Wednesday, August 9, 2006
The Iroquois False Face Society
The Iroquois of the eastern Great Lakes area made a wide variety of masks. The most famous are the corn husk masks of the Husk Face Society and the carved wooden masks of the False Face Society. The grimacing False Faces, which were used by the Iroquois in the curing rites of the False Face Society, are especially notable. The masks are wooden portraits of several types of mythical beings or apparitions that appeared in dreams, who, the Iroquois say, lived only a little while ago in the far rocky regions at the rim of the earth or wandered about in the forests.
Most of these masks, which are "fed" with tobacco to keep their spirit alive, are painted red or black. They have deep set eyes which are set off by gleaming metal eye-plates and large, bent noses. The arched brows are deeply wrinkled and sometimes divided above the nose by a lengthwise crease. The mouth is the most variable feature, and runs through a whole range of expressions depending on mood, function, and locality. Sometimes it is pursed as if for whistling; sometimes it is puckered with conventionalized tongue and spoon-like lips, which may be funnel shaped to imitate blowing ashes in curing rites. Or the mouth may reveal the teeth or have a protruding tongue.
Other masks have large, straight, distended lips which may be twisted up at one corner with an accompanying bent nose, or both corners may turn down in a distorted arrangement producing a frightening effect. A series of wrinkles usually heightens the distorted look and cheek bones are sometimes suggested. A prominent chin, common to some masks, is used as a handle for adjustment by the wearer .
The faces are framed by long hair usually cut from black or white horses' tails, which fall on either side from a central part. Before the Europeans introduced horses, corn husk braids, or tresses of buffalo mane served as hair.
The significance of the masks to the Iroquois lies not in their artistic value, but in their power. The beings they represent instruct people to carve likenesses of themselves. They say that supernatural power to cure disease will be conferred on the human beings who make the masks when they feed the masks, invoke the beings' help while burning tobacco and sing a curing song.
The False Face Society is just one of the many curing societies found among the Iroquois. And though it was not necessarily the most important, it is the best understood of all the societies because of intensive research.
Members of the society put on the false faces to visit the lodge of a sick man who has declared himself in need of a cure. With their masks on, and shaking rattles made of turtle shells, the members who are to effect the cure, creep towards the sick man's home speaking a nasal "language" . They scrape their rattles against the door, and enter the house, continuing to shake the rattles. Then ashes and tobacco are used in a ritual meant to drive away the cause of the patient's illness. Anyone who is cured becomes a member of the society, or a man or a woman may join if he or she has a dream signifying that it is necessary to become a member .
Most curing ceremonies were traditionally held in private in order to achieve the best effect but public ceremonies were held at the Midwinter festival for people who had been cured before. This was considered essential in order to prevent disease from reappearing. Ashes were sprinkled over the people to drive away the demons of disease.
The importance of the false face masks can be understood by describing how they are made. To reinforce the life in the masks, the faces are carved from a living basswood tree but maple, pine, or poplar may also be used. The mask is cut free from the tree only when nearly finished. During the carving, prayers are said to the spiritual forces which are supposed to be represented by the mask and tobacco is burned before the mask in order to please its spirit.
The particular form of the spirit is revealed to the carver through prayers and the burning of tobacco. If the mask is begun in the morning, it is painted red; if its is begun in the afternoon, it is painted black. This is in accordance with the belief that the first False Face made a daily journey following the path of the Sun; thus his face would appear red in the morning as he came from the east and black in the afternoon as he looked back from the west.
Red masks are thought to have more power. There is also a divided mask, painted half red and half black, for a being whose body is torn in two. To the Indian, he stands at the middle of the sky looking south, his red cheek to the east (which suggests life) and recalls the divided body of a patient who may be paralyzed.
The False Face Curing Society was an integral part of the Iroquois belief system. The society always tried to cure as many patients as it could so that they would become new members, for this form of group participation was said to increase its effectiveness as more people became involved in the curing ceremonies. Carvings of False Face masks are made for sale to collectors and museums today, although these are not considered to have spiritual forces.