Millet, Cleusa (c. 1931–1998)

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Millet, Cleusa (c. 1931–1998)

Afro-Brazilian religious leader. Name variations: Mãe Cleusa do Gantois. Born around 1931; died on October 15, 1998; daughter of Alvaro MacDowell and Mãe (means mother) Menininha do Gantois or Mother Menininha, also known as Maria Escolástica da Conceição Nazareth or Maria Escolastica da Conceicao Nazare; children: four sons and a daughter, including Mônica and Zeno.

Cleusa Millet was the daughter of Alvaro MacDowell and Mãe Menininha , or Mother Menininha, the most important high priestess of the Afro-Brazilian religion called Candomblé. Millet spent much of her childhood at the Gantois (Ilê Iya Omin Axé Iya Massé) terreiro or ritual center in Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia. From a young age, she learned from her mother the songs, dances, and rituals associated with the worship of the orixás (animist divinities of African, especially Yoruban, origin). She watched her mother go into trances as the orixá Oxum communicated through her, and eventually Millet was initiated and began to show such abilities herself. The orixá Nàná (the most ancient of the female divinities) communicated through her. Meanwhile, however, she also trained and worked as a nurse.

Millet's mother had inherited the Gantois terreiro from her own aunt, Mãe Pulcheria , who had received it from her mother, Maria Julia da Conceição Nazareth , the terreiro's founder. Mãe Menininha was consequently anxious to pass the terreiro on to one of her own daughters, and Millet showed the most capacity. Yet Millet was reluctant to assume the responsibility, despite determined efforts by Mãe Menininha to persuade her, and only took over at Gantois in September 1987, the year after her mother's death.

Mãe Cleusa officiated as ialorixá (high priestess) of Gantois until her death from a heart attack in October 1998. As a mãe-de-santo (mother-of-saint) or ialorixá, she initiated others, interpreted divinations, performed rituals to secure the good will of the orixás, and while in trances became the vehicle for divine communication. Worshipers' offerings supported her and the terreiro. On the surface, Candomblé was syncretic: most worshipers were at least nominally Catholic, they often equated individual orixás with Catholic saints, and the Catholic hierarchy and police sometimes raided the terreiros and persecuted those practicing Candomblé. By the time Mãe Cleusa took over the Gantois terreiro, however, Candomblé showed more and more openly its African roots. Brazil had begun to recognize it as an authentic cultural manifestation of African heritage.


Butler, Kim. "Menininha do Gantois, Mãe," in Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. Vol. III. Ed. by Barbara A. Tenenbaum. 5 vols. NY: Scribner, 1996, p. 584.

Landes, Ruth. The City of Women. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

Silva, Vagner Gonçalves da. Candomblé e Umbanda: caminhos da devoção brasileira. São Paulo: Editora Ática, 1994.

Kendall W. Brown , Professor of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

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