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A Journey to my Motherland: Part I: Yorubaland and The Great Benin Empire

Updated: Feb 29

Image I (Left): Ife bronze of King Oduduwa (Yoruba (Ife) people, Ife Kingdom; Ife Empire)

Image II (Right): The Pendent Ivory Mask of Queen Idia (Edo people; The Great Benin Empire)


“All evidence from the traditions of most of these Yoruba kingdoms emphasize the attractiveness of Benin. Benin was, to them (the Yoruba people), a Yoruba kingdom whose common citizens happened to speak a non-Yoruba language.” – Dr. Stephen Adebanji Akintoye, author of A History of the Yoruba People

The country of the Yoruba people (Yorubaland) was comprised of present-day Southwest Nigeria, and parts of Benin Republic and Togo Republic. The Great Benin Empire (Edo), neighbors of Yorubaland was located southeast of the Yoruba, and the empire comprised of present-day Southern Nigeria. According to Dr. Walter Rodney, author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the Yoruba state of Ife, and the related state of Great Benin have been well studied, and the verdict of art historians on the art of Ife and Great Benin is well known because of the preservation of ivory, terracotta, and bronze sculptures of Ife and Great Benin. 

The Origins of the Ife and Great Benin Connection

One of the greatest and most enigmatic characters in the early history of the Ife Kingdom was Prince Oranmiyan. He was one of the youngest grandsons of King Oduduwa and was probably the foremost warrior prince and adventurer that the Ife Kingdom produced. According to Yoruba traditions, his adventures took him to Benin in the southeast and to the Niger Valley in the northwest to establish Oyo-Ile (Oyo Kingdom).


Traditions of the Edo give an account of Prince Oranmiyan first leaving Ife. During Oranmiyan’s time, the Edo people were ruled by some ancient rulers known as the Ogiso, under whom Great Benin plunged into disorder. Some Edo leaders sent a message to the ruler of Ife (identified in their traditions as Oduduwa himself, although more likely to be one of Oduduwa’s successors), urging him to send help for reorganization of the country. The king of Ife responded by sending Prince Oranmiyan. On arrival, Prince Oranmiyan was welcomed by some Edo leaders, but was resisted by others. The prince of Ife suppressed the resistance and established order and a strong monarchy, known as the Oba Dynasty. It was after some years that Prince Oranmiyan decided to leave, because he said the kingdom of Benin should be ruled by an indigenous Edo prince. He then installed as king his son, Ewuare, who was born to him by one of his Edo wives. The young king, Ewuare became the progenitor of the dynasty that led and developed the Benin Kingdom and made it the most powerful on the shores of West Africa.

“The main point about the Oranmiyan legend is that it links Benin to Yorubaland, emphasizing the influence of Yoruba methods of government on Bini institutions. Indeed, tradition distinguishes most firmly between the Ogiso dynasty, which was apparently peculiar to Edo of Benin, and the second dynasty which shows marked Yoruba influences.” – George T. Stride and Caroline Ifeka, authors of Peoples and Empires of West Africa  

Accompanying the Yoruba dynastic connection came the importation of state swords into Benin, stables of horses for ceremonial, and later, a guild of royal brass casters. A curious royal burial practice developed that reinforced this cultural link. For example, when a king of Benin died, it became customary to send his head or other symbolic parts to the Ife Kingdom for a royal burial. A Yoruba artist was then commissioned to make a metal portrait of the head. The portrait was returned to Benin where it was placed on an altar. This practice continued until the time of Oba (i.e., Edo King) Ogolua, in the late 13th century. The Edo king requested of the Ooni (i.e., Yoruba (Ife) King) that he might send a sculptor to Benin to teach Yoruba metallurgical art among the Bini people. Complying with the request, the king of Ife sent Iguegha, a master sculptor, to Benin. Iguegha founded the Benin guild of bronzesmiths. Incidentally, to this day, there are shrines dedicated to Iguegha in Benin City.


Yoruba traditions confirm Edo traditions that not long after Prince Oranmiyan returned to the Ife Kingdom as a great hero, he set out again, but this time northwestwards because he desired to found a kingdom of his own like many of his cousins had already done in Yorubaland. Prince Oranmiyan settled south of the Niger Valley and established the Oyo Kingdom, which eventually became “The Great Oyo Empire,” and the kings of Oyo bore the title “Alaafin.” The Oyo Empire was the largest ever in the history of the tropical forests and grasslands of West Africa south of the Great Niger River. This Yoruba empire lasted until the middle of the 18th century. According to Dr. Walter Rodney, the Yoruba state of Oyo and the Edo state of Great Benin were great long before the arrival of Europeans to the West African coast.    

