It was created for Idia the mother of the 16th Oba of the Benin empire, Oba Esigie.In Benin oral tradition, Idia stands as the only woman who had ever gone to war. She was a powerful priestess who utilized her knowledge of war, prayer and medicines to transcend and sustain her son on the throne. Ensuring Oba Esigie’s reign was one of peace and success for the empire.
On ascendancy, Oba Esigie broke tradition by creating the title of Iyoba for Idia, translated as “(biological) mother of the Oba” in order to honour her.
This honour placed her aside from all other women. As queen mother, she assumed a status similar to that of women of such status (Queen Mothers) at various courts around the world.
Queen Idia played a significant role as Iyoba, even for later Iyobas.
As the mother of the King, Queen/Iyoba bore the first son and this was the only child from her for the Oba, an heir to the throne. The Iyoba then committed her life to raising and protecting future Oba.
Queen Mothers were therefore viewed as instrumental to the protection, wellbeing and survival of the Oba and the kingdom. The role and personality of the Iyoba was so important that during ceremonies organized to rid the kingdom of evil forces, Obas wore pendants made of ivory representing the Iyobas around their waists.
The Queen Mother is also accredited with creating a new hairstyle. The hairstyle was then associated with the title of Iyoba, becoming a model for all successive Iyobas after Idia. The style was called ukpeokhue in which the hair was curved, conical, covered with a network of coral beads and resembled a parrot’s beak.
Idia was one of the wives of Oba Ozolua who bore him a son, named Esigie. She lived between the late 15th and early 16th century in Benin, Nigeria. She was an energetic, formidable, strategic and military warrior at the time and thought to have been a priestess.
The King also had another son Arhuaran by another wife. Both sons were very powerful but were located in different parts of the kingdom…
Esigie was based in Benin City while Arhuaran was located in Udo an important city which was about twenty miles away from Benin city.
When Oba Ozolua died there was a dispute over who would succeed the King.Consequently, there was a power tussle between the sons with Idia raising an army for Esigie who she wanted to be the Oba, which caused chaos in the kingdom of Benin. Esigie eventually defeated his brother and became the next Oba. Succeeding through the help of Idia, his mother.
On ascendancy, Oba Esigie created the title of Iyoba for his mother to honour her and her efforts, creating a new tradition that lived on until the fall of the empire.
The Iyoba (Queen Mother), Idia had her own palace at Uselu built for her. She had villages, chiefs and servants who were at her service. Queen Mother Idia also had various privileges bestowed on her by her son the Oba. The privileges included – the right to a throne; the right to wear special ornamental and coral beads, the right to adorn distinctive dress made of a special cloth and to adorn herself with red colour and the right to bear a sword of office. These rights and privileges were previously ascribed to men who were chiefs in the society. Queen Idia was thus elevated to this unique position and treated like a Queen in a male-dominated society where women were only seen and not heard.
Queen Idia, the Iyoba held court in her palace. Like the male senior chiefs, she heard cases, ordered her chiefs to investigate the facts in the cases and arbitrated in those cases.
After her death, a likeness of Queen Idia’s head was cast in bronze and placed on ancestral altars to commemorate her reign. She must have been a powerful and influential figure, even as queen in her own right. For the carved ivory replica of Queen Idia, two vertical bars of inlaid iron between her eyes allude to medicine-filled incisions that were one source of her metaphysical power (ibid).
The Oba may have worn it at rites commemorating his mother, although today such pendants are worn at annual ceremonies of spiritual renewal and purification.
This ivory pendant mask is one of a pair of nearly identical works; its counterpart is in the British Museum in London. Although images of women are rare in Benin’s courtly tradition, these works have come to symbolize the legacy of a dynasty that continues to the present day. The pendant mask is believed to have been produced in the early sixteenth century for the King or Oba Esigie, the king of Benin, to honour his mother, Idia. The Oba may have worn it at rites commemorating his mother, although today such pendants are worn at annual ceremonies of spiritual renewal and purification.