Monday, November 3, 2008

Halloween & Egungun: norm-suspension or ancestral worship?

Friday, October 31, was Halloween (or Hallowed Evening). Originally, Halloween was a pagan festival in Europe meant to welcome and placate spirits and ghosts who, it was believed, paid homecoming visits to the earth on November 1 each year. But Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV tried to Christianize Halloween and made November 1 the All Saints’ Day, and Halloween became All Saints’ eve. That was about the 9th century. But today, Halloween has little, if any, connection with the church. Rather, it is celebrated in queer ways characterized by the suspension of significant aspects of social norms and control. In fact, a church organised what it named a Christ-Centred Alternative to Halloween to keep members from participating in the pagan fun.

In State College, US, where I witnessed this year’s Halloween, Halloween symbols such as pumpkin and effigies of ghosts and spirits had been on display in schools, shops and private driveways two months before Halloween. I took the picture above from a charter primary/kindergarten school along Science Park Road. Yellow-and-black Halloween candies had been on sale for over two months. A neighbor displayed seven human skulls (not real) in front of his house. There was a general air of an approaching big festival everywhere. The day before Halloween, folks in strange costumes were in many places—they couldn’t wait for Halloween to come. I met a young lady in a supermarket clad in black attires with a two-foot hat. When asked, she proudly announced she was a witch dressed for a Halloween party.

On the Halloween day, schools ran half-day, and held parties. I met a "real" witch in another shopping mall. (See the picture to your left and the next picture). When asked if I could take her picture, she quickly reached for her witch broomstick and posed witchfully for the shot. Staff of a Department at the Penn State University agreed to celebrate this year’s Halloween by dressing, not as spirits, but as workmen—with helmets, boots, workman jeans and calloused gloves to match.

Halloween is a suspension of whatever made you your social you. In the evening, children dressed in Halloween costumes (ghosts, skeletons and the indescribable) went from house to house demanding candies—and people quickly gave them. They threatened a trick—if you refused to give the candies, and a treat—if you gave. These kids are called trick-or-treaters. And children from neighbors who don’t as much as exchange a glance on normal days knock on neighbor’s doors to demand for candies on Halloween. Talk of suspension of the social norms that inhibit us. (I saw a six-footer among the trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood though!)

For a minute I imagined Halloween in Nigeria. And why not? I used to carry, that is bear or wear, our family Egungun masquerade during Egungun festivals. And, though I was in high school, each time I wore the Egungun, even my father prostrated to salute me. I was no longer me; I was his great ancestor who had counted little him worthy of an ancestral visit. (To your right is the picture of a Yoruba Egungun). And my father, my uncles and aunts and our extended family never took that for granted. Flanked by smaller Egunguns, I demanded anything: chicken, pounded yam and gin, and my dad and the entire extended family quickly offered it--to the ancestors of course. Again, it was a momentary suspension of whatever made you your social you. If I knew candies, the youthful 'ancestor' most certainly would have demanded it.

Well, of course, Egungun is denigrated as a fetish ancestral worship. But there is a question. Last year December on a trip from New Malden to London, my friend and I had just passed by a burial ground and lots of folks were there laying wreaths on grave sites of their beloved long-departed. “Isn’t that ancestral worship?” I asked my British friend. “Oh, no. They’re just honoring their dead relatives”. If it were in Africa, it was ancestral worship; in Europe and America, it is fun or “just honoring” the departed and placating them with candies and flowers. Sometimes, it is too obvious that the only way to justifiably hang a dog is to call it a bad name. I think both Halloween and Egungun are, among other things, moments that we, almost justifiably, suspend the norms and our social ego—ironically still within the accepted boundaries of culture—and be who we wish to be but cannot always be.

29 comments:

Loomnie said...

Hmm.... the anthropologist in me wants to comment, but there is so much to say..... I really wonder whether the occassions that you describe are really times when we suspend the social us. And I wonder whether Yorubas want to be egunguns, or the average Halloween celebrant a witch/godzilla/dracula/a bug/a mummy/space alien.

Anonymous said...

Well, Loomnie, at least they don't want to be their social selves, cocooned, as it were, in their social roles on such occasions--even if it last a fraction of a day.

keren said...

Nothing can be scary especially if we can all laugh and play this way,if it takes festivals like this to let down our gaurds then this should by all means be welcomed. Its sad the suspension does not last at all.

Anonymous said...

Keren, I agree with you. But it's good the suspension doesn't last too long. It's in social interest. if it lasts too long, there will be anarchy of sorts.

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