The History and Lore of Face-painting
by Ed Hingston
Just as decisive to a Polearmball victory as scoring deliveries is the game's role-playing element, and getting into character with a great costume and artful face-paint can often mean the difference between winning and losing.
In this article we look at the history of face-painting, exploring its many divergent uses – from magical seduction to savage intimidation, from individualism to tribal solidarity – with the aim of inspiring your own creations, however fantastical or historically accurate you intend them to be.
The earliest estimates attribute the origin of face-painting to our hominid ancestors living in parts of Africa over 400 000 years ago – based on evidence of red, blue, yellow, pink and brown mineral-based pigments for skin coloration. In order to create this prehistoric face-paint, raw materials such as ochre (any of various natural earths containing ferric oxide, silica, and alumina: used as yellow or red pigments) were likely ground up in a sturdy shell using quartzite stones, and blended with crushed bone, charcoal, and a liquid such as water or urine. Although we cannot know for certain what face-painting meant to our evolutionary forebears, we can safely assume that most of their activities were geared towards survival, and that most pivotal of all to this end was ensuring the solidarity of the family, clan, or tribe.
Making use of face-paint to attune an individual to the common objectives of the group was a practice exemplified by those prolific face-painters, the Native Americans. Although to early European settlers the diverse Tribal Nations may have appeared indistinguishable, subtle variations in painted designs differentiated one from another. The Catawba of the Carolinas, for example, circled one eye with black and the other with white to express their tribal allegiance, while a culturally informed visitor to the South-eastern Woodlands could tell an Imosakica Chickasaw from an Intcukwalipa Chickasaw on the basis of whether they wore paint above or below the cheekbones. Displaying tribal affiliation in this way was generally more important for the men, the chiefs and warriors who interacted with groups beyond their own, although women too expressed their solidarity with men at war by wearing similar designs – in much the same way that sports fans today show support for the team they're rooting for.
Face-paint was also viewed by Native Americans as a way of asserting their symbolic union with the world. A common design, for instance, divided the face into two sections, one light and one dark, to mimic the phases of the moon. Their use of naturally-sourced painting materials, applied onto a base of buffalo, deer, or bear fat, was another way of strengthening their bond to the natural environment.
Face-paint was also used to communicate or reflect important events, and every color had a special significance to the Native Americans. Red face-paint, which was derived from ochre, bloodroot (a perennial wildflower native to forests in eastern North America, having a single lobed leaf, a solitary white flower in early spring, and a fleshy rootstock exuding a poisonous red sap), or a mixture of boiled red corn and crushed red berries, was associated with activity, with festivity and celebration, or with going to war (hence the moniker “Red” Indians). A victorious return from war was typically marked by painting the face black with charcoal, shale or earth, a color also applied to mourn the dead in the fashion of some Australian Aboriginal groups. White, from riverbed clay or ashes, was symbolic of peace, as was blue, which also signified wisdom and was made using a special type of clay found in Wyoming, or else duck excrement. Yellow, from riverbed clay, buckthorn berries, moss or cottonwood buds, as well as buffalo gallstones, was used to denote heroism and death, and there is a tale recounted by Black Elk of being called upon as a youth to apply yellow paint to a warrior's face and body before the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. This coloring was meant to symbolise the fighter's readiness to die. In order to mix green, Native Americans combined their yellow and blue pigments, or else they used plant leaves and copper ore, and this color was associated with harmony and healing.
Using face-paint to express moods or temperaments also occurs among the Efik people of southern Nigeria, and a similar system of color-coding exists in Kabuki, or classical Japanese theatre. In the latter case, actors' faces are covered with a white base of rice powder, onto which are drawn expressive colored lines: red to indicate passion, brown to indicate greed, indigo or black for sadness, light blue or turquoise for calm, purple for nobility, pink for youth or cheerfulness, and green for the supernatural.
Face-paint was continually altered by Native Americans to commend certain acts of bravery in battle. For example, as shooting enemies from a distance was viewed as a dishonorable way to kill a man, a warrior who managed to physically touch an enemy and escape unharmed was honored with the addition of a painted hand-print to his face. Likewise, the first man to make a kill in battle was marked by having their face painted black, and among the Ponca a red-tinted face with black stripes was indicative of having collected an enemy's scalp.
