The symbol of today's theater -- the tragedy and comedy masks -- comes to us from between 500 and 300 B.C. in Greece. The use of masks, or personas as they were called, first occurred in theater in ancient Greece.
Dionysius was the god of fertility and wine in Greece. Much of the ritual that surrounded the worship of Dionysius included the wearing of masks. Storytelling, musical performances and other shows were part of Dionysius' festival, giving rise to organized theater.
The acting fraternity began wearing masks in performances, adopting the practice from the worshipers of Dionysius. Thespis, from whose name the term thespians is derived, is believed to have been the first actor to wear a mask.
The masks worn in the theater of ancient Greece were made of wood, cork, cloth, clay or leather and were often decorated with human or animal hair. None have survived.
The mask was designed to cover the actor's entire head and had small holes drilled where the actor's eyes were.
The design of the mask served as a megaphone for the actor's voice, carrying his words to the audience. The masks wore exaggerated expressions because the audience was often far away from the stage. The masks were important in Greek theater to aid in disguising actors' genders because men played all roles, including those of women, who were not allowed to perform on stage.
As the use of masks in Greek theater developed, it soon became customary for all performers to be masked. The chorus would have similar masks, but these would differ in great detail from the play's leading actors.