The Powerful Influence of The Great Benin Empire

Although Great Benin was a related state of Ife, the kingdom of Ife began to decline during the 15th century when power rivals like Great Benin and the Oyo Kingdom emerged to be stronger than Ife economically, politically, and militarily. When Great Benin became an undisputed powerful country, it began to influence the kingdoms of eastern and southcentral Yorubaland. For instance, the Yoruba kingdoms of eastern and southern Yorubaland, like Owo, Akoko, Ekiti, Ilaje, Ikale, Ondo, Ijebu, and Awori, were influenced by Great Benin, and this influence was owed due to commerce rather than conquest and control. History shows the Yoruba Owo Kingdom was geographically the closest Yoruba Kingdom to Great Benin. Of all the Yoruba kingdoms, Owo bears the strongest traces of distinctly Benin culture. Surprisingly, the Owo Kingdom was never conquered or ruled by Great Benin, and in fact, Owo saw itself as a rival of Great Benin.


The Origins of the Owo (Yoruba) Kingdom

The kingdoms of southern Yorubaland were in the thickest forests of the country and the lagoon territories of the Atlantic coasts. In these regions were the Yoruba subgroups of the Owo, Itsekiri, Ilaje, Ikale, Ondo, Ijebu and Awori. The Owo lived in the extreme eastern forests of this region, close to the country of the Edo people of Great Beinin, the southeastern neighbors of Yorubaland. According to Owo and other Yoruba traditions, the kingdom of Owo was the first kingdom established in the Owo forests by an immigrant group from central Yorubaland. According to the main body of Owo palace traditions, the founder of the Owo Kingdom was a man named Asunlola Ojugbelu, also known as Omolaghaye, an Ife prince.


Another body of traditions from Owo and Odu Ifa traces Ojugbelu’s ancestry not from King Oduduwa’s royal line, but from Orunmila, one of the greatest priests in Ife in about Oduduwa’s time. According to this version, Ojugbelu was one of Orunmila’s sons, born to him in his old age, and some of Ojugbelu’s brothers also founded the kingdoms of Ara, Ijero and Oye in Ekiti (Yoruba) country. A local Owo historian, M.B. Ashara, dates Ojugbelu’s migration from Ife to the 12th century, a date he arrived at by working backwards with the list of Owo’s kings and by relating events in Owo’s history to known nodal points in the history of Great Benin.  


For Owo, Great Beinin was a source of great trade and wealth, because the Edo country was also the source for exotic imported European goods for about a century. Throughout the history of the Owo Kingdom, many Owo kings wanted and tried to be like the Oba’s of Great Benin. According to Oladipo Olugbadehan, some Owo kings, on their ascension to the throne, took cognomens that were culled from the Edo language, because they believed that the high-sounding exotic Benin names added to their stature before subjects.


Renrengenjen, the 9th Olowo (i.e., Yoruba (Owo) King), created a Benin-type royal festival (the Igogo festival) featuring a high-voltage royal procession very similar to the festive procession of Great Benin kings. Successive kings of the Owo Kingdom borrowed features from Great Benin’s royal regalia to add to their own, until the point reached that when the king of Owo fully dressed up for some festivals, and he looked almost completely like the Oba of Great Benin. The rulers of Owo even remolded their kingdom in the image of Great Benin, because the Owo kings admired the sort of power exercised by the kings of Great Benin.  

“Culturally, the Yoruba and Edo peoples were so close in many respects that they do not seem to have seen themselves as different peoples ― until the 12th century.” - Dr. Stephen Adebanji Akintoye

Image I (Top Left): Beautiful Edo Woman in Traditional Edo Attire


Image II (Top Middle): Yoruba Groom and Edo Bride in Traditional Wedding Ceremony


Image III (Top Right): Regal Edo Man in Traditional Edo Attire


Image IV (Bottom Left): Yoruba Bride and Edo Groom in Traditional Wedding Ceremony


Image V (Bottom Middle): Regal Yoruba Man in Traditional Yoruba Attire


Image VI (Bottom Right): Beautiful Yoruba Woman in Traditional Yoruba Attire



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Bellanaija Weddings. This Edo Beauty is a Blend of Chic and Begal! Bellanaija Weddings. Sept. 26, 2022. Feb. 27, 2024.

Chidex02. File:Edo State Traditional attire.jpg. Wikimedia Commons. Feb. 20, 2023. Feb. 27, 2024. 


Grehman, J. (Yoruba Man). Jax Grehman. Pinterest. Feb. 27, 2024. 

Okpoyo, J. The Great Benin: An Ancient African Civilization. Joseph Okpoyo. (June 11, 2022). Feb. 23, 2024. p. Cover, 2.


Rodney, W. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Verso. (Nov. 27, 2018). Feb. 23, 2024. p. 37-38, 115, 133.


Walker, R. When We Ruled: The Ancient and Mediaeval History of Black Civilizations. Black Classic Press. (May 1, 2011). Feb. 23, 2024. p. 332.


Wikipedia. Idia. Feb. 23, 2024.


Wikipedia. Oduduwa. Feb. 23, 2024. 


Yoruba Plug. Yoruba Bride Edo Groom. Yoruba Plug. Pinterest. Feb. 27, 2024.

Yoruba Plug. Yoruba lady. Yoruba Plug. Pinterest. Feb. 27, 2024.


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