The Physicality of the Other

Masks from the Ancient Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean

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Angelika Berlejung, Judith E. Filitz
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , February
     398 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What would you expect the subject matter of a book entitled, The Physicality of the Other: Masks from the Ancient Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean, to be? Any Reading Religion reviewer may answer this question in his or her own way, but many would begin with suppositions about who “the Other” is meant to be; what the authors mean by that Other’s (his, her, its?) “physicality;” and how they distinguish it from other aspects so it may become a well-defined subject of scholarly investigation. As it happens, the subject matter of the book under review is ancient masks, considered as material artefacts. Masks are face-like objects which can be held before, or worn on, a (generally human) face for a wide variety of purposes depending on context. A mask often serves as a signifier attributing the one who carries it a particular identity, which may differ from his or her default identity. Whether a mask carried by a ritual expert is meant to allow him (or her) to cross borders from one world to another; whether it is put on a dead person’s face to assure him (or her) a permanent identity beyond physical decay; or whether it is carried by someone acting in a theatre certainly makes a difference. The authors and editors of the book under review are aware of this vast multiplicity of meanings, uses, functions, and contexts. 

The majority of their sixteen contributions originated from a conference organized in 2015 by the volume’s editors, Hebrew Bible scholar Angelika Berlejung, and her research assistant Judith E. Filitz of the University of Leipzig. The conference subtitle, “Masks as a Means of Encounter,” privileged the aspect of face-to-face communication: How do masks modify (perhaps allow, or hinder) face-to-face encounters? Of whom with whom?

The Physicality of the Other is divided into five sections: The introductory section offers broad general considerations by co-editor Filitz alongside very focused ones by anthropologist Alfred Schäfer, who analyzes Yoruba and Voodoo cults for which masks are essential in allowing the temporary return of deceased persons among the living. Sections 2 to 4 follow a geographical order; chapters deal with the use of masks in Egypt, the Southern Levant, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Section 5 follows masks “on their way to Europe,” from Phoenicia through Greece to Italy. While the chapters offer interesting—sometimes intriguing—food for thought, some readers will miss a sense of coherence, regretting that there are no overarching research questions, as they move from one chapter or section to the next. 

Several contributions address clearly-defined questions (e.g., Egyptologist Alexandra von Lieven who asks whether and how deities were impersonated in ancient Egyptian rituals). Others discuss items retrieved in recent excavations (e.g., Itzhaq Shai on two Late Bronze age ceramic masks from Tel Burna, Israel). Izak Cornelius addresses Levantine masks “from the Stone age to the Bronze Age” by dealing with two sets of evidence stressing the distinction between face masks and statue masks. Berlejung makes the case for redirecting the search for masks in the Old Testament to the study of masks from ancient Palestine/Israel—from a set of canonical literature to artefactual data. This said, her concern—whether masks were used in the cult of Yahweh or whether a mask played a role in the Israelite God’s encounter with Moses narrated in Exod. 34—still betrays a Bible-centered focus. However, by struggling to correlate biblical and archaeological material, her chapter is a laudable attempt at a broader synthesis. Most contributors navigate somewhere between selected data and broader religio-historical explanations. Readers will learn much about masks of the Phoenicians (characterized as “ritualized faces” by Adriano Orsingher), masks and ritual performances in rural sanctuaries in Iron Age Cyprus (Erin Walcek Averett), masks in 5th-century Greek theatre performance (Angelika Varakis), or the semantics Latin persona and Etruscan phersu (Daniel Dost). One chapter—addressing neo-Assyrian royal ideology (Assyriologist Takayoshi Oshima)—does not seem to deal with masks at all; its main question is how could the Assyrian king be conceived as a virtual “embodying image of a god,” and how priests could function as “images” of gods. In his conclusion, Oshima suggests that “the ancient Mesopotamians might have seen wearing a mask or costume, that is putting on the gods’ and other persons’ facial and physical features, as a taboo, because such an action may assign their qualities to the wrong person. This might be a reason why we find almost no masks in ancient Mesopotamia” (246). How to relate this to the previous chapter—by Near Eastern archaeologist Claudia Beuger—where evidence for several types of (mostly ritual) masquerade in first-millennium BCE Mesopotamia is adduced, is left to the reader’s own appreciation. 

Since there is little interaction between the individual contributions, readers will look for orientation in Filitz’s introductory essay entitled “Of Masks and Men: Thoughts on Masks from Different Perspectives” (3-27). Starting with terminology (Latin persona, Langobardic masca, Germanic larva …) and typology (mask, mask-figure, mask-event …), the first section suggests that masks are used to negotiate the ambiguities between life and death, presence and absence, hide and show, and true and apparent faces. A second section sketches the difficulties in developing a coherent approach to the study of masks of the Eastern Mediterranean and the ancient Near East. Filitz plausibly suggests that interpreting masks first requires the study of culturally diverse concepts of personality. She then turns to psychology and theology in the third section, quoting Karl Barth’s characterization of “God” as “the wholly Other.” This theological concept seems to have impacted the book’s main title. This may be explained by the author’s institutional setting (a Faculty of Theology) rather than by the book’s subject matter. Unfortunately, unlike most conference volume introductions, Filitz’s does not attempt to summarize the individual contributions, nor does it explain how they relate to each other as complementary facets of a common subject or inquiry. How many readers will be so perseverant as to engage with the book as a whole? 

This is, somehow, a puzzling book, lacking focus despite a rather narrow subject-matter. Given its interdisciplinary ambition, readers would have appreciated a list of contributors— providing their disciplinary and institutional background. In addition, the editors should have provided a common research agenda to the gathering, which remains largely exploratory. In the absence of this, one is left with just interesting data and a few suggestive explanations. 

Ultimately, readers are advised to appreciate each chapter on its own terms. This is particularly true for the appendix (350-595, printed on slightly thicker paper)—a massive illustrated catalogue of 104 items classified as masks from the Southern Levant. Chronologically, these objects range from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B to the early Hellenistic period, or from the 9th millennium to the 4th century BCE. Every item is identified by provenance and present whereabouts, and is analyzed in terms of date, material, measurements, weight, archaeological find context, as well as other criteria. Each entry has a short object description and references to earlier bibliography. With this data collection, the editors have provided a very commendable service to scholars specializing in the archaeology and cultural history of the Southern Levant. It should also be pointed out that co-editor Filitz has independently published a lavishly illustrated book on ancient masks, entitled Masken im Altertum: Zwischen Religion und Kunst (Philipp von Zabern, 2018).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christoph Uehlinger is Professor of History of Religions and Comparative Religion in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Zurich.

Date of Review: 
April 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Angelika Berlejung is Professor for Old Testament Studies at the University of Leipzig in Germany, and professor extraordinaire for Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

Judith E. Filitz is Research Assistant at the Institute of Old Testament Studies at Leipzig University.


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