The Eight Most Powerful Women Inside The Aláàfin Of Ọyọ’s Palace That You Never Heard Of, They Are The Real Powers Behind The Throne And Are So Powerful The King Calls One Of Them BABA
The Aláàfin Of Ọyọ, His Majesty, Kabiyesi Alaiyeluwa Ọba Dr. Làmídì Ọláyíwọlá Atanda Adéyẹmí III sits on a throne that is older than that of the British monarch. Among the Yorubas, women occupy a very respected position and they are involved at every level of administration in the society. The outstanding civilization of the Yorubas over time is seen in the royal court of the Oyo Empire.
In Yorubaland, a woman can aspire to the highest position in anything she desires and this has been the practice for thousands of years. The role of the female in the traditional Yoruba society is so deeply embedded that no major policy can be implemented or decision made without involving the women.
Women in Yorubaland are so incredibly influential that they control the economy by holding an unshakeable sway over the markets, social events and commercial activities. This is very obvious in the emergence of roles such as those of the Iyalaje, Iyalode and Iyaloja. Even in the occult, the women are still at the very top of the pyramid, the powerful Ogboni cult cannot make any decision without the Palace Mother giving the final go-ahead.
Please note that the Egbe Iyami Oshoronga (or the Great Mothers of the Occult, not witches in the traditional European or Caucasian sense of it) are considered to be the Mothers of the Ogbonis and also use the same symbolic gestures and handshakes when greeting or saluting each other. In fact, the Edan Ogboni takes its name directly from Egbe Iyami Oshoronga. Ogboni members are also known as Awon Omo Iya and the breast milk of the Mother (Earth) takes a very central place among the Ogbonis. The breast milk is symbolized in the greetings of the Ogbonis and when they greet they chant three times:
Omu iya dun mu, gbogbo wa lan jo mu (Mother’s milk is sweet to drink, we all drink it).
Make no mistake, women are behind the secrets of the Ogbonis. And when I say women, I mean the Ajes, Awon Iyami Oshoronga, Iya Mapo, Iya Nla, Edan (aka Iya Aye) and other prominent female members of the awo (occult). These names do not really connote negativity but rather mystery, unusualness or the remarkable nature of their prowess of the centuries-old traditions of the Yorubas. Women are believed by the Ogbonis to be more secretive or reserved than the men so mothers are deeply respected by the Ogbonis as the vessels carrying the most important secrets of existence and the occult.
These explanations have been given as introduction to allow the reader appreciate the role of women in Yorubaland as against the subjugation of the female gender as promoted by the foreign faiths of Islam (which insists a woman must be hidden, cloaked and veiled) and Christianity (which says a woman cannot even talk inside the church). This is not the case in Yorubaland and even the foreign faiths have been influenced by traditional Yoruba practices. So, who are the eight powerful women inside the aafin (palace) of the Alaafin of Oyo that people have not heard of? These women are collectively and casually referred to as the ‘King’s wives’ but they should not be confused with the Ayabas (Oloris) who are the queens and wives of the monarch. Here we go:
Iyamode is the only person in the world the Aláàfin is permitted to kneel before. He kneels before no one else except Iyamode. Other people kneel before the Aláàfin. Iyamode occupies a role so deeply respected that the king calls her ‘Baba’ (father). Whenever the Aláàfin goes on his knees before this influential woman, she returns the salutation by also going on her knees but she never reclines on her elbow while doing so as this is the custom of women in saluting their superiors. Iyamode is one of the most senior eight priestesses inside the Aláàfin’s royal household.
Other priestesses within the palace include Iya’le Oduduwa (Priestess of Oduduwa) Ode (head of all the worshippers of the god Ososi, she dresses as a hunter, hence her name, on state occasions adorned with a bow ornamented with strings of cowries neatly strung on her shoulder), Obagunte (she represents the Aláàfin in the Ogboni confraternity and enters the Ogboni chamber on all occasions acting in the name of the Aláàfin), Eni Oja (she is the head of all the Eshu worshippers in the town, she is in charge of the King’s market and wears a gown like a man, the King leans on her arms the day he goes to worship the god of the markets, the Olosi is under the Eni Oja, same with the Aroja or the Market Keeper ), Iya’le Agbo (she is a private attendant to the Aláàfin and is in charge of his private pharmacy preparing all the agunmu (powders) and agbo (infusions) for the king) and Iya Otun.
