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Many practitioners of the Yoruba system of Ifa are familiar with the term /egúngún / which is commonly thought to mean “the ancestors.” It should be noted that this is not the meaning of the word. This is an example of a common meaning that was derived by association; it is not through the meaning of the actual word.

Egunegun mask and full regalia

The word /egúngún/ extends from the association of “masks and masquerades.” The masks are how the Yoruba try to materialize the spirit of the deceased. The masks become the temporary reappearance on earth of the ancestors. This, however, is a secondary association, not the real meaning. Egúgún is cognate with the Middle Egyptian term /qnqn/ “to beat people.” During the egúngún festivals in Ibadan, people used to beat themselves (or others) in honor of the ancestors. It got to the point where the government had to make illegal the carrying of whips to check the excess.

The etymology of /egúngún/ is the same as that of /egungun/ “bone,” the humorous bone and the bones of animals being one of man’s first instruments of violence. This term has left fossils in the Yoruba vocabulary in words like /gún/ “to pound” which is still done with a heavy pestle in a mortar.

The Egyptian word /qnqn/ “to beat people” also means “to pound up medicament, to beat out, to flatten metal.” From this root we get /qnqnyt/ “mallet.” Hence the most notorious of the /egúngún/ at Ibadan has the same name as the name of the Yoruba dry cleaners, fullers who beat out the thick texture of hand-woven material into a smooth shape with a wooden mallet on a wooden anvil.

The proper word for an ancestor in the Yoruba language is /ekwu/ “spirit.” This is the same word for “ancestral mask.” When a man dies, his spirit is released from his body and he becomes an /ekwu/. The Idoma (of Nigeria) represent the spirit of that person by making an ancestral mask, an /ekwu/. This root is a variation of the Yoruba word /òkú/ “dead person/corpse” (=Igala /ekwu/ “corpse”). The Yoruba represent the /òkú/ with a masquerade robed in an /èkú/ (< Yoruba kú “to die”). A deified ancestor, among the Yoruba, is known as /aiku/ “immortal.” 

Among the ancient BuKame (Egyptians) the Yoruba /ekwu/ were known as /Ax/ or /Axw/ (akhu) “the blessed dead.”

Ax "spirit" (blessed dead)

Ax(w) "to become a spirit"

Ax "spirit" (blessed dead)

Ax "spirit, successful, right, be beneficial, useful, profitable, glorious one, good, beneficial,

advantageous, fame, worthy of, devoted to, to please" (ciLuba -lenga "beautiful, good, to improve, be good, be beautiful, be advantageous, be at peace, be sure")

Axw "benefactions, good, excellent things, glorifications, ability, mastery" (ciLuba bulenga "beauty, goodness, quality,"; cilengà "fine clothes, ornament, adornment, jewel, finery")

Axw "sunlight, radiance" (ciLuba -anga "shine")

Axw "power (of god), magic, magical words, useful knowledge, master" (ciLuba -à/-a Bulenga "saint, holy")

NOTE: A = l in related languages. 

Some of these meanings above given in the Egyptian dictionaries are obvious homonyms. In other African languages this root is rendered as:

Ewe (Togo-Ghana): kú “dead” (noun)

Mbochi (Congo): le.kú, i.kú or okúe “death”(also the blessed dead/ancestors)

Bwiti: kouck, kouk or ku “blessed dead” (ancestors)

Kikongo: bakulu/bukulu “ancestors” (bukuyu “the stunted ancestors”)

Ciluba: -kola "aging" (those of old); bukolè(à) "spirit, strength, energy, force, Holy Spirit, express"; ngulu "force, physical power"; nngenyi "intelligence, spirit"; lukanyi "spirit, intelligence, judgement";

In short, the word /egúngún/ became a euphemism for “ancestor” (by way of the ancestral masks) because the ritual of beating was done during a festival dedicated to the ancestors. This is a very ancient human practice and can be seen in modern times among the Hindus of Malasia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgibQetq1qI. The idea of "ancestor," in this case, derived from the act of "striking, killing" which rendered a person dead. This may have applied to early man which may have been attacked by wild animals as well. The following provides some insights: 

ANIMAL, DEAD                                                                                Sumerian ba-ug7 “dead animal”

 

BA, PA  “sheep”                                                                                                                                 -g

KU “kill”                                              [ R ]

 

PNC *ba “sheep”                                                                                Sumerian ba-ug6 “slaughtered

Bantu ba, pa “sheep”                                                                         animal”

Bantu gú, “sheep” (Meeussen)                                                         Sumerian uzu “flesh”

PWS “to kill”, Barba “to kill”                                                 Sumerian uz “goose, duck” (us)

PWS “to kill”

Tschi, Avatime, Mekibo etc wu “to die”                                         Sumerian ùz “goat” (ud5, udx, ut5)

Mande su “corpse”

ES Bari tuan, Masai tua “die”

CN Kunama tu “to die”, Bertat tu “cow”

[z =d = t = s]

*B = b                                    *A = a                                   *K = #                                    *U = u

BITE                                                                                                     Sumerian zu2...ku5 “bite”

 

DU  “tooth”, “bite”

KU “cut, kill”

 

PWS lum (dum) “to bite”,                                                                   Sumerian “tooth” PWS kuìà “to cut”

PWN KUEKIT  “gnaw”

PWN KUN  “fill a mouth”

PWN KU  “kill”

PWS ku “stomach”

PWN DÚM “to bite”

PWN THUBH “to pierce”

Bantu dúm “to bite”

Bantu dungu “beak”

Swahili uma “to bite”                                                              

TogoR lúma “to bite”

Mande dumu “eat”

Mangbetu édu “demanger”, madulu “sore teeth” (infants)

Mangbetu ki “tooth”

PCS *junyu “bite”

*D = z                                    *U = u                                    *K = k                                    *U = u

 

KILL                                                                                                     Sumerian gaz “kill”

 

KA  “bite, wound”, (TU “strke”)                                                                                                    -z

 

PWN CET, KET, KHANT “cut”                                                         Sumerian núd “kill”

PWN KA “hand”, KÀL “blood”

Bantu ked, kat, kant “cut”

Bangi kete, Swahili kata “cut”

“Holoholo” kal’ “to cut”

Mande ka “to cut”

Mangbetu ogo “to cut”

PCS *ga “cut”

[The z is from nt > d]. [Sumerian also has nú(d) “kill” from túd “beat” (nasal grade), Temne t.un]

K = g                                      *A = a                                    *D = z

 

ADDITIONAL NOTES: 

YORUBA:

Ogún “God of iron, war, hunting”

gún “to pound”

Akin “bravery, brave, valor”

Okun “strength”

akoni “brave person, hero"

okàn “(lion) heart” –heart

Kàn “to hammer”

kúná “to be powder – smooth”

EGYPTIAN:

kn/kni “be brave, be strong”

kn.t “brutality, violence, valor”

Hrw “battle, war”khrw.yt “war”

xrw.yt “war”

xrwyw “war, rebellion, revolt”

qny(t) “elite corps”

kn “brave man, hero, soldier, mighty, capable, active” 

CILUBA:

di-kima, bu-kitu, mu-kale“brave”

lu-kana “brutality”

Cyenge “war”

bu-kole “force, energy, strength”

kola “become difficult, hard, force, energy, strengthen”

Kanda “prohibit, prevent, defend, be blocked, ”

kala “strength, power”

nkama “force, might, power, strength” 

Mu-kanda “to pound”

ka-koono(u) “powder” (< koona "scrape, shave, grate")

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