Making Guatemalan Wooden Masks: The Intricate Craft that Stood the Test of Time
A long time ago, in ancient Mayan society, masks played a vital role in everyday life. Adorned with faces of divine beings and sacred animals, Mayan masks were used in religious rituals in their grand temples, in skirmishes against rival tribes, in theatres for entertainment, and in several important ceremonies.
Although the Mayans of the past had no metal tools, they were able to create a myriad of artwork. Using the bounty they had obtained from their volcanic landscape and the tropical forest that cradled their antique civilization, the Mayans carved the most sacred of masks in jade, and others in wood.
Today, the heart of the ancient Mayan empire and culture can be found in modern day Guatemala. Here, skilled artisans still craft traditional wooden masks in the ways of their ancestors. These masks have a rich historical legacy and they make for impressive souvenirs.
The Long-Standing Tradition of Making Mayan Masks
The Mayans have always been close to nature. In fact, they were a unique civilization; where others thrived in dry locations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Mayans were able to develop their society in a tropical region. As such, they took what the natural world gave them to create art and objects that they’re famous for to this day.
As the rainforest and volcanic landscape continued to provide, traditional practices were passed from one generation to another, preserving the knowledge, culture, and skills of the ancient Mayans for over 2000 years and well into the present.
The Mayans use a variety of tropical wood to carve their masks: acacia, bocote, cobal, cocobolo, and ironwood. As artisans begin to carve a piece of wood with a machete or a knife, the shape and characteristics of the wood often inspire the motif of the mask that is being made.
Once the bark has been removed from the wood, artisans will then draw a detailed outline to define the image they want to make. Designs include the faces of divine beings and sacred animals. Then, artists painstakingly carve these designs with great clarity and detail.
The entire carving process can take up to a month or longer. Once finished, the mask will be left to dry for several months, depending on its size and thickness. As a final touch, artisans rub oil or beeswax onto the mask to emphasize the character of the wood grain and protect it from the elements.
The Past Living Through the Present in Vivid Colors
Some artists choose to furnish the wood carvings with natural dyes from plants. Purple pigments come from the local marine mollusc, plicopurpura pansa. Meanwhile, red colors are obtained from cactus-eating cochineal insects that live in the Guatemala rainforests.
But of all the natural dyes that the Mayans have created, it's the unique Mayan Blue pigment that has become one of their most remarkable inventions. Taken from the extracts of the indigo plant and combined with the clay mineral palygorskite, this beautiful color can be found on ancient Mayan pottery, masks, and threads, as well as in modern textiles and merchandise.
Unlike other natural dyes that fade a lot over time, indigo is much more durable and resistant to fading. So much so that vivid traces of this steadfast color were found in antique ceramic bowls. How did this natural pigment survive thousands of years?
When scientists examined the blue pigment in the pottery found at Chichén Itzá, they discovered that the secret ingredient was the sacred copal incense. When mixed with the indigo extract and the clay mineral, it binds the substances, allowing the color to stay true for ages.
To the Mayans, the color blue symbolized their rain gods. In the olden times, they would paint their sacrifices blue, praying that the god Chac would send rain for their corn and other crops to grow.
Hand in hand, the Mayan people's connection to the natural world and their deep religious beliefs shaped their ancient society and everyday life. They built incredible temples from limestone, and waged religious wars using weapons made from volcanic obsidian. In war and in worship, their carved wooden masks were ever so present.
The Evolution of Mayan Masks from Pre-Columbian Times to Modern Mesoamerica
During the Golden Age of the Mayan empire, shamans wore various forms of carved wooden masks as representations of their many gods. Some would wear four different types, while others would wear even eight. Although these masks had been in human form, each delicate design was associated with a particular spirit.
In battle, courageous Mayan warriors put on wooden masks as a way to intimidate their enemies. They believed that the deities and spirits represented in their masks would give them spiritual power and protect them from danger. Chief among the many avatars used in Pre-Columbian warrior masks were the jaguar and the serpent.
Jaguar masks embodied the spirit of this fierce and agile animal, granting soldiers the ability to fight with valor, ferocity, and keen sight. On the other hand, masks with snakes and various kinds of reptiles symbolized the dominance, strength, and power of the greatest Mesoamerican god, Quetzlcoatl.
Some centuries later, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica and introduced Christianity, the Mayans merged this new religion with their traditional beliefs. You can see this fascinating fusion in action at Guatemalan festivals today. As each town has its own patron saint to celebrate, villagers perform masked dances when the saint’s feast day comes.
In many towns, the masks used during festivities may sometimes feature pink faces with mustaches representing the conquistadors, and brown faces signifying the Mayans. Although these designs are recent additions, Guatemalan artisans still continue the strong folk art and tradition of making shaman and warrior masks.
Finding Custom and Wholesale Mayan Masks
The brave mask-wearing warriors of the ancient Mayan empire have long been gone, but their present-day descendants are still fighting. This time, they are facing a different battle: poverty and inequality.
Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America. On a national level, the Guatemalan economy has remained stable in recent years due to strategic inflation targeting, frugal fiscal management, and a well-controlled floating exchange rate.
However, this economic stability didn’t reach a significant portion of the population. Although the nation has enjoyed a moderate growth rate and a solid performance in the last five years, Guatemala remains as the fifth poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In the Western Highlands of Guatemala, where the skilled makers of traditional Mayan wood masks live, the people thrive on agriculture, textiles, and handicrafts. However, due to the remote location and mountainous landscape, bringing their products to the bustling cities below and the world all over has been an ongoing challenge.
If you’re looking for custom Mayan wooden masks with wholesale options, we can bridge that gap between you and Guatemalan artisans living in the Highlands. Handicraft Products La Selva, S.A. (From the Mayan People to You) has been around since 1986, manufacturing and exporting a variety of traditional Mesoamerican handicrafts.
More than simple keepsakes for the average tourist, our wooden masks and worry dolls empower hundreds of Guatemalan artists while preserving and sharing their beautiful culture. For authentic pieces of Mayan tradition, talk to us.