In addition to displaying battlefield achievements, face-paint was also used to denote rank within a tribe, the marshal of a war party having two black stripes on his right cheek and the marshal of a camp having only one, while the marshal of council meetings and powwows wore a red stripe across the bridge of his nose.
Similar practices existed in other cultures, such as among the Mbayá, a warlike and powerful people who posed great resistance to the Spanish during their invasion of South America. They were known for their geometric patterns and curling arabesques denoting their position in the social hierarchy, from commoner to noble.
Generally speaking, within the boundaries of recognizable tribal affiliation, cultural symbolism, and the indication of rank or status, Native Americans were at liberty to paint their faces however they wished. In fact, individuals were encouraged to paint their faces in such a way that would honor their own personal spirit guides as well as invite their protection. Pawnee scouts painted their faces white in honor of their guardian spirit, the wolf, and symbols such as the zigzag lightning bolt could be applied to enhance power and speed by appeasing the gods of war, while green was supposed to augment night vision.
All paint was traditionally concocted by shamans (a person who acts as intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds, using magic to cure illness, foretell the future, control spiritual forces, etc.) who would utter prayers and incantations over it during preparation to imbue it with these valued magical properties. Such was the trust in the powers of the paint that the Chichimec of Central Mexico often went into battle wearing little else.
Face-paint was also considered a source of magical protection in Ancient Egypt, where Kohl, a black substance made using lead sulfide and soot mixed with animal fats, was applied around the eyes to deflect the curse of the Evil Eye.
Pigments were also applied to the eyes for beautification, and green eye make-up from malachite mined at Sinai, the domain of Hathor, goddess of love and beauty, was believed to act as an aphrodisiac. This seductive edge was perhaps Cleopatra's most valuable political asset in her dealings with Rome, having snared both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony before her eventual demise.
So threatening to the reason and wills of men were cosmetics deemed by legislators in eighteenth century England – where the rich used lead-based products and the poor relied on borax and berries – that a law was passed in parliament to make cosmetics illegal, along with other forms of “witchcraft”. Two centuries later, bright red lipstick became a symbol of female independence for the Suffragettes.
If seducing an enemy into submission is one tactical option, then repelling them with fear is another – and intimidation in Polearmball, where opponents may be evenly matched, is a crucial opportunity to score extra points.
The Native American Makah used black paint mixed with glittering flecks of mica to unnerve their enemies, and in Ethiopia, Surma stick fighters paint their faces to intimidate their rivals. The Kainantu of the Papua New Guinean highlands cover their faces in white clay and animal bones, hoping to frighten their enemies by taking on the appearance of the spirits they dread themselves.
In Ancient Britain, Julius Caesar's invading troops were chilled by the resistance of the so-called picti, or painted people, in Scotland. If modern interpretations of the Roman reports are accurate, these Celts probably colored themselves with a blue dye made from the woad plant, or else a copper- or iron-based pigment, to give them the appearance of having greenish-blue skin.
There is further evidence that the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles, and particularly those in Ireland, dyed themselves red using bog iron. These were the Fer Dearg, or “red men” of Irish myth, and were said to cover their faces with the blood of their slain enemies as well.
True or not, such tales from returning soldiers about these blue demons and red savages to the north no doubt bolstered the unnerving reputation of the British Isles, which, with its dark forests, heavy mists, and enigmatic inhabitants, was already fixed in the Roman imagination as a place of the bewilderingly unknown, a place of foreboding, mystery and otherworldly danger. Indeed, it wasn't until much later that the Romans comfortably settled there (with the help of a great wall to keep out the Scots).
In Polearmball, points are given for an impressive appearance and successful intimidation, and face-painting has long served both of these purposes for warriors around the world. Underpinning all of these historical uses, however – whether for solidarity, communication, magic, or war – is the uncanny ability of face-paint to create a separate reality: a space in which individuals can be bound or repelled with extraordinary power, and in which the everyday persona can be entirely dissolved into something greater. Today we see performers, cosplayers, and black metal bands painting their faces for the same reasons.
Having now read the rich lore of face-painting down the ages and around the world, the brush now falls to you. Time to get creative and continue this great tradition by inventing a face-painting lore of your own!
And now a word from the author of this article...