The African masks were not simply sculptures like any other. Not at all. They were magic objects. – Pablo Picasso
In Harlem in New York City, right here on 125th street, just a few blocks from my home there are vendors camped out with rickety folding tables on the corners and sidewalks. In regular times there are dozens of them selling Harlem influenced t-shirts, cheap African jewelry, clothing, classic R&B/Soul/Rap cd’s, and soap and incense. Plenty of other items too. Books, bootleg movies, all sorts. Now, in these times, during the day there are fewer of them but now they are selling all manner of masks. Simple light blue surgical ones, knockoffs of the heavier duty N95 masks, full face masks. And even full plastic shield masks as well.
The street traffic is less. The sirens steadily and piercingly whine during the day. The birdsong is loud and joyous. And there is mask hunger. Understandably so.
Masks have been fashioned and employed all over the world for at least 9000 years. The oldest masks we have excavated are made of stone but it is certainly possible, and even likely that there were older ones made of skin or wood or fiber that have long since disintegrated since we have found much more recent ones made of the same. Regardless, masks were used for their expressive power in rituals. Whether these rituals were for healing, for dance, for theater, for ancestor reverence, for social coding, for invocations, for worship, for purification, or for protection…these masks have had all the craft and devotion in their making for the purpose of summoning something. We know about special rituals and prayers and gift giving ceremonies performed before cutting down a tree that would be carved or materials gathered. These rituals for even making the masks speaks to the gravity of their devotions to what these people were trying to bring forth in the world or see in the world.
So these masks that are on 125th street and that are being sewn and stitched and beaded and braided and worn all over the United States is there a mythic remembering that might be happening? What or whom are we trying to summon?
These masks are worn as a display of good hygiene. What is hygiene? Or perhaps more interestingly…who is Hygiene? Hygiene derives from the name of the Greek goddess Hygeia. She was considered to be health, cleanliness embodied. When you were healthy or had your health returned, you were visited by Hygeia. While her father Asclepius, was a demi-god associated with healing, Hygeia was more to do with the prevention of sickness and the continuation of good health. Asclepius also had a second daughter – Panacea, meaning ‘cure’.
All three of them show up in the original Hippocratic Oath:
I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath
While Hygeia’s name was known in antiquity and had her own religious cult she was elevated even further in 430 BC when the Oracle of Delphi said that that she was not being remembered well enough. What was happening in 430 BC? A plague in Athens and Greece more widely. We don’t know exactly what this religious cult in devotion to Hygeia entailed, we know from inscriptions on statues and small writings that have survived in in places like Athens, Thessaly, Peloponnese, Rome, Pergamon, Attica, Boeotia, and Phokis. These prayers evidence that devotees took on the work of cleaning spaces, their bodies, and wounds with medicinal plants and materials with a prayerful approach so that Hygeia might appear and stay in their lives.
Hygeia, most revered of the blessed ones who lives amidst mortals, may I dwell with you for what is left of my life, and may you graciously keep company with me – Ariphron, Fragment 813
This notion that health is not some indwelling quality but must be worked and prayed for so that some deity might appear as your health is an interesting one – neither right or wrong. But it sits on a mythic understanding of the world and also an animated notion of the world. That the world is alive and can be related to in order to have a good relationship with it.
So could it be that with all these hygienic masks we are collectively, and inadvertently, summoning Hygeia in our midst? Maybe. But what a thing to wonder about in a time like this. Who are are summoning and might we make more precise our pleas?
This is part of our approach here at Primal Derma. We try to forge deep relationships with all parts of the process that brings these little jars of tallow to you. We try to remember them and labor for them because it is not inevitable that they will appear when we summon them.