By Dag Walker
Poro Societies (males) and Sande Society (females) and other secret societies are so central to most Liberian history that one must have some understanding to grasp the nation and its people. There is the person, and there is the persona, “the role that one assumes or displays in public or society; one’s public image or personality, as distinguished from the inner self.”1.
We all take on rôles during the course of the day. You might be a man, a father, a husband, a friend, a co-worker, even an innocent by-stander. The varieties of being in the world are probably infinite. The person one “really” is means little or nothing. We change, even from one minute to the next, in sometimes fundamental ways. Yet, we remain the same in essence and existence. “Who am I?” It’s an impossible question. One is continuously adjusting to circumstances, becoming someone else, , being another in the world. There is, somewhere, the person; mostly, there is the persona, the appearance of being oneself, even the appearance of not being oneself. There is the matter of masks.
“The oldest masks that have been discovered are 9,000 years old. The earliest known anthropomorphic artwork is circa 30,000–40,000 years old, visible only in paleolithic cave drawings.”2.
Facial expressions are, in a sense, masks, the transformation of the face from one visage to another, displays of different facets of the person in the persona as befits the role, for example, a smile, a frown, grimace or the face in repose. Each facet is the same person, but transformed, leading us to ask how we can know at all the person in question. It becomes more elaborate.
“Masks are a specialized form of ritual wear. Putting on a mask temporarily creates a new persona. The mask allows us to set aside our own identity temporarily, and take on another. This invites the spiritual being itself into us, through the process of evocation. In this way, the mask is a channel for that being to enter into the ritualist.” 3.
Moving beyond the norms of daily living into the realms of the mystik, we approach the unknowable; thus, our understanding of masks becomes both less and at the same time more likely.
The obscuring of the individual’s face, the depersonalization, the occultation, means the mask-wearer is both not himself and himself simultaneously. He is manifest as concrete, unchanging, and archetypal. The man behind the mask is eternal, a truth unchanging.
“The Grebo of the Ivory Coast and Liberia carve masks with round eyes to represent alertness and anger, with the straight nose to represent unwillingness to retreat. The Senoufo people of the Ivory Coast represent tranquility by making masks with eyes half-shut and lines drawn near the mouth. The Temne of Sierra Leone use masks with small eyes and mouths to represent humility and humbleness. They represent wisdom by making bulging forehead. Other masks that have exaggerated long faces and broad foreheads symbolize the soberness of one’s duty that comes with power.”.4.
Masks, in this case, the masks of Poro, are not meant to disguise the wearer, but to reveal the ultimate realities of the mystik. The mask is, therefore, the revelation. The masks of Poro and the Zos who conduct the societies thereof, are conduits to the higher realities, as it were, of the group. Poro masks are the manifest authority of the dimension beyond, the source of truth and good. The mask is the revelation.
“The ceremonies of the Purrah are presided over by the Poro devil, a man in fetish dress, who addresses the meeting through a long tube of wood, known as a bull-roarer…. Poro is a men’s secret society in Liberia. One of the social functions of secret societies like the Poro and Sande [female] is to deter antisocial behavior or beliefs.5.
Poro [and Sande societies] teach young men and women the domestic skills and knowledge they will need as married adults. Poro is the secret society for men, responsible for initiating boys into manhood, while its counterpart, Sande, initiates girls into womanhood. They are “secret” in the sense that members of each society have certain knowledge that can only be shared with other initiates. Masquerades are an essential component of these widespread associations. Masked performers not only appear during initiation ceremonies, but many other important social occasions. The masks worn by Sande and Poro members possess unique characteristics and embellishments, while adhering to established aesthetic criteria. Most African masks, whether they represent males or females, are carved and worn by men. The Sande society is the only known female group in Africa where the women wear masks. With finely carved, delicate features and elaborate hairstyles, Sande masks represent the epitome of female beauty. Masked performers, commonly referred to as zogbe or sowei, play a central role in Sande ritual activities. The costumed masker embodies the spirit of Sande, representing the society’s principles and ideals. Among the Poro society, the Vai, Mende, Gola, De, and Southern Kpelle have a helmet-shaped wooden mask known as gbetu or bowu.6.
Masks, ritual, and ceremony are universal. What the outside world knows of Poro societies is thanks to the American, George Way Harley (1894 1966,) “a physician, anthropologist, and collector was an American Methodist medical missionary. He spent 35 years in Liberia, where he established Ganta Hospital, a school and a church. Major collections of ceremonial masks purchased by Harley in Liberia are held in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University and the Anthropology Department of the College of William & Mary. “The museum’s holdings include over 20,000 items in four significant collections. The three principal collections were gathered from Liberia,” Dr. George W. Harley: Notes on the Poro in Liberia and Masks as Agents of Social Control in Northeast Liberia, are the basis of much of our present day knowledge of the Poro men’s secret society of West Africa and of masks and masking traditions in Liberia.”7.
The masks themselves and knowledge of Poro masks and societies are a significant contribution to the store of human knowledge.
Megarian philosopher Eubulides of Miletus (C. 400 BC) is famous for “Paradox of the Hooded Man” is simple enough. The question is, “Do you know your father? The answer is usually “Yes.” Then, “Do you recognise that man over there?” The man is wearing a hood. The subject says, “No, I do not recognise the man over there with a hood over his head.” He is your father; thus, you were mistaken in saying you recognise your father.”
The point is, for the purposes of this short look at Poro Society masks, to question what we really know, as opposed to what we say we know, about the nature of things we might assume are unknowable. What is the function of masking oneself and entering into the realm of the otherwise unknown? Is it real or is it simply bad science? We might well ask as well if science is bad religion.
Main Photo: Dan Poro mask /ancientpoint.com