Sunday, October 23, 2011

Comparative Traditions - Masquerades & Whirling Dances

Edited by Azizi Powell

Video #1
spectacle des eguns au benin

uploaded by SAKIFAL on Feb 11, 2011

Editor: The actual video starts at 2:25


The following videos of masquerades and/or whirling dances are from the Egungun traditions of Nigeria, West Africa, the Zangbeto traditions of Benin, West Africa, the Sufi Islamic whirling dervishers traditions of Turkey, the Egyptian tanoura dance tradition, the obby os tradition of Padstow, Cornwall (United Kingdom), and the Minehead hobby horse traditions of Minehead, Somerset, United Kingdom.

I came across these different videos while surfing YouTube and was struck with the similarities between the body or masked character whirling (or twirling) of the dances. While the traditions of Egungun and Zangbeto in particular would be of cultural interest any time of the year, it's fitting to learn about the meaning of those traditions around the American & European holiday of Halloween.

These videos are presented for their aesthetic, folkloric, sociological, historical, and educational values. These videos aren't meant to imply that these traditions from different cultures share the same sources, cultural purposes, or meanings. I'll leave that for scholars to present those theories or proofs. While the inclusion of the United Kingdom hobby horse dances might be a stretch, I feel confident in asserting that movements of some of the Egungun & Zangbeto masqueraders dancers & the Egyptian tanoura dancers are amazingly similar. For example, compare the gown twirling clip of the Nigerian Egunguns at about 12:37 and otherwise in video #1 below with the gown twirling in Egyptian videos #6 & #7. But I also think that movements of the Egungun dancing at about 12:35 of video #1 is similar to that of the United Kingdom Minehead hobby horse featured in video #9. Again, the focus of this comparative look at these videos is the similarities in the movements and not the meanings of these performances.

Here are this post's featured videos, prefaced by information about each specific tradition:

Egungun Masqueraders

Egungun is a part of the Yoruba pantheon of divinities. In the indeginous religious system of the West African tribe of that name, the spirit is of central importance. It is the eventual end of all living beings, and as such is regarded as the ancestral "collective".

The Egungun is celebrated in festivals, known as Odun Egungun, and in family ritual through the masquerade custom. In family situations, a family elder known either formally or informally as Alagba presides over ancestral rites.




EGUNGUN really means "bone," hence "skeleton," and Egungun himself is supposed to be a man risen from the dead. The part is acted by a man disguised in a long robe, usually made of grass, and a mask of wood, which generally represents a hideous human face, with a long pointed nose and thin lips, but sometimes the head of an animal.

Egungun appears in the streets by day or night indifferently, leaping, dancing, or walking grotesquely, and uttering loud cries. He is supposed to have returned from the land of the dead in order to ascertain what is going on in the land of the living, and his function is to carry away those persons who are troublesome to their neighbors. He may thus be considered a kind of supernatitral [sic] inquisitor who appears from time to time to inquire into the general domestic conduct of people, particularly of women, and to punish misdeeds.

Although it is very well known that Egungun is only a disguised man, yet it is popularly believed that to touch him, even by accident, causes death.

A crowd always stands round watching, at a respectful distance, the gambols of an Egungun, and one of the chief amusements of the performer is to rush suddenly towards the spectators, who fly before him in every direction in great disorder, to avoid the fatal touch. To raise the hand against Egungun is punished with death, and women are forbidden, on pain of death, to laugh at him, speak disparagingly of him, or say he is not one who has risen from the dead. "May Egungun cut you in pieces," is an imprecation often heard.

Egungun is thus at the present day a sort of "bogey," or make-believe demon, whose chief business is to frighten termagants, busybodies, scandalmongers, and others, but it seems probable that originally he was regarded as the incarnation of the dead, and that the whole custom is connected with manes-worship. In June there is an annual feast for Egungun lasting seven days, during which lamentations are made for those who have died within the last few years. It is a kind of All-Souls festival... Moreover, Egungun also appears in connection with funeral ceremonies."

Video #1 -
Placed at the top of this page.

Video #2

Uploaded by allagberonel on Mar 9, 2010

[Note that these are only one type of Egungun masqueraders. Videos of other types of Egunguns can be found on YouTube.]

Zangbetos Masqueraders

Zangbeto are the traditional voodoo guardians of the night in the Yoruba religion of Benin and Togo which are known as the "Nightwatchmen". Similar to Egunguns, they are highly revered and act as an unofficial police force patrolling the streets and watching over people and tracking down criminals and presenting them to the community to punish. They were originally created to scare the enemy away, now the Zangbeto will wander around the street to detect thieves and witches, and dispensing justice.

They are men in a costume that resembles a haystack but are in a trance which enables their bodies to be inhabited by spririts who have special knowledge of the actions of people. However Yoruba legend tells that there are no humans under the costume, only spirits of the night.

Traditionally, the Zangbetos were the policemen of Benin and were the main guardians of law in the country before the official law establishment. They are said to form a secret society which can only be strictly attended by Zangbetos, and when in a trance are said to have magical abilities such as swallowing splinters of glass without coming to any harm and scaring away even witches. In a trance, the Zangbeto are said to evoke a power that inhabited the earth long before the appearance of man and provide a source of wisdom and continuity for the people of Benin.

Video #3
Zangbeto du Bénin.AVI

Uploaded by jouissez on Jun 5, 2011

Video #4

Uploaded by HERVAKOMDJ on Oct 11, 2009

Whirling Dervishers

The Order of the Whirling Dervishes is one branch of the vast Sufi tradition of Islam. The universal values of love and service shared by all Sufis are very much relevant to the social and political realities of today, and this ritual, which is only performed by the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, has come to symbolize these values in the hearts and minds of millions throughout the world.

