Okenekene Headdress

I came across the Okenekene headdress complex in December of 2016, while doing some research on a purchased piece (note: research post purchase) from the Merton D. Simpson collection. As indicated in a prior blog, I do have a weakness for the water spirit headdress.

The headdress is peculiar to Ijebu-Yorubaland[1] which occupies the costal plain between the interior Yoruba kingdoms of Ife, Ijesha, Egba, Ibadan, and Oyo and the coastal waterways. The Ijebu recognize the presence and power of spirits controlling Delta waters, and acknowledge that they adopted and adapted their Agbo masquerades from Niger Delta peoples (primarily the Ijo).

Here are a few examples,


Okenekene Headdress : The house and clock reflect the impressive  quarters of the water spirits living below the surface. The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

The piece typically consists of three sections,


Typically shows  coiled vines, and a heart shaped paddle, (or woro leaf). This will also have a chameleon, and or a python component.


The middle area shows the abstract anthropomorphic representation of the water spirit with long pointed ears. Atop the domed area there may be shown an animal representation, or a more human related reference (e.g. an umbrella or rudder).


Typically reflects a reference to static/dynamic, natural/spiritual activity in the water.


Okenekene : Showing chameleon, and python components at the back, the umbrella in the middle, and the fishing eagle within the waves to the front. [E1]

Another similarly styled headdress from the Seattle Art museum, also incorporates the chameleon (from the Yoruba creation myth).


Okenekene : worn horizontally, they can be described as a juxtaposition of natural, spiritual, and human references. [E2]

A more modern, and less complicated representation of the Okenekene.


Okenekene imagery in masquerade (1982): Ways of the Rivers, pg. 209.

Ijebu-Yoruba complex Components


Beliefs held by the Ijaw are of particular interest because these people are probably the oldest inhabitants of Nigeria. The Ijaw think that pythons hold the spirits of the sons of Adumu, himself a python, and the chief of the water spirits. Women are forbidden to mention his name or to approach his temples. At times lights may be seen gleaming below the surface of the water which this python deity inhabits. On some occasions the lights rise to the tops of the palm trees. Serpents are carved on the statue of Adumu at Adum’ Ama on a small tributary of the Santa Barbara River. Here come all who aspire to act as diviners or prophetesses. Such a priestess is forbidden to have relationships with a man; her husband is one of the sacred serpents. Every eighth day the water spirit is supposed to rise out of the water in order to visit his wife. On that day she sleeps alone, does not leave the house after dark, and pours libations before the Owe (water spirit) symbols. Inside her shrine are posts and staves representing serpents whose coils are said to typify the whirling dance performed in honor of the chief python god Adumu. “It is the spirit of the python that enters the priestess, making her gyrate in the mystic dance and utter oracles.”

When inspired, she will dance for a period varying from three to five days, during which she may not drink water. The language spoken during trance is said to be incomprehensible to the worshipers. In the Brass country, where Ogidia, the python war god, is worshiped, there are three main festivals in his honor. At the first of these (Buruolali), there is a presentation of yams at night, by a woman. These yams, which have been procured by the priests and chiefs, have to be in the form of serpents. At a second ceremony, a smooth-skinned male is offered as a sacrifice (Indiolali ceremony). Thirdly, there is Iseniolali. At this rite, women who have been appointed by the chiefs and priests gather shellfish. These are cooked at the shrine of Ogidia amid great rejoicing. Among the Ijaw people, pythons are never killed because they are thought to bring a blessing on any house they enter. At death the reptiles are buried with the honors of a chief.


Birds also appear frequently in water spirit headdresses. For the Kalabari Ijo, these are probably references to oru ogolo, the talkative bulbul bird that is said to live in villages and to speak the language of the spirits. It communicates messages from the spirits to the humans.

In Agbo masks, birds ride on the backs of crocodiles and on the snouts of such masks as Igodo and Okenekene. In these latter instances the bird is probably a fishing eagle.

For the Ijebu, the bird is linked with water spirits, as it is in the Delta.

[1] Ways of the Rivers, pg. 197

[2] The Serpent in African Belief and Custom, WILFRID D. HAMBLY


[3] Ways of the Rivers, Martha G. Anderson & Philip M. Peek

[E1] Ways of the Rivers, pg. 203

[E2] Africa – Dictionaries of Civilization, pg.197


Ethnologists, Exasperation, and Epa

While Collecting African Tribal Art one comes across the herculean exploits of the Epa masqueraders. The substructure of the mask is a grotesque form consisting of bulging eyes, and features. The superstructure conveys different motifs and can be in stark contrast to the janus type support.

