Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Precepts for Tenure Ethics in Yoruba Egungun (Masquerade) Proverbs

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Precepts for Tenure Ethics in Yoruba Egungun (Masquerade) Proverbs

Article excerpt

Introduction: Yoruba (1) Egungun Tradition

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. This is however not what is of real importance in the festival. The artistic aspects (3)--costumes, acrobatics, singing, drumming, dancing, community fellowship, and feasting--important as they are, are not the ultimate function of the Egungun festival among the Yoruba. Thus when attention is carefully paid to the underlying ideas of the festival, it becomes obvious that we ought to go deeper than the artistic surface if we hope to reach and benefit from the social message that the festival strives to portray (4).

In the indigenous thought of the Yoruba, nature consists of spiritual and physical phenomena. And reality, in that worldview, is not partitioned; but rather, there is a permanent continuum between physical reality and spiritual reality. In this way, the two aspects of reality are continuously interacting with one another so it is not often easy to separate them in thought and in practice. 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.

One significant way of referring to the ancestor nature of Egungun is in their popular cognomen "Ara orun 'kinkin'" (i. e. 'Inhabitants of heaven'), and through reflection in the saying: "Iya eni leegun ile; baba eni lorisa oja" (I.e. 'One's mother is the masquerade at home; one's father is the legend/god in the market place.'). In a significant way, parents are held not only in the highest esteem, but also as role models and guardians for their offspring. So, the Egungun at home moulds the child's character domestically, while the child relies on the father in the public, and ideally, the child gets its home training from the mother, and its introduction, initiation and guidance into the wider public life from the father, thus every child's life is thus completely circumscribed by the parents' life. And analogously, the community's life is believed to be fully in the hands of the ancestors as they perform their roles from the spiritual world.

Thus, Egungun enjoy much reverence and adoration from the community in the same measure that people expect much from them. Likewise, their costumes represent the degree of their social status, both as a group and as individuals, thus indicative of the position of Egungun in Yoruba culture as the willing homage, surrender, and cheerfully given gifts and provision and presented by the festival crowds and the entire community which highlights the supplications of the people, as individuals and as a community, make to the Egungun during and after each festival.

From the foregoing, the Egungun are rightly describable as symbolic public figures in control of the people's social life in Yoruba culture, and as such, there exists between the people and their Egungun a social contract.

Furthermore, the Yoruba know that those in the costumes and behind the masks are living persons among them, and many of them even often know the names of the persons wearing the masks during Egungun festivals and other outings (6). However, once the Egungun has emerged from the grove (igbo igbale), it ceases to be regarded as an ordinary human being; and it has from that moment taken on the spirit of an ancestor, and in its acquired spiritual personality, each Egungun is regarded as deserving of the respect, support and maintenance of the entire community. However, it is clear to the discerning that in a short while the festival would soon be over and the spirit will be out of the persons who were in the masks. …

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