Masks of one form or another can be found in our three most powerful historical cultural times and areas, Egypt, Greece and Rome.
To access some of our earliest European masks we need to visit France. In France, at Trois Freres, the caves inhabited by Paleolithic people have hunting scenes painted on the walls showing masked dancers.
The are believed to be at least 25,000 years old. The central figure of one of the scenes shows a shaman like character wearing the head and antlers of a stag in amongst the reindeer, bison, stag, horse and ibex.
The link to masquerade traditions of today can be made through the use of horns, fur, feathers and the animal forms adopted.
In Greece the cult of Dionysius used European masks to represent the spirits of nature and bestow these spirits upon the wearers. Gold sepulchral masks covering the faces of the dead have been excavated in Mycenae.
In Greek theatre actors used European masks to show different characters. This tradition was carried on in the Roman theatre. In medieval mystery plays European masks were used to portray characters. Devil and other masks were used in carnivals, as they are today in Spain, France Italy and other countries.
In Britain there are traditional animal Masquerades which use various forms of the hobby horse as a focus. These are to be seen in Lands End, Bwca Lwyd in Wales, Thanet in Kent and between 30th April and 3rd May in Minehead in Somerset.
Some of these festivals are linked to Morris dances. The Morris dance, in some versions, has a an animal-masked fool who entertains the spectators with tricks. The ghost like Mari Lwyd in Glamorganshire is in stark contrast to the other brightly coloured traditions.
This ghostly hobby horse has been linked to the Irish horse of the feast of Samain where the ancient Celtic festival is led by a white robed man bearing a crude horses head.
An unusual event is the Horn Dance of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. Six pairs of dancers each carry a wooden deers head with a pair of antlers attached. A hobby horse and other characters support them.
Another variety of masked character common to British folk festivals is the one associated with agricultural cycles. Notable ones are the Bury man, in West Lothian, who wears a hat and a Balaclava planted with roses, and the straw clad man who appears in Whitby on the Saturday before Plough Monday. Similar straw clad figures are also known in Ireland. It is possible that The Green Man of ancient Britain is associated in some way with these celebrations.
European Masks: Eastern Europe
Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria and Poland each have masquerade traditions which use animalistic and figurative interpretations of faces.
Hideously masked characters blowing horns parading through the streets of Hungarian towns such as Fejer are not uncommon. This particular festival uses cloth masks with untidy beards and eyebrows worn beneath felt hats streaming with ribbons. Carved wooden female masks are also worn.
Similar festivities can be seen in Maramures where the noisy mid-winter parades are held in common with other towns and villages. Here shaggy devil masks with horns are worn along with some disguises such as Second World War gas masks.
In Poland, Turon is another winter festival which is celebrated by villagers in several areas. The festival is named after Turon, a fantastic creature from mythology, now displayed as a hobby horse with the wearer?s body covered by a cloth.
The villagers revelry takes them from house to house singing carols and receiving refreshments. Other masks, depicting bears, goats and wolves, are common.
Bulgarian New Year festivities also have similar animal mask. One agricultural festival can be traced back to ancient Thrace.
On the first Sunday before Lent large groups of men dressed as domestic and wild animals leap noisily trough the streets to scare away the old year and evil forces. The cloth masks are made from fur, hemp and feathers with small metal disks decorating them. Other masqueraders wear horned masks to represent oxen.
In Greece similar festivities can be seen in Thrace with the Kalogheroi dance.
Other European areas of note are the Schemenlaufen at Imst in Austria, where frightening masks and noisy bells are used to drive away evil spirits. Italy has several rural masquerades and is famous for the Commedia Dell Arte where Harlequin and the buffoon, Pulcinella, originated.
There are also the Venetian masked carnivals which date back to the Seventeenth century, with links to earlier times. In Spain conical hoods are worn by penitents during Holy Week and the Morisca dance represents the battle between the Moors and the Christians. The Morisca has had an influence on the festivals of other areas notably where sword dances are performed.