June 9, 2018 via Instagram: Iba Egungun! Iba Olokun! it’s a PERFECT day for paying homage to our #ancestors who crossed the Middle Passage. I almost didn’t come, but #egun kept nudging me and I’m nothing if not obedient. Besides, if my ancestors could endure what they did, surely I can handle an Uber, the Path train, and the subway. This was a personal pilgrimage and I can feel that they are pleased.
The Ancestors. We hear the term a lot but who are they, exactly? And why are they so important?
Most simply, the ancestors are those people who came before us and who are no longer with us physically. This includes both our personal ancestors as well as community and national ancestors like Harriet Tubman, Nanny of the Maroons, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, and countless others.
They are important because, simply put, had not those who came before us done everything they did in terms of living, learning, connecting with spirit, and teaching us their ways, we wouldn’t know anything about any of it. So we always honor those who paved the way, who created or received the traditions from on high, who practiced those traditions, who passed them on to their children, who passed them on to their children, who passed them on to their children so that they could be passed on to us.
One commonly used Yoruba term for ancestors is egun (ay-goon) or egungun (ay-goon-goon). Although this term refers specifically to the traditional ancestral masquerades, it has come into common usage to refer to the ancestors generally. Another term for the ancestors — or the keepers of tradition — is isese and the odu Ifa (sacred verse of Ifa) Ogunda Owonrin states:
Baba eni isese eni
Iya eni isese eni
Isese labo kato bo Orisa
This means: “it is our mothers and our fathers who are our isese. It is isese we pay homage to before paying homage to orisa.”
Many of us are so eager to find about which orisa we belong to that we jump right over our most important point of connection beyond a shadow of a doubt: our own families. The first step in any African-centered spiritual practice is to learn about and honor our own dearly departed.
There are differing schools of thought about who constitutes an ancestor, but having lived a good life and died a good death (ie, at an appropriate age and not as a result of certain types of violence, these are debated) are primary criteria (more on this in the All About the Ancestors class). This is how the orisa became the orisa, by living well and becoming deified. This is why there is always the “+1” possibility of another orisa being added. A sacred verse of Ifa says that there is no childbearing woman who cannot give birth to an orisa. Weeding through the double negatives, this means every (childbearing) woman can give birth to an orisa — someone special, with a special purpose who embodies the forces of nature and helps humanity! Know anyone like that?
We all have those special people in our own lineages who are waiting for us to connect with them. Our most important spiritual allies are those in our own bloodline — our mothers’ mothers and our fathers’ fathers. Every family has it’s own egun who should be honored. This is where the tradition of the Egungun masquerade comes from, honoring the dearly departed and having them continue to enact justice on earth.
So here’s your assignment to get started:
- learn as many names of as many departed ancestors as you can
- collect pictures of those departed loved ones and their stories
- put those pictures and a list of all the names you’ve collected in its own special place
- begin spending time sitting or standing near that special place praying (speaking) and meditating (listening) on a regular basis, 5 – 10 minutes per day is enough
- place food, water, flowers, and things you know those departed loved ones enjoyed in that special place as offerings for them
You can do this! No initiation or special knowledge is required, but if you’d like to learn more and go further, you can sign up for the All About the Ancestors class that will walk you through all of this along with songs and prayers.
Love, light and growth!