In New Orleans, we love a good masquerade. Here, costume wearing is pretty standard. Most of us have dedicated closets and drawers and shelves for our costume pieces. Masking is part of our identity. I’ve only lived here two years and in that time, my not already inconsiderable costume collection has grown at least five times larger than it was before.
Of course, down here, masking is tied into Carnival, brought to Louisiana by the French. Mardi Gras was first celebrated in Louisiana in 1699 and other than a few years here and there, the tradition has continued ever since. Most people outside of New Orleans think that Mardi Gras is a single Day event. It’s not. In actuality, Mardi Gras starts the day after Twelfth Night and continues on to Fat Tuesday. It’s also not something that goes on for the tourists: the entire city celebrates for the entire season.
Why are we talking about Mardi Gras when we aren’t anywhere close to Twelfth Night? Because it is Halloween ,and Halloween seems to be the city’s Mardi Gras prequel. While Halloween itself is on Wednesday, the weekend before Halloween is traditionally when we all gather and celebrate in the Quarter. It’s a time of local revelry and of course, masking.
Masking is probably one of the longest traditions practiced by mankind. It has both practical and spiritual uses, and goes back at least 40,000 years. Masking was used in antiquity for many things; ritual persona, sacred dance, theater and warfare.
When you don a mask, you become someone or something else. You take on a character that is both ‘other,’ and also greater than yourself. As my Significant Other points out, “masking comes from the sacred clown tradition, which is represented by the Fool in the tarot deck. the Fool, the zero card, represents unlimited potential and rebirth”. In New Orleans, we celebrate this potential of the city to constantly reinvent itself moment by moment. The city does this yearly, creating an atmosphere of constant flux and possibility. It’s probably one of the reasons we bounced back from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina so quickly; the city was able to redefine itself, to strike a new pose, carrying the people within it into its rebirth: it’s used to this sort of thing after all.
There’s a great deal of the trickster spirit in masking. From Coyote to Harlequino, from Loki to Prometheus, Tricksters often take on different personas to go about their business of foolery, which ultimately brings about positive change. Transformation and resurrection, along with a healthy dose of heroic action, are characteristics of the Trickster. Whether or not you like the Trickster, he certainly brings about an often chaotic transformation. When we mask, we’re recreating the actions of the Trickster to change our reality into something greater and better.
As Titus Burckhardt says in his article The Sacred Mask, “It derives from the expression persona itself. We know that in the ancient theater, derived from the sacred theater of the Mysteries, this word designated both the mask and the role. Now the mask necessarily expresses not an individuality—whose representation scarcely requires a mask—but a type, and hence a timeless reality, cosmic or divine”. In this way, the mask transcends itself from being a simple costume, to a whole new identity with many ritual possibilities. New Orleans is a city that ritually masks to transform herself year to year into something new and different each time.
Burckhardt continues on to say “Moreover, man spontaneously identifies himself with the role that he plays, one that has been imposed on him by his origin, his destiny, and his social ambience. This role is a mask—most often a false mask in a world as artificial as our own, and in any case one that limits rather than liberates. The sacred mask, on the contrary, along with all that its wearing implies as regards gestures and words, suddenly offers one’s “self-consciousness” a much vaster mold and thereby the possibility of realizing the “liquidity” of this consciousness and its capacity to espouse all forms without being any one of them.” When people mask in New Orleans, in many ways they are bringing to bear the sides of themselves that they hide from the mundane world. People mask to become the people of their dreams and imaginings.
The idea of a city that masks is not confined to New Orleans. Other cities have Carnival as well: Rio De Janeiro, Venice, Rome, Paris…all of these cities do the same sort of thing and this gives our cities a much different reality than cities that don’t mask. Cities that mask see magic in the world more easily.
The roots of Mardi Gras lie first in Paganism, but within modern history, within the Catholic celebration of Carnival leading to Lent. The Catholic tradition holds that we each have a dark self, prey to temptation: a shadow-self. Masking ensures people confront their shadow selves. The Jungian archetype says that “The Shadow represents the traits which lie deep within ourselves. The traits that are hidden from day-to-day life and are in some cases the opposite of the self is a simple way to state these traits. The shadow is a very important trait because for one to truly know themselves, one must know all their traits, including those which lie beneath the common, i.e., the shadow. If one chooses to know the shadow there is a chance they give in to its motivation”. Masking brings on a self-awareness of identity; we mask to confront the shadow, so that the motivation to give into it is much less.
I love that my city is a constant celebration of the sacred dance of magic and ritual. While most people who participate probably don’t see it in that light, I, as a Pagan, certainly do. Last night in the Quarter, who knows who I was rubbing elbows with. I’m sure that many of the local spirits and deities join in with the mayhem of our very human celebrations. I see masking as vital to living a healthy life. Being someone who we aren’t for a night let’s us see the world through fresh eyes. It allows the world to see us differently, and to create a vehicle for the divine to come more easily into our life.
And in the end, being able to change personas for a night makes us appreciate who we are even more.