Monday, 5 December 2011

Mythical Beings of Madagascar

     It is about time I went back to making a few translations, to assist those who cannot read French. This article has really nothing to do with cryptozoology as such, but it is still highly interesting. It was sent to me on a French cryptozoological e-mail chat site by Mickaël Séon, who apparently obtained the information from the book by Decary, listed in the bibliography at the end of the post. It concerns what might be called the fairy tradition of Madagascar.
    Madagascar was originally settled sometime in the first millennium of the Christian era by seafarers from Borneo. They either first settled, or received immigrants from, east Africa, whence they acquired half their genes, ten percent of their vocabulary, and the custom of cattle raising. Unlike Africa, but like Indonesia, their staple crop is rice. Their cultural life revolves around taboos and ancestor worship. Indeed, the ornate stone tombs, differing in style throughout the island, make one of the most picturesque features of the countryside, while the homes of the living are of sticks and straw, like those of the first two little pigs. Hence, you will note the reference to the sacred tombs of the Vazimbas.
     The multi-dialect language of the island is related, not to any on Africa, but to those of Indonesia; I recognized a few of the words when I was there. Those who want to know how to pronounce the names in the article properly should check the entry for "Malagasy language" in the Wikipedia. I shall merely provide the following brief guide. The "s" is usually palatal, sounding somewhat like "sh". For some reason, the English "oo" sound is not written as a "u", as in most  languages, but "o". Stress is normally on the second last syllable (in the original French article, this syllable was marked with an accent). However, except in slow, formal speech, unaccented vowels have a tendency to disappear - especially final "a" and "y". The name of the people, Malagasy, is typically heard as "mulla-gush".
     So, now for the article. The Malagasy have dark skin and curly hair, so the attribution to the spirits of pale skin and smooth hair seems to represent an attempt to categorize them as the "others". In a like fashion, the Andaman Islanders, who are stocky, black, curly-haired pygmies, believe that the spirits are tall and pale, with long limbs and hair - like Europeans, in fact. Readers cognisant with European fairy lore will notice some familiar themes eg changelings, the luring of mortals into water to be drowned, and the water spirits who own submarine cattle and marry human males.
     The Vazimbas or Vasimbas (or again, Zimbas) were the first inhabitants of Madagascar; that is why they are classed among the proto-Malagasy. Of African origin, the Vazimbas seem to have come, according to local legends and the accounts of the old-time travellers, from the left bank of the Zambesi to the north-west of Cafreria. [Cafreria = north-east South Africa. "Kaffir" was once a quite respectable name for the Xhosa.] This is confirmed by their name: Vazimba comes from Va (variant of Bantu Ba, "people", which one finds in Ba-ntu) and Zimba (Zambesi, the root in which one finds the names of the nations, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique). Simon derives their name from the proto-Bantu in Shambala (1) wa/ziwa, designating the population on the coast of the sea. Guthries notes the root -diba, lake; one finds it in Kiunguja (2) ziwa and in Kigunya (3) ziva. I think that this root more generally designates water (lake, sea, river, or swamp). Indeed, there are a lot of Zimbas in Africa; they live south of the Zairan region of Kivu (Kasongo), where the Zaire River [now known once more as the Congo] flows. The Vazimbas are often cited in legends, and one finds them in place names like Fasam-bazimba, "tomb of the Vazimba" (from Fásana, a tomb). These places are well understood to be sacred.
Comment: It is true that Bantu languages are prefixing languages, with many noun classes, and ba-, with variants wa- and va-, is the plural prefix for the noun class for humans. It is also true that ziwa means "lake" in Swahili (also, "breast" and "milk"). However, not many authorities find this root in the national names cited. Since the name obviously comes from east Africa, I wonder if it might mean "lion men" ie the human plural attached to the Swahili (and related languages) simba, "lion".)
     Others describe the Vazimbas as "little men with smooth hair and fair complexions". These authors hold the Vazimbas to be different, unknown, more or less imaginary peoples. The Malagasy believe in the existence of numerous spirits or genies. Among the Tañala (south-east Madagascar), we find:
     The Kimoly, dwarfs with long hair, who steal, at night, the burnt rice in the bottom of pots. They plait the hair of the girls, and carry off the boys into caves. These dwarfs can be encountered among the nearby populations: Kimoly and Kimosy among the Betsileo (who, moreover, consider them to be ghosts), Kinoly among the Bara. [A map of the Malagasy tribes can be found here.] They are also called Omba. These are the ones described by François-Xavier Pelletier. Decary says: "Among the Betsileo, the Kinoly are analogous to ghosts".
