Queen Idia


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Last Update July 30, 2020

The kingdom of Benin has indeed experienced so many reforms and development at different periods of its history. These reforms were not solely carried out by men but these were some outstanding women who made great impact in Benin. These great women who made immense contributions to the rich cultural heritage of the land of Benin cannot be over looked in the study of the kingdom; most prominent among them was Queen Idia the first female warrior that ever lived ¡n Benin kingdom. Idia was said to have been a very beautiful and strong willed woman who had unusual super natural powers. She is described as an extraordinarily- power personality who continues to loom large in Benin cultural imaginations: she changed the status quo and made remarkable developments both n the political, cultural and social spheres of the empire. She is credited for being knowledgeable in esoteric and was also very strong in the use of occult powers. According to Osewengie Ebohon, “Idia was not an ordinary woman”

Queen Idia is very prominent in Benin history as her life has altered many of the traditions of the people. She is very popular due to her supernatural prowess and domineering personality. The impact and roles she played in the development of the monarch cannot be ignored. Her life depicts that of a courageous and wise woman, who stood out in the mist of gender limitations. Idia was beauty personified and her other appellations were bravery and intelligence. Her story is that of a common citizen rising to the place of importance and prominence in the society. Idia was said to have hailed from Ugieghudu community in Egua area of Isi, there is no specific date to when she was born, but she was the mother of Oba Esigie who reigned, from 1504-1550. She was alive during the Idah war, which took place about 1516.

According to traditions, Idia became one of the (Queen or Oba wives) after she caught the fancy of Oba OzuoLa during one of the dance performances at the capital Once the Oba initiated his interest in her, her parent began to seek for means to avert this unpleasant destiny for their daughter. To be married to the Oba was the greatest honour that could be bestowed on any Bini woman at that period. On the contrary, it was also the greatest bondage any woman could find herself. At the Oba harem, there were a great number of women wrestling for the Oba‘s attention, In some instance the women were as much as five hundred (500) waiting to attend to an Oba. Some did not even go close to his bed chambers for more than one whole year and once a woman is married to the Oba, the tradition does not permit her to ever divorce him whether the situation favours her or not, And if she decides to leave him after her own free will, she is not allowed to re-marry in the community. Also, when a woman is married to the Oba she is totally lost to her family; she may never set her eyes on her in-immediate family again. The only period the Ilois are allowed to be seen in public is during the Igue festival. The royal wives of the Oba lived a very seclusive or solitary life.

These and many more considerations were what forced Idia’s parents to seek for spiritual help from the strong hand of the Oba over their daughters’ life. According to traditions, Idia’s parents did not wish their daughter to become one of the numerous wives of Oba Ozuola and in those days no one could deny the Oba of any maiden he had interest in. This is due to the tradition which makes all subjects of the Oba his servant. As asserted earlier, all freeborn , of Benin kingdom regarded themselves as slaves to the Oba (evien Oba).  Who is a slave to question the authority of his master? For Idia’s parents the only solution was to consult a higher authority in the place of the gods. The oracle advised them to mar her beauty to make her ugly before the Oba; this resulted to the two parallel vertical striation running down her four head (the stritation is on Iyoba Idia’s ivory mask). The incision did not only marred her face, but to make it more potent or effective, they also contained medicinal portion which the diviner had assured them would repel Oba Ozolua. The plan was to make Ozolua to develop immediate hatred for Idia at first sight and thereby rejecting her as his queen.

These efforts to stop Idia from becoming a queen were, however futile. The story is that Oba Ozolua sensed there was something wrong before he even set his eyes on Idia and he quickly neutralized the effects of the medicine. Idia eventually became one of his queens. With the sequence of events that transpired in the life of Idia as one of the illois in the palace and how she handled them it only proves that she was ready for the battle at the harem. Knowing the personality of the Oba and that he was a living god on earth, Idia’s parents knew it was under probability for their charm to work on him. Thus it could be ¡inferred that they too must have also prepared their daughter for the politics and life in the harem should the charm fail to work as they have planned. This analysis of Idia’s entrance to the palace is quite important, as she later became a remarkable personality in the century Benin polities.

