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African Senufo Janus Wanyugo Mask — SOLD


Magnificent Senufo Firespitter Mask!

In stock


Fantastic Senufo ‘Janus’ helmet mask, often called a firespitter mask. The double-headed variation is known to the Senufo as a Wanyugo mask (also spelled Wanyungo & Waniougo in some texts). It is a variant of a helmet mask known generally as Kopnyungo, which literally translates as ‘funeral head mask’.

{Janus was the Roman god of gates and doors, beginnings and endings, and is typically represented by a double-faced head, each looking in opposite directions. African animist religions have nothing to do with the Romans, but double-faced masks are typically described as ‘Janus’ masks in the literature.}

Overall condition is excellent with a small break and repair in one of the tusks. The mask is 29 inches long, 12 inches wide and 13 inches high. Carved as a single piece from hardwood, it weighs about 5 kilos. The mask has been decorated by the Senufo carver with a smattering of gold and purple paint.

Derived from Greek mythology, a chimera is a fanciful composite creature crafted from multiple animals. The Senufo have created their own phantasmagoric creature from the teeth and jaws of the crocodile, the tusks of the ferocious warthog, the ears of the hyena, and the horns of the buffalo or antelope — all animal attributes symbolizing strength, power and aggression.

On the crest of the helmet are a pair of chameleon lizards, primordial totemic animals associated with creation and adaptation. Chameleons, exhibiting magical powers, are capable of changing colors and walk with a slow stiff gait. Ethnographers have asserted that traditional Senufo, with their animistic religious beliefs, are forbidden to kill chameleons, even by accident.

The pair of chameleons grip a small cup which would have held a magical substance (wah), which is activated by the dance and music of the ritual.

The mask is worn on top of the head and the dancer peers out through the mouth. A long dyed cotton costume is part of the ritual apparel. The holes in the bottom of the mask are used to attach raffia and cloth.

Why is the mask called a fire spitter?

The anthropologist Robert Goldwater describes a visually powerful part of the ceremony: “from time to time the mask wearer shouted formulas in a high-pitched tone, and proceeded to blow out a small blast of glowing sparks and little flames. This was produced by means of grass properly cut in tiny pieces and smeared with a sort of resin also used in torches. The mixture was ignited from inside the jaws of the mask by the bearer blowing upon a small but heavily ash-coated piece of smouldering wood from the marrow core of a tree”

The Senufo reside in Côte d’Ivoire, western Burkina Faso, and southern Mali in small villages, supporting themselves primarily as farmers. The independent villages are united through a secret men’s society known as the Poro society, which is responsible for the initiation of young boys and men and for instruction in the religious wisdom and knowledge of the bush spirits.

These large helmet masks are also worn by senior members of the Poro society at funerals of honored men and women. “They beat drums that have been placed on the torso of the deceased in order to ward off evil and help the soul reach the spirit world”. The masks are also danced at ceremonies and rituals to repel evil forces and establish cosmic order.

Aside from the Poro society, the Senufo recognize two other secret societies — the Sandogo and Wambele. These remarkable masks are also worn at Wambele society ceremonials in some areas.

Shipping is $55 within continental U.S.

Please contact me with questions. I can send additional photos, including ethnographic photos of the actual rituals and masks in use. Thank you.

(SEN0005 O150)