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Though the cause of the high rate of twin births among Yoruba women has not been established, the cultural grieving process is well documented and may be observed in the carving of a figure known as Ere Ibeji, which both represents the lost child and serves as a ritual point of contact with the soul of the deceased. The carving of the Ere Ibeji is commissioned under the guidance of an Ifa diviner, a Babalowo, whom the parents consult in selecting the particular artist who will do the work. The sculpture itself represents a deceased infant, but is carved with features and attributes of an adult. The sculptural features of genitalia, pubic hair, wide hips, developed breasts, gender specific facial scarification and mature coiffures exude an erotic sexuality, uncommon for infants. The completed ibeji figure is carved as an adult, rather than as the deceased infant, in a mythological form that depicts the concentrated calm of a Yoruba artist.
When the carving of the Ere Ibeji is completed, the artist is given a feast and payment as determined by the Orishas. Once the figure is brought to the family dwelling, it is placed on a shrine dedicated to Elegba with the hope that the Orisha or soul, which was split in two parts when the twins were born, will now again reside in the figure that represents the dead twin. The sculpted figure is treated and cared for as if it were alive. It is rubbed in sacramental oil, washed, fed, clothed, sung to and prayed to. It is kept standing during the day, and is laid down at night. Often it will be dressed in the same clothing as the living twin, or be decorated in a beaded vest or shown with raised sandals, indicating possible royal connections. They attend to the figure as if it was their child, they feed and wash it. The headdress will be constantly rubbed with Indigo and the body will be rubbed with red wood powder. And as a sign of dignity (in wealthy families), some Ibeji get pearl cloaks. The responsibility of caring for the Ibeji is borne by the mother and female family members of subsequent generations. The sculpture is expected to avert evil from the household, strengthen the manifestations of family love, stare down death, illuminate the pathway through the valley of immortality, and bring good fortune to all who treat it with respect and offer it tokens of affection.

The young men wearing masks also demonstrate their courage and strength by dancing acrobatically with heavy masks and even performing jumps.

According to most reports, the most important Epa masks serve to personify war heroes and hunter ancestors and commemorate them as the cultural heroes and founding fathers of a city. In this context, the Epa mask festivals are part of the celebrations for Ogun, the god of iron and the most famous deity in the Ekiti pantheon. Warriors and hunters, as well as everyone who needs tools and weapons made of iron for their professions, are among the followers of Ogun. It is therefore not surprising that warriors, kings, hunters and herbalists are often depicted on Epa masks.

At the festivities, the different masks of the dance group appear in a precisely defined order. The festival is opened by oloko, the "lord of the homestead", the mask with the leopard. He is followed by the "warrior" Jagunjagun, also represented as a mounted hunter or king, and the healer olosanyin. The celebrations are concluded with a mask depicting a female figure, usually a mother with children or a priestess with entourage.

A mask attachment depicting a farmer with a hoe is rarely found in Epa masks. As a rule, the sculptures refer to warlike cultural heroes and show warriors, their wives and children, Ifa or Osanyin priests, leopards and dogs. But the Epa mask rituals are also related to the celebration of the new yam harvest. As Marsha Vander Heyden reports, the new yam may only be eaten after the Ogun priests have offered young yams of the current year to the god of iron as an offering.

The depiction of the peaceful farmer adds another dimension to the otherwise martial iconography. In all reports about Epa celebrations, the opening mask is called oloko, master (or owner) of the homestead. Strangely enough, this mask usually adorns the depiction of a leopard tearing an antelope. The mask with the farmer, on the other hand, seems to be a more direct embodiment of Oloko, the master of the farm.

Yoruba Staff

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