experience.

By continuing to browse this site, you agree to the use of cookies and accept the terms.