Grief is a sacred journey

Making Masks: Revealing Our Hidden Selves

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In 1994, our women’s mythology group created and presented a play using masks. We had explored the story of “Eros and Psyche” for a few years, so knew every detail.

I played the Goddess Aphrodite who, in this myth, is fierce, jealous, demanding, and anything but lovely.

The masks were bought or made by a member of the group who was an art teacher and character in the play. In Greek theater, a mask used in this way is called a persona. C.G. Jung used the term persona to mean our outer personality which is like a mask compared to our inmost authentic Self.

Along with raging and beating Psyche who dared to fall in love with her son Eros, Aphrodite gave Psyche Four Labors, each more impossible than the last. Psyche faced each task with despair, but helpers arrived and each task was finished. In the process, Psyche (Soul) was initiated into the depths of Feminine Wisdom.

Working with the story brought us close to each other and taught us new ways to approach life’s impossible challenges. That first depth immersion in mythology was an adventure and an initiation for me.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–86). Tempera on canvas. 172.5 cm × 278.9 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in). Uffizi, Florence (Wikipedia)

Years later, I created my own masks in Marion Woodman’s BodySoul Rhythms Workshops. I’ll call these masks unintentional because I didn’t have a specific character in mind or know what they would look like or symbolize before the process began.

In 2003, about 40 women made face molds the first night of the week-long workshop in a downstairs room filled with art supplies. First a thick layer of Vaseline to protect the skin and then bandage-like pieces of gauze cut in strips, dipped in warm water, and applied to the face in a few layers. Then lying still for 20 minutes to let the plaster dry into a hard mold before another woman eased the mask off my face. After it dried, we painted our masks with acrylic paints. (Directions for mask-making at this link.)

We had five days to create our masks while working with a mythological story, doing body work, dancing, and exploring dreams and Jungian ideas. The art room stayed open 24 hours a day for midnight inspirations. Some nights I worked late.

Golden Bull

A Golden Bull with juvenile horns emerged–an image of an young and vital masculine energy in me. I cut off the bottom part of the mask under the chin to open its voice and throat. I was surprised by my Bull, but not everyone was.

“I know him,” my husband Vic said when I showed him the mask after arriving home. “I know him so well.”

Vic knew the bullish and sometimes belligerent parts of me better than anyone–including me since I’d rather deny or conceal those parts of myself. He knew my stubborn persistent intellect and desire to create and learn, a more positive aspect of this bull. Looking back, that bull was a step toward withdrawing a projection from Vic and finding my own inner masculine.

I made the third mask in a workshop in 2007. Vic had a brief respite from treatment that summer, so I signed up for a Marion Woodman workshop in Canada. Vic and I looked forward to a week apart after a year of unrelenting cancer therapy and constant togetherness.

Our Lady of Sorrow and Praise

As the women gathered to discuss a mythological story on the second morning, someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Your husband called. You need to call him back,” she said. My heart pounded. He wouldn’t call unless it was an emergency, but his message was about my mom who had lingered with Alzheimer’s for ten years. She was dying and there wasn’t time for me to get home. I’ve written about dancing my relief and grief that weekend.

Vic sat with my mom until she died. I’d pre-arranged her cremation. Everything else could wait until I returned home. My mask and need for inner nourishment felt pressing. I stayed.

I named my mask “Our Lady of Praise and Sorrow.” She weeps on one side and sings praise on the other. I said a tender goodbye to my mother in ritual and dance, but the mask took me deeper, to what I truly feared losing. I was grateful for the 41 years I’d been with Vic, supporting, growing, and trusting each other. I grieved over our future and that  word “incurable.”

When I showed my mask to Vic, he inspected every detail. “Thank you,” he said. He knew. The mask reflected grief and praise for our partnership. It spoke to a new life I’d live without him after his death. It helped me trust that I could hold on to gratitude even while I grieved.

Riding the Bull on Wall Street, 1992

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With gratitude to the women who have gathered for over 25 years to study mythology together.

Do stories from mythology and fairy tales become guides to help you understand yourself and life’s challenges? For an article about Eros and Psyche, see Clutched: An Essential Lesson from Psyche’s Fourth Labor. Or if you want to see how knowing this story helped me understand my ferocious Mother-in-Law, see My Lover’s Mama and the Negative Mother Archetype. I’ve written many articles about working with Marion, so here’s a link to my Marion Woodman archives.

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17 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, Although I’ve never created my own face mask(s) at a workshop before, I have a great appreciation of them … for whenever I visit a gallery or museum, I often find myself drawn to them, especially the Egyptian ones! It’s wonderful to see your painted masks here and to read your personal stories around each creation. Thank you for the Wiki link on how to make one, much appreciated! I do hope to book myself onto one of these valuable mask-making workshops next year … the whole process must be a deeply healing, powerful one!

