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Why Did Ancient Greek Actors Wear Theater Masks?

Greek theater masks
Intricate linen masks were central to theater performances in ancient Greece. Credit: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the most enduring art forms from ancient Greece is that of theater. Greek tragedies and comedies are a touchstone for understanding ancient Greece’s culture — from Euripedes to Sophocoles — and their written forms are still widely read and studied to this day.

But theater is first and foremost an art of entertainment, and the aesthetic spectacle involved in ancient Greek plays was of crucial importance. One of the most defining tools of these performances were masks. But why did Greek actors feel the need to cover their faces?

Although it might seem counter-intuitive, masks actually helped actors to project their expressions and emotions further out into the audience. Masks also endowed actors with the ability to play multiple roles in one show, and since plays in ancient Greece were performed entirely by men, it gave them the ability to switch genders, too.

Ancient Greek theater masks connected with Dionysian revelry

These qualities of transformation enabled actors to fully embody the gods and mythological entities that populated the stories of ancient Greece. This connection to embodiment was strongly associated with Dionysus, the god of wine. Greeks saw a relationship between a mask’s ability to radically alter an actor’s behaviors and the effect of wine on a person’s actions and judgment.

Dionysus was closely associated with revelry and ritual madness — the term “bacchanal” comes from his Latin name, “Bacchus” — and he served an important role in the development of ancient Greek theater.

In myth, Dionysus is known to free his followers from social and cultural restraints through wine or ritual, most notably in Euripides’ tragic play “The Bacchae.”

Many ancient Greek plays were performed in Athens during festivals held in honor of Dionysus, drawing large crowds of attendees from across Greece. Theater became a central part of the city’s identity, gaining funding from the state as well as important art patrons. These festivals developed into the annual Dionysia where prominent playwrights would compete against each other.

Most masks used during this period were made of painted linen and have since been destroyed or lost over time. The theater masks are widely documented through historical records and sculptural depictions of Greek theater, however. Reproductions of the masks were later created using various other mediums.

Theatrical mask of Dionysus discovered in Western Turkey

An extremely expressive terracotta mask, thought to represent Dionysus, was recently unearthed during excavations of the ancient Greek city of Daskyleion in Western Turkey.

The newly-discovered treasure, which appears to represent a rather tipsy god, was located in the city’s acropolis, and is thought to have served as a votive offering of gratitude to Dionysus, according to archaeologists.



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