Idia became relevant in Benin kingdom as she substantially altered the traditional place of women in the kingdom. In traditional societies, women had no place as they were only meant to serve their husband, take care of their children and manage other domestic issues. This role, however, changed as Idia became a pace setter for the women. First, the way and manner she maneuvered her son’s way to the throne is still something many historians are unable to fathom. She actually transformed the Benin dynastic history and paved way for a new one to begin. Although the principle of primogeniture was not yet officially constitutionalsed, the Oba’s first Sons were alway made heir to the throne. Idia is said to have been the spiritual eye of her son, Osawe, who was later crowned with the title Esigie. She was a very strong occult and was very powerful in the art of black magic, which she used to seize the throne of Benin for her son. Nkiru Nzegwu contends that if not for her shrewdness, it would have been doubtful if Esigie would have succeeded his father as Oba. The yearly Orhu festival is very significant to the people as it signifies the sacrificial food offering she made to help Esigie become Oba, Also, the ceremonial rites of’ Ugie IYe oba festival assert that she drew on her estoric knowledge to treat her son during a tit of inadnesst.

The circumstances or occurrences which brought Esigi to the throne were complicated. Most importantly, Esigie was named the second son at birth even though he was supposed to have been declared the third son. Some scholars are of the view that she must have had loyalty among the palace officials who tried to favour her by announcing the birth of her son before that of Aruanran, son of Oloi Ohonmi who was delivered earlier in the day before Esigie. Oral tradition has it that Aruanran did not cry on time after his birth and during the process of waiting for him to cry Idia also had Esigie. Be that as it may, Esigie was said to have cried immediately at birth and his birth was officially announced to the Oba before that of Aruanhan enabling him to claim the second place. The situation that also moved Esigie, to the first place was very much intriguing. Esigie moved to the first place in line after the first son, Ogidogbo, lost his Obaship right due to his physical disability. It happened that he had fractured his leg in a competition with his two younger brothers, Aruanran and Esigie, and became a cripple. From the ordinary perspective, this Ogidogbo misfortune can be represented as an ill-fated accident which robs him of his destiny and could equally happen to anyone. To the people at that time, it was believed that Idia was behind the incident. In Benin traditional society, it is believed that the spiritual controls the physical; the people believed she had used her supernatural powers to cripple the first son and bestowed power on her own son to become the heir to the throne. This represent Idia mode of’ lighting in two planes (spiritual and physical) and this also signified her double edge sword that could create or wreak havoc.

The fact that Esigie became an Oba camed Idia the accolade, “the womb of orhue ‘(Bini native white chalk, which represent honour and celebration) Nkiru Nzegwu, explains that she got this tribute because she was the mother who gave birth to an Oba. The point is, she was a “womb of orhue” because she gave birth to a son who, although was chronologically the third in line, dramatically ended up becoming the Oba. She further explained that this womb created her pathway to ultimate power. Here lies the peculiarity of her womb. It was a womb that broke new ground and defied all odds)

The fact that Esigie was crowned Oba did not bring to an end the succession crisis in Benin. Esigie was greatly disturbed and attacked by his brother, Aruanran, who claimed to have been the true heir to the throne. Arunaran, the enogie (duke) of Udo was a man of giant statue who had fought and won many battles. He was a very great warrior who fought alongside his father, Oba Ozuola, while Esigie was sent to the missionary school. On a normal ground, Aruanran would have defeated Esigie without any stress if not for Idia who stepped in again to rescue her son. It is recorded that they fought many battles; at the last one Aruanran was defeated. The victory of Esigie over his brother was as a result of idia’s magical and supernatural powers. It is believed that she did not only ‘cook” her son for battles ahead, but fought alongside Esigie at different occasions

Queen Idia broke the impasse when she became the first woman ever in the Benin Kingdom to be honoured with the title of Iyoba. She became the first among women to be ranked as a senior chief (Eghaevbo n’ore) who took part in the administration of the kingdom. This was a serious achievement for a woman at that time in the ancient kingdom of Benin. According to Osewngie Ebohon,

Before Oba Esigie came to the throne in the 16th century it was forbidden for any oba of Benin lo have a mother. The reason was that an Iyoba (Queen mother,) would command the same power and authority and the Benins were not ready to serve two obas. Therefore before the son’s coronation, she would be killed. When Esigie came to the throne, because of the problems he went through and various wars he fought and the part and role the mother queen Idia played, he decreed against the traditional killings of the Iyoba. He built a place for the Iyoba at Uselu to where the mother resided. All  Iyoha has resided there, except Eghaghe the mother of Eweka The White men (British,) did not allow him to take her to Uselu

