Used more for collections than costumes, Aztec masks were an important part of Mexican culture during the empire that gave them their name. Worn for a variety of religious ceremonies, the masks that have survived range from beautiful to awe-inspiring. You can buy reproductions to enjoy, or experience the masks in many museums.
History of Aztec Masks
Masks are commonly used in religious and cultural ceremonies of many peoples, such as the Kachina. The masks usually represent gods or elements and are worn to enact stories or to remove the wearer from the quotient. Once someone has put on a mask, they become whatever the mask represents, giving power to the ceremony.
Aztec masks were regularly worn during the all-important rite of human sacrifice to appease the gods.
Although now interpreted as barbaric, the ritual was a crucial aspect of society, enacted in the hopes of maintaining a healthy relationship with the gods, who would be satisfied and allow the society to live in health and prosperity. Once the person who was to be sacrificed put on the mask, they were no longer that individual, but rather an emblem in part of the ancient ritual, and they took their role very seriously.
Styles of Historical Aztec Masks
Masks designed by the Aztecs were very detailed and astonishingly beautiful, even when their intent was to awe or frighten. Many were made of mosaic, which would have involved very intricate work on the part of the mask maker.
The Skull of the Smoking Mirror, a mask on display at the British Museum dating to the 15th or 16th century, is thought to represent the god Tezcatlipoca, one of the creators, as well as the god of rulers, warriors and sorcerers, whose name can mean "smoking mirror." Based on a human skull, the mask is covered with alternating bands of turquoise and lignite mosaics. The eyes are iron set in shell. The back of the skull was cut away and lined with leather, on which the moveable jaw is hinged.
Another mask at the British Museum, The Feathered Serpent, is thought to represent either Quetzalcoatl or the rain god Tlaloc. The mask is constructed from cedar and also covered in turquoise mosaic. It features teeth made of shell and two snakes, one made of green turquoise, the other blue, twist across the face and around the eyes, coming together over the nose. Mosaic feathers hang on either side of the eye sockets.
Aztec Masks Today
Masks that were an important part of Aztec ritual and festival hundreds of years ago are still worn in one enormously important Mexican event today - Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. The Aztecs did not see death as the end of life, but rather, it was a continuation. Thus, they kept skulls to honor their dead, whom they believed returned to the community during the festival. Originally, the festival took place over the month of August, but the Spanish conquerors moved it to All Saints' and All Souls' Day, the days after Halloween, in an attempt to make it more Christian.
Then as now, skull masks called calacas are worn, sometimes with national costumes, and dances are held in honor of dead friends and relatives. Different regions celebrate it differently. Altars might be built for the dead, or cemeteries visited and the graves decorated.
Although one can wear a Halloween skeleton mask, it's considered more appropriate to buy or make a mask that is more truly like a skull. The masks can be made simply using a standard face mask, plaster and gauze.
If you prefer to buy a mask, there are a number of online sources. For a unique selection of masks that look a bit more traditional, try Mexican Wonders. Wooden masks can also be found on eBay and other outlets. Some of them are so beautiful, you'll want to hang them on your wall after wearing.