Visits From the Other Side

*  © Jack Bell Gallery

In the ever-changing world of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria, one thing that remains consistent is a close connection with their ancestors. The ancestral spirits of the Yoruba are much more than just dead relatives, they play an active role in the daily life of the living. They are sought out for protection and guidance, and are believed to possess the ability to punish those who have forgotten their familial ties. While there are numerous ways the ancestors communicate with the living, one of the most unique is their manifestation on earth in the form of masked spirits known as Egungun.

The Yoruba believe that the transition from the realm of the living to the abode of the dead is not finite. It is just part of what African author Wole Soyinka describes as the “cyclical reality” of the “Yoruba world-view”. Each person comes to this life from the world of the unborn, through the “abyss of transition.” And each will leave again through this archetypal realm, as they make they way to the world of the ancestors.

When a child comes into this world, he or she is said to carry with them aspects of a former ancestor who is reborn in the child. This is not to say they are the ancestor reincarnate, but that there are certain features of their personality and elements of inborn knowledge that come from a previous relative. When the time comes to leave this earth, it is not the end of their existence either. Yoruba scholar Bòlaji Idowu explains: “Death is not the end of life. It is only a means whereby the present earthly existence is changed for another. After death, therefore, man passes into a ‘life beyond’ which is called Èhìn-ÃŒwà—‘After-Life’”

To be remembered is to be kept alive; to remain within the Sasa period, which is the realm of the living, the unborn and the ancestors.

Once an ancestor has been forgotten, they simply slip into the vast expanse of the Zamani, where the gods, divinities and spirits dwell. As long as an ancestor remains within the Sasa period, they have the ability to help those here on earth, because the living-dead are bilingual: they speak the language of men, with whom they lived until ‘recently’; and they speak the language of the spirits and of God, to Whom they are drawing nearer ontologically. In exchange for being ritually remembered, the living-dead watch over the family and can be contacted for advice and guidance.

Each Egungun may represent a particular person, a family lineage, or a broader concept of the ancestors. When contacted at a family shrine, the Egungun who appears is generally thought to represent the ancestor who is being summoned.

The Egungun is celebrated in festivals,    and in family ritual through the masquerade custom.   Through drumming and dance, these robed performers are believed to become possessed of the spirits of the ancestors as maifested as a single entity. The Egungun then spiritually clean the community and through exaggerated acting and miming, demonstrate both ethical and amoral behavior that occurred since their last visit.

“To be remembered is to be kept alive.”

*  Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou‘s photos led me to read about this subject. Even without their spiritual significance, they are sublime.

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10 Responses to Visits From the Other Side

  1. Ann says:

    Once again, I must thank you for opening my eyes to something I had not known prior. What a beautiful people they are.

  2. purpleafricanprincess says:

    That’s beautiful that- To be remembered is to be kept alive- it even counts when one is alive. Being remembered by those you love and care about means you still matter and are important to them. A phone call, a text, even those blsated idiotic forwarded chain emails….

  3. Gosh that is very interesting & an incredible view of life & death. More heartwarming xx

  4. Dave C says:

    Fascinating. Thanks for an illuminating post and great photos. I love Purpleafricanprincess’s comment – ‘it even counts when one is alive’ – very true.

  5. Kellie says:

    I love this post!!!
    they are never gone.


  6. Bevitron says:

    The top picture has hypnotized me – I can’t stop looking at it. Everything about it. Before I read any text I was drawn to it, and into it. Really, words fail me. I love it.

  7. Sister Wolf says:

    Bevitron – We were separated at birth.

  8. candy says:

    Very interesting! Death is a transition. I also heard about a period of time during which we should let the soul before asking them to protect us, I think it was the first 6 months, as the soul just “died” and need to work on itself first. Then, off course, they are always here next to us. I know I have a good connection with my grandmother. One day, I was crying and she just came next to my bed, trying to ease my pain, she was deceased at that time. she also spread her perfume around me. In 2005, when she passed away, I had a dream in which she was standing and mom asked her “are you going to miss this ceremony?” and she answered “for nothing in the world, I would miss it”, it was in her village and plenty of people were invited, you could see them all walking towards a place, like an exodus of some sort, but very happy one.

  9. Wow. Fantastic and beautiful. Thank you so much. I’m impressed.

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