Iyamode and Iya Oba are always clean shaven while others plait their hair in small strips from the forehead to the top of the head and gather the rest from the back to the top, tying all the hair clump into one knot with a string in a style known as the Ikokoro. As for the Ode, Eni Oja, Iyafin-Iku, Iya Olosun and the Iya’le Oduduwa adorn theirs with red feathers of the parrot’s tail.
It is interesting to know that the ancestor of the Yorubas, Oduduwa, had one son, Okanbi, with his principal wife named Omonide or Iyamode. Iyamode embodies the spirits of the Aláàfin’s fathers. Yoruba beliefs have it that fathers can be reincarnated in the anafemale child, and that explains precisely why the Aláàfin calls Iyamode ‘father’. Iyamode resides in one of the outhouses of the palace.
Her duties are not specially in the palace and she is the superior of the celibates living in the Bara (the royal mausoleum)¸ and that is another reason she is styled ‘Baba’. The role of the Iyamode entails worshipping the spirits of the departed Kings and calling out their Egunguns (masquerades) in a room in her apartments specially set aside for that purpose. This room is screened off from view with a white cloth.
Please note that Iyamode does not just oversee the worship of the ruler’s ancestors, she is those ancestors. Iyamode is described as the quintessential Aje and the only one who can house, embody and be the father and all ancestors of the king, all in one body at the same time.
The Aláàfin looks up Iyamode as his father and he addresses him as such, being the worshipper of the spirits of his ancestors. As stated above, the King kneels for no one else but Iyamode and prostrates before the god Sango and before those possessed with the deity, calling them ‘father’. These include those set apart for life-long service at the Bara. Anytime one of them is possessed by the spirit of deceased monarchs (it is said of one of them ‘Oba wa si ara won’) and bursts out of the Bara to the palace with violent energy, she is immediately placed under the control of the Iyamode. On such dramatic occasions, the possessed tells the people message received from the gods such as the sacrifice they have to offer to ward off impending evils.
To conduct this ceremony, some water is poured into a mortar and it is covered by a wide calabash while other women in the palace beat this with all their energy as a drum with the possessed and others dancing to the frenzied beats of the drumming. Note that once a woman becomes Iyamode, she becomes celibate and stays away from sex for life. Iyamode also heads the convent of queens (Ayabas) who have become widows following the death of their husbands (kings). These widows live close to the Bara and live secluded and chaste lives.
- IYANASO (Iya Naso):
The Aláàfin is worshipped as the living reincarnation of the Yoruba god of thunder, lightning and energy (Sango). Inside the palace, the Aláàfin has a private chapel for the worship of Sango which is inside Iya Naso’s apartment and the person in charge of this spiritual room is the Iya Naso herself. She has to do with Sango worship generally and she is the one responsible for everything linked to it. All the emoluments and perquisites arising from this practice are hers and she has also to do with the same at Koso.
- IYA KERE
The coronation of any Aláàfin of Ọyọ is not complete without the crown on his head. The person who places the crown on the head of the king at the coronation is the Iya Kere, regarded as one of the most powerful women in the palace. Actually, next to the King’s Mother (Iya Oba), Iya Kere holds the highest rank and although greater deference is given to Iya Oba, it is Iya Kere who wields the greatest power in the palace.
Iya Kere is the one in charge of the treasures of the King. She keeps the royal insignia and all the paraphernalia used on state occasions and special events. Her powers are so extensive that she can even decide to withhold some of these royal treasures thus preventing any state event or ceremony from holding, she can do this to register her displeasure with the King whenever she is offended. As stated above, it is Iya Kere who places the crown on the head of the Aláàfin at his coronation, no one else is entitled to do that.
Iya Kere is also the ‘mother’ of all the Ilaris (male and female) because it is inside her apartment that they are usually created and she keeps in her custody all the sugudus that bear the marks of each Ilari in order to ensure the safety of the life of the King.
That is not all, as powerful as the Olosi is, Iya Kere exercises full power over him and even have him arrested and put in chains if he crosses his bounds. Iya Kere is the feudal head of the Aseyin, Oluiwo and the Baale (now Soun) of Ogbomoso. Once she assumes the office, she remains a celibate for life, that is the tradition.
