Masks Introduction


The masks or figures were not symbols of abstraction, they were for the animistic Africans: containers, or retainers of spirit power, dwelling places for the invisible forces of the ancestors's souls. It was not the carving which was the subject to worship, but the forces which it contained. Animism was for the Africans the foundation for most of their religio-magical rituals. Masks were "spirit traps" as the African called them, aiming at all time to control the function of ancestors' spirits for the benefit of the living. They were based on the concept that through the appropriate rituals man could conjure up the vital forces (nyama) dwelling in the masks or figures by gaining the benediction of his ancestor in order to promote fertility, protection and success.
Each mask had multiple meanings, and acquired a specific significance in each separate ritual based upon the established oral tradition. The participants in the ritual knew its conceptual basis from historic, mythic, or social data learned from childhood and emphasized in the initiatory teaching. Within this multiplicity of uses and meanings, one is recurring often – the use of the same mask in fertility, agricultural and burial ceremonies. All the three ceremonies using the same mask had one common aim: fertility. Fertility of the earth - for the sacredness of the soil, which belonged to the ancestors, or the "masters of the soil", thus, the successful harvest depended on the benediction of these ancestors. Procreation - the fusion of male and female producing offspring, this includes human and animal fertility, symbolically the fertility of the earth. Third, since in the African's mind the fertility of the earth and human was connected with ancestor's spirits, he maintained contact with these spirits at burials and rituals of ancestor worship. The ancestor was often associated with human fertility. They believed as have said, in incarnation – when a child was about to be born, they consulted their diviner to find out which ancestor would return in the body of the baby, and accordingly, the infant received the ancestor's name. Thus, the cycle of life continues in traditional African life (L. Segy Masks of Black Africa 1976:20-21, 26-28).