Spirit mask

Spirit mask - sign of the year's death and rebirth

Spirit masks appear during the new year celebrations, each with its own role and significance. They represent the spirits of the ancestors who transmit the principle of fertility in the new year, through games, gestures, dialogue.

New Year's mask games allow the participants to escape everyday life and take on a new persona. “The masks purify their holders, preparing them to enter freely in the new year”*.

Spirit masks were used in the celebration of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, theatre and fertility. The participants in the procession of Dionysus wore animal masks (deer, sheep, goat), dressed in skins, anointed their faces with wine yeast and used vine leaves and branches for disguises. Some rode donkeys and rang bells, others walked and played various comic scenes, making licentious jokes, singing by voice or using instruments. The masked people represented the nucleus of these celebrations.

 

 

The mask traditions were spread from Greece throughout the Roman Empire. In the eastern, Greek speaking part of the Roman Empire, the celebration of Dionysus merged with the Calends(the first day of the Roman calendar) because they were close to one another in the year: "in the Eastern Empire, the Dionysus celebration also took place at New Year's, frequently being part of the celebration of the Calends of January"*.  

The mask is metaphorically killed at the end of the year, only for it to be reborn in the New Year. This is a harmless version of the King of Saturnalia, a Roman custom. Roman soldiers from Durostorum (Moesia Inferior), celebrating the Saturnalia every year, thirty days before the celebration, drew lots to choose a young man whom they then dressed in royal clothes, symbolising Saturn. The young king walked through the crowd with all the freedom to fulfil his passions and taste any pleasure, even if it involved a low or shameful deed. But the joy was short-lived, because only after a month, at the arrival of Saturn's feast, he was killed on the god's altar. In the year 303 AD the legionaries of the Durostorum fortress chose a Christian, named Dasius, as king of the Saturnalia. He refused to play the role of king of the Saturnalia and spend the last days of his life in debauchery. The threats and arguments of his commander Bassus did not change his decision and, consequently, Dasius was executed, as the Christian martyrology reports with minute precision, "at Durostorum, by the soldier Ion, on Friday, November 20, in the twenty-fourth day of the month, at four o'clock"*.

 


*Pop Mihai, Lecture of a ceremonial discourse, 1976

*Caraman Petru, Christmas carols of Romanians, Slavs and other peoples, 1968

*Frazer George, The golden Bough, 1980

Back to blog