    The Kokolampo, long-haired spirits of the forest. It is generally a woman who is able to make herself invisible or appear in different forms (one of which is a bird with fire under its wings - like the Ziny). She makes calls resembling ululations and it is forbidden to imitate her call on pain of seeing the home in which one is found set on fire. This spirit is thus well feared and to meet her is death. The Kokolampos are known among the Antemoro, the Antandroy, the Bara (Kokolapo) and the Antanosy (Coucoulampou - Flacourt, 1658). [These are two spellings of the same word, as the Malagasy "u" and the French "ou" are both pronounced like the English "oo".] To the Kokolampo one can connect the Rakobia, an ululating spirit (rako = hair intermingled with brambles). Among the northern Tañala, the Rakobia is a spirit of the animals (in particular, the wild boar).
     The Tompon-Tany, spirits of the earth ("master of the earth", from tompo, "lord" and tany, "earth"). They are also called Fahasivy, "ninths", because of the ninth house of Sikidy (a divination art apparently that of geomancy) is reserved for the spirits. These spirits are more or less assimilable to the souls of the ancestors and the name Tampon-tany is equally given to the people (as distinct from the nobility).
     The Lolo, spirits of the waters, also called Lolorano (from rano, "water"). These spirits are connected with the souls of the former kings (known equally by the Betsimisaraka and the Antemoro). The Lolo take possession of the bodies of young girls. Persons afflicted by this "sickness" (called Maharika) let out cries and speak in disconnected phrases.
     The Biby, nature spirits possessing man. One speaks of Tromba, the one possessed as well as the possession itself.
     The Hako or wild men (Antandroy, Bara, Betsileo, Zafisoro and Sakalava).
     The Ziny, evil spirits able, as we have mentioned already, to take the form of a "bird with fire under its wings". These spirits haunt forests and uninhabited places (known also by the Antemoro, Betsileo, and Zafisoro).
     On the Kalanoro, Decary says: "The Kalanoro is, if I dare say so, a sort of amphibian character. At Lake Alaotra, the Kalanoros are women, kinds of naiads or mermaids, with hair falling to the waist; they live at the bottom of the water in water-tight palaces, seducing canoeists and fishermen, and attracting children. In Betsileo belief, on the contrary, the Kalanoro is a little terrestrial female dwarf no more than two feet high, entirely covered with long hair, married to another male dwarf called Kotokely; she lives in caves and lies on a faery bed made of silkworm cocoons. She in interested in the young children of men, but in order to steal them and substitute her own. She makes the babies she has thus got hold of absorb special beverages which prevent them from growing up. Malformed newborns are sometimes called "sons of Kalanoro", and in the countryside still, at the time of lying-in, the parents watch attentively to ensure that Kalanoro doesn't intervene to effect such an exchange.
     In the environs of Lake Kinkony, the Sakalava have a different conception of the Kalanoro. This being, here considered masculine, lives in the reed thickets on the edge of ponds. He is less than a metre high, has long hair, and only three toes on his feet. He has a sweet voice like a woman, feeds on fish and raw food, and walks around in the evening in the countryside. On meeting him, he engages you in conversation and little by little lures you off to the lake, where he makes you disappear. More to the north, on the contrary, the Kalanoro lives in the woods and caves, and does not seek to lure away humans, but possesses hooked nails with which he can cruelly wound those who seek to capture him; he feeds on milk, which he sometimes comes right up to the huts to steal. In summary, both large and small everywhere dread the Kalanoro, whose name serves for parents to keep their children quiet."
     I might add only that Kalanoro means "girl who brings good luck" (kala, "girl", and noro, "good luck").
     Zazavavindrano, which Decary translates as "water princess", means rather "girl of the waters" (zaza, "child", vavy, "daughter", and rano, "water"). The Tañala also know the Andriambavivarano (the Ndraimbavirano of Decary). These are "species of mermaids" or undines. To protect themselves, the Tañala wear protective copper bracelets (these are likewise made to protect them from the Lolo).
     Decary says: "Among the Tañala, the Lolorano and the Zazavavindrano, or princesses of the water, have white complexions and green hair. They live in the midst of aquatic plants, where they pasture their herds of cattle. The Ndriambavirano of the Tsimihety have their dwellings under water; these are species of mermaids who have tails like fish. Sometimes they let themselves be taken in nets, or come ashore and then contract marriages with men ..."

(1) The Shambalas (or Kishambalas or Sambaras) are a people from the north-east of Tanzania (province of Tanga, from the Usambara Mountains).
(2) Kiunguja is a Swahili dialect of Tanzania (variant, Unguja). [Actually, Kiunguja is the dialect of Zanzibar, which has spread throughout Tanzania, and is now the "standard" form of Swahili. Unguja is simply the Swahili name for Zanzibar. Ki- is denotes a language (among other things), u- a place.]
(3) Kigunya (or Gunya) is an alteration of Bajuni, the Swahili dialect of Kenya. [This is dubious. The dialect of the Bajuni is called Kibajuni.]

Barlot, Jean-Jacques: Les survivants de l'ombre: enquête sur les animaux mystérieux (ed. Arthaud, 1985; pp 237-238)
Beaujard, Philippe: Dictionnaire Malgache (dialectal)-Français: dialecte Tañala Sud-Est de Madagascar. Avec recherches étymologiques (ed. l'Harmattan, 1998)
Decary, Raymond: La faune malgache (ed. Payot, 1950; pp 8, and 203-208)

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The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.