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Mãe Stella de Oxóssi [Mother Stella de Oxóssi]

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Mãe Stella de Oxóssi [Mother Stella de Oxóssi]

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 09/03/2017

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - N/I

Maria Stella de Azevedo Santos – Iya Odé Kayode – was born on 2 May 1925, in Ladeira do Ferrão, Pelourinho, in the city of Salvador. Her parents were Thomazia de Azevedo and Esmeraldino Antigno dos Santos. As she was orphaned at a young age, she was adopted by a maternal aunt (Archanjá de Azevedo) who was married to José Carlos Fernandes, a wealthy notary and owner of a notary service in Bahia. She graduated in nursing from the Federal University of Bahia’s Nursing School, specialising in Public Health, which Stella practiced for thirty years.

She was initiated into candomblé by Mãe Senhora in September 1939 when she was only fourteen. Mãe Senhora was Mother Stella’s religious mother, and she accompanied her for decades in the house-of-saint of Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá until 1967, when the ialorixá passed away. Ondina Valéria Pimentel (Mãezinha) then assumed Opô Afonjá, and a year after her death (in 1976), Stella was chosen by Xangô [an Afro-Brazilian spirit] and the búzios [shell-casting] to be the ialorixá of the yard of São Gonçalo do Retiro. At the time, she was forty-nine and had retired from nursing.

Ilê Axé Opé Afonjá began with Mãe Aninha, who established in Brazil the tradition of the twelve Ministers of Xangô – osobás – six on the right hand and six on the left; each obá with two substitutes, the otum and the ossi. After the death of Mãe Aninha, Mãe Senhora (Dona Maria Bibiana do Espírito Santo) took over the direction of Axé, giving it much prestige.

Mother Stella travelled several times to Africa, seeking to deepen her knowledge on Yoruba culture (which is basically oral), and managed to transform it into a written heritage. This made a greater dissemination of the African cults and the orisha religion possible throughout the country. In the 1980s, she participated in several national and international conferences on Afro-Brazilian religions, wrote articles, was interviewed by newspapers and magazines, gave lectures, and published two books – the first of them co-authored with Cléo Martins, her daughter, which was entitled E daí aconteceu o encanto [And from There the Charm Happened]; and the second Meu tempo é agora [My Time Is Now]. Stella was the first ialorixá to write books and articles on her religion. She also fought the syncretism between Candomblé and Catholicism, emphasising that the fusion of distinct cultural elements deprived the two religions and prejudiced the religion of the oppressed.

In this sense, she stated:

What we always preach is mutual respect. The important thing is that there is no aggression. The connection is not very important because they are parallel religions. The important thing, I say again, is that there is respect. There are people who frequent the terreiro and go to church, and this is normal. When I spoke of the question of syncretism, I meant not mixing up obligations. Like, for example, doing your obligation to the orisha and going to church because you’ve fused the orisha with a saint. I am not against the Catholic Church, but against syncretism. Our greatest concern is for the human being to feel good, to be fulfilled. If this happens by attending both beliefs, the better for them.

The religious activities of Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá start in September, beginning with the Águas de Oxalá, and extend to the donation of gifts to Oxum and Iemanjá, where saintly people place their offerings in the sea. During the worship, a ritual is revived in the terreiro: the orisha that inhabits the initiate in the moment of the trance materialises and penetrates in the body of the participants, through the rites of possession. In this sense, Stella states:

Those who practice and believe, witness and feel. Faith encompasses the whole person. It is not reached by intellect. Also, one only reaches the Orisha through the heart ... We do not choose the Orisha. It is he who chooses us, the same thing happens, I believe, in all types of priesthood and in all religions. The important thing is that love takes care of our lives.

In identifying with the orisha, according to African philosophy (on which candomblé is based), the initiate will gain a new identity and, as a result, will become another person, with different names and behaviours, all this to be herself. The orishas, who are transcendental entities, communicate with the faithful through the mother-of-saint. Whatever is done in the sacred space of candomblé represents an important part of the rituals: cooking for the saint, receiving the saint, caring for animals, giving goats baths, or caring for the offerings. The mother-of-saint is the religious, cultural and social leader of the community, who transmits knowledge to her auxiliaries, conducts the services, ensures the correctness of the rites, consecrates priestesses and priests, and possesses supreme and absolute authority to perform any function within the terreiro, such as replacing the one who is sacrificing, harvesting sacred plants or consulting the oracle.

