The Egungun festival is usually Celebrated in southwestern Nigeria by the Yorubas. The festival is dedicated to the worship of ancestors. It is said that the circumstances surrounding the origin of the festival are full of mystique and based on a legendary folklore.
A mother who once had a dozen children, lost them one after the other till she was left with her five-year-old son, whom she named Oju, meaning ‘My Eyes’. One day, Oju wrapped himself up in his mother’s clothes, covering his head and face so that he could not be recognised, and began to dance without rhythm. He then asked his mother to create a drum from any object and beat on it to accompany his dance. Though she could not produce any rhythmic beats from her calabash as she was not a drummer, Oju continued to dance.
Oju wanted to dance every day whenever he had the urge but his mother had so many chores to do that she could not spare enough time to satisfy her child’s desire to dance. Soon Oju fell ill because his mother was unable to help him. Afraid she might lose her only child, she went to a herbalist who consulted the local oracle for a cure. While giving her some medications, the herbalist told her that the oracle’s instructions were for her to give Oju whatever he wants, if she wanted him to get well.
On hearing this, Oju’s mother made clothing out of a sack for him. It covered him from head to feet, with two small openings for him to see through. She told Oju he could now dance to his heart’s content while she provided the drumbeats. Being now able to dance whenever he wanted, the little boy recovered quickly from his illness. Oju grew to be a man of influence in his village. Unfortunately, his mother died but remembering how well she cared for him in his childhood, he decided to commemorate her passing every year by doing something remarkable. On the first anniversary of his beloved mother’s death, Oju invited his friends to his house and entertained them with akara (bean balls), moin-moin (bean cakes), eko (coagulated corn pap) – the meals his mother made for him when she was alive.
After they were done eating, Oju dressed his friends up in the same kind of sack clothing his mother made for him, and asked them to dance with him around the village. A drummer was engaged but Oju asked him to beat the drum without rhythm, the way his mother did.
Oju celebrated his mother every year in the same way. Over time, families in the village, surrounding villages and towns began to memorialise their ancestors in the same way. Later on, they all gathered together to have one festival to celebrate all their ancestors. This festival is called Egungun, meaning masquerade because the celebrants are masquerade to celebrate their ancestors.
Today, the trademark of the Egungun Festival is the bata drum, which is beaten without rhythm. The masquerades also dance without rhythm while the dishes eaten at the festival are also similar to those Oju’s mother prepared for him. Among the Yorubas, this ceremony has become an annual celebration to honour the dead, as well as a means of ensuring their ancestors a place among the living.
Known as Odun Egungun, the Egungun Festival is also celebrated as part of family rituals through the masquerade custom. In family situations, an elder known as an alagba presides over ancestral rites, while in communal situations, the Egungun priests and initiates who have been trained in ancestral communication, ancestral elevation and funerary rites are assigned to invoke the ancestors. These priests and initiates put on elaborate masquerade costumes and dance to the drum. It is believed that the spirits of ancestors possess these Egungun (masquerades), revealing themselves in these beings. The Egungun are also armed with whips to flog anyone in the way of the spirits. In addition, they are tasked with spiritually cleansing the community and demonstrating through the dramatic – miming, ethical and amoral behaviours that have occurred in the community since their last visit. By doing this, it is said they expose the strengths and weaknesses of the community, thereby encouraging positive behaviour from their descendants. When the miming and acting are over, the Egungun give messages, warnings and blessings to those who have assembled to watch them.
The Egungun Festival is performed annually between November and April, when there is no rain. It is common among the Egbas, Egbados, Oyo and other parts of southwestern Nigeria. The festival is believed to help foster unity in Yoruba communities while encouraging positive behaviour in the society.