For those unaware of the Yorùbá ethnic group, let me give you a quick rundown. We are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria and we have the most popping diaspora – I don’t make the rules. With over 47 million Yorùbás living in Nigeria and countless of us scattered around the world from the UK, the US, Brazil, Ireland, Canada, and Latin America – we are practically everywhere. But, there’s more to us than our vibrant culture or our diaspora, we have a vast history that people remain unaware of.
I believe as a royal, you are accountable to your people. By no means was Queen Mọ́remí an exception to the rule. Her dedication to her people was so strong that she sacrificed even the important thing to her. Because of this, I believe Queen Mọ́remí is the epitome of royalty. Now, I know that ever since Meghan Markle married into the British Royal Family, the American media wouldn’t stop talking about the British Crown, but let’s get into African royals. Other than Cleopatra and Nefertiti, who were Egyptian, most African royals are often excluded from the narrative. But it’s not surprising when we were taught that Egyptian royals were white (or in some cases mixed-race) in Hellenistic times.
Let’s travel to Ilé-Ifẹ̀ – now in Osun State, Nigeria and the birthplace of Yorùbá civilization. Queen Mọ́remí lived around the 12th century and was very beautiful and loved by the people of Ilé-Ifẹ̀. During the reign of Ọ̀raǹmíyaǹ (Great Prince of Ifẹ̀, King of the Yorùbá), her husband, the people of Ifẹ̀ encountered numerous raids and many were captured and enslaved by Ìgbò warriors.
But it’s important to note that because this was the 12th century – there was no concept of having nations or countries until the colonizers came and forcefully amalgamated hundreds of ethnic groups into what we now know as Nigeria today.
However, the people of Ifẹ̀ thought that these warriors were aliens and out of this world. So, they believed that their gods had been sent down for these ‘aliens’ because of their evil acts.
I should also point out that this was pre-Abrahamic religions and that Yorùbá people at the time never worshipped Allah or God as we know today. Islam reached the Yorùbá people in the 14th century in the midst of the Mali Empire whereas Christianity reached the Yorùbá people by Europeans in the mid 19th century. Despite this, it is strongly believed that the Yorùbá people still worshipped God through their deities but, this changed once mainstream religions were brought into Yorùbáland. After the multiple raids – the people of Ifẹ̀ decided to offer sacrifices as a means of appeasing the gods yet this didn’t work.
Mọ́remí didn’t sit back and watch her people go through their hardship but instead tried to find a solution to the problem. This is the energy all leaders need to exhibit.
With her kindred spirit, Mọ́remí sought assistance from the river deity Esimirin and vowed to sacrifice everything she had for the sake of her people. Mọ́remí did a courageous thing – not sure if our modern-day royals could ever but still – she allowed herself to be captured by the Ìgbò raiders in hopes of learning more about them and their tactics. I mean, if you can’t beat them (spoiler, she did), why not join them?
After being captured by Ìgbò warriors, their king is said to have fallen in love with her because of her beauty. Classic – even in the 12th century, history still shows us that men are the weakest link. But her beauty should not be the focus of her story – or any woman at that matter – it should be how she saved her people. So of course he didn’t want her to be a bed slave and instead took her as his wife. Perhaps Mọ́remí was the originator of pretty privilege and used this to her advantage, garnering substantial information and understood how these warriors were able to capture and continue to wreak terror upon the people of Ifẹ̀.
Due to her newfound knowledge and how she gained the trust of the Ìgbò king, she escaped back to Ilé-Ifẹ̀ and helped free her people from the terror of the Ìgbòs. By arming herself with knowledge of their warfare tactics, the people of Ifẹ̀ were freed by burning the Ìgbòs, who were scared of fire, during the next raid.
Remember when she made her sacrifice to the river deity? Yeah, she had to pull through with that too. So, the river demanded she sacrifice her son Olúòrògbó and of course this must have been incredibly hard for her. I doubt that any mother would want to sacrifice their child, Mọ́remí was no exception. But she had no choice and did what she had to do. The entire kingdom of Ifẹ̀ was in grief because of this. Instead, they promised to be her eternal children because of her sacrifice.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much history recorded after her sacrifice but she is memorialized in Nigeria through a number of books, plays, traditional songs and the annual Edi Festival. I think it is a testament to how the actions of women in history are often ignored or inaccurately depicted. It’s important for us to reflect on the stories we are told about women in history and delve deeper. We should make it our mission they are not forgotten.
As a modern honor of Queen Mọ́remí, a statue was erected in 2016 in line with the Edi Festival. The statue is Nigeria’s tallest and one of the tallest in Africa. Today, we see in the city of modern Ilé-Ifẹ̀ how her sacrifices are celebrated with the annual Edi festival.
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