French Priestess Broadens Brazil's Candomble

Santa Cruz da Serra, Brazil - French diplomat's wife Gisele Cossard fell into a trance at a Candomble ceremony in a Rio de Janeiro suburb in 1959 and has been hooked on the Afro-Brazilian religion ever since.

The following year blue-eyed Cossard was initiated into the cult brought to Brazil five centuries ago by African slaves working on sugarcane plantations.

Named Omindarewa or beautiful clear water, Cossard became Brazil's first European Mae de Santo -- priestess or, literally, Saint's Mother. She set up her own temple on swampy land bought in 1973 in the Rio suburb of Santa Cruz da Serra at the foot of the mountains.

Although few Brazilians admit they believe in Candomble because of its historical role as the religion of slaves and the poor, it has wide influence in Latin America's largest country.

Few eyebrows were raised when President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva invited Mother Nitinha, a Candomble priestess, to join the official delegation to Pope John Paul's funeral in Rome.

Although Brazil has the world's biggest Catholic community with over 120 million declared believers, many secretly believe in Candomble and consult priestesses such as Omindarewa who command respect in a cult welcoming all sorts and colors.

"Candomble is an open religion ... One's destiny is preordained by the orixas (gods)," said Cossard, a sprightly 81, during a break in a fete in honor of Ogum and Oxossi -- the gods of war and hunting.

Asked what attracted her to the African religion, she said, "Candomble is full of life and enthusiasm ... I found that people could be happy with nothing."

In contrast, Catholics seem cold and burdened by a complex about sin, said Cossard, who has a doctorate based on her studies of Brazilian Candomble from the Sorbonne in Paris and plans to publish a book this year explaining Candomble ritual.

Cossard's temple in a far-flung industrial suburb where tourists seldom tread draws middle class European descendants as well as traditional poor Afro-Brazilian devotees plus an occasional TV crew.

During four hours of hypnotic drumming, dancing and chanting in the west African Yoruba language, three women spectators fell into trances and were wrapped in white cloth before being escorted behind the scenes to recover.

The 16 mainly white participants wore weird and wonderful costumes while diminutive Mother Omindarewa, dressed in a pale blue buffoon dress and turban, bangles and beads, directed operations from a wooden chair on a plinth with a tin rattle.


Possessing boundless energy, she wound up the fete with a dance around the brightly decorated patio to salute all performers and invited everybody to a traditional Brazilian feijoada meal of rice, black beans and pieces of pork.

Cossard was born in Morocco and has had a lifelong love for all things African.

Brought up in provincial Nancy in France she took off for the Cameroon in 1949 as a young housewife and later spent several years in Chad. Life was tough and she found it difficult to break down colonial and color barriers.

Returning to provincial France was hell, she said, but escape came in 1959 when her husband was posted to Rio de Janeiro as cultural attache.

In the fun-loving and open-minded Brazilian city, Cossard mixed freely.

"In Rio I found the key to Africa," she said.

Candomble had been deemed devil worship and banned until 1946 in Brazil, which was the last country in the Americas to ban slavery in 1888.

However slaves who believed in Candomble sidestepped the ban by pretending they were worshiping Catholic saints. For instance, Saint George, the warrior saint, masqueraded for the god Ogum.

Candomble also has one supreme god, Olorum, and links Oxala with Jesus and the sea goddess Yemanja with the Virgin Mary.

After it was legalized, Candomble grew quickly and spread from its northeastern stronghold in Salvador to Rio de Janeiro and other southern cities.

But because it was for so long the religion of slaves and the poor, few professional Brazilians own up to it.

"Middle class people are reluctant to admit in public they believe in Candomble because there's still a certain stigma that could harm their careers," said Mariza Soares, who lectures on the history of Brazil's slave trade at Rio's Fluminense Federal University (UFF).

Soares said that Omindarewa wielded considerable influence in Candomble circles and had broadened its appeal. Candomble was popular because it was perceived as pragmatic, responding to people's daily problems about work, money and marriage.

But in the past decade it has suffered intense competition from the aggressive spread of evangelical Christian groups.

"It's easier to become an evangelical which also caters for people's daily needs," said Veronica Melander, a Swedish researcher at the Superior Institute for Religious Studies (ISER) in Rio de Janeiro.

But Melander added that Candomble continues to grow though more slowly than evangelicism. "It appeals to both whites and blacks, provides direct contact with the gods," she said.