Egungun Festival

Egungun Festival

Type of Holiday: Religious (Yoruba)
Date of Observation: June
Where Celebrated: Nigeria, Brazil
Symbols and Customs: Masks, Yam

ORIGINS

The Egungun Festival is part of the religious practices of the Yoruba people of Ede, Nigeria. The Yoruba religion is based on oral traditions. Beliefs and practices are preserved by passing history, customs, and traditions from one generation to the next. Authority for interpreting events and establishing proper conduct of ethics and morals rests with a bureaucratic structure of rulers who function in both religious and political realms.

According to traditional Yoruba belief, all power in the universe emanates from a supreme being, Olodumare. Olodumare, known as the owner of everlasting abundance, among many other praise names, holds all power and is the giver of all life. Olodumare is the mystical remote source of all things and is not identified by gender. All that exists, including supernatural divine realities and natural earth realities, are part of Olodumare.

As the supreme almighty source, Olodumare is directly involved in the affairs of the earth through a complex core of sub-divinities called orisa. The orisa are authoritative divine emissaries and serve as intermediaries between the people of earth and Olodumare. They are the major objects of veneration and ritual obligation. The names and number of orisa vary according to national and local custom, but they number in the hundreds. Some are more nationally known while others may be only venerated according to localized custom.

The Egungun is a secret society among the Yoruba people of Nigeria. A hereditary chief called the Alagba heads the society, which celebrates its most important festival in June. Members of the society come to the marketplace and perform dances for the Timi, or chief, wearing MASKS that represent the spirits of deceased ancestors. Which spirits are worshipped each year is decided by the Ifa oracle. A man who is instructed by the oracle to worship his ancestor has a special mask made for the dance. Although he himself doesn't participate in the dance, he is considered the owner of the mask. He takes it to the Alagba, along with appropriate gifts, and the Alagba secretly appoints a member of the Egungun society to wear it during the festival.

About thirty masqueraders in long, colorful robes gather in a grove not far from town and then arrive as a group to perform their dance in the marketplace. Some Egungun dance in one place, while others make sudden movements toward the surrounding spectators. When one leaps forward, the young men acting as guards lash out with their whips to prevent anyone from coming near the masked figure. The high point of the festival is the appearance of Andu, the most important and powerful mask. The other masqueraders clear a path for him, and the drums beat louder and faster as Andu rushes into the marketplace.

It is the Egungun who listen to the requests of the living and carry their messages back to the ancestral community in heaven. Women who are having difficulty conceiving, for example, frequently ask the masked figures to grant them children. The responses of the Egungun can be fierce as well as generous. They expect their descendants to uphold the highest moral standards and are quick to expose the evil thoughts that neighbors harbor against one another. Even though the annual appearance of the Egungun in the streets of Yoruba towns and villages inspires a certain amount of fear, it also assures the people of their continued guidance.

The word "Egungun" is sometimes translated literally as "bone" or "skeleton." This is probably the result of a misunderstanding of the correct tone, since Yoruba is a tonal language. When the word is pronounced with the correct tone, it means "masqueraders." Today there is a thriving community of Egungun worshippers in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, where they wear the colorful costumes of their Nigerian counterparts.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Masks

Some of the Egungun masks consist of colored cloth and leather that cover the entire body while the dancer looks out through a closely knitted net. Others are wooden masks worn in front of the face, and still others are carved heads worn on top of the dancer's own head. The mask-wearers are always accompanied by men holding sticks or whips who keep the crowd from getting too close. This is because it is considered extremely dangerous to approach the spirits of the deceased. According to an old Yoruban proverb, "Even a Prince cannot go near an Egungun with impunity." At one time, anyone who saw even part of the man who was wearing the mask could be put to death as a punishment.

Each mask represents the spirit of a particular ancestor. In reality, everyone knows that there is a human being beneath the mask. But it is believed that the spirit of the deceased may be persuaded to enter into the masquerader while he is dancing. At the height of the dance, every true Egungun enters into a trance-like state and speaks with a voice he has never used before.

Yam

The Yoruba honor the annual return of the ancestors to the world of the living during the season of the yam harvest. Their arrival not only brings a blessing upon the crops, but stands as a reminder that it was the ancestors who first cultivated Yoruba land.

When a Yoruba man dies, the Egungun are especially concerned about the separation of the dead from their former life. So after a certain amount of time has elapsed, the widow is led to a mound of earth that represents her husband. From this she takes a yam, which symbolizes the last gift she will receive from him. Then, a week or so later, one of the Egungun visits her house and calls to the dead person in a high-pitched or nasal voice. This is a signal for the dead person to leave the earth and his family behind.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. King, Noel Q. Religions of Africa: A Pilgrimage into Traditional Religions. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Murphy, Joseph M. Santería: African Spirits in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.

WEB SITE

Egba-Egbado Descendants Association www.egbaegbado.org/egba14.htm

Egungun Festival

June
The Egungun is a secret society among the Yoruba people of Ede, Oyo State, Nigeria. The major Egungun festival takes place in June, when members of the society come to the market place and perform masked dances. The masks they wear represent ancestral spirits and may cover the whole body or just the face. It is considered dangerous to see any part of the man who is wearing the mask—an offense that was at one time punishable by death.
The masqueraders all dance simultaneously, although each has his own drum accompaniment and entourage of chant ­ ing women and girls. The festival climaxes with the appearance of Andu, the most powerful mask. It is believed that the spirits of the deceased possess the masqueraders while they are dancing, and although it promotes a feeling of oneness between the living and the dead, the festival also inspires a certain amount of fear.
CONTACTS:
Embassy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
3519 International Ct. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-986-8400; fax: 202-362-6981
www.nigeriaembassyusa.org
SOURCES:
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 341
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 384
References in periodicals archive ?
The annual Egungun festival is something that will come to an end; the children of the traditional chief in charge of the festival and the Egungun tradition will return (from the festival) to buy the food that they erstwhile got free and in abundance during the festival.
As this discussion has shown, there is, among other things, an implicit Yoruba indigenous text on tenure ethics in the Egungun festival.
The Egungun festival (2) is always full of sights and sounds that give immense entertainment to all spectators, both indigenes and visitors in every community where it is held.
An aspect of this idea of nature is the entrenched belief that physical death is not the cessation of life for persons, and it is believed that those who died at ripe old ages and who lived morally well on earth, become ancestors, who have now acquired a spiritual existence continue in many ways to participate in the affairs of their families and communities (5), hence one fundamental way in which they do this through re-enacted in the Egungun festival.
Of course, the Egungun Festival was a massive theater of the street: the Egungun were the actors, the entire town/community the audience.