It is, however, critical and important to note from the above analysis that Idia again had altered another traditional practice of the people and paved way for the development of an ¡important political institution like that of the Iyoba to be established. This was a landmark achievement for a woman. It was almost impossibility for Oba Esigie to obey such traditions which demanded him to kill his mother who has been of immense importance to him, cured him from madness and helped him to defeat his brother, Aruanran. Most importantly, the institution of Iyoba did not only accord power to royal mothers in the running of the kingdom,, it also gave opportunity to wives, who were non royals to participate in the running of the government which was against the long standing protocol that allowed only daughter who were of the royal blood to partake in the daily administration of the kingdom This position that Esigie took not to execute his mother was not accepted by some of the senior chief, Oliha for example was fully against it. This might be related to the personality of Idia which most people dreaded in the kingdom Esigie still went ahead to spare his mother’s life notwithstanding the opposition from some quarters. By the actions of Esigie, Idia became the first woman to be bestowed with a first class chieftaincy title in the Benin kingdom. Since then, other Iyobas have also been confined with the same title and sent to the !yoba palace at Uselu
The table below gives names of the Iyabas and as Well as the Obas (their sons) who confined on them the title.

Iyoba {Queen Mother}

Mother Of Oba


About 1506-1550AD
,, 1550-1578AD
,, 1578-1606AD
,, 1606-1614AD
,, 1614-1661AD
,, 1661-1669AD
,, 1669-1675AD
Edia I
,, 1675-1684AD
Ohogha I
,, 1684-1689AD
,, 1689-1700AD
,, 1700-1712AD
,, 1712-1713AD
Iha I
Akenzua I
,, 1713-1735AD
,, 1735-1750AD
Ohogha ll
,, 1750-1804AD
,, 1804-1816AD
,, 1816-1816AD
,, 1816-1848AD
,, 1848-1888AD
Ihaya II
,, 1888-1914AD
Eweka II
,, 1914-1932AD
Akenzua II
,, 1933-1978AD
,, 1978-2016AD
Ewuare II
,, 2016-Date

Queen Idia, warrior and conqueror, distinguished herself in the ancient kingdom of Benin when she led her own troop to the Benin-Idah war in 1516. She is said to have fought gallantly and the victory of Benin in the war is ascribed to her extraordinary bravery, wisdom and magical prowess. Her participation in the war brought her Lame and made her prominent that she now became a very strong political personality in the kingdom. She, made history and completely changed the status of the ordinary Bini woman. She however became a role model and heroine to the people. No wonder she is very significant in cultural heritage and the people took to her worship at her demise. The Benin Idia. war was very significant to the kingdom of Benin, and her victory was also strategic in both economic and political polities of the people.

The Benin-Idah war (1515-15161) broke out as a result of the rebellion of one of Oba Esigie’s most senior chief. The leader of the Uzama grades of chiefs was said to have been behind this war which became a strategic event for Idia to display her supernatural prowess. According to tradition, Chief Oliha was said to have rebelled against the monarch because he felt he was humiliated by the actions of Esigie. Ebohon opines that Oba Esigie was a very stubborn king and stepped on many toes because he had a powerful mother like Idia. The issue that led to the rebellion which culminated into the Idah war concerned Oliha ‘s wife, Immaguero. The arrogant Oliha was said to have continually praised his wife at the palace and claimed she was the most faithful woman in the kingdom. The conflict between him and the palace arose as the Oba embarked on a plan to prove him wrong about his wife. After all said and done, Imaguero fell into the plot of the Oba and chief Oliha felt humiliated and decided to pay the Oba back by joining forces with another kingdom to bring down Benin

Be that as it may, the aggrieved and humiliated Oliha went home and murdered his most senior wife, Princess Amighen, who was also the eldest daughter of Oba Esigie just spite him. This incident is very significant as it proves the relevance- or value of women in pre-colonial Benin. the point is,for diplomatic purposes the tradition demands ruling Oba to give out his first daughter to his most senior chief in order to ensure peace among the Oba and his chiefs. This tradition has, however led to the death of many Princesses. Whenever any Oba has quarrel with any of these chiefs his daughter was married to, the princess would be the one to suffer from such crisis: Oliha did not stop there, in order to bring disaster to Benin, he went further to the Attah (king) of ldah kingdom and lied to him that Benin was planning to invade his territory and that it would be better he attacked Benin first. News also got to Benin that Idah was planning to invade Benin. With all these chaos and conflicts the stage was already set for the Benin Idah war.

