The Egungun is one of the pillars of Yoruba tradition. It is a representation of the Ifa worshipper’s belief in life after death and in the power of the ancestors in human affairs.
According to Yoruba beliefs, it is the dead ancestors’ duties to ensure that the living uphold the ethical and moral standards of the past.
The Egungun festival is a family ritual that is celebrated through outing of masquerades. Egungun priests, who have the ability to communicate with the ancestors invoke the spirits of ancestors and those spirits are said to dwell among the living in the form of the Egungun during the festival.
The Egungun Festival is the most colourful of Yoruba festivals. It shows off the rich heritage of the Yoruba in the elaborate costumes that are worn by the masquerades.
Members of an Egungun family drum and dance to accompany the Egungun and it is through their drumming and dance that they are possessed by the spirits of the ancestors. Once possessed, the masquerade cleanses the community through whipping and sacrifices. It also bestows blessings upon spectators and issues warnings about impending events.
Annual Egungun festivals are held in Yoruba communities and in communities that practice Yoruba traditional worship around the world. During the festivals, the life and fortune of that community and its people is renewed as the festivals bring the living together to strengthen their unity.
Not just anyone can wear the regalia of the Egungun. Initiates are born into Egungun families, called ‘Oje’, and different families have their own Egungun. Some of the most popular and revered Egunguns include the Eyo, Elewe, Alapansanpa, Oloolu Adegbogun, Janduku, Pajeboroko, and lye Kiye.
The masquerade can only be taken on by the male members of the Egungun families. Women are only allowed to participate in the chorus that sings the praise and recites the histories of the families. Much older female initiates, however, invoke prayers and oversee the collection of offerings.
The more elaborate an Egungun’s dress and masks, the greater its power and prestige. The costumes are often fashioned out of many layers of clothing made from expensive fabric, masks, beads, sequins and sometimes tiny mirrors. The Egungun is often covered from head to toe, and it is believed that it is the ancestor that is in the costume and not a human being.
Some Egunguns have the power to levitate and perform other seemingly impossible tasks and thus the festivals are a great attraction for locals and tourists.
However, make sure not to come in physical contact with an Egungun – it could result in a lashing or the payment of a fine.
An Egungun festival may also be performed during the rites marking the death of important personalities. For example, when a prominent Lagosian dies, the Eyo Egungun comes out in its all white regalia to pay homage.