Eharo dance masks from Papua New Guinea

For this year’s Rugby League World Cup, Warrington are proudly hosting the Papua New Guinea men’s team. The country has a rich Rugby League History, it’s the country’s national sport and the national team are known as ‘the Kumuls’, which means birds-of-paradise in Tok Pisin, a creole language spoken throughout the country. In 2017, Papua New Guinea were joined by Australia and New Zealand as tournament hosts for the Rugby League World Cup, and they reached the quarter-finals when they were beaten by a well-drilled England side 36-6. This year, Warrington will be hosting Papua New Guinea as far as the tournament’s quarter-final stage. To mark this wonderful sporting event, we decided to take a look at a dance mask from Papua New Guinea which is part of the museum’s ethnographical collections and currently on display in our World Stories gallery.

The mask is an example of what is described as a “ceremonial eharo dance mask” from Papua New Guinea. It was purchased by the museum in January 1921 as part of an auction lot.

The mask (shown below) is shaped to resemble the grotesque head and face of a man, with tassels attached to the ears. The mask has been constructed by stretching black, white and brown decorated “tapa” or barkcloth – a textile made from the bark of a tree from the mulberry family – over a cane framework.

Ceremonial eharo mask in the collections at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery (WAGMG : 1921.24)

Three young men outdoors wearing eharo masks; Port Moresby; Papua New Guinea. © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The masks were predominantly used during initiation ceremonies associated with the Elema people and originate from an area of Papua New Guinea known as the Gulf of Papua. The Elema people inhabit the eastern side of the Papuan Gulf, a 300 mile-long bay which curves around from the Torres Straits, above Australia and the Great Barrier Reef, to the modern capital of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby.

Map of Papua New Guinea

The eharo mask at Warrington Museum & Art Gallery dates from before 1921, the rest of this article refers to the traditional society of the Elema people at the time during which they were made, rather than to contemporary Papua New Guinea, which has changed drastically over the last century.

Eharo masks like these were ‘dance masks’ and they came in a variety of forms. Some Eharo masks are quite comical, whilst others represent mythological spirits or tolerant beings. Those that represent mythological spirits often have a second figure on the top of the cane frame.

As well as Eharo masks the Elema people made two other kinds of masks for their ceremonies – those masks made for semese or hevehe ceremonies were the most secret and sacred, and there are many restrictions around the way they are constructed, the way they are worn and what they mean. These masks were up to 6 to 7 metres in height, and were often oval in shape with projecting beaks that represented the spirits of sea monsters and children. These masks completely obscured the identity of the wearer as these masks were supposed to physically embody the spirit which the mask depicted.

A third type of mask, made for the kovave ceremony, were conical in shape and were worn to appease nature spirits during a young boy’s initiation into manhood.

Hevehe ceremonial cycle

Eharo masks were worn at the beginning and end of the hevehe ceremonies which took place in cycles lasting 7 to 20 years and often involved singing and drumming, creating a mesmerising atmosphere left those involved in a trance-like state. A sacred instrument known as a ‘bull roarer’ would be swung around in the air, producing an unearthly sound which represented the voices of the spirits. The sound of the bullroarer was also considered to be a warning to the uninitiated – particularly women – to hide out of the way so as not to see the procession of sacred objects which could harm them. At the height of one of these celebrations, over 100 masked figures would emerge from a longhouse, an impressive and awe-inspiring sight.

A group of Elema people standing in front of a thatched roof men’s house, with several people holding hevehe (masks); Papua New Guinea © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Ehora masks were usually burnt at the end of a ceremony, so surviving examples are rare. During the first two decades of the 20th century, European missionaries and traders caused massive social upheaval by confiscating or publically destroying the Elema people’s sacred objects and eliminating their traditional cultural practices. Only a few masks like these survive because they were collected by anthropologists and sold or donated to museums like this one, or sent home to Europe and America by missionaries as evidence of their conversions.

Written by Hannah White (Collections Assistant)

For more information about Warrington hosting the Papua New Guinea team for the Rugby World Cup see: