By Alade Aromashodu
Egungun, a deity with a colourful dress, is one of the greatest divinities in Yoruba land. Among traditions, there are lots of stories about Egungun cult and how it sprouted among the Yoruba. It refers to all types of Yoruba masquerades or masked, costumed figures. Specifically, it refers to the Yoruba masquerades connected with ancestral reverence, or to the ancestors themselves as a collective force. The singular form for an individual ancestor is Egun or Eegun.
Egungun festival is part of the Yoruba religious system, sometimes referred to as Orisa. It is celebrated as festivals and rituals through the masquerade. An elder from the Egungun family called Alagbaa sometimes presides over the ancestral rites. But priests are the ones in charge of invoking the spirits of the ancestors and bringing them out.
The invocation is done when the worshippers dance, drum, and become possessed by the ancestral spirits, so much that they flog everybody they see with their whips. They believe that using the whip on people can help cleanse the community of wickedness. After this, the priest advises, warns and prays for the spectators and people give them money which evidently results in the priests becoming richer.
The chief priest that invokes the spirit of the ancestors is called Alapini. The festival is celebrated annually in Yoruba land in almost all the towns and cities. And this, it is believed, contributes positively to the economy of the country, as well as foster unity among indigenous people.
Egungun masks are also performed during specific funeral rites, marking the death of important personalities. The festival is common among the Egba, Egbado, Oyo, and other parts of the South-West; and it is held between November and April when there is usually no rainfall. The belief is that the ancestors should not suffer by being drenched by rain.
Chief Ifaniyi Ajani Ogunjobi, Akoda Awo, Ijo Ato of Ebute Meta East, in the Mainland Local Government Area, Lagos State, reiterated at a prayer section organised for his Egungun, Aduni Oje, that: “Clothes play important roles in the Yoruba world. The belief equates nakedness with infancy, insanity, or lack of social responsibility. A more elaborate dress reflects social power and prestige. In performances honoring ancestors, exquisite clothe is the major medium for the masker’s transformation. An Egungun costume is composed of multiple layers of cloth lappets made from expensive and prestigious textiles expressing the wealth and status of the family as well as the power of the ancestor.
To make the costume beautiful, and thus powerful, the lappets are decorated with patchwork patterns, braids, sequins, tassels and amulets. The amulets hold medicinal preparations which have performance power (ase), providing protection against enemies at a time when the transformed person is vulnerable. The main protective amulets, however, are on the inside of the costume, not the outside. Metallic objects are also sewn onto the garment. These catch the light as the wearer moves, creating flashes that suggest connection to the spirit world, orun.
An ensemble is repaired and refurbished for use year after year with layers of new lappets and amulets added to express remembrance and honour. Through divination, however, an ancestor might request a new costume altogether. The owner and the patron, the priest of divination, the tailor, the herbalist who prepares the packets of medicines, and the entire lineage collaborate in creating the ensemble. Depending on its wealth, a family may own several types of Egungun costumes, which may represent specific or collective ancestors of the lineage.
The Egungun ensemble acts as the medium for the masker’s transformation into his ancestors. An Egungun society is composed of men and women whose lineages have the right to present the masquerade. Men do the masking. Women never wear the costume, although they participate in the chorus that sings the oriki (praise poems), and histories of the families. Elderly women of high title also perform invocations, prayers, and offerings. At annual festivals, each of the numerous lineages is given a separate day to perform. The masker is kept at a distance from the surrounding crowd with the help of attendants dressed in masquerade costumes of different types. After all the Egungun have danced, the ensembles are stored until the next performance.