Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Daily Ghost Post – V is for Vazimba

Little did I realize that my foray into the world of ghosts would lead to strong political reactions, academic questions, and time spent poring through books about exorcism rites. What was I thinking? Actually it’s so much fun I can hardly stand it.

The Vazimba are believed to be the first settlers in Madagascar. Ruled by queens (!!!), they were an agricultural people who were considered primitive by the next wave of settlers in Madagascar. That is because the Vazimba did not use or know metal. To the newer settlers, it was almost as if the Vazimba lived in a different age.

Why the Vazimba people disappeared is a bit of a quandary. Oral history suggests that their kingdoms (queendoms!!) were conquered by other colonial groups. It is also thought that they succumbed to acculturation. Whatever the process, there is no disagreement about the end result: the Vazimba people and their culture died out. It is an unfortunate and true historical story that often plays out when new settlers come to stay.

Although the Vazimba died out, legends and lore suggest that their spirits didn’t go away. Some say the Vazimba haunt grave sites, others say they are found in caves in their historical homeland. According to scholar Hans Austnaberg, they are evil spirits associated with places where people fall ill.

Yeah, this is complicated for many reasons, not the least of which is that the people of Madagascar – the Malagasy – have a strong connection to the spirit world.

The subject of spirits and ghosts in Madagascar is a very complex, so I will just graze the surface here. If you are interested in more, check out the resources below for more information.

In Madagascar, there is reverence for the dead and rituals for how to treat them. For example, it has been reported that people go so far as to re-wrap and re-bury their dead to make them more comfortable in the afterlife.

Ancestral spirits provide protection if they are treated well. Spirits of the non-ancestral dead tend to cause harm. Called kinoly, they are associated with grave sites. Because of the kinoly’s penchant for causing harm, people take grave care when near cemeteries (pun definitely intended). Taboos, such as not making noise near graves, are practiced to avoid bothering the kinoly. The last thing you want to do is irritate a kinoly because it will be the last thing you do. The kinoly like to tear out livers and other organs.

So how do the Vazimba figure into the world of the spirits? In two ways.

First, if the Vazimba were conquered or assimilated into other cultures, their descendants probably lost track of where they were buried. In that case, the people could not have kept up with their ritual care-giving. Perhaps that explains why there is a belief among some Malagasy that Vazimba spirits are very angry. That would make them perfect ghostly trouble makers, like those who cause illness.

Second, over time, the memory of the Vazimba, a long ago people of Madagascar, may have eroded and changed in the popular imagination. If Wikipedia is accurate on this, they are now sometimes viewed as monsters. Described as looking different and/or being of different stature, it is also said that they might not have been human at all.

To many Malagasy, the Vazimba ghosts are true and real. They are intertwined in the long-held beliefs in the world of the spirits. A deep part of Malagasy spiritual life, they represent pure, cultural belief.

But on a metaphorical level, the Vazimba ghosts can provide a useful, jumping off place for consideration of a broader topic.

There is a common human tendency to view people of distant times or cultures as different. From there, it is an easy next step is to call them monsters or evil spirits. It is an unfortunate human universal that things unfamiliar are tagged as troublesome, that people with different world views or opinions become ‘scapeghosts.’

That human tendency to accuse and label is darker than any ghost story, and one that I hope will finally stop haunting the world’s people.

What are your thoughts about this? In what ways does society label the unfamiliar as evil?

Copyright 2015 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.


Austnaberg, Hans. (2008). Shepherds and Demons: A Study of Exorcism as Practised and Understood by Shepherds in the Malagasy Lutheran Church. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Sharp, Leslie (1994). The Possessed and the Dispossessed. Spirits, Identity and Power in a Madagascar Migrant Town. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.
Tyson, Peter
Wikipedia – Vazimba

PHOTO CREDIT: By Hans-Peter Scholz Ulenspiegel / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

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16 thoughts on “Daily Ghost Post – V is for Vazimba

  1. That’s a great term – “scapeghosts.” I hadn’t heard about the Vazimba. Thanks for a fascinating read!

    • Some posts come easy and others are a bit of a struggle. Because the topic was complex and I wanted to be accurate, respectful, and short enough for a blog post, this one was “strugglesome.” I am thrilled you found it fascinating. πŸ™‚ (And since you do such beautiful work with words, I’m tickled that you liked my little new term too…)

      • For some reason, the posts that I think will be easy often turn out to be the hardest. πŸ™‚ I think you did a great job with such a challenging topic!

      • Nice to hear about bloggers having similar composition experiences. I dragged a writer friend into the challenge, someone I see regularly. And we’ve been discussing just this sort of thing. Community is great…. thanks for being part of mine this morning.

      • You’re welcome! It’s my favourite part of blogging, being part of that community.

  2. They fascinate me, ancient civilisations. Who will ever know who they were, how they thought what was most important to them. Sadly, as a species, we don’t even understand our fellow citizens in our own countries, or those of other countries, and seem to care less. Madagascar also interests me for its wildlife – completely unique. ~Liz

    • That’s exactly it. I was using this focus on past civilizations, as a way of jump starting just this kind of conversation! We don’t just do it to past cultures… you even see it neighbor to neighbor, with politics, geographical stuff (like rural vs urban), and on it goes. Sheesh, my social welfare background is showing… πŸ™‚ Have you written about Madagascan wildlife?

  3. This is a fascinating post. I hadn’t even heard of those people before.

  4. Really enjoyed this post. I didn’t know anything about this spirits. I like the idea that the Vazimba are angry because people didn’t respect theri graves, but people couldn’t respetc them because the memory of their resting places had gone lost by time and changing of cultures.

    Isn’t it what actually happens? New people repalce old ones and often they don’t bother learning the ways of the ones who came before. So they forget and the old ones become scary strangers in new stories.
    But then, stories do keep at least a part of the memories.

    Culture and history are such complex, fascianting things πŸ™‚

    The Old Shelter – Roaring Twenties

    • I agree with you that it is what happens…. and it happens both ways – the old cultures are the scary strangers, and the indigenous cultures look at the newcomers as scary too.

      Culture and history are complex and fascinating — that’s what has been great fun about this A to Z topic – I have been very connected to the cultural/historical ghosts – they have been tickling my brain. But then of course, there are the others too… πŸ™‚

  5. It all seems kind of sad, that this culture died out and then got vilified in the afterlife. But I agree that’s it’s human nature to fear that which is different. I imagine it’s hard-wired into us, because there once was a time that our survival depended on it. Something like that can’t/won’t change quickly.

    • Excellent point! We do have that innate, built-in survival mechanism – a vestigial response? Maybe there are times when it is still essential though, so balancing it with the rational is important (though hard for us as a species as any front page news report would suggest)

  6. As they say, history is always written by the winners, so the losers tend to be demonised or put down. Making them inhuman and ghosts is a good way of making sure no one looks closer into what may have been done to them, or it might be, as you say, due to integration and local beliefs coming in to play. Most interesting post πŸ™‚
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Thanks, I found the whole thing fascinating to research and chew on. And great point about history being written by the winners – it seems that folklore is also rewritten by them as well. Great point Natasha.

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