Meaning bone or skeleton, the word Egungun is used by the Yoruba people of Benin and Nigeria to refer to their ancestors.
The Yoruba believe that all spirits live in Kutome, the after world, and must be summoned back to earth regularly to rebalance a cosmic order upset by human transgressions.
“The Return of the Spirit of Death”, a month-long ceremony, takes place every year between June and November. The Yoruba believe that the Egun, spirits of deceased kings and heads of families come down to earth in order to help man. The dangerous visiting spirits enter the bodies of members of the secret Egungun masking society, who wear vibrant costumes fashioned from many yards of magnificent fabric. This spectacle reflects the Yoruba preoccupation with cloth, the more sumptuous the fabric of a costume the more influential the wearer.
Following an all-night vigil in Egungun grove outside the village, the masks are awakened by loud drumming and prepare to assemble in the village square. They speak in guttural or high reedy tones, mimicking the voices of the dead to counsel spectators on matters such as inheritance disputes and crop cultivation. They are accompanied by guardians, the Marivo, who are the mediators between the mask and the outside world.
Stimulated by the rhythm of drums, the masks whirl into action, twirling before the crowd with complete abandon. They believe that the wind caused by the whirling movement brings security and promise of fortune. Their guardians inhibit their dangerous movements, or the masks can fly out of control and seriously injure the onlookers.
On the last day of the festival, the masks gather in the chief’s compound where he prays for blessings for the coming year. When the spirits have returned to Kutome, farmers harvest their crops and make thankful offerings at Egungun shrines.
The Egun Bla is one of the oldest and most feared masks of the Egun pantheon. For most of the year it remains in the shrine. The mask’s opulent and richly embroidered robes are believed to possess great powers of their own and a villager who needs assistance, such as a woman wishing to conceive will have a sacrifice made in front of the sacred costume to alleviate her situation.