Learn all the facts about the Malagasy or Madagascar Mythology. Discover its most deeply rooted traditions and mythical customs.
The Malagasy mythology refers to the mythology of the region of Madagascar. This is a large island belonging to the African continent; it is surrounded by the waters of the Indian Ocean.
The history of Madagascar is marked by both the African continent and the Asian continent, being an intermediate and connecting point between the two continents. There is a mixture of cultures of all civilizations that have marked its history since its origin.
The Malagasy or Madagascar Mythology is full of incredible and varied legends that tell stories of its creation and important facts that include the sea, the water and its own inhabitants.
History of Malagasy mythology
Madagascar has a mixed origin, coming from Asian and African culture. Most research shows that in the beginning, Madagascar was an uninhabited land and the first people to inhabit it were the Indonesians in the 1st century.
However, archaeological studies done in this area indicate that its first settlers originated between the 2nd and 5th centuries, when the first inhabitants began to arrive from Southeast Asia in canoes.
In this way, studies have shown that the Malagasy have a close connection with Dayak peoples, with whom they share their ancestors. However, the culture that had the most influence on Malagasy mythology was their ancestors who migrated from Indonesia.
Later in the Middle Ages, the Persians and Arabs arrived in the lands of Madagascar. And so in the following centuries migrations came from Portugal, Great Britain, Spain and France. Until 1960, when Madagascar achieved its independence.
Gods of the Malagasy mythology
He is the supreme deity of Malagasy mythology, the creator and omniscient god. He may also be called “Andriamanitra”, which means “the fragrant lord”. All Malagasy believers of Zanahary, can make prayers to their god but cannot hear him.
Zanahary is the only deity in Malagasy mythology who is totally incorruptible. He is a god who balances good and evil; and his function is to protect human beings.
Another of the supreme deities of the Malagasy, he is described as a being of short stature and very cultured. He was a kind but precise being who knew very well what each man really needed. He was the one who faced the supreme god of evil Taivadu and he was helped by a legion of colored angels that he had at his command.
God of the Malagasy creator of all things that exist; they believed that there was nothing on earth that did not emanate from the god Kanno. He had the weakness of not being a being with eternal life, therefore his successors should punish vice but also reward virtue.
He was a being venerated by the Malagasy as a kind of fetish, he was the protector of the king and his dignitaries. He was described as having a three-stranded braid, to which hung shells tied with a ribbon; he also wore bones, feathers, and other similar items.
His cults were characterized by the impregnation of a red liquid; this served as protection for the king, as amulets and also had the meaning of ” life” for the Malagasy men of prehistoric times.
The Malagasy had a strong belief in the god Taivadu; he was the supreme god of evil and was said to have at his disposal an army of demons, to commit atrocities on humans.
They were responsible for causing all the evil things that afflicted the Malagasy: diseases, death and catastrophes. The most surprising thing, was all the evil power he had despite his short stature; Taivadu was no more than a centimeter tall.
Rites of Malagasy mythology
Although the Malagasy believe in a single god and creator of everything, which is the god Andriamanitra; their main cult is directed to their ancestors or “Razana”, is the name they give to refer to their deified ancestors.
In Malagasy mythology, it is believed that the ancestors are protectors of existence; both in the material and spiritual life. For this reason the ancestor cult is more like a celebration of “the science of life”.
In this cult, animal and food sacrifices are offered to Razana, to invoke them for different reasons: to consult them for an important decision of the community, to influence with their powers in politics, economy, culture, accidents, diseases, among others.
Rites in Imerima
This ritual is done after the deceased has been washed and prepared; he is dressed and wrapped in a special silk called “lamba mena” so that he can be exposed to his relatives for a long period of time. At the end he is put in his coffin to be carried to his grave site.
Mahafaly and Antandroy ground rites
This rite consists of a dance that includes shaking the coffin several times. The women go playing the palms, while the men go brandishing their hoe. When they arrive at the place of the tomb and have buried the deceased, they proceed to make a monument in that place.
This rite is accompanied by the sacrifice of several zebu, this rite can last several days accompanied by dances and songs. The main objective of this cult is the wealth of the deceased demonstrated in their sacrifices. It is customary to decorate the tomb of the deceased with the horns of the sacrificed zebu.
Myths and legends of the Malagasy mythology
The mermaid of Andranoro
In the Mamba River near the present-day city of Andranoro, a young man was swimming one day; when he saw a beautiful woman standing on a rock and immediately fell in love.
The young woman’s name was Ranoro, she had hair so long that it covered the lower half of her body. They had many encounters, until one day Ranoro agreed to marry the young man on one condition: he could never mention the word “sira” in front of her.
Ranoro took human form, they had a marriage of very happy years and conceived three children. Ranoro was a distracted woman, and always forgot to do some things at home. One day her husband very annoyed told her these words: tena tsy asianao sira mihitsy aho; which meant “you never listen to me!
That man at the mention of the forbidden word, Ranoro went to the Mamba River and never came back. It is only believed that from time to time Ranoro visits her husband and children but in dreams; when they are in trouble and need advice.
This is the name of a beautiful bird, which played an important role in the war between the Bara and Antandroy peoples. When a warrior of the Bara people was fleeing from his enemies, he hid in the forest; he dived into the lake leaving only his nose to breathe.
