People have been making masks for at least 10,000 years. The first ones were probably animal masks made from the skin and bones and teeth of real animals. They were most likely used to reenact the stories of great hunts, to scare away sickness and disease and as objects of worship. And, like most masks throughout history, they would have been highly regarded and kept in secret and sacred places.

Today, when masks have little importance to most people beyond Halloween or an occasional costume party, it is hard to understand that at one time they were among the most important objects a family or community could possess. Worn during ceremonial dances and story tellings, these elaborate "false faces" helped to celebrate the blessing a community had received, to pass on its history and beliefs, to coax and sometime scare young people into proper behavior, and to mark important events such as births, marriages, and the changing of the seasons.

Many cultures have used masks. To name a few, masks have played a central role in the art and religion of Africa, Japan, and Bali. Perhaps no where have masks held a higher position or have been more skillfully and powerfully made that in North America by the Eskimos, the Kwakiutl and other native people of the Northwest Coast. Boldly carved in cedar wood, richly colored and topped off with headpieces of grass and feathers, many of these works of art were made with moveable eyelids, beaks, and jaws. Their lips and eyebrows were often covered with copper and their eyes were sometimes inlaid with shell. The most magnificent of these creations were the transformation masks, where an outer face would suddenly swing open to reveal another face which in turn might split apart to uncover still a third. Expertly manipulated by skilled dancers, one can imagine the power of these masks as they swayed and flickered in the firelight, and magically transformed before the onlookers eyes.

To the ancient Greeks, theatre, oratory and sculpture were the most important arts; and their clay, canvas and stone masks were the ties that bound these disciplines together. As a story device they empowered a single actor to play many parts simply by changing masks. The expressions of the masks were not totally fixed, by seemed to change and reveal more with each new tilt and turn.

Masks were widely used in the bawdy Roman plays and the refined and beautiful Noh Theatre of Japan. In Britain, during the middle ages, wildly disguised "mummers", in a precursor to today's Christmas caroling or Halloween trick or treating, went from door to door demanding to be let in for fun and games. In Medieval France there existed the infamous "Feast of Fools" an annual holiday when priests and church members would take a holiday from their beliefs, and cavort in devilish papier mache masks called "larvae", so named for their metamorphic qualities. Commedia dell arte, the great improvisational theatre of Renaissance Italy, made use of leather half masks, which gave a player's upper face a distinct character while allowing him to joke and grimace with his exposed mouth and jaw.

Today, the mask is not widely used outside of a few festivals and theatres. The most important of these is the Bread and Puppet Theatre, whose founder Peter Schumann is the great mask artist of the 20th century. Besides touring the world with his stories of protest and hope, he produces extravaganzas where audiences can sit and watch masked performers and then turn to see a twenty-foot mask/puppet float out of the woods to dance and tell its story. As Schumann's work demonstrates, the mask still retains much of its original power and potential. After all, to entertain by covering and uncovering the face is instinctual. Just watch any baby. The mystery of the hidden face and of the mask that hides it, with its strange power to reveal what it conceals, continues to hold us in its sway.