The Birth of Tragic Mask through Ritual Practices

  Baltzoi, Sophia. "The Birth of Tragic Mask through Ritual Practices." CHS Research Bulletin 11 (2023).

Pre-doctoral Fellow in Hellenic Studies 2022–23


The research project offered a study of the ritual mask based on bibliographic research, as well as examination of archaeological findings in combination with literary sources. More specifically, it examined the places in which ritual masks have been found in the context of rituals and the gods to whom they were offered. Also, the technique of their construction, the common traits or non-common traits they carried and whether they were connected to the tragic masks were investigated. The research questions that the proposed research was called to answer are also part of the main research questions of the doctoral dissertation entitled: The tragic mask in the performances of ancient drama and in the revival of ancient drama in modern and contemporary Greece. The main objective of the research project was to answer the question of whether the tragic mask was born through ritual practices or it was the product of the evolution of a primitive ritual source.1 The conclusions that will be drawn will contribute greatly to the overall findings of the doctoral dissertation on the tragic mask.


The CHS Pre-doctoral fellowship, by providing me with the necessary resources and time, helped me deepen the study of the ritual mask and, by extension, the tragic mask, which is the main subject of my doctoral dissertation. Through the findings of this research project it would be achievable to answer one of the main questions of the thesis, namely, the connection of tragedy with worship-ritual practices through the mask. There is a gap in the research due to the fragmented information about the ritual masks in the context of ritual events. Therefore, the main purpose of the research project was a scientific article that includes all the ritual masks in the context of worship to be written.

The research questions of the research project were the following: 

  1. The nature of the ritual mask in ritual practices and the techniques of its construction 
  2. The connection of tragedy with worship-ritual practices 
  3. The connection of zoomorphic-theriomorphic masks with tragedy 
  4. The similarities between ritual masks and tragic masks 
  5. The reasons which made the use of the mask in the theatre imperative 

The ritual masks covered a wide range of human expression. Although both funerary and burial masks bore ritual practices, this research project focused on the ritual masks in the context of worship. Due to the mystical character of the ritual practices, sources from ancient writers were limited. Thus, our knowledge was enhanced by pottery, sculpture, figurative art and seal carving. 

The research project was focused on rituals in sanctuaries and worship from the prehistory to historical times. Beginning from prehistory, masks from Cyprus, Minoan Crete and Mycenae were referred. In Minoan Crete as well as in Cyprus the bull was a common element and symbol.2 In Mycenae, seal stones have been found depicting bucrania (βουκράνια). It is possible that the bucrania, after a treatment on the bones of the skull and with the addition of a piece of skin or fabric, were used for face masks.3 In the Mycenaean seal stones as well as in the frescoes of the Mycenaean acropolis, there were portrayed masks which either had a demonic or an animal character.

In historical times in Tiryns, in a pit-deposit (βόθρος) associated with the sanctuary of Hera, four animal-shaped masks with special features were found, which have been dated back to the Late Geometric period.4 Their appearance looked ugly and they had human and animal features. They had the form of a boar with tusks referring to Medusa and suggesting an apotropaic character.5

Furthermore, the ritual masks that we find in the context of the cults of Dionysus, Artemis, Demeter, Despina were examined. Firstly, the festivals in honor of Dionysus were the Lenaea, the Anthesteria, the Rural Dionysia and the City Dionysia. In all these festivals orgiastic dances in honor of the god took place.6 Despite their different character and content, these festivals shared the common elements of disguise and transformation through the use of mask. Pottery is rich with depictions of Dionysus and his entourage. As early as the seventh century BCE, at least, some male figures, the so-called comastes (κωμαστές), appeared in vase painting.7 In vase painting, ritual ceremonies in honor of Dionysus were represented where the mask was placed on a column, playing a dominant role.

Around the seventh century BCE, when the tragedy took shape, we observe the use of masks worn mainly by the followers of Dionysus in a religious context. In his Poetics, Aristotle considered the starting point of tragedy to be the dithyramb8 and its protοtragoudistes (εξάρχοντες). Arion presented the dithyramb with the participation of satyrs, which linked Aristotle’s theory with the word satyr and must be distinguished from satyr play.9 Thus, we need to focus on the last piece of  information as the presence of the Satyrs implied a form of disguise, possibly by using costumes and masks, which in turn constituted core elements of the development of tragedy.

