Day-to-day life manages to bleach us of the ability or desire to reflect on the startling profundity of our situation. Once you’ve seen the sunrise 50 odd times it is harder, or maybe seems less urgent, to get a conscious handle on the fact that this is a gargantuan, close-up star, blinding the surface of a tiny wet bauble that just happens to be in its orbit, with light.
It is a necessity of sorts, ignoring the strangeness, as we do just have to get on and live, without going insane. There is only so much time you can spend contemplating the big blinders of life’s questions before your toast needs vegemite-ing, the dog walking, your GST doing and your brain threatens to fall out your ear.
It is also a deep familiarity with our surroundings that leads to a little complacency in terms of reflecting on our situation. Routines, familiar social and cultural practices that we’ve been immersed in since birth make it hard to get a handle on just how strange some of our own norms can be. We are, after all, tiny blood-filled creatures doing totally bizarre things (worshipping unseen entities, splitting atoms, collecting dolls) on a living bauble in space. Sometimes I long to get a bit of distance and see everything that surrounds me with a bit more objectivity, to revel in the true strangeness of it all. But it’s hard to do.
You know those moments when you look at something so familiar, like your hands, or you hear a word you’ve heard a million times before like telephone, for example, and suddenly the object or word takes on a foreign character, separate from the way in which you usually view or understand it. And you think wow! How totally odd my hands are. Fleshy additions to my arms with five each of their own fleshy, grasping lengths. Or wow, what a strange sounding world telephone really is! I can’t believe I’ve never really heard it before.
I think this is why Thursday night was such a special night for me. I got the chance to see something completely outside of my own sphere of norms. I got to see the weirdness of a situation that was quite normal for the other people in attendance (quite being the operative word).
Nerize, a co-fellow here a Sacatar, and I were invited to an Egum initiation ritual. I had no idea what this entailed and was invited at the last moment as Dedea, an amazing local woman who runs an afterschool program for underprivileged kids, pulled up in her Kombi at 10.30pm to collect Nerize. I had heard ‘stay away from the cult of the dead’ mutterings from locals, and being a prime candidate for reverse psychology, this made me want to attend even more. I had also seen photos of the extraordinarily dressed Egums, pictured below this post, and it’s not hard to see why they might have appealed. They are beautiful. This is all I knew about them: Egum rituals are specific only to the island of Itaparica in Brazil, and Nigeria. The Egum dress in amazing costumes. People believe that no one is inside. The Egum dance. They are worshipped and feared, and people do not want to be touched by them, will leap as high and fast as they can in order not to be accosted. To be touched is akin to the results of going onto tapu land.
We drove in Dadea’s car with her friend Marcia, Phillipe and Dadea’s grandson, Luan who is 10 and one of those really cool, self-assured kids who at times seems more grown up than the adults around him. We followed pot-holed dirt tracks to the interior of the island, way out into the rural wops. At a certain point the road became too muddy for the car to continue and we had to get out and walk. Once out of the car I could hear an insistent drumming noise from the land up ahead, and given we were a little late I guessed, rightly, that it was the ritual in full swing.
We walked up the road to a gate, and in the sliver of moonlight I could see the land around me – undulating hills covered in coconut palm, tropical forest with amber-lit houses dotted here and there in groves. Pretty stunning but the dark meant the land remained a mystery to me, as I came and went by night.
Once at the gate I could see a large building up on the crest of a hill, and I could hear urgent singing and drumming coming from inside. We stood at the top of this driveway, just waiting. We waited and waited. I had no idea what was happening. Marcia began to call out for someone to come and get us and at first the drumming and singing drowned her out. Finally, in a clear patch she caught someone’s attention, someone who we couldn’t see and who seemed to take a very long time to come and collect us. Then I saw him, crouched down by the fence a few meters away, telling us not to move. I looked further up the hill into the darkness and saw something moving under a tree. What is that? I thought. Is it a person? Are they coming to get us? And then I looked down and noticed that the hands of the stoic 10-year-old Luan were shaking like leaves. Apparently, this thing beneath the trees was not a person.
The man by the fence ushered a command and we ran, through the mud along a dirt track and into a small hut where about ten shirtless men were drinking something homemade from a green soda bottle. Nerize and I were purposefully shielded by the bodies of our companions, and then one by one, tentatively introduced to an older man, wearing a head decoration and necklaces made of kauri shells. He seemed kind, his face soft and welcoming and it was clear to me that this man had a real mana about him. He shook my hand, warm, dry, strong, and said to Dadea in Portuguese ‘She seems to be Oshun’, which means that the main Candomble God associated with my personality is Oshun, which is strange seeing as I had a whole Yemaja / Oshun confusion when first arriving here in Itaparica. See Bad Cartoons #2 if you’re wondering what I am going on about.
