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Don’t forget to touch the ground with your fingertips if you hear about the Iyami osoronga.

The ones who are named “our Mothers” in Yoruba.

The ones who are celebrated by the tradition of the Gèlèdè.

They are feared and respected because they possess a sacred power, the power of “ashè”1.

They have the a reputation of for transforming themselves into birds and for gathering at night.

They are old women or mothers who can no longer conceive and who hold the secret of life.

The Gèlèdè mask ceremonies have their roots in Kétou, Benin. They are performed in on the public square place in order to protect themselves the community from the wrath of the “Mothers” and to gain their favor. They aim at regulating the life of the society, transmitting messages and solving problems: epidemics, droughts, famines…

They are the guarantors of morals and traditions by sending messages to the orishas² or the ancestors.

The cult is divided between nighttime festivities and daytime ceremonies: some are satirical, others are more solemn or moving. These impressive costumes, worn by excellent dancers, are made up of fabric outfits and carved wooden headdresses. Accompanied by musicians and singers, they have become major players in the cohesion of communities practicing Vodoun.

The wooden piece worn on the head shows displays colorful narrative scenes, sometimes articulated with animals or humans. While the men put on and give life to the costumes, it is the women who pull the strings of the ceremonies are pulled by women.

A Yoruba proverb states that “the eyes that have seen the Gèlèdè have seen the ultimate spectacle”. It has been listed as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO since 2008.

The Château Vodou welcomes you to a colorful and life lively exhibition of masks from the Arbogast collection.

Adeline Beck, curator

The Gèlèdè and its origins

The practice of Gèlèdè ceremonies was born in the 18th century in the east of Benin, more specifically in the locality of Kétou. It can be observed among the Yoruba and the Nago in Nigeria, Togo and Benin.

In the Yoruba spirituality that gave birth to the Gèlèdè, women hold two-faceted powers. One is positive, as dispensers of life and wisdom, and the other is negative, as perpetrators of plagues such as drought and epidemics. The Gèlèdè is considered to be a worship of the supernatural and mystical gifts of the Iyas, the “Mothers”, from whom it is necessary to protect oneself as well as to appease them. By doing so, one allows the transformation of their powers into beneficial power for society. The functions exclusively dedicated to women in the Gèlèdè revolve around certain secret rituals that can only be performed by a female person.

However, the role of women must be nuanced: although in the context of the Gèlèdè events, women lend some of their loincloths, all the Yoruba masks are worn by men, and the costumes are also made by men. Likewise, the carving of the headdresses and the composition of the songs are also their responsibility.

The Gèlèdè outfit is composed of various elements combined to form the mask: a carved wooden piece is mounted on the head, while the face and body are dressed up with an assembly of fabrics, the ankles ornamented with bell anklets, and large slippers protect the feet.

Nevertheless, in various degrees and under different aspects, assuring exclusive functions, the presence of women is primordial and effective. First of all, in the representation of birds, which can be found carved on the percussion instruments played during the ceremony, as well as on certain wooden ornaments worn by the dancers. It is said that the «Mothers» meet at night and turn themselves into this animal.



cp : Pascal Beck 

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