    Oh how the gods and goddesses, those eternal archetypes within, artlessly emerge from the depths of our psyche! How our anima and/or animus can present themselves, and how the tension of the opposites reveals its own wisdom of praise and sorrow in your third mask by revealing gratitude in the midst of great sorrow and suffering. I love the abundant choices a mask offers up, including entertainment, protection, disguise or concealment! Allowing us to give expression to our unlived lives … such a creative way to integrate, above and below!

    I feel have been very much guided by the myths unconsciously throughout my life, only slowly have I become more conscious of their rich, poetic stories in the last fifteen years or so. You remind me of my desire to study the gods and goddesses, hmm, another search for next year I guess. Thankfully my Dream Group has been going for more than ten years now so I have a rich place to take my dreams, and myths are often woven in by the dreamers and poets who attend. That’s a great last photo, made me smile! Much love and light, Deborah.

    • Marion Woodman’s BodySoul Rhythms Workshops were a skillful interweaving of so many techniques. The last two masks are a wonderful reminder of what each workshop was. The BodySoul groups in Europe are still giving workshops. They seem more active than the groups here. After making the masks at Marion’s workshops, we worked with them. We danced with them, we hid behind them, and eventually we revealed ourselves while holding and relating to them. It was powerful work.

      I’m reading Michael Kearney’s ‘Mortally Wounded: Stories of Soul Pain, Death, and Healing’ for the second time. It’s about 150 pages and when I finished, I turned to page 1 and started over. I need to know the Wounded Healer for myself, but also plan to use the Chiron myth in my May workshop. The book has many stories of him using “image healing” with palliative care patients, but it’s woven around the Chiron myth–the Wounded Healer–and Kearney as a doctor working with hospice patients takes in the depths of that archetype. He trained in London and Dublin. Here’s his website: https://michaelkearneymd.com . I recommend this particular book to you as a therapist, a Jungian, and a woman who knows the archetypal depths. Thanks for reading and commenting, dear Deborah. I love the way you dare to appear and disappear in your blog.

      • Thank you Elaine for letting me know more about those BodySoul Rhythms Workshops, I’m sure there’ll be classes in London somewhere. I’ll check out Michael’s book, it sounds interesting. Yes, it was a #GoodbyeTwitter last week from me (me & social media don’t work well together!) although I haven’t deleted my profile because it kind of serves as a signpost to my poetry and Jungian thought blog and you never know I may change my mind (again!) and return when life becomes less busy. Love & Light, Deborah.

  2. I never got beyond Edith Hamilton’s book of Mythology from college days, so your posts are a Primer + Thank you especially for Psyche’s Four Labors, which seem faintly familiiar to me.

    Your stories are so, so rich, particualrly the one with Vic sitting with your mother in your absence as you have sat by his (the more ferocious one) these past years. The masks you have created are artful, and revealing. I’m sure I wear various masks, some of which have fallen off my face to reveal a more authentic self. Memoir writing has given me courage to shed a mask, airing family secrets. And so has marriage. Cliff says I’m sometimes manipulative, a “skill” I have renamed negotiation, or compromise. 🙂

    The photos are wonderful too, especially the one with you and Vic riding the bull. I don’t see either of you wearing a mask, radiating pure, unmitigated love. And when you played Aphrodite, I see you as the goddess of love, not jealous and demanding. Thank you for another fabulous post, named with the perfect (oxymoronic) title.

    • I love the way long-time partners carefully figure out how to say the hard things without shattering their marriage. From manipulative to someone who negotiates or compromises. Yes! Vic and I had plenty to sort through right to the end. Masks seem to be part of our human experience, whether we consciously make them or wear invisible ones to fit into various situations and fill expectations from others or ourselves. Vic and I could laugh at the different personas or maks we wore. As he got closer to death, the essential masks stayed. As a dying patient, the medical students and residents loved him and gathered around to talk to him about his experience. He had taught medical students physics at Colgate and he was still teaching about the importance of soul care and kindness as well as body care. One of his doctors had been his student many years before and Vic recognized him immediately at a moment when we weren’t sure Vic knew what was happening. He knew.

      In the story of Eros and Psyche, Aphrodite is a nasty mother-in-law–but she initiates Psyche through those impossible tasks. I often thought of that myth when dealing with my mother-in-law’s impossible rage and demands. I knew I was being taught something essential. I like the title, too.

  3. What a fascinating post Elaine. I love the idea behind making the masks. And I remember when you wrote about your mother dying and Vic staying with her while you took your time to complete what you needed to do. I totally understand as I did not go to my mother while on her death bed either.

    • I’ll clarify a little, Debby. I was ready to drive home to be with my mom, but the head nurse said I wouldn’t make it on time (a 9 hour drive) unless my mom’s condition improved quickly. They told me to wait a few hours before leaving and they’d know then which direction things were going, so I went back to the morning workshop. I wrote an article about that morning called “Dancing with My Mother’s Death.” Meanwhile, back home, Vic went to the nursing home to sit with my mother, but within an hour or so, he called to tell me Mom had died. With everything already arranged for her after-death care, there was nothing I had to do at home. It was wonderful to hold a ritual of remembrance for my mother and everyone’s mother with the women at the workshop. I held another gathering with close friends when I returned home. That was one powerful weekend.

