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History of Greek Masks

History of Greek Masks

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

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.

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.

Design

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.

Function

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.

Cast

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.

About the Author

Bethney Foster is social justice coordinator for Mercy Junction ministry, where she edits the monthly publication "Holy Heretic." She is also an adoption coordinator with a pet rescue agency. Foster spent nearly two decades as a newspaper reporter/editor. She graduated from Campbellsville University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in English, journalism and political science.