According to the Odu Osa Meji, in the Yoruba belief system, Odu (female oracle) established all the sacred groves (places) and maintained secrets of the sacred shrines of the Orisas (belief of the Yoruba, divine system) after descent. Women were not excluded from performing rituals at any sacred grove.
Odu brought the Egungun and Oro (deities) to earth at her descent and performed rituals at their groves. Obatala (the deity of creation) became jealous and went to consult Babalawo (diviner, keeper of the secrets). He was asked to perform sacrifices and to learn patience. Soon Odu invited him to live close to her, and they agreed to worship Egungun together. Obatala then followed her to the Egungun grove where Odu donned the masque but did not know how to change her voice (guttural) to imitate Egungun.
This stage in the Egungun veneration is called Iyagbaro and Dede to honor Egungun women or mothers who know everything. These masquerades are popular amongst the Ibariba (tribe from the Benin Republic) and the Tapa (northern Nigerian tribe), from whose culture Egungun was supposed to have originated. The masque was only a piece of cloth with little holes pierced in it, but Obatala put the net for the Egungun to see clearly and a longer distance or range. Obatala performed better than Odu as a masquerader, thus began the monopoly of men as (ara orun kinkin), or people from heaven. But the men were ordered to respect the power of women and mothers (Iya mi) since power belongs to them.
The Irunmole deity dwells underground and asserts authority by purifying society. Because Egungun is expected to make contributions to the progress of the living, when a person dies they become a spirit and believed to possess powers in the spirit world and can carry out their wishes in the physical world by inspiring those that are living to perform those wishes. The invocation of Egungun by the Ojes , the custodians, is performed in the sacred grove Igbo Igbale, which is hallowed ground, and the shrine Ilerun, or sky home. The culture is woven around communion with the spirit world since Olodumare, or God, remains completely outside earthly intellectual knowledge range and cannot give deep meaning to human existence.
In the Diaspora, where Africans were enslaved in the Caribbean and Americas, many of the surviving cultural practices live on in modified expressions in the masked Carnival festivals, mardi gras dances and second line marches of New Orleans-style funeral ceremonies. The masked Egungun dancers, called Layewu, (shown garbed in pieces of cloth in the pictures above) perform during Yoruba funeral ceremonies which are meant to communicate with those still living. When a person dies family members donate pieces of cloth, in the same manner that African Americans donate and toss flowers on their graves or march in New Orleans-style second line funeral dances.
The Oracle Osa Meji is one of the senior Odu Ifa that explains the protocol that all must use when approaching the totality of femininity. Ashe is an African (Yoruba) expression with the fundamental meaning of the ability, or power, to make something happen..
Thus Egungun rituals are for propitiating( honoring) the dead , represent the “collective spirit” of the ancestors, hold high significance in the Yoruba religious system , or ‘Orisa Worship’ of veneration..
(Next: Part 4, Offerings, gifts and foods presented at Egungun).
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