Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Elephant No. 184: Masquerade Mask

It's probably somewhat pretentious to call this a masquerade mask, since it's essentially just a flat mask on a stick, but I wasn't sure what to call it. It's not elegant enough to be a Venetian mask, but it's not the kind of mask you strap to your face.

Although the available information is sketchy, it appears that masks on sticks originate with a beautiful Venetian actress during the seventeenth century. Her role as Columbina in a particular performance of commedia dell'arte required her to wear a mask. She balked, however, at having her pretty face entirely obscured, and asked that a half-mask be made for her. She also asked that the mask have a stick attached, so that she could flirtatiously reveal her face at will, similar to the way women once flirted with fans.

Columbina mask on stick.
Source: http://www.venicemask.eu/lang-en/venetian-

The origins of the English word "mask" are shrouded in mystery. Various root words have been suggested, implying everything from ridicule and buffoonery, to literally "spectre", "nightmare" and "added face".

For millennia, masks have been used the world over for their expressive power, both in rites and in theatrical performance. These two purposes often overlapped in ritual dramas and ceremonies, as well as pageants and festivals. In many cases, masks allowed the wearer to become an intermediary between the physical and unseen worlds, facilitating communication with spirits, attracting success in the hunt, and obviating various evils.

This stone mask, ca. 7000 B.C., is thought to be the
oldest mask in the world.
Collection of the Musée de la Bible et de la Terre Sainte, Paris
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mus%C3%A9e_de_la_Bible_et

Masks were also worn as a form of social identity. In Rome, for example, the word persona meant both "mask" and "citizen of Rome". Citzens could proclaim their lineage by wearing the death masks of their ancestors. Similarly, in some parts of Melanesia, masks were worn, in part, to reinforce social codes through ritual intimidation.

Front view of traditional Bamelike elephant mask,
described in the elephant lore of a previous blog post.
Photo: Tim Hamill
Source: http://www.hamillgallery.com/BAMILEKE/

Throughout history, masks have been made of a wide range of materials, depending primarily on what was locally available. Wood, cloth, clay, bones, fur, skin, leather, gold, silver, gemstones and ivory have been widely used throughout history. As trade and technology expanded, new materials were added to the repertoire, including glass beads, gold and silver leaf, plastics and rubber.

Gold mask, ca. 1600–1500 B.C., originally thought by its discoverer,
Heinrich Schliemann, to be the Mask of Agamemnon.
Collection of the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MaskOfAgamemnon.jpg

Masks have long been produced as art objects as well. Sometimes these are part of live performance; other times, they are objects meant primarily for display. Some mask-like objects are unwearable, lacking eyeholes and the like. There have also been periods during which masks have become slightly kitsch tchotchkes, being neither wearable, nor true to any particular maskmaking tradition.

Handcrafted Peking Opera mask wall hanging.
Source: http://www.china-cart.com/d.asp?d=9940

In addition to decorative masks, many masks are simply practical. They can be medical, in the form of surgical masks, oxygen masks and face shields. They can have a protective purpose as gas masks, welding masks, visors for suits of armour, and headgear for sports. Goalie masks are a particularly interesting form of sports mask, often evoking characters and personalities in a way that hearkens back to early ritual.

Goalie mask worn by Curtis Joseph, nicknamed "Cujo", of the
Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, 2009.
Source: http://sports.gunaxin.com/a-goalie-mask-gallery/5623

Today, most people associate masks with masquerade balls, Carnival, live performances, and of course Hallowe'en. Ceremonial masks are now largely produced for the tourist trade, although the revival of ancient traditions in many parts of the world is leading to a resurgence in the making of ritual masks for ritual purposes.

I've been collecting masks for years, but somehow I've never managed to acquire an elephant mask. I happened upon this one in the dollar store. It was the only one of its kind, so it seemed to be begging to be brought home and prettified.

The first thing I did was paint it white to obscure the black lines. In its original form, it was just a tad too cute for its own good. I also didn't want to be influenced by the original design.

 Next, I painted all the grey. I used some rough shading, and tried to follow the general contours of an elephant to give it a bit of dimension, but I didn't agonize over it. I think this took me about ten minutes, to give you some idea of how slapdash it was.

To complete the general painting of the elephant, I added some pink inside the ears and at the tip of the trunk.

I painted a purple headdress next, dressing it up with some gold paint. I also painted on some tusks, painted the stick red, and added a few dark grey lines to give the elephant some extra definition.

Because these kinds of masks often have feathers attached, I stuck on a peacock feather and a couple of purple feathers left over from my painted feather activity. I used a glue gun for these, pouring on quite a lot of glue over the feathers on the back.

