The cloth of the mask itself functions as a measure of the owner's prestige. Since Yoruba myths connect nakedness with craziness and infancy, the more numerous the layers of cloth (which conceal nakedness) translates into a greater respect and wealth for the family who owns the costume. In addition, the elaborate textures and color between cloth layers are necessary in order to have the masker experience a "transformation." This transformation is what the Yoruba call a "miracle" – it involves the dancer completely changing the look of his costume by slipping the material 'inside out'. This is a physical part of the dance, where the dancer actually torques his body so violently that the material layers flap to show different layers of fabric, all brilliantly colored or patterned to captivate and excite the audience. The physical stamina this requires is tremendous, yet the "miracles" are performed continuously and with vigor on each occasion.
The egungun mask, given its intimate ties with ritual dancing and drumbeat, is literally impossible to appreciate behind a glass in a museum. The sterile evironment subtracts the natural festive atmosphere that gives the costume its motion and magic. Yet there is the opportunity in a museum to closely scrutinize the different layers that make up the costume. The first feature, worn next to the skin, is the undersack, made of aso oke, which is an indigo and white stripcloth. That sack, plus face netting for the face and hands, helps to completely disguise identity. Over the aso oke comes various layers of lappets, which create what researchers have named a 'breeze of blessing" when whirled about. To add even more beauty (and thereby, power) all kinds of sequins, patterns and amulets (which often hold protective medicines) also adorn the costume.
The egungun costume fits perfectly as the medium for the masker's communion with his ancestors, mainly because the transience of the colors that fly around are reminiscent of the transience of terrestrial life in the face of the eternal and continuous world of the spirits. Only men do the actual masking, but women do participate in the ritual dances by singing 'praise poems.' The style of each performance showcases the innovative freeform dancing of the performer in accordance with the drum-beats and the noise around him. A complete mastery of the egungun performance will make illusion into a reality of its own, by embellishing and transforming it through dance. Reference to origin myths is constant, bringing the past events of the given mythical story into vibrant reality once again. There is kind of a gentle fusion of worlds – the past never truly dies just as the ancestors never truly leave the world of the living to completely fend on their own.
Culled from rootsandrooted.org