Secondly, the rites of passage were correlated to the worship of Artemis Orthia and Vravronia rites of initiation into adulthood.10 The young people who participated in these ceremonies should go through all these stages to reach the stage of adulthood, with the first step to be their marginalization and their isolation in sanctuaries. Young girls in both Vravrona and Sparta took part in these ceremonies to gradually pass from childhood to marriage and motherhood, while boys were prepared for adulthood through hardships. The main goal of the process was the mental test of the initiates through the fear that the masks caused to them.11

Moreover, concerning the worship of Demeter the theatrical character was also presented in the ceremonies where the divine presence was declared in the face of the priest through the mask (Demeter Kidaria). According to the sources, near the temple there were two rocks where the sacred written texts of the hieropraxia (ιεροπραξία) and the divine ritual mask were kept.12 Due to the mystical and occult character of the ceremony along with the lack of archaeological remains, our knowledge of the ritual practices was limited. In the Megaron of Despina in Lycosura initiation ceremonies took place where people wore animallike masks through which they identified themselves with the deity of wild nature, Despina. Information about these rituals was derived from the garment of the statue of Despina and from the figurines found near the sanctuary. The bottom of the garment depicted eleven dancing female figures with animal heads, arms and legs.13

According to the aforementioned information, we observed that the mask was a common element mainly in the cult of Dionysus, Artemis and Demeter. The worship of these three gods shared some common characteristics. The most significant element was the transformation through the mask. More specifically, the transformation of nature, the transformation of the wild nature of people, the transition from one state to another along with the chthonic element in their worship were some examples. 


In its early stages, tragedy had a strong connection with religious ritual practices. Early signs of drama can be found or observed in the religious festivals along with the ritual events and the rites of passage using the mask as a means. In the rites of passage of the young people, the means of transition from one age stage to another was achieved through the mask and disguise through ritual intimidation. In these ceremonies we detected the theatrical character through the use of disguise and the distribution of roles. 

The early use of the mask in ritual events, not only in honor of Dionysus but also in honor of other deities combined with the cultic context of Dionysus, along with the political and the social developments and changes that took place in Attica, set the base for the birth of tragedy and the development of Attic drama.  In all of the above, the core element was the mask itself and we observed that the crystallization of the masks of the drama was the result of the long evolutionary course of the processes of the mask. 


Apart from the significant contribution of the research project to the overall findings of my doctoral dissertation, the research project opened up new fields of research in the long term. During the current year, I have gained a lot of important experiences thanks to this fellowship, and I feel more than lucky and grateful as a CHS Fellow. 

Overall, this fellowship constituted a very important experience both on academic and personal level. A great variety of benefits and activities14 were very important qualifications in the implementation of the research project, such as the access to the electronic databases of Harvard University, providing me with a lot of material and papers as well as the trip to Washington D.C. (presentation of the research project-contact with CHS-Harvard Community) which was the highlight of this fellowship.

I would like to express my gratitude to the academic committee which awarded me this fellowship, motivating me to further investigate the topic of this research project, and especially to Associate Professor Anna Lamari, my advisor in this project, for her invaluable advice as well as my supervisor ass. Prof. Maria Mikedaki for her unfailing support. Furthermore, I would like to wholeheartedly thank the staff of CHS in Greece and Washington, D.C. feeling really thankful for having met these wonderful people characterized by high professionalism. 

After successfully completing my research project I am going to incorporate the results from this project into my doctoral dissertation. I intend to continue my research on a postdoctoral level and to delve deeper into the theme of the mask and the ritual practices. I hope to continue my collaboration with the CHS in my future studies and to develop myself in an institution that is always by the side of researchers contributing to the realization of their dreams.

Select bibliography

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Baumbach, D. J. 2004. The Significance of Votive Offerings in Selected Hera Sanctuaries in the Peloponnese, Ionia and Western Greece. Oxford.