- IYA OBA (The Queen Mother)
Iya Oba is the official mother of the king. According to tradition, the King is not to have a natural mother. In a case where his own biological mother happens to be alive when he is called to ascend the throne, she is asked to ‘go to sleep’ and is ‘decently buried’ in the house of a relative in the city. All the inmates of that particular house are then given special priviledges and honoured as ‘members of the household of the King’s mother.’
As a mark of deference and devotion, the King sends to worship at her grave once every year. After the demise of the Queen Mother, another of the ladies of the palace is then made the Iya Oba and she is the one who is then supposed to play the role of a biological mother to him. And part of the privileges she enjoys as the Iya Oba is that she is the third person in the room when the King and the Bashorun worship the Orun in the month of September every year.
Iya Oba is the feudal head of the Bashorun.
- IYA MONARI
She is the first lieutenant and assistant to the Iya Naso. It is the role of the Iya Monari to execute by strangling any Sango worshipper who has been condemned to death. Sango worshippers condemned to capital punishment cannot be killed by the sword and that explains why they cannot be executed by the Tetus.
She is the second lieutenant and assistant to the Iya Naso. She is referred to as the King’s Adoshu Sango meaning the King’s devotee to the Sango mysteries. It is the normal practice for all Sango worshippers to devote one of their children to the worship of Sango and that is the role that Iya-fin-Iku fulfills for the Aláàfin. She is the one in charge of the sacred ram which is allowed to go everywhere and about the markets without anyone molesting it and the ram can also eat with impunity anything it so desires from the sellers.
The mother of the Crown Prince (Aremo) is always promoted to the rank of the Iyalagbon. In a case where the mother of the Aremo is deceased, then another woman is promoted to that office and she becomes the mother to the Aremo. As the custodian of the next Aláàfin, the Iyalagbon enjoys massive influence and the control of a portion of the city is in her hands.
She is also to see to the welfare of the Aremo and works in conjunction with the Iyalagbon.
She is the Aláàfin’s personal attendant. It is the Are-Orite who sees to it that the royal meals are properly made, that royal bed is properly made, that the royal chambers are neatly arranged and she is also the one who sees the Aláàfin comfortably in bed after which she will go to her own apartment. When an Aláàfin is enthroned, it is the Are-Orite who places the umbrella-like silken parasol over his head as a canopy and she is constantly by the side of the Aláàfin to see to his needs and small services on public and state events.
These influential women are the real powers behind the throne. Not much is usually said about them, some do not even know they exist but they are always there in the background. These women communicate with the spiritual realm and guide every single step of the Aláàfin. They are the one who teach the Aláàfin all he knows about the Aláàfinate, they encourage him during times of trials, support him during periods of challenges and defend him from all forms of evils both physical and metaphysical.
These Mothers also do the divination to see how long an Aláàfin will rule, they educate him on what he can eat and what is forbidden that he cannot even touch, they are the ones who give the Aláàfin the ritual bath and cleanse and anoint him. They also take him through another process where his head is shaved (also by the Mothers) and then after seven days, they bathe it in snail water so that the Aláàfin will have the calm disposition and temperament needed to successfully hold the office.
These Mothers reveals to the Aláàfin the days of the divinites, when to worship the Orishas (deities), the kinds of rituals he has to do for each Orisha and the time to perform them. The Aláàfin then agrees to all these revelations and agrees to please these Orishas every day of the year except only one day in the year when there is no sacrifice and no worship of divinites. Only the Aláàfin knows this particular day of the year.
After the Aláàfin takes the throne with the power and authority to rule, these Palace Mothers oversee everything and they work silently in the background. They are the ubiquitous brains behind the kingdom. These Mothers (Ajes) prepare and spiritually empower the Adenla (the Great Crown) itself and as hinted earlier on, the Iyamode must be present whenever the Aláàfin is to be install, for only her can crown the Aláàfin. Without these Ajes, there will be no Yorubaland.
Iba eyin Iya o!
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.
- The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses by Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí
- The History of the Yorubas: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate by Samuel Johnson
- Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, Volume 3, Historical Society of Nigeria, 1965.
- The Architects of Existence: Aje in Yoruba Cosmology, Ontology and Orature by Teresa N Washington.