I See Dead People

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Funerary masks are cool. I used to think that they were so the living would remember what their friends and relations looked like, but it turns out that’s got nothing to do with it (except possibly as a side benefit).

I started reading around the famous Mask of Agamemnon, found near Mycenae by Schliemann and dated to 1500 BC. Unfortunately Schliemann had something of a history of, ahem, fudging the facts (aka Making Stuff Up) and the Agamemnon mask has been largely discredited as a forgery.

The Mycenaeans did use death masks though, although it had nothing to do with either remembrance or honouring the spirit of the dead. Only the wealthiest families had them made, and they got rapidly more extravagant once the fashion started. It looks as though it became a status thing – a bidding war between the nobility for who could hold the best funeral. Kind of a PR stunt, in a way.

The Egyptians had some pretty awesome ideas about funerary masks. They believed that the spirits of the dead had a tough journey to reach the afterlife and needed some reinforcement. The mask strengthened the spirit and warded off evil spirits. If it was designed to include divine elements then it was believed to embue the spirit with divinity, and the gods would recognise them as one of their own.

It wasn’t really until the late Middle Ages that people started making accurate copies of the corpse’s face, and these were then kept in libraries and museums as historical records, rather than used as part of the funeral proceedings.

The actual word ‘mask’ is pretty recent too. According to Wikipedia – that font of all knowledge – it didn’t crop up in English until the 1500s, and is derived from the Medieval Latin word masca which means ‘specter’ or ‘nightmare’. Given how the masks used to be used, I find that quite funny – turning something that was meant to glorify or help into something unpleasant.

When did the dead become scary, anyway? There’s a lot of noise at the moment about the zombie apocalypse, but it’s not that long ago that offerings used to be made to the spirits of the deceased to honour them and ask for their blessings. In fact, that’s what the Dia de los Muertos still does, and the Chinese practice of ancestral veneration. Where did the nightmare aspect come from?

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