But we are not alone…” “Listen to the whisper of spirits.
Madagascar Death Legends and Traditions
In Madagascar, death is not forever.
The dead enter the realm of the spirits, but this is not a one-way trip. The spirits hang around, part of the nature around us. They can be in trees, become birds, swim in the water of rivers. Sometimes, they return to greet their family and friends every few years, to have one last party together.
Malagasy lore is full of tales, legends and traditions related to death. During our three day trip down the river Tsiribihina, our guide Jimmy had a tale for us around every other bend. Some were terrifying. Others were weird. All were fascinating, even more so because of the incredible setting.
A slow-flowing, tea-coloured river, lemurs jumping over the treetops, birds zipping across the wide blue sky. Total silence. “But we are not alone”, Jimmy said. “Listen to the whisper of spirits.”
Famadihana – The turning of the bones
This exhumation ceremony is still widely practiced in Madagascar’s central highlands, and it’s one of the most memorable events to witness in Madagascar. It all stems from the belief that death is not forever.
Traditionally, the Malagasy bury their dead relatives in family tombs. Every five or seven years, the tombs are opened and the dead bodies, wrapped in shrouds, are taken out. “They may be cold, they may be bored” Jimmy said. “Or they may just want to have a party”.
Every village has some shaman-like individuals, known as tromba, who are able to communicate with the dead. Families bring offerings to the tromba, such as honey, a virgin’s hair, red cockerels (red is the most sacred colour in Madagascar) and lots of homemade rum. The shaman drinks the rum and enters into a trance. He is possessed by the spirit who starts talking through him. “We are cold, we are bored, we want to get out for one day”. The tromba sets a propitious date, when famadihana will be held.
On the day, the whole extended family flocks to the family tomb from the four corners of Madagascar. It’s a joyous occasion; a zebu is usually sacrificed, rum flows in abundance and brass bands are hired to play. Then the tomb is open, and the bodies taken out. They are laid out in the sun, to absorb some of the precious light and warmth they’ve been craving. Each of the dead is given something. If they liked beer in life, they’re doused in beer. If they liked perfume, they’re covered in scented liquid.
Sometimes family members approach, unwrap the shroud and talk to their dead relatives, cry or laugh with them. Then the bodies are wrapped in new silk shrouds and labelled with their name. Music starts again; the dead are carried around the tomb, dancing with their relatives, before they are placed back inside. “Until next time, never forever” Jimmy added.
Fitampoha – The Turning of the King’s Bones
This tradition is similar to famadihana, but it is done every seven years with the corpse of the Sakalava Kings of the Tsiribihina region. Before Madagascar was unified into a single kingdom, it was divided into several tribes, each with its own ruler. The Sakalava tribe inhabited the region of Western Madagascar.
The corpse of the Sakalava kings are buried in the town of Belo-Sur-Tsiribihina, and they are still venerated by the inhabitants. When the time of fitampoha comes, life halts in the region. Everyone attends the ceremony. The Tsiribihina river, backbone of the region’s life, transport and economy, cannot be touched for seven days, to purify it for the ceremony.
This is a dead person that refuses to leave, to enter the spirit world. They are invisible, but they can be discovered because they eat pady (rice with husk) instead of rice and smell bad. To prevent the bad surprise of having a lolo fokatra hanging about, families leave a plate of pady next to the corpse during the seven days between death and burial. If the pady is eaten, the dead person is a lolo fokatra. With the help of a shaman, he or she will be sent away to live in the forest.
Sometimes the dead return to Earth in the form of a boa or giant snake. This usually happens because the dead person feels to have been wronged by living relatives, or because they have some unfinished business. In this case, the family needs to perform a zebu sacrifice to send the dead back to the spirit world.
It’s the way for the family to apologize, or to say go in peace, we are fine” Jimmy explained, as we sailed through a gorge.
Ihorombe Region Death Traditions
Some of the strangest dead tradition come from the Ihorombe region in south-western Madagascar. Instead of waiting seven days to bury the dead, as it is customary elsewhere in the island, Ihorombe people wait 27 days. During this time, mourning relatives are not allowed to wash, brush their hair or change clothes. Then, after the funeral, everything goes back to normal.
Sometimes in Ihorombe the dead are not buried, but placed into coffins that are hung from trees. This tradition is slowly dying out because of health and safety concerns, but it is still practiced, especially in remote areas.
One day on the river, we had lunch under a tamarind tree. It was huge, with a wide, shady canopy. “Tamarind trees are sacred here” Jimmy explained. “They are never felled. If you need to build a house or a road, it will have to go around the tamarind tree”. The spirits of the dead are believed to reside in tamarind trees, giving them sacred status.
During our last day on the river, we were followed for a while by a pair of crows. They were smaller than the crows I had seen before, with white feathers on their chest. I called Jimmy and pointed to the birds, fingers outstretched. “Don’t point like that” Jimmy said. “You may upset the spirits. If you need to point, do it with your knuckle or with your whole hand.”
Then Jimmy went on to explain that spirits visiting Earth sometimes use crows as a vehicle. When you see two crows flying together, they are in fact two spirits, who were together in life and stayed together in the spirit world.
As he said that, the sun set, and the two lover crows disappeared into the forest.