Ife is besieged by a ‘spirit’ army
Many years after the time of Oduduwa, when the story of Moremi began, Ile-Ife, the ancient capital of Yorubaland was besieged and tormented by a wild warlike tribe known as the igbo, or forest people. This tribe is believed by scholars to have no relation to the contemporary Igbos of Eastern Nigeria. They were the descendants of the aboriginal people who were there when Oduduwa conquered the land and founded the city of Ile-Ife centuries earlier. These igboshad now grown in strength and number. They were now so powerful that they now raided and vandalized the farms and villages that surrounded Ile-Ife, and even ventured into the sacred city itself. The modus operandi of the igboswas their otherworldly appearance. Dressed in multicolored raffia skirts and robes, with hideous masks, they resembled the ‘egungun,’ the sprits of the dead, which were feared and revered by the people of Ife. With their uncanny and fearsome appearance, the people of Ife thought these apparitions were not human. Surely, they thought, they must be visitations sent by the gods as punishment for some evil perpetrated by them. The Ife people were therefore too scared to put up fight against those marauders from the forest. For who indeed among these superstitious people had the courage to fight demons or the spirits of the dead. In vain did the Ooni, his babalawosand the people of Ife offer sacrifices to the gods. The raids by these strange beings continued. The land was thrown into a state of desolation and panic. Many Ife citizens were captured, enslaved, and carried away by these marauders. Because of this, Ile-Ife began to lose its ancient prestige and place of honor among the other Yoruba city-states.
The bravery of Moremi
Moremi was a princess who was said to have originally hailed from Offa. But at the time the story began, she was married to a chieftain of Ile-Ife who was close to the Ooni. Moremi had only one child, a young boy barely in his teens, named Oluorogbo. Moremi was not only a beautiful young woman, she was also very brave and a true patriot. She resolved that she would use all means in her power to help her country rid itself of the menace of the igbos.She was ready to offer any sacrifice or give up her dearest possession to achieve her goal. She went to consult the oracle and was told to seek help from a river goddess who lived in the nearby river Osimiri. She entreated the goddess on her knees after making a ritual obeisance, to give her the means to save her people from their enemies, the fearsome igbos. She promised the river goddess that she would give the deity anything she asked for as long as she could accomplish her aim, which was to defeat the enemies of her people, and restore the honor and dignity of Ile-Ife.
As part of her scheme, Moremi allowed herself to be taken captive by the Igbo marauders the next time they raided Ife. Due to her beauty, their ruler took her as his queen. After familiarizing herself with the secrets of her new husband's army, she escaped back to Ile-Ife. She then revealed to the Ife people a stratagem for defeating the igbosin battle. She had learnt that theigboswere indeed human, not spirits of the underworld. Their fearsome appearance was due to their masks and skirts of raffia. Her stratagem was to have the Ife citizens and warriors, armed with lighted torches, set fire to the grass skirts of the igbomarauders. Her plan worked and the marauding igboarmy was completely routed. After this great victory, Moremi returned to the river Osimiri to give thanks and to offer a sacrifice to the goddess in honor of her promise.
"Moremi" acrylic on canvas by Oladele Olusanya
'Moremi' by Dipo Alao, ink on paper
An unimaginable sacrifice
Moremi was horrified when the river goddess insisted that the only thing she wanted was the life of Oluorogbo, her only son.The godless was relentless and unyielding to all pleas and reasoning. Sorrowing, Moremi was forced to consent, and sacrificed the handsome boy. By this time, the news of this turn of events had reached the city and the people of Ife came to the banks of the river to lament this new tragedy. Men and women, young and old, wept on seeing this sad spectacle - Moremi, bent with grief over the dead body of her sacrificed son. Singing a song of lamentation, they promised to be her sons and daughters forever to make up for her loss. But according to Ife tradition, Oluorogbo did not die. He was restored to life by Olodumare who had seen the suffering and humility of Moremi. Thus, when the crowd of people had departed, Oluorogbo recovered consciousness. Making a rope of grass, he climbed up to heaven where he is said to have lived ever since with the gods and immortal heroes of Yorubaland. Thus immortalized, he became an eternal source of the songs and legends commemorating his mother’s great sacrifice.
The Edi festival in Ife was instituted in celebration of the sacrifice that Moremi, the heroine made to save her people, without which there would be no Yoruba people in the land they occupy today. In our own time, we can visit a number of public places named after Moremi in western Nigeria, including the female residence halls at the universities of Lagos and Ife. There is a bust of her in the center of Ile-Ife. In addition, she was immortalized in the Yoruba language opera ‘Moremi Ajasoro’ by Duro Ladipo. The Egbe Omo Yoruba of North America has also set up the Moremi Foundation as the non-profit arm of the organization to allow it perform its great charitable works on behalf of the Yoruba community. Moremi remains the greatest heroine not only of ancient Ile-Ife but of all Yorubaland. Every Yoruba living today is a son or daughter of Moremi.