THE SEMA RITUAL began with the inspiration of Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi (1207-1273) and was influenced by Turkish customs and culture.

It is scientifically recognized that the fundamental condition of our existence is to revolve. There is no being or object which does not revolve, because all beings are comprised of revolving electrons, protons, and neutrons in atoms. Everything revolves, and the human being lives by means of the revolution of these particles, by the revolution of the blood in his body, and by the revolution of the stages of his life, by his coming from the earth and his returning to it.

However, all of these revolutions are natural and unconscious. But the human being possesses a mind and an intelligence which distinguishes him from other beings. Thus the whirling dervish or semazen, intentionally and consciously participates in the shared revolution of other beings.

Contrary to popular belief, the semazen's goal is not to lose consciousness or to fall into a state of ecstasy. Instead, by revolving in harmony with all things in nature -- with the smallest cells and with the stars in the firmament -- the semazen testifies to the existence and the majesty of the Creator, thinks of Him, gives thanks to Him, and prays to Him. In so doing, the semazen confirms the words of the Qur'an (64:1): Whatever is in the skies or on earth invokes God.

Video #5
Whirling Dervishes (Turkey)

Uploaded by tnbmoey on Sep 20, 2006

The Tanoura (Egypt)

Tanoura or el-Tanoura (Arabic: التنورة‎) is an Egyptian folk dance usually performed in Egyptian Sufi festivals.

The tanoura dance is performed by sufi men. The dance is similar to the Sufi whirling (dance). In this version, the men wear long colourful skirts, where each colour on the skirt represents one Sufi order.

Video #6
Derviches egipcios

Uploaded by dadaorton on Jul 12, 2007

Derviches en El Cairo

Video #7
Tanoura - Egyptian folk dance

Uploaded by kapil04 on Mar 31, 2008

A performance held at a shopping mall. As part of the Egyptian Tourism promotion.

Obby Os


Padstow, in Cornwall, UK is internationally famous for its traditional 'Obby 'Oss day (dialect for Hobby Horse). Held annually on May Day (1 May), which in Cornwall, largely dates back to the Celtic Beltane, the day celebrates the coming of Summer.

The origins of the celebrations in Padstow are unknown. There is extensive documentary evidence of British community May Day celebrations in the 16th century and earlier,[1] although the earliest mention of the Obby 'Oss at Padstow dates from 1803. An earlier hobby horse is mentioned in the Cornish language drama Beunans Meriasek, a life of the Camborne saint, where it is associated with a troupe, or "companions."

It has been speculated that such festivals have pre-Christian origins, such as in the Celtic festival of Beltane in the Celtic nations, and the Germanic celebrations during the Þrimilci-mōnaþ (literally Three-Milking Month or Month of Three Milkings) in England. It has also been proposed that the worship of horse deities such as Epona was found in ancient Celtic societies such as the possibly related Mari Lwyd ('Grey Mare') traditions of South Wales.

The festival itself starts at midnight on May 1 with unaccompanied singing around the town starting at the Golden Lion Inn. By the morning, the town is dressed with greenery, flowers and flags, with the focus being the maypole. The climax arrives when two groups of dancers progress through the town, one of each team wearing a stylised recreation of a 'horse.' The two 'osses are known as the "Old" and the "Blue Ribbon" 'osses. During the day a number of "Junior" 'osses appear, operated by children. Accompanied by drums and accordions and led by acolytes known as "Teasers", each 'oss is adorned by a gruesome mask and black frame-hung cape under which they try to catch young maidens as they pass through the town.

Video #8
Folk Traditions - Obby Oss in Padstow

Uploaded by PeoplesPalaceTV on Nov 18, 2007

Obby Oss comes out of the Golden Lion on the morning of 1 May in Padstow, Cornwall and parades round the town. The festival has taken place for centuries.

Video #9
Minehead Hobby Horses

One popular ancient local tradition involves the Hobby Horse, or Obby Oss,which takes to the streets on the eve of the first of May each year, with accompanying musicians and rival horses, for four days. In fact there are three rival hobby horses, the Original Sailor's Horse, the Traditional Sailor's Horse and the Town Horse. They appear on May Eve (called "Show Night"), on May Day morning (when they salute the sunrise at a crossroads on the outskirts of town), 2 and 3 May (when a ceremony called "The Bootie" takes place in the evening called "Bootie Night" at part of town called Cher).

Each horse is made of a boat-shaped wooden frame, pointed and built up at each end, which is carried on the dancer's shoulders. As at Padstow, his face is hidden by a mask attached to a tall, pointed hat. The top surface of the horse is covered with ribbons and strips of fabric. A long fabric skirt, painted with rows of multicoloured roundels, hangs down to the ground all round. A long tail is attached to the back of the frame. Each horse is accompanied by a small group of musicians and attendants. The Town Horse is accompanied by "Gullivers", dressed similarly to the horse but without the large frame; as at Padstow, smaller, children's horses have sometimes been constructed. The horses' visits are (or were) believed to bring good luck. In the past there was also a similar hobby horse based at the nearby village of Dunster, which would sometimes visit Minehead. The first of May has been a festival day in Minehead since 1465.

Minehead Hobby Horses

Uploaded by christopherhobson on May 15, 2011

The hobby horses in order of appearance - The Original Sailors Horse, The Traditional Sailors Horse, The Town Horse, Sailette (the pink horse), Baby Quay and Black Devil.


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