Anyway, he welcomed us, asked us if this was the first time we’d be seeing the Egum, we said yes and he said he was happy to have us there, but that we had to wait. As we waited I looked up the track to the main ritual house, and saw an odd sight. It’s not often these days that I am struck dumb by something I see, but this was one of those occasions. It would best be described as two double sized sheets sewn together to form a massive pillowcase, then slipped over a supporting frame of the same size. A huge red skull was sewn into the middle. Somebody (or something) was inside the pillowcase supporting the frame, and this thing walked up the path toward the house, but instead of going inside, slipped off into the forest. I was later to learn that it was the thing I’d seen beneath the tree on first arrival. But seeing it that way, without any context in which to make sense of it, made it an intensely strange sight. Disorientation might be the best way to describe how I felt, as I just wasn’t able to get a bearing on what I’d seen.
We waited until the singing and drumming stopped, and with Marcia clutching my hand, we ran. I thought we were running because the rain had suddenly started to pour torrentially, but that wasn’t why. About twenty of us hurtled up the path, bodies slamming together like a bunch of sheep being herded by a cattle dog, jostling and pushing for the door in order not to be left outside. Once inside, breathless, hot and saturated, the door was locked as if something big, bad and ugly had been about to get us all from behind.
The room was p.a.c.k.e.d. And I was the only non-Brazilian and Nerize and I were the only two visitors. This, I thought, is a very private affair. All eyes on us, but only briefly as there were far more important things going on, like the casual old ‘spirits animating fabric’ kind of deal, you know. We looked for a place to sit, but there was nowhere. We stood at the back of the room with our backs to the locked door. The room was a small hall with a very low circus tent-like roof in blue and white stripes. The whole interior was painted in baby blue and white. A single, naked bulb hung in the middle of the tent, huge moths flickering light over the crowd.
On the left side all the women were seated and on the right, the men. Standing up at the front and along the central isle were about 10 or so shirtless men and boys, each of them holding a long switch. About a third of the space was taken up by the ‘stage’ or Egum dancing area. It was littered with leaves and in the corner white candles burned to an effigy that I couldn’t make out. The very front wall of the hall was lined with a strange, mismatched collection of ornate throne-like chairs, varying in size, colour and grandeur. I started to feel very much like Alice finding herself in Wonderland.
Then one of the switch-holders came hurtling through a darkened side door, followed closely by an Egum. As the night progressed this back door would become a fascination to me – eternally dark, the outside geography a mystery, a collection of incomprehensible things coming and going through this portal to some place that will forever remain just a black, blank field of possibility in my mind.
The Egum was an extraordinary creature, like a member of some royal family, from a kingdom on a planet not our own. Dressed in rich, heavily ornamented fabric, small mirrors throwing light, a hat the shape of a large garbage can lid over which material hung, glittered beading covering the face. Hands and feet fully covered and brandishing a small wooden sword. No human parts could be seen. The Egum danced, egged on by the drumming and call-like singing of the entire room. From the back of the room Nerize and I watched the movements of the Egum, as floored and fascinated as two kids from a landlocked country the first time they encounter the ocean. What is that? We both were thinking. It.was.just.so.weird. And not weird like ‘oh my god, Tai, that’s like, totally weird’. But true weird. Like, bizarre, strange, human, wonderful.
Suddenly, the Egum rushed up the middle isle. If you’ve ever seen any of the Jurassic Park movies, you’ll know the sheer terror that takes over a heard of small herbivorous dinosaurs on the hungry approach of a T-Rex. The way they run – as if they were born solely for this moment, doing whatever it takes to survive, even if that means falling off a cliff and landing sideways on a rock, only to bounce-scramble up again and keep on going as if they haven’t almost just killed themselves. Well, it was like that, only with humans and a huge mirrored Egum reflecting everyone’s terrified faces back at them.
The men and boys with the long switches are supposed to be the protectors of the congregation. They encircle everyone and use their sticks, usually in a gentle manner, to hold Egum back from advancing any further into the crowd. They also whip the switches across the places where Egum have walked or danced, to clear any negative energy. But, this well-meaning, manly sentiment dissolves completely when the prospect of being touched by an Egum becomes a threat. The men and boys race like small dinos, flinging their body wherever there is space for them to land.
The Egum swept up the central isle and before I knew it I had been thrown sideways across a mother and her sleeping baby, my head wedged right into the woman’s neck. I couldn’t move. There were bodies on top of me and everyone was screaming. It was both very funny and scary. I craned my neck around as much as I could to see this swishing Egum right behind me, and heard a tutting noise coming from my human pillow. She was motioning for me to cast my eyes down, to not look directly at the Egum. The Egum retreated back to the stage area and people relaxed, stood up, moved back to their places looking tense but relieved.
This initiation ritual was for two young men, both of whom were to move up to a higher level of protector / switch holder (there seem to be three main levels with sub-levels between these.) They both had feathers stuck to their head, chest and back with blood from chickens that had just been sacrificed. The two men had to move out onto the stage area and actively challenge the Egum. Using their switch they would almost fence with the Egum, until, like lightening, the Egum would charge and the young men would leap gazelle-like through the air, either landing on the drummers, the women or the men, or sometimes pulling off pretty amazing acrobatics. None of this was done to look manly, talented or cool. The sheer terror on the faces of everyone and anyone who had an Egum coming at them was plain. It was 100% real fear. As real as if you opened your wardrobe one night and found that, actually, the boogieman really does exist, and he’s right there looking at you, about to make the penultimate move.
