The purpose of the mask seems to be the transformation of the user into another being.
Masks date back to Pre-Columbian times and have changed over the centuries with “the culture of conquest.” While they could have appeared as early as 15,000 BC, the oldest masks that have survived in Mesoamerica are jade masks from Maya kings’ tombs and those on many of the monuments, including the rain god Chaac who appears profusely.
Masks were used in dances and drama before the conquest as described in the Popol Vuh, a book that recounts the mythology and history of the Maya K’iche’. Examples of these dances are Puhuy (owl), the Cux (weasel), the Iboy (armadillo) and others, including the ball game equipment list. The Rabinal Achí, the Palo Volador and the dance call Patzcá are all Maya artistic activities that pre-date the arrival of the Spanish in Guatemala in 1524.
Guatemalan traditions and fiestas today are full of fabulous masks and dress. Most masks are made out of wood, preferably from a tree that has been hit by lightning, with a thin layer of plaster, paint and a variety of materials that range from horse hair for beards to feathers and colorful ribbons. While Guatemala has the finest Spanish-American colonial sculpture made out of cedar, many of the masks today are made from softer woods, including pine and cypress
“The purpose of the mask seems to be the transformation of the user into another being. When one wears the mask the person acquires a completely new and different personality … the state of trance destroys reality violently and temporarily,” explains historian Luis Luján Muñoz. “This may include fasting, sexual abstinence, rhythmic percussion, songs and the use of drugs,” and the spectator also feels the trance.
Dances accompany fiestas through the country. The Dance of the Moors and Christians, introduced from Spanish with modifications, and the Dance of the Conquest remain popular for local fiestas today. While these are traditional dances, the masks and number of dancers may vary. Pedro de Alvarado, deer, tigers and monkeys are favorites. The dance groups may rent elaborate costumes and masks from morerías located throughout Guatemala. Many authors indicate that morerias are unique to Guatemala!
More popular masks are made today from papier maché for convites (allegorical processions the day before a more formal procession) and may have large heads and masks from popular movies and just about any figure one can imagine.
The art of mask making in Guatemala may also be found in many artisans’ shops throughout the country.