I was in primary school when I first witnessed the Ádámu Òríșà play, popularly referred to as the Ẹyọ masquerade festival. Growing up in the downtown area of Ẹpẹtẹdo on Lagos Island, where I lived with my grandparents in one of the numerous agbo ‘le (compounds) afforded me the chance of seeing the preparation for the festival.
In truth, for a child not yet in his teens, what I did see (and could have seen), were not much. What I saw was what was on display for all to see: the basic paraphernalia and regalia to be donned by the initiates of the Ádámu Òríșà.
These items included:
(1). the white robe which looks like an ágbádá
(2). Aró palẹ, a generous piece of white cloth usually wrapped around the waist, overflowing to cover the feet totally and trailing along.
(3). Àgá or akẹtẹ, a sombrero type of hat designed in the color(s) of the particular Ẹyọ group.
(4). Iboju, a see-through veil for the face.
(5). Gloves and socks.
(6). Ọpá nbatà, a wooden staff like a totem pole.
The ọpá nbatà held a unique fascination for me then as I watched it being ‘prepared.’ Got from the palm tree, the staff is carefully smoothed and soaked in some liquid solution for a certain period. Symbolic patterns or totems are then drawn out on it. The markings are carefully etched out with a razor blade.
Another fascination of mine with Ẹyọ was arò (the chant). When they get into their elements dancing and chanting, they dart at the watching crowd with their ọpá nbatà, finishing off the chant with a loud “Yeeee suuuaaa!” The frightening target quickly says “Agogoro Ẹyọ!” and the Ẹyọ replies, “Mo yọ fun ẹ, mo yọ fun ra mi.” I wanted to be able to chant the arò. Weeks after the festival, we would play hitting each other with our arms holding imaginary ọpá nbatà and screaming, “Yeeee suuuaaa!”
The àgá is what identifies the particular groups to which the masquerade belongs. There are five main groups known as Ẹyọ Òríșà and a couple of other Ẹyọ representing the numerous Igá (courtyards) on the island. An Igá is usually a palatial courtyard in each agbo ‘le where the head of the compound lives.
In terms of hierarchy, the most senior Ẹyọ is the Adimu. Unlike the other groups, there is only one Adimu and he wears a black hat. On a chosen Sunday, the Òríșà Adimu (spirit of Adimu) will emerge with his staff in public. This means that it is official that the festival will take place coming Saturday. The rest of the big 5: Làbà (red hat), Ónikó(yellow), Ọlọgẹdẹ (green), and Ageré (purple) will also go public from Monday to Thursday in that other.
It has been claimed that the Ẹyọ festival was first staged somewhere in Ikoyi by traders from Badagry, before it was moved to Lagos Island in the mid-19th century. However, it has been disputed by those who claimed that the festival was introduced to Lagos Island in 1750, by two personalities from Ibefun and Ijebu communities in present-day Ogun state.
However, the first recorded Ẹyọ festival in the annals of history was held on February 20, 1854 by Oba Dosunmu for his late father Oba Akitoye. The next one was held 21 years later on April 13, 1875. While it was held thrice within one year in 1895. Ẹyọ festival is not an annual or regular festival like most others. It is only held on special occasions and based on requests to the Ádámu Òríșà cult.
Importantly, there are taboos associated with the festival. During the festival motorcycle and bicycle movement is prohibited. Cigarette smoking, wearing of sandals or flip-flops and the plaiting of hair by women in a particular style known as Șukú are also outlawed. Flouting the taboos usually leads to being beaten with the ọpá nbatà.
The last Ẹyọ festival was held in 2011 for late Chief Yesufu Abiodun Oniru (1864-1984). The Lagos state government was involved with the celebrations and it attracted a whole lot of local and international audience who gathered at the Tafawa Balewa Square, Onikan to witness the spectacle. I did not get to see the 2011 event, but my childhood memory of Ẹyọ festival lingers on…
For information about Ẹyọ festival origins, please see:
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