It was in such a chaotic situation that Idia stepped in to rescue her son and his kingdom from collapse. It is pertinent to note that the immediate factor that led to this war was caused by a woman and the solution or victory in the war was also ascribed to a woman. This again proves the relevance or place of women in the kingdom. ‘There is a popular song in Bini dialect which describes ldias actions: “Okhou ma ghi ye okho de so khue Idia wen ne iye Esigie (No woman has ever been lo war before except Idia, mother of Oba Esigie). During the war Queen Idia troop was captained by her head slave while Idia was the war general Esigie also had his own troop and was accompanied by the Portuguese missionaries: there was a Clear difference between the two troops. Aiko Obobaifo contends that while the conventional army depended on fire arms, the command under Idia depended more on surprise attack fueled by divination and charms. They performed sacrifice to make their enemy look stupid: they depended more on supernatural powers and black magie for their warfare. Her strategy was that dummies were cast to look like real Benin soldiers. These dummies were positions on the pith the Idah soldiers were likely lo take to Benin. When the Idah soldiers eventually came on seeing the dummies they opened fire. The dummies did not fall the soldier panicked and retracted. A heavier Colum of the Idah warriors came again and repeated their actions and as they were about to repeated the Edo army in an ambush released fire on them and they were utterly defeated. This was after Idia had succeeded in killing the chief native doctor of ldah kingdom who was earlier sent to spy on Benin. This and many more event are why the victory at Idah is ascribed lo the valiant or fearless character of Idia.

According to Chief Obazuwa of Benin kingdom Idia fought gallantly in the war and made captives the people of ldah kingdom. He further stressed that Idia also seized their war weapons and brought them to Benin. The victory over Idah not only eliminated it as a potential threat, but it also enabled Benin to gain and consolidate its imperial advantage in the north-south Niger river trade route that stretched all the way to commercial centers of Songhai empire and to the Atlantic ocean This was quite outstanding for a woman. No wonder, she became more popular even after her demise,

Looking at the old Benin kingdom, a society sufficed with strong male ethos’, in which women did not command any power; Queen Idia, a strong willed woman rose up to become a formidable force to be reckoned with, She was so powerful that she is referred to as the “hidden Oba” of Benin. Before Esigie gained control of the imperial administration and even after, she was the power behind the throne. Though Oba Esigie also had his own command in the Benin-Idah war, the victory of the war has been ascribed to Queen Idia’s command. Queen Idia’s reforms were not only in the political and military scene but she also carried out numerous social reforms. In the social and cultural arena, she is said to have invented Ekassa dance for royal obsequies and the creation of Ukpe okhue or parrot beak’s Iyoba cap, have been recorded by Egharevba .

Queen Idia, however, became more famous decades after her demise. As recorded by tradition, Oba Esigie commissioned the Iguneromwon (brass caster guild) and Igbesawan (ivory carvers guild) to produce Ivory mask in memorial of his mother and these masks were used to decorate the spiritual altar he built for her. These Ivory Masks are part of the collections of pendant plaque that the Obas wear around the waist during Igue festival to strengthen the Oba during the Emobo ceremony that commemorate Esigie’s defeat of his brother, Aruanran,

Today, Iyoba Idia’s face is the most widely known face of an African royal woman after the Egyptian Queen Nefertari of Nefertity Her ivory mask face is at countless museum pedestals all over the world; it has been widely produced and represents several logos in different parts of the World. Idia’ face was immortalized in the sixteenth century ivory mask presently at the British museum. It became famous when the Nigeria government chose it as the emblem for the Second Black Festival of Arts and culture, known as FESTAC ‘77 that Nigerian hosted in 1977.  The mask became more famous when the British Museum refused to release it on loan to Nigeria even after demanding two million pounds, which the Nigerian government put up. The late Oba Akenzua, however, broke the impasse when he commissioned the Igbesawan ivory carvers to produce two replicas of the Idia mask that had been looted by the British soldier of the 1897 unjust British punitive expedition.

It is pertinent to comprehend at this juncture that the developments and reforms of Queen Idia are too numerous to be mentioned in this study. Be that as it may. ldia’s place in the development of Benin’s unique social political culture cannot be undermined. She gave the Benin woman a new place of relevance in the society. Through her, one of the most powerful political institutions was established for royal mothers in the kingdom. After Idia, other women began to accompany their husband to the battle field (Elaba wife of Esigie also went with Esígie to the battle field) and powerful sorceress also began to emerge in the kingdom. Idia is said to be the most powerful Queen that ever rued Benin Kingdom. She was as powerful as an Oba. It has also been inferred that during Esigie’s madness she was in control of the kingdom and kept faithful servant around him in order to keep the secret from leaking out, Idía distinguished herself as a woman of substance and a powerful personality in ancient Benin Kingdom when she also became the first woman to lead her own troop to warfront Queen. Idia was part of the development of both the social and political reforms of the Benin Kingdom. Her reforms are still much relevant today in the Benin and this is why she has remained the most popular woman in Benin. No African woman is rated as powerful as Idia; both physical and spiritual might characterized Idia’s personality. This is why her place in Benin history must be told.

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