To finish it up, I added a couple of acrylic rhinestones at the top of the headdress, and one in the lower centre. I used white glue for these, as I figured it would make less of a mess than a glue gun.

I like this a lot more than I thought I would when I started. It took me a couple of hours, mostly because I waited for paint to dry at various points. It wasn't at all difficult, however, and it's quite pretty in real life.

Although it's not a work of art, it can definitely be used, and I think it might look rather interesting hanging on a wall. I almost want to go out and buy a few more of these, just for fun.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In 1936, a man named Richard Halliburton decided to retrace Hannibal's exploits by cross the Alps on the back of an Asian elephant named Dally—short for Elysabethe Dalrymple.

The trouble started almost as soon as Dally left her home at the Paris Zoo. Although the first bit of Halliburton's walk through the Bois de Boulogne went well, Dally balked as soon as she encountered the Porte Maillot and traffic. A taxi driver, approaching from behind, honked his horn within a couple of feet of Dally's tail. Unable to take the stress, Dally leapt into the air, then took off, trumpeting in terror, charging blindly down the Avenue de la Grande Armée at speed. Halliburton was flung off first, followed by his baggage, and finally her hollering mahout, Harel.

Chasing her did no good, serving only to panic Dally even more. She banged into parked cars, scattered pedestrians and cyclists, and caused a great deal of screaming. She was only stopped by a solid mass of traffic that had halted at a light. Squealing miserably in the midst of a tangle of cars, Dally was held by the shocked drivers until her keepers could come and get her.

Surprisingly, Halliburton was not deterred by this setback. Dally went back to the Paris Zoo, where she was given several months of traffic training. When Halliburton came back, Dally was ready for the adventure. Travelling by freight train through France, Halliburton, Dally, Harel and a truck carrying supplies and feed for Dally alighted in Martigny, Switzerland. Darkness had set in, but the sight of an elephant walking the streets of the town was still enough to send many people running away in fear. Halliburton reckoned that it might have been the first time anyone had seen an elephant in Martigny in more than two millennia.

After several days' travel, then arrived at St. Bernard's Pass and headed down into Italy. Dally perked up as they descended, actually playing a giant harmonica, which was apparently her favourite thing in the whole world. Everything seemed relatively idyllic until the party ran smack into mountain manoeuvres being conducted by the Italian Army.

Forty thousand soldiers popped up all around the little party. As Halliburton put it, "The slopes and woods suddenly swarmed with them; they filled the road, they and their military trucks, and their artillery, and their tanks and cavalry." Apparently the Italians were as surprised to see Halliburton as he was to see them. They seem to have been particularly astonished by the sight of an elephant playing a harmonica. Cheering Dally on with cries of "L'elefantessa! L'elefantessa!" soldiers came running from all over, eventually allowing the group to pass.

Halliburton had gone about half a mile down the road when disaster struck again. Although Dally had been desensitized to traffic, she had not been desensitized to the sound of gunfire. The military was on manoeuvres, after all, and a gun emplacement suddenly began firing real shells not 200 metres from where Dally was walking. The noise was too much for her, and she reared up on her hind legs, trumpeted frantically, turned around and dashed back the way she'd come in an even more uncontrollable panic than in Paris. Halliburton again hit the ground, Dally's lead rope was ripped from Harel's hands, and she charged into the midst of the troops—which obligingly scattered.

Dally was eventually brought under control, but the adventure was over. Dally, Haliburton and Harel headed back to Paris by train, where Dally was returned to the Paris Zoo. As a parting gift, Halliburton presented her with a new harmonica.

For part of Halliburton's firsthand account and a link to more photographs, click here.

Dally, Haliburton, and Dally's mahout Harel walking through Italy, 1936.
From the entertaining Beachcomber's Bizarre History Blog at



  1. Where can I buy these masks? Dollarama sells them but only in small amounts. Please let me know as Im a co founder for Elephanatics and need some for classroom presentations.

  2. Hi Fran,

    I bought mine at Dollarama, so I'm not sure where else they might be available. Sorry not to be more helpful. I will ask Dollarama if they can sell in quantity, however, and let you know.

  3. Hi - Thank you - I bought mine there as well and called Head Office - they don't sell individually to people - but thanks for answering. Dollarama told me they are getting more in soon so I will wait. Thanks again!

  4. Hi Fran,

    Thanks for letting me know. I hope they get them soon. Buy up the stock at every outlet in town, hahaha! Good luck, and I'd love to see photos of the final results. :)