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Igogo, a Festival of Cross-Dressing

Igogo, a Festival of Cross-Dressing

, Igogo, a Festival of Cross-Dressing
Owo men dressed to honour the goddess during the Igogo Festival. Credit: Wikipedia.

Yoruba mythology is replete with iconic female characters, and some of them have had festivals woven around them. In Owo, Ondo State, there is a re-enactment of the memories of one of such women through the Igogo Festival.

About 600 years ago, after the establishment of Owo, the town’s monarch, Ologho Rerengejen, Ologho Rerengejen, married Oronshen, a beautiful and affluent queen who combined supernatural powers with stunning beauty. She is said to have had the power to excrete coral beads, which, at that time, translated into wealth for the monarch and brought social and cultural prosperity to Owo. This earned her special treatment from Ologho Rerengejen.

Years later, Oroshen revealed to Ologho Rerengejen the secret behind her powers and told him of her taboos, which must never be violated. Some of these taboos, never to be done in her presence, included dumping firewood, throwing water, and crushing okra on a grinding stone. These taboos and the need to protect them made the monarch give Oroshen a private apartment in the palace.

With time, the co-wives, the Oloris, felt jealous of the special treatment given to Oroshen and conspired to deal with her. To achieve this, the last wife fed the king so much wine that he not only revealed the supernatural powers of Oroshen but also disclosed her taboos. Armed with this information, the last wife reported to other Oloris, who decided to wait until Ologho Rerengejen went for his hunting expedition, to execute their plan of violating all of Oroshen’s taboos.

With these violations, Oroshen could no longer stay in the palace, so she fled in annoyance. Ologho Rerengejen commanded the palace slaves to follow her in hopes of bringing her back, but they couldn’t as she had ran into Ugbo-Ulaja (Ulaja bush)—now a sacred forest—and disappeared. The palace slaves returned with only her head-tie from a spot at Ugbo-Ulaja, where they claimed to have heard her voice. The slaves claimed that they heard Oroshen’s voice instructing them to tell Ologho Rerengejen to visit her yearly for appeasement.

This tragedy prompted the monarch to ban the beating of drums. A festival was birthed around the annual sacrifice demanded by Oroshen, and was superimposed on the Yam Festival. In place of drums, agogo (metal gong) was accepted as the only musical instrument allowed during the festival, as a sign of solemnity. Hence, the Odun Agogo, the festival of the metal gong, began. It was later shortened to Igogo.

During the Igogo Festival, which lasts 17 days, the king and his chiefs mimic Oroshen’s dressing. The men wear braids and wigs, and the atmosphere is floral and feminine.

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, Igogo, a Festival of Cross-Dressing
Worshippers at the Festival of Yemoja. Credit: Femi Amogula/Al Jazeera.

The festival begins with the Upeli procession by the Iloro chiefs. The chiefs are led by the Akowa of Iloro. The procession lasts for 12 days with several activities including Utegi, Ugbabo, Uyanna, and Ugbate. It is also a period for the celebration of the new yam.

The festival features the dance of bare-chested men, the Iloro quarter men called Ighares. They often wear white caps with two buffalo horns in their hands. They strike these horns together while dancing around town and visiting sacred places.

According to the scholar ’Yemi Mahmud, the central matter during the Igogo Festival is female supremacy and dominance. The power of Oroshen, as expressed by her space in Owo cultural history, is not limited by space or time. The festival is a reminder of the efforts of women in shaping the Yoruba worldview.

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