In the ever-changing world of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria, one thing that remains consistent is a close connection with their ancestors. The ancestral spirits of the Yoruba are much more than just dead relatives, they play an active role in the daily life of the living. They are sought out for protection and guidance, and are believed to possess the ability to punish those who have forgotten their familial ties. While there are numerous ways the ancestors communicate with the living, one of the most unique is their manifestation on earth in the form of masked spirits known as Egungun.
The Yoruba believe that the transition from the realm of the living to the abode of the dead is not finite. It is just part of what African author Wole Soyinka describes as the “cyclical reality” of the “Yoruba world-view”. Each person comes to this life from the world of the unborn, through the “abyss of transition.” And each will leave again through this archetypal realm, as they make they way to the world of the ancestors.
When a child comes into this world, he or she is said to carry with them aspects of a former ancestor who is reborn in the child. This is not to say they are the ancestor reincarnate, but that there are certain features of their personality and elements of inborn knowledge that come from a previous relative. When the time comes to leave this earth, it is not the end of their existence either. Yoruba scholar BÃ²laji Idowu explains: “Death is not the end of life. It is only a means whereby the present earthly existence is changed for another. After death, therefore, man passes into a ‘life beyond’ which is called ÃˆhÃ¬n-ÃŒwÃ —‘After-Life’”
To be remembered is to be kept alive; to remain within the Sasa period, which is the realm of the living, the unborn and the ancestors.
Once an ancestor has been forgotten, they simply slip into the vast expanse of the Zamani, where the gods, divinities and spirits dwell. As long as an ancestor remains within the Sasa period, they have the ability to help those here on earth, because the living-dead are bilingual: they speak the language of men, with whom they lived until ‘recently’; and they speak the language of the spirits and of God, to Whom they are drawing nearer ontologically. In exchange for being ritually remembered, the living-dead watch over the family and can be contacted for advice and guidance.
Each Egungun may represent a particular person, a family lineage, or a broader concept of the ancestors. When contacted at a family shrine, the Egungun who appears is generally thought to represent the ancestor who is being summoned.
The Egungun is celebrated in festivals, and in family ritual through the masquerade custom. Through drumming and dance, these robed performers are believed to become possessed of the spirits of the ancestors as maifested as a single entity. The Egungun then spiritually clean the community and through exaggerated acting and miming, demonstrate both ethical and amoral behavior that occurred since their last visit.
“To be remembered is to be kept alive.”
* Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou‘s photos led me to read about this subject. Even without their spiritual significance, they are sublime.