      • I realize our situations were different Elaine and I think your holding the ritual was a beautiful and honorable gesture. 🙂

        • It felt right, Debby, and I did what was right for me which meant not having a big family funeral but a simple small affair when both my sons are here.

  4. i’m coming late to your post Elaine … thank you so much for it. I can’t tell you how much it resonates with me. I’m only too aware of the masks I wear. Interestingly, I’m in the throes of drafting a blog post for next week on a similar theme … Thank you for the links you’ve provided which I will definitely check over the weekend.

    We have so much to learn from mythology and legend. In the particular art group I was in then 20 or so years ago, we spent a weekend away to celebrate one of the women’s birthdays and made masks – it was also full moon. The weekend brought up such a depth of feeling and we were all grateful for it, in the sharing of the meaning to us individually and as a group.

    Re one of your responses: I too see great value in image healing.

    I look forward to your links when time permits – which just seems to be racing away. Have a deep and soulful weekend.

    • Thank you, Susan. I look forward to your post about masks. There are the superficial masks we wear in our daily life–or else I would have wept my grief tears in the arms of every grocery store check-out person or bank teller. We put on our social face to navigate the world. Then there are these other inner masks related to ancient Greek theater that reveal archetypal depths and are often less personal. I was surprised by what emerged. I’m still surprised and working toward meaning. Your mask-making weekend sounds wonderful. I’m forever grateful I made it to a few Marion Woodman week-long workshops because at her 2-4 day gatherings, there wasn’t time to make masks. Some of Marion’s students must have continued that tradition, but I’m not sure who that would be.

      I have a strong hankering for a Monarch mask–my symbol of transformation. I hope you have a wonderful weekend, too. Last I read you were having a heat wave there. Our cold and wet pattern which began in July continues on, so I have light snow this morning–and it’s only November.

  5. There is so much about your post, Elaine, that moves me. That picture of you and Vic riding the bull on Wall Street is overflowing with love and joy, and even more so knowing that Vic knew and loved the bullish part of you. It’s so helpful to remember that “masks seem to be part of our human experience, whether we consciously make them or wear invisible ones to fit into various situations and fill expectations from others or ourselves.” I continue to be surprised when I get glimpses of the unconscious masks I still wear so much of the time.

    I had not known that Marion Woodman died in July, and I find myself feeling quite sad as I let that in. What a remarkable and wise woman she was. And I’m grateful for the deep wisdom you share.

    • Thank you, Anne. It helps to be a Jungian for this piece and to understand the process of digging deep for our inner wisdom figures. About the photo: Vic was daring and he pulled me up on that bull (definitely breaking the rules) and asked a Japanese tourist to take the photo. We all laughed hysterically. Among so much else, I miss the wildness and laughter he brought into my life.

      I love your quote. We humans are mask makers, usually unconscious for modern humans without differentiating the various masks from our authentic selves. I love seeing traditional masks made by other cultures. I love getting a glimpse into myself through dreams or mask-making or any creative work. I have a hankering for a Monarch Butterfly mask since they’ve become important symbols for me.

      Marion hadn’t taught for many years. It was still a jolt when I heard of her death, but I learned she was surrounded by people who loved her. Sometimes Death is a gift. I imagine it was for her. She left so much wisdom for all of us to share.

  6. Beautiful words, Elaine.

    I would like to know whether it is possible to receive your posts by email, as I have only just seen this one, and would not like to miss any more.

    As I read your words about ‘Our Lady of Praise and Sorrow’, I was reminded of Martin Prechtel. In Mayan culture, grief and praise are the same word. Grief is praising the things you love and have lost, and praise is grieving the things you love and will lose.

    Just a few thoughts, offered with love.

    Take care,

    Casey

    • What a beautiful message, Casey. Yes, you can receive my posts by email. I love Martin Prechtel and this idea of grief as a kind of love and praise, although I hadn’t read him when I made the mask.

      When you sign up for my blog, you’ll receive an email notice when I post something new which is every other week. You’ll also have access to any blog I’ve published since 2012 (they’re available to anyone). Here are step by step directions.
      1. Go to the home page or my blog page on my website. Here’s the link to the blog page: https://elainemansfield.com/blog/
      2. Scroll down and see in the R hand column under the image of my book the words “Newsletter” and beneath that “Subscribe to our blog and newsletter below:” with a box where you can enter your email address. (I don’t send out separate newsletters and haven’t for a while, so you’ll only receive blogs.)
      3. You will receive an email saying you subscribed to my blog. It may ask you to verify with a click. That’s all there is to it. My next new blog goes out on December 11 and it will be in your mailbox that night.
      4. On that same R column, below the sign-up, you’ll find a list of popular posts and below that the various categories I write about. If, for example, you’re interested in Bereavement and End of Life, click that category and a page will come up with blogs about that topic. You can’t mess up, so just search around once you’re there.

      Thank you for love. I send it back to you, full circle,
      Elaine

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