Epa (Ancestor Helmet Mask)

Osanyin (Herbalist)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Epa helmet masks are used to promote health and wellbeing within a community by celebrating and honouring ancestors, cultural heroes and important individuals (including mothers, priests, farmers, kings and hunters) within a village. Originating in Ekiti and spreading to much of North-Eastern Yoruba towns (including Owo, Efon Alaye, Igbomina and Ijesa), the bi-annual, week-long Epa festival acknowledges the roles these individuals have played in building a successful community.

Epa masqueraders perform slow, steady and controlled movements due to the huge and heavy masks they carry on their heads during performances. The masqueraders dance around the village and must jump on a raised mound to demonstrate their ability to maintain balance. It is believed to be a bad omen for the town (sometimes leading to misfortune) if the mask should fall of the performer’s head during the jump. When not in use, the masks are kept in shrines where villagers can pray to and provide offerings to ancestors.

The Osanyin (meaning 'god of herbal medicine') helmet mask depicts herbalist priests of the deity and also represents the ability of these priests to channel the power of Osanyin to help protect the community and increase fertility. Osanyin masks typically follow jagunjagun masquerades and mark the mid-point of the Epa ceremony.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all Epa masks:

    • Made of wood from the iroko tree
    • Whole mask carved from single piece of wood
    • Weight = 23 - 50kg
    • Height = 1.5 metres
    • Painted in red and blue
    • Janus faced ‘ikoko' helmet (believed to be the container of spiritual power 'ase’)
    • Helmet typically has two faces on both sides
        • One set of eyes open (looking at world of living)
        • Other set closed (looking into the realm of ancestors)
        • Bulging almond shaped eyes on helmet
        • Rectangular mouth
    • Elaborate figurative superstructure
        • Superstructure separated from mask by thick disk
        • Superstructure carvings in centre represent priests, hunters, farmers, kings, and mothers
        • Smaller figures can surround central figure (represent traders, musicians, hunters)

Sub-type variations (Osanyin - God of Medicine):

    • Superstructure depicts an Osanyin priest
    • Priest carved holding his opa Osanyin staff in his left hand
    • Carries antelope horn (iwo ashe) in his right hand
    • Sometimes depicted wearing a small gourd around his neck
    • Sometimes depicted with hair shaved off one side of head (usually right side) or wears headdress with medicine gourds around head

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