In 1981, Maria Stella created the Ohun Lailai Museum, assisted by the psychologist Vica Felicidade de Almeida Campos. It is the first museum open to the public in a candomblé house. Among many objects, it is possible to appreciate the clothes she wore when she assumed the leadership of Opô Afonjá; clothes of ex- mothers-of-saint; chairs and tools used by orishas; old pots used by daughters-of-saint to prepare tasty foods; a stone on which corn was cut (to make pamonha, canjica and other dishes); sacred leaves with their names in Yoruba; and atabaques [drums]. In one of the rooms of the museum it is even possible to observe the tokens that are offered to the orishas.

In honour of the sixtieth anniversary of Mother Stella’s initiation, in November 1999, the Institute of National Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN), through the Ministry of Culture, enshrined Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, declaring it a Brazilian cultural heritage.

An avant-garde priestess, Mãe Stella is respected for her ideas in the country and abroad, being a reference in terms of intercultural and interreligious dialogue. As a defender of the world’s black culture and citizenship, she has received several prizes, honours and decorations, including an Honorary Doctorate from the Federal University of Bahia (at the age of eighty), the Esso trophy for black writers, the Maria Quitéria Award, the Clementina de Jesus Trophy, the Ordem do Cavaleiro [Order of the Knight] (from the Bahia State Government), and the Cultural Merit Commendation (from the Presidency of the Republic). At the United Nations Conference against Racism and Intolerance held in Durban in August 2001, she was one of the strongest Brazilian leaders. In 2001, as a culture promoter, she also won the Estadão journalistic award.

Mother Stella de Oxossi was one of the first voices of candomblé to condemn syncretism, a system that associates the African deities with Catholic saints, confusing saints and orishas, candomblé and Christian rites, due to the prohibition of the orishas cults by Portuguese settlers. She affirms that Iansã is not Santa Barbara, refuses the idea that candomblé is a syncretic sect, and declares that it has initiation and liturgy parameters of its own, defending its status of a Brazilian religion. The priestess has also fought for cultural democratisation, combating discrimination against black people, women, and other marginalised social strata.

As far as candomblé is concerned, she states:

We've managed to impose the belief brought by the slaves, by the human respect that has always guided our actions. That is why, today, blacks and whites, poor and rich, unite here in search of peace and balance. We are both tradition and the new.

Renowned artists, like composer Dorival Caymmi, painter Caribé and the late writer Jorge Amado, among many distinguished personalities, were or are still members of Opô Afonjá and have always revered Mãe Stella. Mãe Menininha do Gantois was also her friend and admirer.

A stronghold of her faith, deeply rooted in religious tradition, consistent and disciplined, Mãe Stella changed the perception that an initiated black person had of themselves, changed the way of perceiving candomblé, showed that we were not an island, thus achieving through the structuring of attitudes of acceptance of what one is, what one has, what one does, transforming a candomblé terreiro into a centre of cultural individuality, also achieving – without even thinking about it, but it is the structured residue – a landmark: candomblé, an African religion in Brazil, already has a clear cultural/social parameter: before and after Mãe Stella. (CAMPOS, 2000).

In short, it was through Mãe Stella de Oxossi that candomblé became a religion that was respected and adapted to the country’s reality. She made possible a synthesis between cults, beliefs and rites, originating from diverse African ethnic groups, and highlighted the important tradition of ancestors in people’s lives. Through her strength, tenderness, charisma and competence, the ialorixá established the Afro-descendant religion, defending the conception that black people need to be considered relevant elements of Brazilian society, as well as active agents of a history that is permanently in the process of building.

Recife, 16 September 2008.
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016.

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how to quote this text

Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Mãe Stella de Oxóssi. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: dia  mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.