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Yup’ik Animal Mask 52:05

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This week I want to take a quick look at a beautiful mask from the remarkable collection of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver. If you ever find yourself in the area, it is well worth making the trip – their collection of art of the Pacific Northwest will leave you gaping in wonder and disbelief.

The Yup’ik are an Eskimo people native to southwest Alaska, and their wonderful tradition of wooden mask-making has been attested by anthropologists for more than a century.

What we have here is a human face with a toothy mouth turned down in a frown. Two concentric loops project forward and enclose the face, and the whole is set squarely in the center of the body of a deer. Decorative elements radiate out from the center, including feathers, several carved fish, a wooden hand, and a lower leg with foot. Several of the feathers are capped with wooden pegs.

Yup’ik masks have been used in a variety of secular and religious contexts, including preparation for hunt, and shamanic dances held during the long, dark winter months. For more on masked shamanic dances in the Pacific Northwest, see Dancing at Time Zero.

According to the sources I have reviewed, many elements of this mask are common, such as the toothy down-turned mouth, the radial bands, and the very restrained use of colored paint. But the individual meaning of these elements varies substantially depending on the use to which the mask was put by its creator. They sometimes express elements of a myth that were recounted, or they may have a ceremonial meaning tied to a petitionary end, such as the desire for a good hunt.

Since we have no context or provenance for this piece, we can only speculate about its meaning. What do you see in this piece? It might be fun to formulate your own ideas before I share some of my thoughts.

My own provisional interpretation finds great significance in the placement of the face, the center of awareness and the personal consciousness, in the middle of the concentric bands, from which various signs of life project.

The circle, evocative of the endless path of the stars and the heavens, is associated with the cosmic cycle in many cultures – take, for example, the ouroboros symbol we looked at in our last piece on Gravity’s Rainbow. The circle conveys the recurring temporal round of the seasons, evocative of the horizon that rings around us, open to the sky.

So reading from the center outwards, we have the individual ego at the heart of the cycle, and set in the heart of a food animal (deer), projecting symbols of human activity (feet, hands), then more food animals (fish). In this I see the individual in the round of life and death found in the mythology of many hunting cultures, uniting the dual culture of life-giving and life-taking in the uniting sign of a single circle.

It reminds me in fact of a classic Tibetan motif in their religious painted scrolls or thangkas, called the bhavacakra, or wheel of existence: 

In this motif we have the endless cycle of death and rebirth symbolized in a series of concentric zones subdivided into bands by similar radiating lines. At the center of the cycle is the driving force of the endless cycle of reincarnation as understood by Buddhism, represented pictorially by the snake, the pig, and cock, which represent the three root afflictions of anger, ignorance, and attachment, respectively.

We also see transmigrating souls moving up and down in the wheel, the six realms of existence, and the twelve links of dependent arising, and the whole is encircled by Yama, the Lord of Death, who encompasses the transience of all that exists within his realm.

Both the mask and the thangka depict the projection of the cosmos out from the center of the ego in a round of birth and death, with the individual firmly embedded within it.

But if a symbolic resonance may be detected, the specifics of the mask remain nonetheless obscure. It would be plausible to interpret it as a mask related to a ceremony for the hunt, or a mask expressive of a human transformation into a meat animal, possibly as part of an etiological myth explaining why humans have the right to hunt their pray. Both would be consistent with Yup’ik traditions.

Additional Resources 


Written by Mesocosm

October 1, 2016 at 7:50 am

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