Africa Badass women History

Ladies of the Oyo Palace

I’m reading Mother is Gold, Father is Glass for the second time. I bought it first on my kindle and found it so useful I bought a physical copy too. I’ve found that though I’m reading both copies in the space of say two years, it’s the same things I’m highlighting and bookmarking. The most fascinating parts to me are those on women in the palaces of Oyo and Dahomey. It is a longtime fantasy of mine to watch a fictionalised rendition of the palace women of any historical African kingdom, and there’s lots of fodder in those two.

The Alaafin of Oyo, crowned, circa 1900
The Alaafin of Oyo, crowned, circa 1900

Let’s start with Oyo. Power structure had the king and the palace at the centre then fanned out to provinces and governors. Crucial to the king were his entourage of servants, priests and slaves who helped managed the state as guards, messengers, diviners and entertainers. Women held key positions among this entourage yet top titled women and priests were distinct from wives and slaves. Samuel Johnson was the first person who referred to a group of women close to the king in the past glorious days of the Oyo empire as “ladies of the palace”. Although there is scant historical information on these women, there apparently have numerous counterparts in precolonial states across West Africa. In Oyo the ladies of the palace stood apart from the king’s wives, slaves and other dependants. They lived in and around the royal compound, performed critical duties and bore titles with the word “Iya” (Yoruba for mother). However among these women, two presented as men and were greeted with “Baba” (father).

The ladies of the palace included eight high ranking women ministers, eight priests and other women who served as guardians of the people, heads of religious sects and oversaw certain sections of the palace and capital. Iya Oba, was the symbolic mother of the king, the foremost representative among the women in the palace. She was not the king’s biological mother as the biological mother was usually required to commit suicide after the king ascended the throne. However there are seemingly at least two occasions of biological mothers ruling as regents for underage sons. Iya Oba received great deference and was the head of the top noble families. She also accompanied king in special worship.

Although Iya Kere was the “small mother”, she held greater power than the Iya Oba. She was in charge of the king’s regalia, placed the crown on his head and could withhold the king’s royal trappings to show displeasure. Iya Kere was the leader of the king’s guards and messengers (ilari, male slaves with half shaved heads who sometimes cross-dressed and proclaimed themselves “wives of the king”). Iya Kere also controlled the Olosi, a top ranking eunuch who oversaw several provincial governors near Oyo. She kept gallery of statues representing the king’s guards and messengers showing her ritual power over the king.

Three women supervised the worship of Sango in the palace. Sango, the Orisha of thunder and the 3rd king of Oyo was an important deity to the king. Iya Naso maintained the king’s personal Sango shrine. The second woman represented the child that the king, who, as a devotee of Sango, was required to dedicate to the worship of the deity.

The sixth and seventh women Johnson described as ladies of the palace were linked to the king’s eldest son and heir apparent as the son’s mother or symbolic mother responsible for controlling a part of the capital city. The eighth woman served as the king’s personal attendant, don’t assume she’s a slave though, she headed a small compound of dependents on the palace grounds. As the king’s personal attendant, she had the most access to the king’s person, making her extremely loyal but dangerous to the king if she turned against him.

The first priest, Iya le Ori (Mother of the House of Ori) was responsible for the king’s worship of the Ori, the Orisha of fate. The second priest, Iya le Mole (Mother of the House Ifa), dealt with Ifa divination, a practice associated primarily with men. Iya le Mole participated in Ifa ceremonies and was the leader of the Ifa priests, she did not carry herself as a man even though she worked with many men.

There were two women, lower in rank than the priests who did become men in dress and stature. One of them was Eni Oja (Owner of the Market) and leader of the devotees of Esu the Orisha of the crossroads. Whenever the king prayed to Esu at the marketplace shrin , he was said to lean on the arms of Eni Oja who was dressed in a man’s robes. Eni Oja oversaw the king’s market, often situated in a square before the palace, she also managed two male palace officials associated with the market. Semley considers it striking that a woman dressed as a man would supervise the market, since the market was associated with women traders during the day and with “witches” at night.

Iyamode led all the Sango worshippers, unlike the three women mentioned above who are associated with the palace. Iyamode also lead the women who lived around the royal burial ground and worshipped Sango, she lived in a house on the royal grounds. The devotees she lead addressed her as Baba. The king also addressed her as father and knelt before her. When Iyamode addressed the king, she did not fully recline as a woman would before a superior. The king having no father and no biological mother prostrated before no one except Iyamode.

Among the ladies of the palace was also Oba-gunte, a woman who represented the king in the all-male Ogboni secret society

The two “men” among the “mothers” in the palace reinforce the view that femininity and masculinity were part of the religious and political power structure at all levels of Oyo. Some “masculinized” mothers maintained  women’s spaces, as in the worship of Sango, or in the market, while others participated in rituals dominated by men. Interestingly both Iyamode and Eni Oja were closer to slave status than other women officials in the palace. There are more examples of women becoming men in Yoruba oral histories but that is another post (check back July 8).

Closeness to the king came at a cost for some women and men in the palace. Seven women and six men with the most access to the king were required to commit suicide upon the king’s death, apparently to discourage assassination tion attempts on the king by people closest to him.

The existence of these women shows that women in this part of Yoruba history had the potential to wield power, as well as advise the king and heir apparent on policies and decisions. Yet no powerful woman was officially described as a direct counsellor of the king, only men held those positions. It’s clear that the ladies of the palace weilded power yet contemporary accounts emphasise power struggles between the king and the male advisory council Oyo Mesi.

Less is known about women’s political roles in other regions removed from the palace but there is the possibility that the Oyo example may have been replicated. Later in the 19th century, prominent women rose to become Iyalode as long time readers of this blog are aware. Iyalode were capable of leading warriors and having a voice in the council of local ministers.

While the ladies of the palace at Oyo were concerned with the king’s office and religious worship, the Iyalode served as a representative to whom ordinary women could air their voices. But because this position grew during the mid-nineteenth-century wars between Yoruba towns, with communities struggling to claim dominance after the fall of Oyo, some scholars have viewed the wealth and political power of Iyalode as strange and “untraditional.” They are seen as entering masculinised spaces in the new Yoruba towns which placed importance on the personal wealth of individuals as opposed to the royal pomp of Oyo. In the 19th century Iyalode were criticised for becoming like men, while the Oyo palace, women were purposefully masculinised. Perhaps the criticism of Iyalode illustrates the changes on gender thought brought by European colonisation. Semley argues that Iyalode are a continuation of the “mothers” of Oyo and other forms of Oyo government.

Image source

The Alaafin of Oyo, king of the Oyo Yoruba, Nigeria, circa 1900 on Pinterest (It’s interesting that the two women standing beside him are not named, I imagine one is his personal assistant and the other is Iya Kere)

What I read

Lorelle D. Semley (2010), Mother is Gold, Father is Glass: Gender and Colonialism in a Yoruba Town

Samuel Johnson (1966), The History of the Yoruba