Idia: A Benin Legend




Queen Mothers

   Beginnings: The Legend of Idia


   Commemorative altars

Ritual: Gelede


Gender Roles




African Art Homepage

Pendant Mask: Iyoba, 16th century
Nigeria; Edo peoples, court of Benin
Ivory, iron, copper (?); H. 9 3/8 in. (23.8 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1972 (1978.412.323)


             Queen Mothers were not established in the kingdom of Benin until the end of the Fifteenth century when a great conflict between two sons over the ascension to the throne threatened to destroy the empire.  Oba (king) Ozula died and left the throne open to his two sons, Arhuaran, who controlled the city of Udo, and Esigie, who controlled Benin City.  It is said that the mother Idia used her magical powers to help Esigie win a war against his brother and also the neighboring Igala people, who wished to take advantage of the Benin kingdom’s state of weakness and attack them.  From then on, the mothers of the kings were honored and given powers and prestige in the government of the kingdom. (1)

             From the story, several of the traditions that surround the Queen Mother can be derived.  Prior to the reign of Esigie, it was customary to behead the mothers of the kings to prevent them from threatening the kingdom by using their magical powers to either initiate a rebellion and take over the throne, or harm the people in some way through the use of witchcraft.  Esigie asked the Edo people (the people of Benin) to let his mother live so that she could help him defeat his brother and save the kingdom, and they agreed to let him establish her as queen mother only if he was to never see his mother again. This eliminated direct contact between the king and the queen mother and resulted in the removal of the queen mother to her own palace outside of the capital city in a village called Uselu. (1)

             This ivory pendant mask pictured here is actually an image of Idia, the first queen mother.  It was usually worn by the king during ceremonial occasions. The mask is hollowed out in the back, making it a perfect container for holding medicines that can protect the king while worn around his neck. The material used and the ornamental images carved around the face all represent the elegance and wealth of Benin royalty.  The symbols of the Portuguese boast of the wealth of the Benin kingdom, and also of their good relations with foreigners and with ancestor spirits, because the Portuguese were thought to come from the world of the dead, as they crossed a body of water and had white skin.  Also the symbols of the mudfish, which were thought to be very powerful and spiritual because of their ability to both swim in water and “walk” on land, decorate the mask, and associate the royalty of the Benin kingship and power of the queen mother with that of the spirit world. (2)