The Eyo Festival, otherwise known as the Adamu Orisha Play, is a Yoruba festival unique to Lagos, Nigeria. In modern times, it is presented by the people of Lagos as a tourist event and due to its history, is traditionally performed on Lagos Island.
The word “Eyo” also refers to the costumed dancers, known as the masquerades that come out during the festival. The origins of this observance are found in the inner workings of the secret societies of Lagos. Back in the day, the Eyo festival was held to escort the soul of a departed Lagos King or Chief and to usher in a new king. On Eyo Day, the main highway in the heart of the city (from the end of Carter Bridge to Tinubu Square) is closed to traffic, allowing for procession from Idumota to the Iga Idunganran palace. The white-clad Eyo masquerades represent the spirits of the dead, and are referred to in Yoruba as “agogoro Eyo” (literally: “tall Eyo”).
An Eyo Iga Olowe Salaye masquerade jumping.
The first procession in Lagos was on the 20th of February, 1854, to commemorate the life of the Oba Akintoye. Eyos (the masquerades) celebrate a Oba´s (king) life. Eyo Festival is a homage to his death. The ritual is also organized to commemorate the election of a new leader. Traditionally, it only occurs at these times. Nowadays, and because it is such a traditional festival, it can be celebrated for the death of a notable person, or to celebrate a special occasion such as visits by heads of state.
Here, the participants all pay homage to the reigning Oba of Lagos. The festival takes place whenever occasion and tradition demand, though it is usually held as part of the final burial rites of a highly regarded chief in the king’s court.
Among the Yorubas, the indigenous religions have largely lost the greater majority of their traditional followers to Christianity and Islam. Be that as it may, the old festivals are still almost universally observed as tourist attractions which generate large amounts of revenue for government and small business around the Lagos Island venue of the Eyo festival. It is during these occasions that their traditional monarchs and nobles exercise the most of their residual power.
The Origin of Eyo Masquerade Festival
The Eyo festival in Lagos Nigeria, also known as the Adimu Orisa Play, has been staged since the days of old and probably dates back much further than most Lagosians can ever imagine.
Historians claim the cultural festival was inherited from Ibefun, a town in Ogun state, where according to folklore, the then Oba of Lagos, Oba Akinsemoyin, set out to assuage the Eyo deity so that his childless younger sibling, Erelu Kuti, can bear a child.
The Erelu did eventually bear two children whose line to date determines an Oba’s ascension to the throne in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria.
The Earliest Recorded Eyo Festival
According to historians, the earliest documented show dates back to the 19th century when the first festival was staged at Oke Ipa, today’s lagoon end of Glover Road area in Ikoyi.
Oke Ipa was where the Obas (kings) of Lagos, their titled chiefs, elders and important dignitaries came to from their homes and palaces, sometimes a three-day journey by foot, to watch the Eyo play.
It soon became a cultural display of splendour and though the purpose of staging the festival has been slightly modified over the centuries—culturally staged in memory of a departed Oba of Lagos or for the enthronement of a new one.
More recently, it is also staged in memory of eminent Lagosians who recently passed on, or to commemorate visits by State and foreign dignitaries with a parade that terminates at the Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos Island.
Significance of the Adimu Orisa Play to the People of Lagos
When a King (Oba of Lagos) dies, it is mandatory that a festival takes place, a farewell rite of sorts to a monarch who just passed on. In the case of families who desire a festival for the passing away of their family member who must be an eminent Lagosian, a request must first be put forward to the Akinsiku of Lagos, himself the head of the Eyos’.
The Akinsiku of Lagos will then specify what has to be done to meet the conditions. He requests for the Ikaro (offerings and gifts), and when the family meets this obligation, the Akinsiku collects the offerings and distributes them among the deity families of Lagos.
Though much of its details are still shrouded in secrecy as it is meant to be, according to traditional laws, a divination process must follow the distribution of the gifts and offerings. This rite is carried out at the sacred sanctuary of the Eyo Orisa called the Awe Adimu. This is where an appropriate and favourable date is chosen for the festival to hold.
When a date is chosen, each of the five Eyo groups (conclave) will meet individually to work out their plans and strategies. They must map out their plans on how to organize their numerous contingents and masquerades who will stage the Eyo play.
This is done through their chieftain houses. The whole process takes a while, but must be concluded a full week before the Eyo festival day.
The Opa, an Important Rite
The appearance of the Opa is an important rite to be observed and commences a week before Eyo festival day.
Each of the top five senior Eyo conclaves come out in their hierarchical order to visit eminent individuals, distinguished people and other organisational bodies, to inform them about the coming festival, why it will hold, and how important it is for it to hold.
Finally, the state government is informed through an official visit to the governor of Lagos State.
Each and every one of the five groups has to observe this process.
The Eve of Eyo Day
The night before festivities begin, custom demands the men taking part assemble at the reigning Oba’s Palace for a great party and merrymaking. This is the night the Oba officially gives his blessings.
There is another important rite that’s performed by the Eyo Laba group (one of the five conclaves) called the Agodo Erection Rite.
Eyo Laba conclave is the second in command of the ‘Senior Five’ Eyo conclaves.
Once the erection ritual is completed, the most senior of the conclaves, the Eyo Adimu carry out an inspection of the structure after the merriment has ended and everyone has left.
After their own inspection, the other groups carry out their own inspections one group after the other in hierarchical order.
There is also the observance of the ‘Gbale’ rites which symbolizes the ‘sweeping away’ of evil and the ushering in of prosperity, peace, and harmony.
By 5:00 a.m. on the day of the masquerade festival, the Eyos gather together to the sounds of the Gbedu and Koranga drums, two drums that are only beaten during an Eyo festival.
As their numbers begin to swell at the gathering point, all masquerades in their full costume and regalia begin to move towards the Para, a tent built with raffia mats, erected somewhere in the neighborhood of Enu Owa in Lagos Island.
Enu Owa is an important place on the island where the ceremonious crowning of any Oba takes place.
They all proceed to the Oba’s Palace at Iga Idunganran to pay obeisance before moving out into the streets of Lagos Island through Idumota, Tinubu Square and other major and minor roads.
They finally converge in their masses at Tafawa Balewa Square where thousands of people including the locals, dignitaries, tourists, etc., will be waiting to receive them, rejoice with them and join in the festivities
While festivities go on in a carnival-like atmosphere, the Eyo masquerades in their thousands, give a walk past procession that’s a sight to behold. Singing, dancing and displaying weird acrobatic moves, the masquerades present an awesome display that’s worth taking a trip to Lagos for.
Conclave by conclave, with thousands of Eyos’ who include the elderly, and young are all clad in pristine white Agbadas’, beautifully coloured wide-brimmed hats, and their Opambatas’ held firmly in their two hands.
They thrill and excite all, leaving a memorable impression in their minds of how history, culture, and art are still as beautiful and relevant in the present as it was in the past, and will be for future generations yet to be born.
Prohibited items in Eyo
Here is a list of prohibited items at the festival:
- Okada motorcycle taxis
- Suku – a cornrowed hairstyle popular among the Yorubas, one that has the hair converge at the middle, then shoot upward, before tipping downward.
- female with head tie or headgear or any covering of the head
- male with cap of any kind
- wearing of the Eyo costume overnight or to cross a river or lagoon.
The masquerades are known to beat people who use any of the prohibited items at sight with their staffs.
At the Close of Day
After a wonderful but probably tiring day for the average Eyo masquerade who had walked so many miles all through the day, the cultural ceremony winds down at sundown.
After the grand show the Eyo masquerades move back to the Para, where the opening of the traditional festival was declared at dawn, to tear it down.
The tearing down of the Para is instructed by the Orisa Adimu, and his Eyo masquerades.