A Creative Response to Death
In Egba and Egbado area, as well as many parts of Yorubaland, Odun Egungun festivals are held in communities to commemorate the ancestors. Egungun masks are performed during these annual or biennial ceremonies as well as during specific funeral rites throughout the year. The masquerade is a multifaceted ceremony which includes the making of offerings as well as the honoring of ancestors for past and future aid.
Egungun performances organized for funerary purposes mark the death of important individuals. In this context, the masks reflect a creative response to death as a time of crisis involving mourning and loss. Elaborate performances serve to commemorate the dead through the remembrance of their past life while simultaneously reinforcing the relationship between the living and the recently deceased ancestor.
Among the broad range of themes incorporated in the Egungun masks are representations of numerous societal and cultural stereotypes as well as acrobatic images in which dancers turn their clothing inside out, in part to suggest the power and distance of the ancestral world. Entertaining satirical masks depicting animals and humans are performed during the masquerade and often serve as a social commentary on the life of the community.
Historically, according to the oral history of the Oyo palace lineages, the masks may have been influenced by Nupe ancestral masks. Egungun masks are brightly painted and in the context of the masquerade, the bodies of the dancers are covered with multiple layers of sumptuous cloth. Each year, the owner of an Egungun mask will add new cloth to the layers and the number of levels of cloth serves to represent the number of years a mask has actively been performed. The use of expensive cloth and bright, imported paints suggests the sumptuousness of the world of the ancestors.
Annual or biennial egungun festivals are held by the people of southwestern Nigeria and southeastern Benin to honor their ancestors and to request blessings that these ancestors may be able to provide. The layered costume of multi-colored and textured fabrics seems a far cry from the conventional idea of a "mask," but the Yoruba's elaborate costume functions just the same. The identity of the dancer is completely concealed – including his body – and so he becomes more like the disembodied spirit of the ancestor that his dance seeks to honor. The word egungun can be translated as "powers concealed." The power and purpose of the costume only comes together in the presence of the spirit-ancestors. The job of the dancer centers around bringing the costume to flamboyant life, and to allow the egungun mask to transform his corporeal human body into something otherworldly and ethereal.