he yearly Egungun festival in Nigeria is a centuries-old Yoruba tradition and one of West and Central Africa’s most colourful cultural events. Egungun is a physical manifestation of deceased ancestors’ spirits who return to the human society for recollection, celebration, and blessings on a regular basis. It is a one-of-a-kind cultural custom followed by Yoruba people in West Africa and their descendants in the African Diaspora, mainly in Brazil, Salvador de Bahia, Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the United States.
The celebration is centered on the Egungun, a secret society of people who dress up in elaborate masks and are said to transform into ancestor spirits throughout the ceremony. When Egungun appears in a community, there is always a celebration of joy and happiness filled with elegant and spectacular display. The event that follows lasts several days and reinforces the links that bind families and communities to their departed forefathers and mothers. The costumes are made up of a variety of fabrics, both locally woven and created industrially, as well as metal, beads, leather, bones, and other empowering materials. Printed cotton, silk, Indian madras, velvet, and damask are among the textiles used today, and they are simply the best money can buy. The swirling of materials and colors, supplemented by elaborate body movements and highly choreographed dance steps, are common accompaniments to masquerade performances. A common component of Egungun festivities is flogging with saplings and canes. Young men fight in courage and strength competitions, lashing each other’s chests, legs, and arms. The face, on the other hand, is off-limits. As young as five years old, children can transform into Egungun and dance on the streets.
Any Egungun in Yorùbá region has a colourful display and fancy dress outlay that stems from its basic genesis and cultural flamboyancy, which best depicts the beauty of culture, custom, and legacy. Its frightening and bold attitude gives it the persona of a “god/ancestors similar image on earth.” However, no matter how amusing and entertaining an Egungun appears to be, one must recognize the spiritual, cultural, and physical significance and strength that they hold, making them supernatural beings in their own right. This spiritual significance grants them the Yorùbá title of “Ara Orun kin kin,” which means “Members of the Celestial Order.”
Egungun masks are made up of coloured cloth and leather that cover the whole body, with the dancer peering out through a finely woven net. Others are carved heads worn on top of the dancer’s own head, and others are wooden masks worn in front of the face. The men wearing masks are always joined by men wielding sticks or whips who keep the mob at bay. This is because approaching the spirits of the dead is considered exceedingly perilous. “Even a Prince cannot approach near an Egungun with impunity,” says an old Yoruba saying. In the days of yore, anyone who glimpsed even a portion of the guy wearing the mask may be sentenced to death. But now, that part had been scribed off the Egungun constitution.
Each mask reflects an ancestor’s spirit. Everyone knows that beneath the disguise lies a human being. However, it is said that the deceased’s spirit could be convinced to enter the masquerader while he dances. Every authentic Egungun enters a trance-like state at the apex of the dance and talks in an unusual/strange kind of vocalized expression, the type that the mask bearer had never implored before.
Any Egungun’s physical performance is fueled by the spirits of the Egungun’s forefathers and mothers. As a result, the performer and the Egungun’s “Eku” (the Egungun’s costumes) become one. They represent the spirits of the dead, ancestors, and gatekeepers who protect the gates of Olodumare (Supreme God) at the time of the show. The masquerade shows the presence and might (aṣẹ) of the ancestors through movement and appearance.
Eesa Ogbin Ologbojo, the eponymous ancestor of Yorùbá carvers, was the first masked performance in the court of the Alaafin of Oyo, according to Yorùbá oral legend. The initial costume was made up of numerous layers of sash, or ooja, acquired or appropriated from women, thus the custom of Egungun creating complicated assemblages of multicolored materials.
In the Egungun fold’s hierarchy, the Alapini sits at the top. Performers are always male Egungun cult members. Slaves, the uninitiated, and those who are ill-mannered are prohibited. Women may not dance in front of or around the Egungun, but their chants and songs are vital to the festival’s histrionic success.
Varied Egungun in Yorùbá tradition have different responsibilities, and their function differs depending on their cult’s origin. In Yorùbá culture, there is an Egungun for every age group, association, deity worship, artisan association, and cultural professional.
Although men typically wear the hat, Egungun such as the “Gelede,” a flashy and trendy masquerade, celebrates the very essence of African womanhood, campaigns for female gender equality, and protects the rights of women within its society.
Also, there is the Alapansanpa Egun, a masquerade that has been utilized to fight and win many conflicts in and around Ibadan in the past; A well-known masquerade and its significance in Ibadan cannot be overstated. He only comes out once a year (in June) and must go to the Olubadan’s palace to lash him three times with his whip before the Monarch blesses him with presents and other goods. If he does not go to the Olubadan’s Palace, the land will lose prosperity and peace, implying that the Olubadan is evil in human form.
Danafojura (Egungun Oni Mojesin Baba Ibeji) is a well-known Oyo Kingdom figure. This Egungun is fire-resistant, meaning he will not be consumed by a fire of any magnitude. He has the ability to knock people out and then bring them back to life. He is an ancient and powerful Egun who is feared and respected by his peers and is regarded as the clan’s “elder.” He performs his dance in the midst of a massive fire. When he leaves his coven, he calls out to his handlers “Danafojura,” which translates to “Set me on fire.”
Some Egungun appear at specific times and seasons of the year, making them celebratory periods, while others appear at random and unannounced — a hint of danger approaching that village or region could prompt this.
The significance of the Egungun in Yorùbá cultural settings is to sustain the cultural dependence and tradition of the land utilizing culture as an anchor for a progressive future, just like the colourful hundreds of fabrics that constitute the basis of the Egungun costume all fastened to the body of the Egun.
Despite the fact that Egungun is a Yoruba festival, many people feel it strengthens community bonds by bringing Christians, Muslims, and traditionalists together in a shared celebration.