The Egungun festival is one of the many festivals celebrated in the Western part of Nigeria. The origin of many of the festivals there are shrouded in mystery. But there is no doubt that some festivals are some sort of religious or ancestor worships. The Egungun is a festival for the worship of ancestors. The folklore about the festival is very interesting. A mother who had a dozen children, lost all of them, one after the other, until only one 5-year old boy was left. She called him Oju meaning, “My Eyes”. One day, Oju wrapped himself in her mothers clothes and covered his head and face so that no one could recognise him. He then started dancing without any particular rhythm. He then asked his mother to improvise a drum from any object and beat it for his dance. The mother obliged, but not being a drummer, she could not produce any rhythmatic drumming from the calabash she used as a drum. Yet, Oju enjoyed her drumming and continued to dance.
This strange child wanted to dance every day and anytime he felt like it, but because the mother had many daily domestic chore to do, she could not spare much time for her child’s strange pastime. Oju then fell ill, ostensibly for not getting what he wanted. Alarmed, and fearing she might loose her last child, the mother consulted the local oracle through a herbalist for the treatment of Oju’s illness. The herbalist gave her some medications for her son, but added, “The oracle said you should give your son whatever he wanted if you want him to get well”.
On getting back home the mother made a sack into clothing which covered Oju from head to feet, just leaving two small openings for him to see through. She told him he could now dance to his heart’s content while she beats the calabash drum. Oju now being able to dance anytime he wanted, quickly recovered from his illness.
Many years later when Oju had grown to a man with influence in his village, his mother died. Remembering her affection when he was young, he decided to do something significant every year in memory of the dear mother. On the first anniversary of his mother’s death, Oju invited his friends to his house and entertained them with the type of food his mother fed him on when she was alive — Moyin Moyin, akara, eko, etc. After the feast he dressed up his friends with the same type of sack clothing his mother made for him when she was alive. He then asked them to dance with him round the village. This time, a drummer and a real drum were procured, but the drummer was asked to beat the drum the way Oju’s mother did when she was alive – without rhythm.
Oju celebrated his mother’s memory like that every year. Gradually, other families in the village and surrounding towns copied that method of memorial celebrations of their ancestors. Later, families in towns and villages combined to have one festival in remembrance of all the ancestors of the village or town. The drum is called BATA and the festival is called EGUNGUN, meaning masquerade; because the celebrants are masquerading and celebrating their ancestors.
The hall-mark of the Egungun festival today is that the Bata drum is beaten without rhythm; the dance steps too are un-rhythmatic and the foods used for entertainment at the festival are similar to those Oju’s mother prepared when she was alive.