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What is Egungun?

Tue, Mar 25, 2008

Culture, Elders, Traditional Afrikan

What is Egungun?

by Babalorisa Adeyemi Efundeji Oyeilumi

We honor and give praise to God, whom is known by man names. We pay tribute to the divine force with us and our presence, for we know that without spirit of trust, belief, tradition, love and patience, our circumstances in this country and the world could be many times worst. Ase!

Ancestor Spirits
The Supreme Being is no stranger to the Yoruba or African. God is incomparable and is established as “The Creator”, having no equal, and is not represented by an image. God is also the absolute controller of the universe, using divinities (Orisa) as lesser agents, delegating authority and functions. God also allows the ancestors to act as intermediaries between man, woman and God, and between man, women and the divinities.

The Egungun (ancestors) are the guardians of family morality and they can come down to help or molest, to create adversity or grant happiness.

Origin of Egungun
Egungun is regarded as the collective spirits of ancestors who occupy space in Heaven. Hence, they are called Ara Orun (Dwellers of Heaven). These ancestral spirits are believed to be in constant watch of their survivors on Earth. They bless, protect, warn, and punish their Earth relatives, depending on how their relatives neglect or remember them. Their collective functions cut across lineage and family loyalty. They protect the community against evil spirits, epidemics, feminine, witch-craft, and evil doers, ensuring their well-being. The spirits could be evoked collectively or individually, in time of need. The “place of call” is either on the graves of ancestors (Oju Orori), the family shrine (Ile Run), or the community grove (Igbalele).

The ancestral spirits may be invited to the Earth physically in masquerade, and such masquerades are referred to as Egungun or Ara Orun. The supernatural powers the ancestor have over the community become real as the different Egungun perform their religious, political and social function. Egungun appearances resemble the Yoruba view of life after death. The coming out of Egungun is a time of festivity and entertainment. A time of deep belief in divine guidance and protection also a way of immortalizing one’s name.

One of the principle Odu which shows how Egungun was is Oturupon-Meji. Another is Owonrin or Aseyin. A lot has changed with the religion since the first Yoruba slave landed on the western shores from how it was practiced in Nigeria along the side of the Atlantic.

The Egungun
It is believed that everyone has the power and ability to communicate with those who have passed beyond this life. This communication can simply involve remembering a revered ancestor and making use of that memory as a role model for life decisions and through the use of dreams. Because the festivals (places where there are Egungun) are not easily accessible in this country, Orisa worshippers in the west have created several alternatives. Using this alternative approach the first step in the process of honoring the ancestors is the set up of an ancestor shrine for prayer and meditation. There are a number of traditional African ways for building an ancestor altar. If you do not have access to either a Babalosa or a Babalawo, we recommend that the altar be set up with minimal elements. Clean the room or space by smudging (smoke from burning leaves) Ewe, herbs, saying a prayer to the water, light a candle, also placing food, water, fruit, incense, names of ancestor/relative you wish to honor. A offering of food, in small portions on a small, preferably chipped, white plate, should be placed at the altar prior to your family sitting down for a meal. You can also place a cup of coffee or tea, some flowers and cigars. Once you are in communication with your ancestors, they will make specific requests for the kind of offering they want. Once the offering has been made you should thank the ancestors for the blessing that you want. Once the offering has been made you should thank the ancestors for the blessings that you have already received. You may express your thanks in your own words.

Even the trauma of the slave trade and the horrors of the middle passage did not erase the long history and rich lore associated with ancestral devotion, from the African’s mind. In Cuba, most if not all, of the public performances of Egungun masquerade had passed out of use by the early 1900’s. This was not the case for the Yoruba taken to Brazil. They were able to continue and maintain most of the customs of their homeland. This was due, in part, to Brazil’s proximity to West Africa., also to easy movement back and forth of free Yoruba. Today Brazil can boast of the largest Yoruba population. One sees Egungun masqueraders maintaining their Yoruba heritage in much the same way their African counterparts do. This Egungun masquerading is not to be confused with the brand of Brazilian spiritism, developed and propagated by Alan Kardec, the European Spiritist.

Egungun in Oyotunji Lineage
As with all cultures of the world, all wisdom, knowledge and understanding of any given nation or ethnic group has been historically preserved in secret societies. For the Yoruba of Southeast Nigeria, one of the many secret societies is the Egungun Society or Egbe Egungun. It is through this society that the Yoruba preserve and nurture the history of wholesome community and family development and growth and elevate the memory of their ancestors. Through enshrinement celebration and ritual, one such society, Egbe Egungun Jalumi is a secret society of African-Americans dedicated to reclamation and preservation.

This lineage, as a society, was started 25 years ago (c1973), in Oyotunji Village. By 1975, the late Chief Otu Priest, Orisamola Awolowo, was acting in the capacity of the first Alagba of that society. It now includes six alagba. Two other initiated and practicing priest, of Gary, Indiana and Milwaukee, Wisconsin help perform ceremonies. Oyotunji grew and grew, assisting national groups.

In Yoruba religious doctrine, Iku (death) is an Orisa. A creation of Olodumare entrusted with the duty of escorting man and woman from this world to the next. He is known as Ojise Orun (Heaven’s Bailiff) In this case, death is likened to a debt, everyone must pay, and Iku is the collector.

It is Iku’s ability to transform those we love and cherish, thus hiding them from our mortal view that causes such pain, anguish, bewilderment in society. The descendants in the diaspora have evolved and offer a response to the pain of death. This response is best observed in the workings of the Egbe Egungun. Egungun originated among the Oyo Yoruba, who have adapted and added to the masking traditions honoring the ancestors, found among the Nupe Itapa. The Society is composed of spiritual specialists, who oversee the observance of ancestral devotion and come to the aid and comfort of the community when death strikes.

There is a well known Yoruba expression, “Aye’ Loja Orun-Ile – Earth is but a marketplace, Heaven is Home.” Earth is often seen as a farm, at the end of the day we return home to count our gain and losses. So too is our sojourn on Earth. Ase

Babalorisa Adeyemi Efundeji Oyeilumi is one of the founding members of Damballah Wedo and Oyotunji Village. He is one of the first African-Americans to be initiated to Orisa. He is a priest of Obatala.

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