On the 20th of February, 1854, the first procession of the Eyo masquerade was held to commemorate the life of the Oba Akitoye, by his son Oba Dosunmu and this marked the beginning of the journey to one of the most fascinating and popular festivals in Nigeria.
The Eyo festival, otherwise known as the Adamu Orisha Play, is one of the many unique Yoruba festivals. It is a festival that is very synonymous with Lagos state and over time, it has become a tourist event and due to its history, it is traditionally performed on Lagos Island. This festival has proceeded to grow from a rural festivity to an internationally acclaimed event, which generates a lot of revenue for the government and small businesses around the Lagos Island venue of the Eyo festival. It is on occasions like this, that traditional monarchs and nobles exercise most of their residual power.
According to history, it is said that the Eyo masquerade did not originate from Lagos Island but was brought here, sometimes around 1750 by two unnamed personalities from Ibefun and Ijebu communities in present day, Ogun state.
Another version states that, the main deity, Adamu Orisha originated from Ibefun just as Eyo masquerade came as a result of the need to protect the deity from the activities of miscreants who might seek to destroy or steal it. Those who hold this view believe that the traditional iconic staff of the masquerade known as Opambata was created and added to the regalia for the purpose of warding off undesirable elements.
It is also believed that Orisa Ogunran and Orisa Elegbaopopo were originally brought to Lagos from Benin by Chief Olorogunagan Asagbemi, and Chief Olorogunigbesule during the reign of Oba Ado of Lagos, over 350 years ago.
The word “Eyo”, known as the masquerades that come out during the festival also refer to costumed dancers. The white-clad Eyo masquerades represent the spirits of the dead and are referred to in Yoruba as “agogoro Eyo” literally meaning tall Eyo. In times past, the Eyo festival was held to accompany the soul of a dead Lagos king or chief and usher in a new king. The participants pay homage to the reigning Oba of Lagos and the festival usually takes place whenever occasion and tradition demand, though it is also held as part of the final burial rites of a highly regarded chief in the king’s court.
On the festival day, the main highway in the heart of Lagos, from the end of Carter Bridge to Tinubu Square is closed to traffic, allowing the procession to hold from Idumota to the Iga Idunganran Palace.
A full week before the festival, usually a Sunday, the “senior” Eyo group, the Adimu (identified by a black, broad-brimmed hat), goes public with a staff. When this happens, it means that the event will take place on the following Saturday. Each of the other four important groups – Laba (Red), Oniko (Yellow), Ologede (Green) and Agere (Purple) – take their turns in that order from Monday to Thursday. At the festival, some items are prohibited such as Okada (motorcycles), taxis, bicycles, sandals, Suku (a hairstyle for females popular among the Yoruba’s) and smoking. The masquerades are known to beat people who use any of the prohibited items at the sight with their staffs.
The image of Eyo is one that has over the years, become an important symbol for representing Lagos. You see Eyo, you see Lagos. Eyo truly captures the cultural swag of Lagos.