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The heART of Ritual


Winter Masks and Seasonal Rituals among the Iroquois

Photo: Iroquois false face society entering the dance lodge in masks, by Clark Wissle

"False Faces, among the Iroquois, are personifications of mythical beings who live in wild and isolated regions, on the edge of the known world, in the mountains, or who roam the forests; entities that are common to most Native American peoples. Numerous tales speak of hunters who, entering the interior of the wooded regions, suddenly find themselves in front of strange beings, with a semi-human appearance, that dart from one tree to another, or appear as heads without bodies, 'faces' therefore, with long wavy hair.

Normally these creatures show themselves benevolent, as long as they are pacified with the offering of some tobacco or cornmeal. Sometimes they can manifest themselves in a dream to the hunter and from these dreams it is thought that the first masks that depict them originated.

The ceremonies involving these masks consisted of tobacco offerings, with which they sought to pacify these wild beings and asked them to disperse the diseases that afflicted people, animals and crops. These ritual actions combined therapeutic rites, carried out at the request of individual patients in their homes, with ceremonial practices aimed at propitiating a good harvest and the protection of cultivated fields for the entire community. The power of the masks was also thought to be important to ward off and defeat the works of witchcraft that endangered the life and well-being of the community.

The term 'False Faces' also designates the members of ceremonial societies in the Iroquois communities, who during the ritual celebrations, especially on the occasion of the Winter Ceremony, wear masks and carry out purifying and therapeutic actions.

In the language of the Seneca, one of the nations that made up the Iroquois Nation, the mask is designated by the word 'gagohsa', which simply means 'face'. On the occasion of the Winter Ceremony, the masks were worn by the members of the Society who practiced therapeutic rites, going from house to house and chasing away diseases and harmful influences. Even the boys could wear them, begging from house to house to collect offers of tobacco and sweets " Translated from the original text by Enrico Comba. Exerpt from Winter masks and seasonal rituals: a comparative journey between America and Europe, in: American Indians, transatlantic encounters, by Giordano Fedora


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