In Yoruba Nollywood, especially the ones shot in village settings, there are usually scenes in the movies that have town criers. The town crier towards the Egungun festival would go round the village square to announce the arrival of Oloolu. He would give instructions to the villagers not to come out for three days, because there is an Oro (traditional rites) to welcome Oloolu, and that anyone who comes out within the Oro hours would be used for sacrifice.
During the festival, the Oloolu would dance around the village square and take his team to the palace, where all villagers would gather, dance, and be merry.
Many Nigerians only see this in Yoruba movies, but they do not know the history of the masquerade—why it exists and why we celebrate it. In this piece, Naijabiography did research into the story behind Oloolu Masquerade.
Who is Oloolu?
Oloolu is the most powerful and feared Eegun (masquerade) in the southwestern part of Nigeria. It is the culture of the Yoruba empire that is seen as a channel to connect with their ancestors. Oloolu is an ancestry masquerade relevant to the city of Ibadan. Ibadan residents, particularly ladies, quiver in horror when Oloolu is mentioned, proving the allegation that Oloolu is the most feared masquerade in Ibadan and one of the most revered in Yorubaland and Africa.
The history of Oloolu can be traced to the war in Ogbagi, a town in the Akoko district of Ondo State. During the battle, no one could stand up to Oloolu, the town’s powerful war disguise, except a young man from Aje’s family called Áyorinde Aje. Ayorinde went to war with Oderinlo, Ogunmola, Ogbori-efon, and other Ibadan warriors, but none of these great warriors could challenge Oloolu.
Ayorinde Aje in the war defeated Oloolu and in conquest, he then kidnapped the Oloolu’s bearers and transported them to Ibadan. While they were journeying to Ibadan, the Eegun bearer at a point refused to continue the journey, and in his annoyance, Ayorinde ordered her husband to behead her and asked him to add her head to Oloolu’s costumes.
Later, he sighted the outfit of the Egungun and made an attempt to move closer, but he was warned by his colleague not to, that it could put his life in danger. The warning in the Yoruba language was called “O-lu-nkan,” meaning, “you will put your life in danger.” He then ordered the captive to add the woman’s head to the costume. Hence, the reason for the name Oloolu, which is a short form of Olunkan, and why women are not allowed to see Oloolu.
The Oloolu Tradition in Ibadanland
When Ayorinde alongside other warriors and the captives reached Ibadan, the then Olubadan ordered the people to take precautions, especially the women. He also announced that the first person Oloolu sees when comes out will die.
Meanwhile, during these years, there was a famine in the land as well as poor health and many crises, and it seemed like there was no solution- chiefs and even the King himself did not know what to do. Ayorinde Aje suggested that the Oloolu in captivity should be used to appease the gods.
Oloolu was chosen to perform the rite to placate the gods, and as soon as he completed it, rain fell and life in Ibadan returned to normal. Oloolu was instrumental in shaping Ibadan into the city it is today. Since then, whoever is the head of the Aje family has been in charge of the Oloolu masquerade.
A rule was given in Ibadan at the time by the Olubadan that no one should challenge the Oloolu, and that any areas that tried to challenge him would live in bloodshed. One such town that tried to challenge Oloolu was Popoyemoja, which has continued to live in bloodshed to date.
How does Oloolu perform?
Oloolu is known for his kind heart- he provides for the needy, ensures business advancement and even gives children to barren women who believe in him.
The Oloolu masquerade is a one-of-a-kind performance. It wears a distinctive outfit that resembles an elongated pyramid comprised of various pieces of clothing and a net. The Oloolu masquerade’s most odd feature is its crown, which is a woman’s skull. The bearer proudly exhibits the human bone while accompanying the frightening cult figure as the Oloolu dances around the city in its weird rhythm with a female skull dangling from its head.
Every July in Ibadan, the Oloolu masquerade appears to celebrate the Oloolu festival, which is said to bring favors to the region. Oloolu masquerade makes appearances in Ibadan’s most vibrant neighborhoods, including Popo-Yemoja, Beere, Oja’ba, and others.
Oloolu bearers must not wear shoes or carry any sort of cargo on their heads. He also has to wait 30 days before sleeping with any of his wives. In fact, all females must leave his compound a few days before the event begins and return when the Oloolu festival is over. He also cannot carry a youngster on his shoulders while wearing his feet around his neck.
To date, the Oloolu or Egungun festival is celebrated in Ibadanland by sons and daughters who believe in the supernatural powers of their ancestors.