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 WORLD OF SPIRITS
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 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/croccaves/legends.html
Wikipedia – Vazimba
PHOTO CREDIT: By Hans-Peter Scholz Ulenspiegel / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons