From Brad, Historical Interpreter:
Yam Day Update: Masquerades!
This week we dug deep into our video archives to to show you a masquerade that took place here at the FCMV! We also took the liberty of finding some more extravagant costumes, and we have updated our yam experiment.
It's still the time of year for the New Yam Festival over in Igboland, and that means it is time for the year's biggest feast and masquerade. We've already discussed the importance of having a colossal feast, so now we'll turn to the more colorful masquerades. Traditionally, when there's an Igbo masquerade, it's not simply for fun. Masquerades are only held on sacred days when the line between the natural and supernatural worlds is the thinnest, permitting the spirit world to walk amongst the living. This only occurs at certain seasonal celebrations (like the New Yam Festival), funerals, and sometimes judiciary trials.
In order to participate as a masquerader, first of all you need to be a male (sorry, ladies). Secondly, you need to be initiated into a secret society that controls when, where, and how a spirit will be seen. This is not the most difficult achievement to accomplish, as it typically requires only a lump some of money and an oath to secrecy. Thirdly, you need a costume. Costumes vary in a shapes and colors, but the one thing in common is that every costume should not reveal any skin of the performer. In this way the masquerade is able to retain a mystic, magical side. Every costume represents a different deity (there are hundreds) or sometimes a late friend. These costumes often include a mask carved from a solid piece of wood that slides over the masquerader's whole head, which I can speak from experience is very heavy and severely limits one's mobility. Despite this fact, masqueraders will dance and dance, or otherwise walk the streets in their costume, typically scaring women and children.
It is a wonder that anyone within these secret societies actually believes in Igbo deities, given their knowledge and oaths of secrecy, but for many Igbo's their spirituality is actually reaffirmed. They don't believe they are "playing the part" of a deity. Rather, they become entranced and believe their body acts a vessel for the spirit to vicariously live through them. The women and children, however, appear to be more scared into believing than anything. Often masqueraders are surrounded by men carrying switches to clear a path for the deity and people frequently throw money at him (or her, depending on the spirit) to appease the spirit's anger--or at least to secure his blessing. I've also heard that the dance alone is enough to inspire belief, as one Igbo woman put it, "The way they move is inhuman!"
Rather than go into more detail describing masquerades, we found a few videos from our dedication ceremony at the West African Farm. Here are some videos of the procession and the masquerade:
And the masquerade...(notice the raffia-covered deity in the back being chased by a man with a fan)...
Here's a costume of the spirit Ahobinagu or Obinagu. She is a spirit that inhabits many lifeforms in the rainforest, living in close quarters with Ala, the Earth Goddess. This picture also appeared in National Geographic recently:
This picture was taken in or near the city of Awka, the capital of Anambra State, Nigeria. Here's a photo of a masquerader accompanied by lesser deities. Notice the mask and headdress:
Now back to our yam experiment. Overall the yam vines have slowed a bit in growth, with Yam 5 showing some wilting on the tip of the vine. Next week, we'll offer a synthesis of all the measurements taken thus far, and we'll have plenty of photos for you.
Otherwise, there have been a lot of exciting things happening recently on the farms. In addition to Yam Day, in the next two weeks, we will be posting on finishing the chimney of the Settlement cabin, and thatching the roof of the Irish blacksmith shop! Stay tuned!