When the Antandroy warriors realized that there was a nose sticking out of the lake, they decided to go and capture him; but suddenly a kingfisher landed on the nose of the Bara warrior and the Antandroy warriors gave up thinking it was a nose.
From that moment on, when the kingfisher saved the life of the warrior Bara, he made an oath where he cursed all his relatives and descendants who dared to eat or kill a kingfisher because it saved his life.
Even today, for fear of the consequences of the curse of the Bara warrior, no member of the Bara people dares to eat, kill or harm a kingfisher.
Legend of the Sacred Lake of Antañavo
There used to be a village in the territory occupied by the Antañavo Lake. One day an old man came to the village asking for alms to the inhabitants; but nobody paid attention to that old man.
When night fell, a humble woman who lived with her only son, offered shelter and food to the poor old man; but after giving him dinner, the old man thanked her for the food and left.
When bedtime came, the woman was in despair because her son kept crying louder and louder. When she went for a walk to calm him down, the boy fell asleep when the woman sat down under a tamarind tree in the village.
Every time the woman tried to go back to her house, the child woke up and started crying again; for this reason the woman decided to stay under the tamarind tree. Suddenly, she heard a great roar; the cause of that sound was her entire village as it disappeared under water before her eyes.
The woman was shocked and went to the neighboring villages; when she told her story they told her that they were saved because of the kindness they showed to the old man and he spared their lives.
Since that time it is believed that the crocodiles of the lake are the inhabitants that were in the village and both they and the lake itself are revered by all the surrounding area.
Other customs of the Malagasy mythology
For the Malagasy mythology, death represents the most important step of the human being; it is where to become part of “Razana”. That is to say, to the high status of being an ancestor in their traditional religion.
The importance of this transition is because he becomes part of the other side; he begins to live in the spiritual world. Where he has the ability to dominate everything over his descendants; he is revered and influences their lives.
For the Malagasy there are three fundamental ceremonies that must accompany death; they are funerals, exhumation and sacrifices. However, these rituals can vary according to each tribe belonging to the Malagasy territory.
Also called “famadihana”, it is practiced years after the person dies and there are different reasons for its practice; among them the first reason is that the deceased could not be buried in the grave of his family. After some years, these remains are taken to their respective family cemetery.
Generally, for sanitary reasons, this practice is carried out during the dry season. The main reason for the famadihana is to show and celebrate the joy for the deceased loved ones.
Another reason why the Malagasy custom this practice, is due to a religious belief that their ancestors come a time that gives them very cold; for this reason they need to be relocated and make them a new facade.
In Malagasy mythology are called “fady”, usually the orders issued by razana are linked to the fady. And it is believed that to breach these taboos means to be guilty with razana.
The fady, are linked to people depending on different factors such as: sex, social status, space, time, among others. They can mean rules to follow, as well as prohibitions of places or things.
They are also called “ody”, the ones in charge of bewitching, making and delivering them are the sorcerers of the tribe. They can be made of different types of materials; among the most common are: wood, shells, plants, coins, zebus horns, pearls, etc.
The most popular talisman is the “mohara”; this talisman has a lot of power and gives its owner wealth and success in the sentimental part. However, to get to have this type of talisman and master its power requires a series of sacrifices.
They are those who govern the day to day life of the Malagasy in all aspects of their lives. Social, spiritual and cultural; they call them “vintana” . The vintana are a kind of call to the complex destinies of people. They are based on the function of the stars, mainly the moon.
It is a very strong tradition within the Malagasy mythology that in order for every man to achieve his virility, every child at birth must be circumcised. When in a village, the number of children is notorious is the most propitious time to perform the ceremony. They are generally performed between the months of June and September, which is the dry and cool season.
The Malagasy have been in the habit of passing down their knowledge and study of plants for generations for medicinal purposes. In each village, there is a healer, also called “ombiasy”, who has the power to cure the Malagasy thanks to his knowledge, materials and especially the use of medicinal plants.
They are also called sorcerers, and there are the good ones with healing powers and have the virtue of communicating with their ancestors to cure diseases; and there are the evil ones called “mpamosavy” who are sorcerers who practice black magic and cast spells and evil spells.
They are a fundamental part of the Malagasy mythology, they are directly related to the Vintana and their knowledge is based on astrology; they are also called “mpanandro”. They have a very high social position in the Malagasy tribes and are highly respected.
They are in charge of predicting celebrations and good omens; among them weddings, exhumations, etc. They also predict activities of utmost importance for the good of the people such as travel, meetings and jobs. They influence the daily life and decisions of the Malagasy people.
Malagasy mythology refers to all the beliefs, customs, myths and legends of the “pygmy“ tribes, named after the group of light-skinned people who are believed to be the first settlers of the entire Malagasy territory.
Even today many of the beliefs live on, especially the varied myths of these lands. Where mainly highlights the belief of their ancestors since the first settlers; who still believe that they live in the depth of their forests..,
The Malagasy people, have a complex origin; due to the great variety of ethnic configurations and their divisions in clans. But they all share their strongest belief in the power of their ancestors and how it influences all areas of their daily lives.