Who is the most significant woman in African history? It is a difficult question to answer. We have phenomenal women such as Queen Njinga, Queen Sheba, Queen Amina, Hateshput of Egypt, and many more! There is a long list of great women in ancient African history.
Today, we chose to focus on and celebrate the legendary Queen mother, Idia, from the Benin Kingdom (present-day Nigeria). Join us as we explore her legacy.
1. She Was Married To Oba (King) Ozolua
We do not know much about Idia's early life. Her story starts as a young woman. Historians have recorded that Idia caught the attention of Oba (the name for the king in the Edo language) Ozolua. He took a liking to her and married her. Oba Ozolua reigned in 1481 AD.
2. She Led An Army To Battle
When her husband, Oba Ozolua, passed on, he left the kingdom in turmoil. Oba Ozolua left behind two powerful sons who fought for succession.
One son, Esigie, controlled Benin city. On the other hand, Arhuaran, the second son, was in charge of Udo city. A civil war broke out in the kingdom. The war compromised the kingdom's power and status.
Idia supported her son, Esigie, in the war. She even took it a step further and led the army into battle. She was nicknamed the "only woman to go to war". During this time, it was unusual for women to go to war. However, Idia went against the grain. She was a fearless army general.
Illustration of Idia the warrior queen from our children's book, Idia of the Benin Kingdom.
3. She Was Instrumental In Her Son's Victory
As the war ensued between Esigie and Arhuaran, neighbouring kingdoms took note. They wanted to exploit this weakness. The Igala people took the opportunity and sent their army across the Benue River to conquer Benin's northern territories.
Idia stepped in and helped her son Esigie to defeat his brother. She used her medicinal knowledge and mystical powers to help him in the war. Idia also provided political counsel and military strategies to her son to help him succeed on the battlefield. All these combined led to Esigie's victory over his brother. He also regained control of the northern territories back from the Igala people.
Esigie became the Oba of the Benin Kingdom. Many have credited Idia for the victories.
4. She Was Appointed As The Kingdom's First Queen Mother
Oba Esigie was indebted to his mother for her support and guidance during the war. He created a new position for her within the court. She was to be Iyoba (queen mother in the Edo language).
With the new role of Iyoba, Idia had significant political privileges and power. Her status was similar to that of senior chief. She also enjoyed the right to commission works of art. Her power and leadership were such a force that Idia was referred to as "the hidden Oba of Benin".
The position of Iyoba carried on long after Idia and Esigie. Iyoba's role was to carry the king's first son and devote her life to raising the future king. She was to have no other children. Iyobas were critical to the protection and well-being of the Oba, and the kingdom. It wasn't until recent times that this changed.
5. Oba Esigie Commissioned Pendant Masks In Honour Of Idia
Esigie commissioned five pendant masks to commemorate his powerful mother. They were made of elephant ivory, iron, and copper alloy.
Idia's pendant masks are of the most intricate carvings from the Benin Kingdom. They are well detailed and idealize the portraits of the strong queen mother, Idia.
The masks were worn during rites that commemorated his late mother. Esigie wore them suspended on the chest. Every year, the king has to perform rituals that honour ancestors, which, in turn, enhances good fortunes for the people of the kingdom.
Unfortunately, currently, the Ivory pendant masks aren't in Nigeria. They are in the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Linden Museum.
This is one of the famous Idia Ivory Pendant Masks found in the British Museum
Idia was one of the heroines from the ancient kingdom of Benin. She was instrumental in expanding Benin through military conquests. She was a force to be reckoned with.
If you enjoyed learning about the incredible warrior queen, Idia, we recommend that you check out our children's book, Idia of the Benin Kingdom. It will introduce young readers to the story of the remarkable queen through beautiful illustrations. You can also check out the accompanying colouring and activity book.
What other facts would you add about Idia?