Awon-Agba = Mothers * Ancestors * Deities…
Masks and other visual forms associated with these cults contain imagery evocative of Male supremacy and vengeance. Gelede imagery, in contrast, exemplifies another approach to the Mothers.
The following text from the ancient verse of the Ifa oracle known as Osa Meji re-creates the mythic origin of the Gelede masquerade. Greetings were their secret among the Ijesa Ifa told Orunmila when he was going to the grove of the Eleiye (witches), He must put on a mask, a head-wrap and leg rattles. He obeyed, he put them on, he arrived at the grove of the Witches and he was safe. He rejoiced in dancing and singing- “I have covenanted with Death, I will never die. Death, Death no more, I have covenanted with sickness, I will never die. Death, Death no more.”
Orunmila, the Deity associated with Ifa, put on a mask (Aworan), head-wrap (Oja), and leg rattles (iku)- the three essential elements found in all Gelede costuming. The regalia protect him from the negative propensities of the destructive Mothers, for as one elderly priestess reputed to be extremely knowledgeable about such matters states: “. . . these masks are an Ancestral rite that the Ancients did in the past which they called Eso. They must not do it in an uncovered way. They must not dance nakedly to allow people to see their eyes”. The regalia also provide pageantry which appeals to their positive dimension.
The Gelede spectacle of the Yoruba & Fon is a public display by colorful masks which combines art and ritual dance to amuse, educate and inspire worship. Gelede Celebrates Mothers – Awon Iya Wa, a group that includes female Ancestors and Deities as well as the Elderly Women of the community, and the power and spiritual capacity these women have in society. However, this power may also be destructive and take the form of witchcraft; therefore, Gelede serves the function of appeasing this power, as well. The Gelede social agenda rests on – life is delicate and should be lived with caution and with an emphasis on diplomacy, consideration, respect and harmony.
Most Yoruba myths of origin can be found in the divination narratives knows at Odu Ifa which contains a number of poems called Ese Ifa. An Ese Ifa explains the origins of Gelede as beginning with Yemoja, “The Mother of all the Deities and all living things.”
Yewajobi – Yemoja could not have children and consulted an Ifa oracle, who advised her to offer sacrifices and to dance with wooden images on her head and metal anklets on her feet. After performing this ritual, she became pregnant. Her first child was a boy, nicknamed “Efe“- Humorist; the Efe mask emphasizes song and jests because of the personality of its namesake. Yewajobi – Yemoja second child was a girl, nicknamed “Gelede” – Obese like her Mother Gelede loved dancing.
After getting married themselves, neither Gelede or Efe‘s partner could have children. The Ifa oracle suggested they try the same ritual that had worked for their Mother. No sooner than Efe and Gelede performed these rituals- dancing with wooden images on their heads and metal anklets on their feet- they started having children. These rituals developed into the Gelede masked dance and was perpetuated by the descendants of Efe and Gelede.
Although Gelede ceremony may be staged at any time of the year to better the lot of an individual, to cleanse the society of pestilence, to induce rain, to enrich human fertility, to enlist the support of supernatural forces and the – Powerful Mothers in wartime, and to honor the dead, the most elaborate performance occurs during the annual festival.
Once the exact dates of the festival are fixed, usually through divination, the Chief Priestess – Iyalashe notifies the head of the community and the important chiefs. Messages then go out to all members of the Gelede society outside the town or working far away to return home for the celebration.
The festival begins with an all-night concert called Efe, which features the Efe Male mask, who uses satire to entertain and educate. Given the concern of the Gelede society with peace and social stability, it is not surprising that didactic themes recur in Efe songs. After the Efe dance, most of the attendees spend the morning sleeping in preparation for the afternoon dance, which takes place in the marketplace and features pairs of male dancers who perform to fast-paced music with a vigorous beat.
The Gelede ceremony involves carefully choreographed dance, singing and music, and especially drumming. The performances are given by Men, wearing masks that feature sculpted images of scenes including animals and people or sewing machines and drums. The pairs of Men masquerade as Women to amuse, please and placate the Mothers who are considered very powerful, and who may use their powers for good or destructive purposes. These powers are especially linked to childbirth. The abilities they possess may be activated either consciously or unconsciously.
The Gelede “Mask” is more accurately a headdress, since it rests on top of the head and the wearer’s face is covered by a cloth veil. The headdress takes the form of a human head, on top of which are motifs that are intended to entertain onlookers but, in addition, usually address social concerns that may also be expressed in songs that are part of the masquerade. Individuals or families will usually go to any length to make their headdresses as attractive and humorous as possible.