More Egum came, probably between four or five different Egum came in over the course of a four-hour period, sometimes alone, sometimes there’d be a group of three or four dancing or sitting on their thrones. The other thing that came in a few times was the large skull-sheet-on-a-frame thing I’d seen. It lurked at the darkened door and seemed to peer curiously, almost longingly, in at the crowd. However, it was in moments like these, when I had begun to place emotions and desires onto a blank, expressionless sheet, that I started to gain insight into how much you are looking at yourself in a situation like this, projecting your own version of life onto external objects.
Anyway, It appeared to have some sort of trepidation about entering. It came in, danced for a while and then left again, after rushing a few times at the congregation and being beaten back. There was another skull-sheet too, which never entered but which we could see passing by the door occasionally, sometimes stopping just to look in for motionless, unnerving minutes at a time, or using its whip round the corner of the door, attempting to hit the drummers. What I learned was that these two skull-sheets were uncivilized spirits, still many years away from becoming full Egum. The stripy skull-sheet was somewhere halfway between being a fully uncivilized spirit and a real Egum, and so it was able to come in and dance at times. However, the black one was fully untrained, meaning it was dangerous and unwelcome.
So, this is why we had waited at the gates and then run with such determination to both the shelter and then the main house. Not only are the Egum constantly out, wandering around in the surrounding jungle, but so too are the skull-sheets. The Egum do chase people though. All night the young men would come screaming through the side door, pursued by one or several Egum. If you’re silly enough to wander about the property at night, and you come across an Egum, it might try to get you (what being ‘gotten’ entails, I’m not at all sure and I don’t plan to find out), but they aren’t considered as dangerous as the skull-sheets, which are just raw, untrained spirits and will come after you without question.
In comparison, the Egum were quite lovely and cute. The way they dance is wonderful, small bouncy steps and lots of pointy hand movements with their wooden swords, a dance that reminded me of being a four-year-old and our good family friends, the Sonnes, making up a dance they named The Point Dance which they would get all of us kids to do, for stoned kicks I’m guessing (kidding). It didn’t matter to us what the motivation was, we loved it. And there was something about the Egum dance that seemed child-like, wholly loving of what was happening, entirely lost in the moment.
The Egum speak. They speak in the Nigerian language Yoruba, which is then translated for the crowd into Portuguese by a priest. The first time I heard one of the Egum speak during the ritual, was the only moment that the freaky, deathly mask of this ritual fell away for me and the event began to border on comedy, because ….. the Egum’s voice sounded exactly like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. Suddenly, all I could see was an elaborate version of a Jim Henson production, four or five rather bouncy, odd looking Muppets popping around on the stage, grumbling and chortling. I got a bout of hysteria, but managed to supress it. And with the silent, unnerving appearance of a skull-sheet seemingly gazing in the doorway straight at me, this wasn’t hard to do.
Here are the things that went through my mind, as I looked around at the level of respect and belief displayed by the congregation: This is a far more entertaining thing to do on a Saturday night than go to the movies. Is this just an elaborate, socially perpetuated form of entertainment? Is this like The Muppet Show for adults? Is this ‘going to the movies’ in a culture which didn’t have cinema? Is there much difference between someone putting on an Egum costume and taking on a spirit, and Johnny Depp putting on the character of Jack Sparrow? It is the same diff? Is this an example of the human pursuit to avoid boredom at all costs? Is this serious naivety, willing ignorance or do they understand something I don’t? Is this a Spookers / Haunted House scenario? Is this like an extreme sport? Does the terror help people to feel alive? Do these people really, truly believe there is no one inside these costumes? Surely, someone’s brother, father, uncle must go missing for hours at a time around ritual night, wouldn’t someone notice? Why is the skull-sheet so skinny? How can a person fit in there? How can the people in the Egum costumes make those voices? They don’t sound human. Is this real? Why shouldn’t it be real? Is this magic?
Is the point even whether or not someone is inside the costume? Isn’t this kind of like the ostrich egg in Kuki Gallman’s book, I Dreamed Of Africa? – the best part about this whole thing, is the fact that we do not know what is inside the egg or beneath the fabric? Isn’t this a beautiful, visual comment / reflection about the mystery of life? And so forth. And on and on my brain blabbered.
Obviously, I wasn’t able to answer any of these questions. Like any good life experience, it tended to open far more doors than it closed, leaving me in an even more confused life state than I was already in, which was considerable to start with.
At some point during the night someone handed me a Hall’s cherry flavoured lozenge, it sat unwrapped in my hot palm shimmering like a jewelled reminder of my distant home planet. Eat me, it said. I popped it into my mouth. It didn’t taste like anything real but had a vague yet insistent familiarity about it that I couldn’t pin down, and I felt a strange shifting, a moving somewhere inside me.