Bevan, E. 1986. Representations of Animals in Sanctuaries of Artemis and Other Olympian Deities. Oxford.

Bosanquet, R. 1906. “The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia.” The Annual of the British School at Athens 12: 303-317.

Calame, C. 1997. Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece, Morphology, Religious Role and Social Function. New York.

Cole, S. G. 2004. Landscapes, Gender, and Ritual Space, the Ancient Greek Experience. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London.

Csapo, E. and M. C. Miller, eds. 2007. The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama. Cambridge.

Dowden, K. 1989. Death and the Maiden, Girls’ Initiation Rites in Greek Mythology. London, New York.

Foley, A. 1988. The Argolid: 800-600 B.C. An Archaeological Survey, together with an Index of Sites from the Neolithic to the Roman Period, PhD diss., Bedford College.

van Gennep, Ar. 1960. The rites of passage. Chicago.

Hall, P. 2010. Exposed by the Mask. Form and Language in Drama. London.

Jeanmaire, H. 1985. Διόνυσος, Ιστορία της λατρείας του Βάκχου. Trans. Art. Mertani Liza. Athens. Orig. pub. as Histoire du culte de Bacchus. Paris, 1951.

Kahil, G. L. 1977. “L’Artemis de Brauron: Rites et mystere.” Antike Kunst 20:86-98.

Karageorghis, V. 1971. “Notes on some Cypriote Priests wearing Bull-masks.” Harvard Theological Review 64:261-270.

Kavvadias, P. 1893. Fouilles de Lycosoura. Livraison I. Athens.

Lesky, Al. 1975. Ιστορία της αρχαίας ελληνικής λογοτεχνίας. Trans. A. G. Tsopanakis. Thessaloniki. Orig. pub. as Geschichte der griechischen Literatur. Berlin, 1963.

Isler-Kerényi, C., and W. G. E. Watson. 2007. Dionysos in Archaic Greece: An Understanding through Images. Leiden.

Pickard-Cambridge, A.W. 1968. The Dramatic Festivals of Athens. 2nd ed. Oxford.

Rehm, R. 1992. Greek Tragic theatre. Theatre Production Studies. London.

Vernant, J. P. 1992. Το βλέμμα του θανάτου, μορφές της ετερότητας στην αρχαία Ελλάδα, Ἂρτεμις, Γοργώ. Trans. G. Pappas. Athens. Orig. pub. as La mort dans les yeux – Figures de l’autre en Grèce ancienne, Artémis, Gorgô. Paris, 1985.

Vierneisel, K., and B. Kaeser eds. 1992. Kunst der Schale, Kultur des Trinkens. Munich.

Wiles, D. 2007. Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy. Cambridge.

1 Wiles 2007, 15.

2 In Minoan Crete the bull was an important element of religion, in the festival of the Ταυροκαθάψια and in the classical myth of the Minotaur. In Cyprus there were indirect references to bull faces, where in statuettes the faces bore bulls’ faces and skulls of bulls and other animals.

3 Karageorghis 1971:262-63.

4 Foley 1988:145.

5 Baumbach 2004:177.

6 Pickard-Cambridge 1968:1-56.

7 These vases were made in Corinth, Attica, Boeotia, Laconia and in various centres of the Eastern Aegean.

8 About dithyramb and origins of Greek tragedy see Csapo and Miller 2007.

9 Lesky 1975:330.

10 Bosanquet 1906(b):310-313;Kahil-Ghali 1977:89.

11 In genereal for rites of passage see van Gennep 1960.

12 Pausanias ΙII 14.5.

13 Full description of the garment by Kavvadias 1893:11-12. The restoration of the complex was based on the description of Pausanias VIII, 37.3. 

14 The 11th International Scholars’ Symposium in Olympia, the volunteer participation at the organization of the 8th Marathon in Nafplio, the contribution of the CHS to the practical part of PhD thesis-my project Περί Προσωπείου-a research-experimental performance with masks-in the ancient theater of Argos and in the 10th Internantional Youth Festival of Ancient Drama in Odeion or Ecclesiasterion of ancient Messene.