Mende People

Sande Society



color symbolism


body mutations


Poro Society



    "Masks are the collective Mind of the community; viewed as one body, they are the Spirit of the Mende people."  p xx  The Mende masked figures are a reminder that human beings have a dual existence; they live in the concrete world of flesh and material things and the spirit world of dreams, faith, aspirations and imagination. 

    The features of a Mende mask convey Mende ideals of female morality and physical beauty.  The bird on top of the head represents a woman's natural intuition that lets her see and know things that others can't.  The high or broad forehead represents good luck or the sharp, contemplated mind of the ideal Sande woman.  Downcast eyes symbolize a spiritual nature and it is through these small slits that a woman wearing the mask would look out of.  The small mouth signifies the ideal woman's quite and humble character.  The markings on the cheeks are representative of the decorative scars girls receive as they step into womanhood.  The scars are a symbol of her new, harder life.  The neck rolls are an indication of the health of an ideal women.  In the Mende culture full figured woman are beautiful.  The intricate hairstyles reveal the close ties within a community of women.  The holes at the base of the mask are where the rest of the costume is attached.  A woman who wears these masks must not expose any part of her body or a vengeful spirit may take possession of her.  Women often cover their bodies with masses of raffia or black cloth.

    When a girl becomes initiated into the Sande society the village's master woodcarver creates a special mask just for her.  The woodcarver must wait until he has a dream that guides him to make the mask a certain way for the recipient.  A mask must be kept hidden in a secret place when no one is wearing it. 

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Representing Women Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone, Ruth B. Phillips, page 126
Sande mask