In the late 1970s J. Oyo indicated that there was substantial variation in the form and function of various Yoruba masquerades. The main ones identified were as follows,

  • Egungun, which could be ancestral, or entertainment based, and found among Oyo Yoruba groups.
  • Agemo, Agbo, and Ekine which are found among the Ijebu,
  • Gelede, found in the Egbado,
  • and Epa, found mostly in the Ekiti region.[1]

During the week ending 120311 we added the first EPA mask (shown below), to the collection. The mask is approximately 50″ high, over 60lbs, and displays a dog with pup, grasping a goat, while having a hen on his back. The mask conveys fertility, and caring, while at the same time covering all the sacrificial bases normally associated with Epa related deities.

Epa Mask

The names of the headpieces, as well as the names of individual masquerades, are based on the sculptural motifs on the superstructures of the headpieces. These motifs include mothers with children which are connected with the Yoruba’s desire for plentiful issue; warrior motifs which reflect the wars waged against the Ekiti and Igbomina in the past; and motifs based on Qsanyin, the god of medicine; these emphasise another attribute of this group of masquerades as giver of physical and spiritual health, (J. Ojo 1978)


E1 - Epa Mother_Child motif

According to J. D. Clarke, the celebrations of the Ora people are somewhat different. In this instance of the celebration, Epa is believed to have been a great craver, who is a principal Orisha of the Ora people, and who watched over the fortunes of the community. This to some extent explains the arrav of carved and painted masks which are put on display during the festival.

E2 - Epa Oloko mask, Bamgboye, 1930

Some of the masks are four feet high and two feet broad. The principal mask is called Oloko (lit. “he who has the farm”) and represents Ekun, the Leopard, shown as an animal jumping upon the back of another animal. The mask next in importance is Agbo, the Ram, followed by Aja, the Dog. Olomoyeye, the Mother of Children, a mask representing a woman seated, surrounded by many children, and Ologun, the Warrior, a man on horseback also surrounded by children, are two other important masks. The majority of the smaller masks depict rams with long horns, or dogs with long tails.[2]


One distinct difference was that the festival witnessed by Clarke (1944), involved tests of manhood and strength, demonstrated by wearers of the Epa masks jumping on a mound approximately three feet high. Ojo (1978) also disputed the weights of the mask as not exceeding sixty pounds.

E3 - Epa Jagunjagun mask, Warrior motif

Yet another perspective is provided from the Opada people in Egbe, where the Epa festival is celebrated to commune with their deity.

The Epa day is preceded by a seventeen day notice to the entire community, the notice affording time to re-establish the legitimacy, and legality of the Epa festival for that year. An announcer, who is also a clan member goes about with his agogo (local bell) every evening to remind people about the great festival on the way.

    The worshippers build a statue to symbolize the Epa deity. On the day of the celebration, the image is carried by a designated member to Irele (Shrine) of the Epa. The Shrine is at the forest of Epa situated at the outskirt of the town. The Opada clan, (the custodian) of Epa is comprised of four sub-groups, each of which possesses its own statue for Epa. At the Epa forest, each presents its image to appease the deity with different animal sacrifices.


Sub-Clan Name

Name of Epa Statue

Animal Sacrifice

1 Idare Ajigbopon Cock
2 Abude Somlao Goat
3 Irokoo Awojagbinrin Dog
4 Oke Oba for Oba Opada Olomoyeye Goat


The author concludes that the festival provides more ample opportunities of appreciating the culture, since the value judgement of the participants for their culture is rekindled, re-orientated, and re-solidified. This is important in the face of the gradual erosion of the cultural values by westernization, actualized through education, technology, and religion (Christianity, and Islam).[3]

[1] http://www.jstor.org/stable/2801941 The Symbolism and Significance of Epa-Type Masquerade, 1978, J.R.O. Oyo, pg.456.

[2] http://www.jstor.org/stable/2844297  Three Yoruba Fertility Ceremonies, 1944, J. D. Clarke.Three

[3] http://www.unilorin.edu.ng/publications/balogun/Doc1.pdf  Okun Orature: The Socio-Cultural relevance of ‘Agiri’ and Epa Festivals, 2007, Jide Balogun.

E1 http://www.jstor.org/stable/40793609  A Yoruba Epa Mask, 1997, Fasiku Alaye

E2 Yoruba, Sculpture of West Africa, W. Fagg et al, pg. 21

E3 Yoruba, Sculpture of West Africa, W. Fagg et al, pg. 21

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