The False Face Society

Once in a while I come across something so interesting that I’m compelled to write about it, even if it’s not exactly about drawing or painting. Art, as we all know, comes in many guises, and it is part of many different world cultures. And so it was, as I was browsing around on Sunday morning, I came across “The False Face Society” — part of the Iroquois culture.

Today, masks are playing an important part in our society. To wear or not to wear… that’s become a very big question. I found it fascinating to learn about “The False Face Society” of the Iroquois. The information that follows is taken from an elementary art education program at a site called “Art Discovery“.

The False Face Society

Curing sickness is the special purpose of the Iroquois False Face Society.  The False Face Society takes its name from the painted wooden masks that members wear in curing rituals.  In these ceremonies, members dance to the sound of rattles made of snapping-turtle shells.  Members of the society put on the false faces to visit the lodge of a sick man who has declared himself in need of a cure.  Wearing their masks and shaking turtle shell rattles, the members who are to bring about the cure creep towards the sick person’s home.  They scrape their rattles against the door and enter the house in single file, continuing to shake the rattles and singing.

Inside the house, ashes and tobacco are used in a ritual meant to drive away the demons believed to be the cause of the patient’s illness.  Society members would carry the ill man or woman next to the household fireplace –originally this was a fire pit, inside a longhouse.  False Face dancers would dance near the fire, sprinkling ashes on the patient’s head and tobacco into the flames.  Anyone who is cured automatically becomes a member of the society.  One of the most important parts of the original ritual was that the Society was always thanked by the ill person’s family with gifts, foods and fur.

Most curing ceremonies are traditionally held in private, in order to achieve the best effect, but public ceremonies are still held at the Midwinter Festival, for those cured earlier.  This community midwinter curing ceremony was originally considered essential in order to prevent the disease from reappearing.

Masks are painted red if they were begun in the morning or black if they were begun in the afternon.  Red masks are thought to be more powerful.  This is in accordance with the belief that the first False Face made a daily journey following the path of the Sun and his face would appear red in the morning as he came from the east and black in the afternoon as he looked back from the west.

False Face

The features of False Face masks are strongly carved, with the mouths and often the eyes highly exaggerated.  The masks have deep set eyes, accentuated with gleaming metal eye plates and large noses.  The arched brows are deeply wrinkled.  The mouth is the most variable feature, and runs through a whole range of expressions.  Sometimes the mouth is pursed as if for whistling; sometimes it is puckered to imitate blowing ashes as part of the False Face curing rites.  The mouth may also reveal the teeth or a protruding tongue.  Other masks have large, straight, distended lips which may be twisted up at one corner or both corners may turn down in a distorted arrangement producing a frightening effect.  A series of wrinkles usually heightens the distorted look and cheek bones are sometimes suggested.

The faces are framed by long hair, usually cut from black or white horses’ tails.  Before the Europeans introduced horses, corn husk braids, or tresses of buffalo mane served as hair.

Once a person becomes a member, they go alone into the woods to carve their own mask.  Nobody else is allowed to help.  False face masks are carved in the trunks of living basswood, maple, pine or poplar trees.  According to Iroquois tradition, this is done so that the living spirit of the tree continues to live on in the mask.  To make the mask, the person walks through the woods to find a tree whose spirit talks to them.  After talking back to the tree, the person builds a fire in front of the tree but not touching it.  Tobacco is sprinkled into the fire, and then bark is stripped from the tree wherever it seems the scariest.  The mask needs to be scary enough to frighten off sickly evil spirits.  Next, the person outlines a frightening face in the tree trunk and carves out this outlined section of the tree.  The mask is cut free from the tree only when nearly finished.  Then the mask maker moves into a secluded shelter to finish the mask.  Once cut away from the tree, the masks are polished, painted red or black (depending on the time of day the mask carving began) and hair like fiber is attached, along with feathers and other decorations. – From ART DISCOVERY

Learning More

Years ago I attended a mask-making workshop in Seattle. My mask has long since disappeared, but it was quite an interesting project. Unlike the Iroquois “false faces” carved from trees, paper mache masks can be quickly made. With Halloween coming up, why not make and paint your own mask?

How to Make Your Own Paper Mache Mask

Again, the information here is designed for school-age children, but, trust me, mask-making is fun for children of all ages — up to and including the “inner child” within all of us. The masks shown in this demo are unpainted, but that’s much of the fun, so grab a few acrylic paints and have a go at it! Adding feathers or beads — or anything else — lets you personalize your mask to suit whatever personality you want.

So, once again I could ask that question… is it art? Maybe, maybe not, but the question is irrelevant. It’s interesting to learn about masks from native cultures, to know the story behind them, and to use our creative abilities to make a mask that is uniquely our own.


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