Most of the headdresses have facial adornments, ranging from lineage marks to decorative tattoos, which are either incised or painted. The headdress is to the costume what the Head – Ori is to the human body. It is an index of identification and the essence of the masker’s personality as long as he is inside the mask. In spite of the comical representations that often appear on the headdress, the face below the superstructure remains serene, as if stressing the paradox that is life-and the need to live life with special care.
The Ketu-Yoruba people are credited with the invention of Gelede sometime in the latter part of the eighteenth century according to Oral traditions throughout the region. A popular Yoruba saying proclaims, oju to ba ri Gelede ti de opin iran – The eyes that have seen Gelede, have seen the ultimate spectacle. Gelede effective power and impact comes from its multi-media format in which the arts of song, dance, costume and music combine to create moving artistic experiences.
Gelede pays homage to the Spiritual Powers of Women, especially Elderly Women known affectionately as “Our Mothers,” Awon Iya Wa. The powers possessed by such Women, comparable to those of the Gods, Spirits, or Ancestors, may be used for the benefit or the destruction of society. When manifesting their destructive dimension such Elderly Women are termed Aje – Witches. If angered, they can bring down individuals and entire communities.
The Yoruba & Fon Markets Are Controlled By Women…To honor Women’s economic power and contributions, many Gelede headdresses depict Women’s heads carrying the goods they sell in the marketplace. Many Gelede masks depict animals that serve as metaphors for human actions and attributes as well as illustrations of popular proverbs and songs that often accompany the mask’s appearance. Animals in devouring motifs are an important means of conveying the concept of competing forces in social as well as spiritual realms.
This Gelede Mask displays two snakes wrapped around gourd rattles at the sides of a peaked hairstyle. The rattles are the regalia of priestesses whose spiritual powers are evoked by the snakes. Notice that the face of the Male performer is clearly seen through the thin veil of cloth. Unlike other Yoruba masking traditions where the performer’s identity must be hidden because they deal with spiritual forces, Gelede maskers can be seen since they focus on forces in the world.
As dusk approaches after a dazzling array of masqueraders imaging countless aspects of Yoruba life and thought, a final masker – one that synthesizes Goddess, Ancestress, and Priestess appears to conclude and bless the Gelede spectacle. Her white ensemble glowing in the growing darkness, Iya Odua (Mother Odua) moves with measured stride toward the marketplace accompanied by her priestess, her attire mirroring that of the masker visually to unite spiritual and earthly realms. Iya Odua slow, stately tread conveys her Age, Wisdom, and Sacred Power. Her whiteness symbolizes her cool, covert demeanor and her post-menopausal purity for she is the creative, protective, nurturing mother of the gathered crowd, her offspring. Iya Odua appearance assures the community that the lavish spectacle has pleased and placated her, and that the Mothers will use their power and influence for the benefit of all.
Gelede masquerades are spectacles performed by the Yoruba people in Nigeria and Danxome that celebrate the Mystical Power Of Women. Gelede refers to the concept of honoring Women and their innate powers so that the entire community may reap the benefits of their life-giving forces. There are many different variations of the Gelede spectacle, which varies from region to region, but this concept remains consistent throughout all of them.
It is an incredible artistic manifestation of the power of Women which is evident in the concepts, costumes and masks, and location of the spectacle. The World is fragile, meaning that the Gelede celebration is warring with the evil of the world without killing. The preservation of the Gelede celebration and its significance and homage to Women is a critical foundation of a community in so far as its cultural and social identity.
Gelede = The initial purpose of the Gelede ceremony is to pay tribute to the primary Mother and the role Women play in the organization and development of society among the Nago of Nigeria, Benin and Togo. They are the ones who ensure the order of the world and hold all the powers, whether they are beneficial, like fertility, or evil, like witchcraft.
No other divinity is able to withstand the Aje when they decide to fight. They can always subdue all of them, with the exception of Orunmila, due to the way he handled them on prior occasions. Anyone who believes that charms and other diabolical preparations can subdue witchcraft is merely deceiving himself, unless they are aware of special incantations made in the past for this purpose.
The festival involves colorful masks, striking headdresses, festive music, and miraculous performances and importantly the celebration of Womanhood.
“Bend your knee for Women = Women brought us into the world = That’s what makes us humans = Women are the Spirit of the Earth.” We give our reverence to Oshun the unseen Mother ever present at every gathering.