Face of the Spirits

Text: Ole G. Jensen
Ammassalik Museum

Ammassalik - a  mask culture

Greenlandic masks are known primarily in an East Greenlandic context, which can be described as a genuine mask culture. Only a few examples of masks can be found in West Greenland and here the artistic expression is totally different.

Not much is known about the role of masks in traditional societies and not many masks exist prior to the turn of the century. The reason may lie in the mask’s strong personal link with its owner. Masks have often followed their owners to the grave or perhaps been destroyed at death. Another theory is that the mask’s power was so great that it had to be destroyed after use in a cult context.

The use of masks.

East Greenlandic masks are often described as dancing masks to be used in connection with different kinds of ceremonies or lamp extinguishing games. Theatrical masks were used for entertainment and house masks, which were smaller than the others, represented a domestic spirit and protected the home and its members.


Masks were often decorated, even if only modestly in comparison with masks from Canada and Alaska. Usually lines or skeleton ornamentation are carved into the wood. In more seldom cases, bits of hide are present. Now and again teeth and pieces of hair and suchlike are inset.

Line ornamentation is also known in tattooing among the Inuit where it functions as a sort of official day calendar e.g. a first birth, the boy’s first seal, etc.

The colour of the mask is usually black and comes from lamp sod. On newer masks red  an be seen. The simplest mask is made by colouring the face black, cutting out a couple of lines and putting a stick in the mouth, thereby changing the facial expression  completely. This mask tradition has been adopted to a great extent by contemporary Greenlandic actors.

Another mask tradition is the mitaartut mask which is traditionally made of skin.

Twelfth Night

This tradition still survives in Ammassalik. At epiphany (6 January) both children and adults visit neighbouring houses and demand whatever they want. This must be given although nowadays it is limited to sweets, buns and loose change. The aim of the masks has nothing to do with the world of spirits. They are just made to make the bearer unrecognisable. The mask material or its decoration may be of all kinds of second hand materials and ideas are plentiful.

After the introduction of Christianity, the aim of the mask was reduced to frightening children when they needed a bit of discipline. Later, it became a simple tourist souvenir. Where the old masks could express both sexes in the one mask, masks are now produced in pairs.

Masks, including Inuit masks, have been a source of inspiration throughout this century to the world’s artists such as Matisse, Picasso and many others.




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