Ancient Egyptian Masks of Ritual & Death
There are two basic types of ancient Egyptian masks – those used for rituals, such as the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, and those used to cover the face or head of the mummy.
Funerary ancient Egyptian masks are probably the more well-known, partly because there are a lot more of them due to the fact that these were usually made of sturdier material made to last a very long time (eternity was the goal) and partly because the most famous of them is the solid gold mask of King Tutankhamun, which has achieved rock-star fame around the world.
We’ll cover these as well as take a quick look at what we know about ritual masks.
The Glorious Ancient Egyptian Masks of Death
Below I made a little video showcasing different ancient Egyptian death masks, set to music, so you can feast your eyes before we get into the details.
So now let’s talk about why the ancient Egyptians used funerary masks in the first place.
The most obvious reason is to protect the head and face of the mummy. The ancient Egyptians believed in preserving the physical body after death because it was part of the afterlife experience as well.
The other reason was to strengthen the chance of acceptance into the afterlife by projecting an image of themselves that is appealing to the gatekeepers of the afterlife – the gods that would judge and determine their fates.
For those who could afford it, they had elaborate masks that would resemble an idealized version of themselves – perhaps in their youth – but with divine features such as the gilded skin and blue hair.
The gods, specifically the sun-god Ra, were thought to have skin made of gold and hair made of lapis lazuli.
That wasn’t just for show – it was because they believed that to be endowed with divine status, one would have easier access into the afterlife and become accepted by the gods themselves.
It helped their cause of resurrection in everlasting life in Aaru, the Field of Reeds.
Those who could not afford gold leaf and precious minerals, but still could afford a mask, would have theirs made of wood or other less-costly materials, such as plaster or hardened mummy shrouds, yet with idealized features such as large eyes, red skin tones for men and yellow skin tones for women, and other embellishments.
But before the mask was adorned, the body of the deceased was washed, emptied of all internal organs except the heart, dried and wrapped during the very long mummy-preparation rituals.
The masks would sometimes also have symbols that helped the deceased in the afterlife, such as a winged scarab, the goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet on the forehead of a pharaoh’s mask, and inscriptions from the Book of the Dead or other funerary texts.
Mummy masks evolved over time – at first they were made by hardening the outer layer of the mummy shroud, and then they were produced separately using molds, and then finally they were made with precious metals beaten into shape.
Ancient Egyptian Masks for Religious and Funerary Rituals
Ancient Egypt had hundreds, if not thousands, of religious rituals and festivals that sometimes required intricate practices and an ambiance to match.
One such ritual was the Opening of the Mouth and Eyes ceremony, where a priest wearing the mask of Anubis supported the deceased while another priest would perform the opening of the mouth.
And during the embalming and mummification process, the practitioners would also wear masks of Anubis – after all, he was the god of embalming.
But there were also religious processions and rituals where priests and priestesses would adorn the masks of the specific deities they were “evoking” or trying to emulate.
Not many ancient Egyptian masks used in rituals and ceremonies still exists, as they were not made to last as long as those intended to preserve the mummy of the deceased for all eternity.
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