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Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 2. Egungun - Moving the Masks of our Ancestors

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43886


This chapter will examine the concept of the Egungun, the practice of the living memorial, as a dance for the ancestors. In the ancient Yoruba tradition, Egungun-Oya is an orisha of divination. Egungun refers to the collective spirits of the ancestral dead. Egunguns are considered to be the children of the Orisha Oya, who is popularly known as the Orisha of extreme weather, examples being; lightning, heavy storms, tornadoes, raging waterfalls and earthquakes. She is also linked with funerals and cemeteries. This is part of her responsibility of carrying the souls of the dead and departed to the afterlife. In practice, Egunguns are masquerades where the body of a percipient performer is completely covered from head to toe by thick layers of cloth, who then proceeds to masquerades by parading in a festive community setting with musician and ritual guards with long sticks with whips to playfully clear a path for the occasion. The word Egungun literally means ‘powers concealed’; metaphorical with the dry bones of our ancestors. Egunguns are mobile, visually colourful, and performative displays of the departed spirits concerning our ancestors. They are seen as revisiting us periodically to remind the living, the importance of keeping the ancestors alive in the minds of our human community. The dance performance is an expression and practice of remembrance, celebration, and blessings as we realise the integrated symbiosis between the ancestor, the living and the unborn.

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