Preferred Citation: Sharp, Lesley A. The Possessed and the Dispossessed: Spirits, Identity, and Power in a Madagascar Migrant Town. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.

The World of the Spirits


1. Authors generally refer to tromba as being the spirits of Sakalava princes. This is, however, misleading, since both male and female members of royal lineages may become tromba. Throughout the province of Diégo (Antsiranana) there are a number of well-known female tromba: for example, the royal Bemazava lineage has several female spirits. The term prince is misleading as well, because it implies not only the absence of princesses, but also of kings and queens. For these reasons I prefer to use the term royalty when referring to rulers and other members of their lineages.

2. Tsiaraso III, who is the present Bemazava king, does on occasion visit Nosy Faly.

3. Atsimo is the name of the tomb in Mahajanga province in which these royalty are entombed (Ramamonjisoa, personal communication). Some informants also say that the name is derived from tsimo, which means “wind.” The term refers to the idea that tromba are out in the air when they are neither in the tomb nor in a medium.

4. In Ambanja, early June is often a time of much tromba. Following this, however, are “taboo months” (fanjava fady) for certain categories of spirits: mid-June to mid-July is fady for Bemihisatra spirits, and the period from mid-July to mid-August is fady for the Bemazava. These taboo months are associated with times when royal work (fanampoan̂a) is being performed at their respective tombs. Since this period is associated with death and danger, it is said that the tomb “door is closed” (mifody ny varavaran̂a) so that the royal spirits may not leave and possess the living. Similarly, tromba possession is also forbidden during any month when a member of the royal family has died. The month when the door is once again open (mibian̂a) is August (Volambita). Finally, if there is an eclipse, no tromba possession may occur during that month.

5. In this study, I wish to distinguish between spirit possession and trance, the former referring to the experience as it is socially defined and constructed, the latter describing the physiological changes felt by the medium. In other words, possession refers to Sakalava perceptions of the spirit, as it takes control of the medium’s body, and trance refers to the medium’s altered state of consciousness. I am not certain if all of the mediums I observed actually entered trance (Sakalava stress that there is “fake” tromba: tromba mavandy or “tromba who lie”), but since trance is assumed by Sakalava to be part of the medium’s experience I, too, will assume that the majority experienced this altered state of consciousness.

6. A valiha is a type of zither made from a large piece of bamboo. It is held vertically in the lap and the strings are plucked with the fingers and thumbs. It is unusual to find a valiha player at a ceremony in Ambanja, since today there are very few musicians in the area who know how to play this instrument.

7. Students in Ambanja and other coastal areas lag behind highland children in their schooling; it is not unusual for junior high school students to be in their late teens and for high school students to graduate when they are in their early twenties. In addition, Angeline’s experience with njarinintsy possession typifies that of many adolescent schoolgirls. These topics will be discussed in chapter 9.

8. According to compass direction, the closest royal tombs are at Nosy Faly and lie north of Ambanja. The spirits who appear at Angeline’s ceremony all come from tombs in the south (boka atsimo), near Mahajanga.

9. As Feeley-Harnik explains, this is a form of mead used at royal celebrations and to cleanse filth associated with death or wrongdoing (1991b: 594).

10. Spirits’ names appear in capital letters to designate when they arrive.

11. Tromba, of course, as royal ancestors, are also razan̂a. To avoid confusion, I will use the term razan̂a only when referring to the ancestors of commoners.

12. Lambek (1981: 70ff) refers to this as the “communication triad” of possession, which involves the sender (host or medium), the receiver (spirit), and the intermediary (others with whom the spirit converses).

13. One informant stated that in the past individuals with leprosy could not be placed in the family tomb. I am not sure if this was true, since the disease does not appear to be stigmatized today.

14. Non-Sakalava Protestants, too, honor their dead at this time but, as I heard a Lutheran pastor stress during a sermon, they were not to leave goods such as honey or rum at the gravesites to feed the dead, since this is a pagan Malagasy custom (fomba-gasy). They could, however, leave flowers or candles to honor them.

15. Feeley-Harnik describes lolo as spirits who have not achieved ancestor status (1991b: 405); see also Lombard’s discussion (1988: 117ff). Astuti (1991) reports that among the Vezo lolo means “tomb” and it is thus equated with known ancestors.

16. For the Highland Merina, vazimba are the spirits of the little people who are said to be the island’s original inhabitants. See also Lombard (1988: 17) on the southern Sakalava of Menabe.

17. The term njarinintsy is often capitalized; since there is not one but a multitude of njarinintsy spirits I have decided not to capitalize this term in the text (compare, however, Sharp 1990). Feeley-Harnik translates Njarinintsy as “Mother Cold” while my informants in Ambanja defined it as “The Fellow/The One who is Cold.”

18. Among my informants, however, a few were skeptical about this structural affinity to tromba; these tended to be members of the Bemazava royal lineage. They stated that more recent tromba spirits, such as Mampiary, Be Ondry, and Djao Kondry are not tromba spirits but simply njarinintsy who have taken names and who are trying to achieve royal status. According to Feeley-Harnik (1991a: 88), “be hondry,” like njarinintsy and “masantoko,” is an evil spirit (lolo) who possesses in order to kill.

19. Heurtebize (1977) has described this form of possession among the Antandroy. He reports that a decade ago Antandroy sometimes returned from the north with a new form of possession, called doany, which means “tomb,” but by 1987 doany possession was rare (Heurtebize, personal communication). See also Lombard’s description of bilo among the southern Sakalava of Menabe (1988: 17). Finally, for an intriguing discussion of bilo and economic change among the Masikoro see Fieloux and Lombard (1989).

The World of the Spirits

Preferred Citation: Sharp, Lesley A. The Possessed and the Dispossessed: Spirits, Identity, and Power in a Madagascar Migrant Town. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.