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Casa das Minas [House of Mines] / Querebentã de Zomadônu

 Is the oldest Afro-Brazilian religious house in Maranhão and one of the oldest in Brazil.

Casa das Minas [House of Mines] / Querebentã de Zomadônu

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 30/04/2015

By: Júlia Morim - N/I

Casa das Minas (House of Mines), or Querebentã de Zomadônu, located at 857/857a Rua São Pantaleão, today Rua Senador Costa Rodrigues, in the neighbourhood of Madre de Deus in São Luís, is the oldest Afro-Brazilian religious house in Maranhão and one of the oldest in Brazil. It was probably founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Jejes originating from the south of Benin (formerly Dahomey).

Oral memory, transmitted from generation to generation, says that Casa das Minas was founded by Maria Jesuína – who worshipped Zomadônu and would have gone through the ritual to become a mãe (mother) while still in Africa. Little information about the founder of the house was passed down from older to younger members, but there is the possibility that Maria Jesuína was Queen Nã Agotimé, or her saint-daughter, despite the queen’s name not being recognized by the house’s daughters (FERRETTI, 1996, p.59).

According to Ferretti (2008, p.19),

[Pierre] Verger presented the hypothesis, confirmed in 1985 by UNESCO experts, that Queen Na-Agontimé, widow of King Agonglô and mother of the future King Ghezo, was sold by a stepchild to slavers and brought to São Luís, Maranhão, where she became known as Mãe Maria Jesuína, of Toi Zomadônu, who founded Casa das Minas and introduced the worship of Dahomey Voduns (gods) to Brazil. Zomadônu is considered the most powerful Vodun of the Fon Kingdom in Abomey and his name means “do not put fire in your mouth”, which reflects the importance of the secrets to this religion.

The oldest document referring to Casa das Minas, the deed of the building in its corner, dates from 1847 and is in the name of Maria Jesuína and her companions. The first mães (mothers), the heads of the house, were African. According to reports made by house members, some had tribal markings on their faces and barely spoke Portuguese (FERRETTI, 1996, p.59). However, in the first decades of the twentieth century the mães [mothers] were mulatto. For 40 years (1915-1954) the house was run by Mãe Andresa, who was noted for her kindness, great religious knowledge, coordination between other houses and with society in general (she received several researchers during her tenure, including Roger Bastide and Pierre Verger). Currently, the house is under the command Mrs Deni, who was initiated by Mãe Andresa (FERRETTI, 2012).

A temple in which all its spaces are sacred, Casa das Minas covers an area of 1500m2, in a populous old neighbourhood, and consists of three single-storey buildings, with two semi-detached, connected internally by a central courtyard, forming a U-shape. Two of them were built in the nineteenth century, one in the first half and another in the second, and the third in the second half of the twentieth century. The architectural space is divided in accordance with divisions between Voduns: each part of the house is dedicated to specific families of the African cult entities. As a requirement of the cult, in the house are several environments of packed clay: the comé or room for all Voduns; the patio or gume; the dance balcony or guma; the kitchen where they prepare the ritual food in iron cauldrons over wood-burning fires in the ground. In the yard, like a piece of African sacred forest, there are trees considered sacred and local plants with medicinal effects used in the services.

The House’s sitting, or fundamental, stones, which receive the Voduns’ force and represent deities, were brought from Africa by the founders. They are arranged in various parts of the house and it is believed that in them lies the magical power of the gods and where the Vodun force arrives first before going to the daughters.

The community of Casa das Minas consists mostly of women, who hold the important roles and positions. Men have specific and limited parts to play, with the main function of playing the drums (they do not receive Voduns). It is a discreet and very traditional religious group that worships deities called Voduns: entities that are asked for help; who have defects and are spread out to administer the universe; who are hierarchically between men and saints and thus are intermediates between them.

The worshiped deities are divided into three groups or families: Davice, Quevioçô and Dambirá, each with their own characteristics. The Davice are the royal family, formed by noble Voduns. The Quevioçô, almost all mute, are the waters and the stars. The Dambirá are of the Earth, fight disease and pests and provide cure with roots and remedies.

Male Voduns are called toi and female nochê. Younger Voduns are called toqüês or toqüenos. There are also tobossis (girls), infant female entities, received only by vondúnsi-gonjaís, those who have had a special initiation process to be complete daughters. However, there is no living gonjaí (the last died in 1970), so that these entities no longer frequent Casa das Minas.

The services and rites of Casa das Minas are addressed to about 45 worshiped Voduns. Playing drums and chanting summon them. Each medium can have only one Vodun, however they may have more than one child, also known as dançante. While they possess vondúnsis, Voduns do not eat, drink or sleep, so that they cannot stay for too long so as not to weaken them. As the Vodun is strength, the medium needs to prepare to receive it. Each Vodun has a specific role in nature – water, wind, plants, diseases – and worships a saint. Thus, people ask the Vodun for help, and it asks its saint of adoration.

The ceremonies, divided into a public and a private part, mostly happen on feast days of major Catholic saints. Usually the festivals last three days: the day before, the saint’s day and the next day. It is on these days that Voduns communicate with their faithful. The dançante receives them in trance. The Voduns dance, sing and play. During the intervals, they visit their children, give advice and teach remedies.

