Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Yoruba Ancestors, Egunguns, and Trade

Through stunning displays of color, sound, and motion, Nigerian Yoruba egúngún masquerades unite diasporic communities while celebrating tradition, power, and wealth gained through local connections and globalized trade.

Worn in rituals honoring ancestors, egúngúns bring ancestral spirits to life, embodied in costumes swathed in layers of cloth that fly and swirl like whirlwinds as the celebrant inside dances, somersaults, and spins in time to drums, music, and song.

At first glance thoroughly indigenous objects, egúngúns reveal, on closer inspection, far-flung connections. The masquerader within is completely covered by textiles, stitched together in seclusion and secrecy, that wrap him like the layers of an onion.

The textiles nearest the performer's body, metaphorically at the core of his ancestral lineage, are woven locally from native cotton on traditional looms. The fabric farthest away from the body, and most visible to admiring crowds, celebrates the wealth and international connections of his lineage through colorful mosaics of velvets, brocades, and printed cloths produced in distant factories and acquired through participation in the global economy.

Although the most visible cloth that envelops egúngúns reaches Yoruba communities through global trade, its meaning is determined locally, not by distant producers. Egúngún has various meanings, including "powers concealed." According to Yoruba mythology, the gods offered sacrifices when they first reached the earth and were rewarded with textiles of different types. Each chose a single color, except for Egúngún, the original ancestor, whose multicolored clothes proclaimed the ancestors' role as intercessors between all of the gods and the living.

Egúngún masqueraders are the manifestations of respected ancestors capable of aiding or punishing the living. Like the living, they desire rich clothing, but as ara orun, "beings from beyond," their vestments give no sense of the human form they have shed. Each time they appear, sacrifices and new pieces of fabric, added by their descendants, honor the dead. The performances of the egúngúns and the beauty of their outfits celebrate lineage histories and achievements, honoring the living. These textiles stand as metaphors for the economic prosperity, global connections, and enduring yet fragile social relationships that link the living to the living, the living to the dead, and both to the gods.