Olga de Alaketu, 80, Afro-Brazilian Priestess, Dies

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Olga de Alaketu, the high priestess of one the oldest temples of the Afro-Brazilian religion Condomble, died here on Thursday. She was 80.

The cause was complications of diabetes, officials of the Sagrada Familia hospital said.

Ms. Alaketu presided over the Ile Maroia Laji terreiro, as Candomble temples are known. It was established in 1636, making it one of the oldest in the coastal city of Salvador da Bahia, where the religion is based.

Her temple was frequented by prominent figures, including the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado and the French anthropologist Pierre Verger. Earlier this year, the temple was declared a national heritage site by the Culture Ministry.

Candomble is an animist religion brought over with the African slaves, mostly from Nigeria and Benin. Followers incorporate spirits in ceremonies filled with music and dancing that often last throughout the night. The ceremonies can also involve animal sacrifices.

"In the last 40 years, we can consider Mother Olga as the greatest proponent of the religion of the Orixas in all Brazil," said Gilberto Gil, the popular singer who serves as culture minister, at the ceremony declaring the temple a national heritage site.

Historians said Ms. Alaketu, whose name was sometimes spelled Alaketo, was a fifth-generation descendant of the royal family of Aro, from present-day Benin. Her family members were brought to Brazil as slaves and were instrumental in establishing Candomble in Brazil.

For many years, Candomble was banned in Brazil and its followers practiced their religion by worshiping the Orixas - the Gods of their African ancestors - disguised as Catholic saints. The sea goddess Iemanja, for instance, became the Virgin Mary.

In the 1980's, spurred on by a growing black pride movement, Candomble moved to distance itself from Catholicism, eliminating the saints and worshiping the Orixas directly.

Information was not immediately available regarding survivors, although Brazilian news organizations reported that her eldest daughter would assume leadership of the temple.