According to Ferretti (1996), approximately 10 holidays are held per year, divided into the following categories: Vodun anniversary festivals, festival of the Divine and festivals of obligation. The anniversary festivals must be hosted by the dançante of that Vodun and lasts one day. That of the Divine lasts 5 days and occurs between the months of May and June. The obligation festivals are special, last three days and cannot fail to be held. They are: 4 December, St Barbara’s day; December 25; 19, 20 and January 21, commemorating St Sebastian; before carnival; Ash Wednesday; and Holy Saturday. For the author, “the yard’s parties are therefore an obligation held through devotion and promise, while at the same time being fun to compensate for its harmful nature of obligation” (FERRETTI, 1996, p.142).

The continuity of Casa das Minas has been a main concern for scholars. The activities of Casa das Minas are exercised with rigidity, such that new members do not feel attracted to it. The reduced number of participants, the loss of important rituals, the preservation of secrets (without being passed on), the growth of Pentecostal religions and the persecution of terreiros (as Afro-Brazilian communities are known) have contribute to its decline. In an article, Ferretti (2012, p.7) reflects on this process:
 
Casa das Minas has been in decline for a long time. This decline was accentuated after the death of the last gonjaí in the 1970s. But as from 1914 no other gonjaí had been prepared, we can conclude that practically from this date began the House’s decline, although there have been periods with the highest number of participants in the cult.

Even so, Casa das Minas continues performing its obligations and has established strategies for the continuation of their activities, such as the promotion of Catholic and popular culture festivals. It should be noted that, although there is a process of decline, Casa das Minas is an example of resistance, as other houses from the same era no longer exist.

In 2000, as a form of resistance and permanence, as well as the recognition of nearly 200 years of operation, the head of the house requested the historical preservation of Casa das Minas at the federal level. The request was a demand to the state for valorisation and for legal protection of their physical space, thus ensuring its continuity. The Opinion of the 3rd Regional Superintendence of IPHAN (BRITO; BOGÉA, 2001), which recommended the preservation of the terreiro, highlights its undeniable ethnographic value “despite the supposed end of the active life of Casa das Minas”. The Opinion of Luiz Phelipe Andrès, a member of IPHAN’s Advisory Council, the body responsible for the preservation of national heritage, emphasizes the role of the physical space of the home:

Ultimately, Querebentan de Zomadonu has survived to this day because its rituals have been preserved, and the rituals were preserved because they have their “locus” of celebration as the House. The House is the body, and as such is “organic” in its materials and shapes (ANDRÉS, 2001, p. 6-7).

In defence of preservation, Ferretti (2000, p.6) claims:
 
Casa das Minas is one of the most striking examples of ethnic affirmation of identity by Afro-Brazilians and valorisation of a culture, even if it is not seen by outsiders as the most evolved or authentic. For these and other reasons, it deserves to be declared a cultural and historical heritage.

In 2005, Terreiro da Casa das Minas (the property) was registered as a national heritage in the Book of Historical Preservation, and the Book of Archaeological, Ethnographic and Landscape Preservation recognized its importance and, consequently, the contribution of black people to the construction of the Brazilian nation.

Recife, 18 April 2014.
Translated by Peter Leamy, April 2015.
 

sources consulted

ANDRÈS, Luiz Phelipe de Carvalho Castro.  Parecer do membro do Conselho Consultivo do IPHAN, Luiz Phelipe Andrès sobre o Processo nº 1464-T-00 de Tombamento da Casa das Minas. In: COMISSÃO MARANHENSE DE FOLCLORE (Org.). Boletim On-Line n. 24, São Luis, p. 4-7, dez. 2001. Available at: <http://www.cmfolclore.ufma.br/arquivos/b9763d00ea737bafaeb3ec1e6d3b1a26.pdf>. Accessed: 17 mar. 2014.

BRITO, Stella Regina Soares de; BOGÉA, Kátia Santos. Parecer da 3ª SR/IPHAN, de 17 de agosto de 2001, à folha 178 do Processo de Tombamento nº 1464-T-00 – Terreiro Casa das Minas. Mimeo.

FERRETTI, Sérgio. Querebentã de Zomadônu – Etnografia da Casa das Minas do Maranhão. 2. ed. rev. atual. São Luís: EDUFMA, 1996.

______. A importância da Casa das Minas do Maranhão. In: COMISSÃO MARANHENSE DE FOLCLORE (Org.). Boletim On-Line n. 16, São Luís, p. 5-7, ago. 2000. Available at: <http://www.cmfolclore.ufma.br/arquivos/4abbce9b6d214e578683cf72f03e1325.pdf>. Accessed: 12 mar. 2014.

______. Estórias da Casa Grande das Minas Jeje. In: IPHAN. Casa das Minas, Querebentã de Zomadonu. São Luís: Iphan, 2008. p 15-24.

______. O longo declínio da Casa das Minas do Maranhão – um caso de suicídio cultural?. 2012. Available at: < http://www.museuafro.ufma.br/arquivos/5e467aa1f2be08c8c4f0d4cf2190c346.pdf>. Accessed: 10 mar. 2014. 

how to quote this text

Source: MORIM, Júlia. Casa das Minas [House of Mines]/Querebentã de Zomadônu. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at: < http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Ex: 10 mar. 2014.