Covering the myths and deities of the various peoples of Madagascar is a pretty sizeable job to undertake. I decided to use the same approach I’m using with the Americas and take things on a tribe-by-tribe basis.
First off I’ll be tackling the Merina people. Let me emphasize that for my fellow mythology geeks – this list will be JUST about Merina gods and myths. There are a variety of cultural groups from Madagascar, each with their own pantheon of deities, but plenty of mythological reference books do them the disservice of lumping everything into one big category labeled “Madagascar” or “Malagassy Mythology”.
This causes confusion because it would be like lumping gods from Celtic, Norse, Greco-Roman, Slavic, Etruscan and Hittite mythology in one big puddle called “European Gods” with no attempt to break them into their separate pantheons. So if the following gods either are not in whatever reference books you personally use or if your books list a different figure as “Madagascar’s” patron deity of a certain concept there is no need to jump in with objections. I will eventually hit all the cultural groups.
ITRIMOBE – The primordial sea-beast who lived on the Earth when it was nothing but endless ocean. For untold years Itrimobe enjoyed its solitary subaquatic existence. Eventually it grew bored and set out to examine the parameters of the world it lived in. It swam down all the way to the bottom of the sea, then swam upward as far as it could go and at last poked its head out into the air and sunlight.
Itrimobe swam east, north, west and south but found no land and no way out of the endless ocean. Curious, the entity dug three holes in the center of the Earth and one hole at each end, allowing much of the water to drain. This drainage caused the formation of the continents, which the now-amphibious Itrimobe explored. Unfortunately the blazing sun overhead eventually dried Itrimobe out to a dangerous degree and blinded it. The remaining ocean water was nowhere near deep enough for the gigantic creature to submerge itself ever again, causing its body to die.
However, Itrimobe willed its immortal spirit to manifest in much smaller living beings. It willed all of the human men into the world into existence from its right forepaw and all of the human women into existence from its left forepaw. This symbolized how men and women are supposed to work together, like one’s arms do. Itrimobe willed all of the other life-forms on Earth, both plant and animal, into existence from the remains of the rest of its body, so all living things have a tiny spark of Itrimobe within them. This is similar to Kingu’s blood in Sumerian myths or Dionysus/ Zagreus’ ashes in the Orphic Hymns.
Other elements of this tale that attract lovers of comparative mythology are its similarity to other Divine Geographers like Khong Lo in Vietnamese myths or Inugpassug from Inuit myths. Creation from the corpse of a primordial beast (usually one slain by a god or gods) is found in Norse, Aztec and many other pantheons. And a mammoth figure willing itself to disassemble into other, smaller beings bears similarities to Pang’u in Chinese myths.
IMERINA/ HOVA – The first man and woman of the Merina people. Like all belief systems the Merina myths reflect the ethnic chauvinism which always prompts a tribe or people to consider itself the highest, or most important or “chosen” people in the world. The supreme deity Zanahary selected the most “perfect” man and woman from the beings formed from Itrimobe’s remains. The man he placed on the top of Mount Andringitra and the woman on top of Mount Ankaratra, both near the modern- day capital city of Antananarivo.
The man and woman were naked, like the “common” humans and one day the man noticed smoke from the fire the woman was cooking sweet potatoes with while she noticed the smoke from the man’s fire for cooking manioc. The supreme deity sent dreams to each of them about the other, impelling them to seek each other out and making that impulse the strongest in their nature. For six days they approached each other, lighting fires at night, until they eventually came face to face just ten miles west of where Antananarivo now stands. (Yeah, right.)
Each was so awestruck by the other’s beauty that all they could do was stare at each other for an unspecified amount of time. This “spiritual bonding” was so strong that when they at last spoke they were able to understand each other. They mated and from them descended all of the “aristocratic” Merina people.
RARAKY – The Merina demigod of tobacco. Raraky (sometimes called Paraky) was the only son of the blessed Merina man Andriamitandrina and his wife. Raraky grew ill and neither medicine nor prayers to the gods could save him. After he died his family debated what to do with the corpse. Some counciled eating him like food in order to feel that he was still with them. Others advocated hanging the body in their home in order to feel that he was still with them.
Andriamitandrina was at last persuaded by his sister to bury Raraky’s body and to revere the first plant that grew on his grave. A brand new plant – tobacco – grew on Raraky’s grave. It did not taste good enough to serve as food and it had no medicinal effect when rubbed into the skin. Raraky appeared to his family in dreams and advised them to dry, grind and chew the leaves of the plant, spitting them out when all the flavor had been extracted. Thus tobacco use originated among the Merina.
People would pray to Raraky for healthy tobacco crops and to cure anyone intoxicated or sickened by tobacco use.
TOMPONDRANO – “Lord of the waters.” The supreme snake deity in Merina mythology. Not only were all other serpents subordinate to Tompondrano but he often acted as an ambassador between snakes and human beings, negotiating the end to conflicts between the two groups.
A major myth about this deity includes its role in advising the Vazimba how to use sacrifices to appease gods and demons. The Vazimba were little people who were previously the dominant race of Madagascar. They are similar to the Menehune in Hawaiian myths and to “little people” who figure into mythology and folklore from around the world.
One day a Vazimba boy was playing with a seven-headed serpent monster that serpent decided to keep him and make him live with him under the water. The Vazimba prayed to Tompondran0 to save him. Tompondrano advised the Vazimba boy to be patient, then sent the Kingfisher bird to the Vazimba’s parents with word that sacrificing a chicken and a sheep to the seven- headed serpent will appease it and get it to release their son.
The couple did so, the boy was released and Tompondrana rewarded the Kingfisher bird by making its wings more beautiful. The Kingfisher bird was regarded with a certain superstitious awe by the Merina people, as were large water snakes. There was a taboo on killing such lord of the water snakes and if the corpse of such a snake is found it is wrapped in silk like human corpses. This is done to show respect to Tompondrano.
BABAKOTO – The Merina lemur god. Babakoto was at first an ordinary man. Through a series of misfortunes he wound up being accused and condemned to death for a crime he did not commit. Nobody would believe his innocence, however, and so he began plotting to escape before his execution could be carried out.
Babakoto’s escape attempt was successful but Merina forces pursued him into the jungle. The supreme deity Zanahary took mercy on the wronged man and transformed him into the first lemur. When the Merina saw the man’s transformation they realized they were wrong and Babakoto was an innocent man.
From that point on lemurs were considered another tribe of Madagascar and it was taboo to the Merina to kill any of them. Babakoto mated with a human woman and his first bride gave birth to a multitude of lemurs, which was how they got to be so numerous.
RAPETO – This gigantic deity falls into the global mythological category of “Divine Geographers” for his role in crafting and creating many landmarks throughout Madagascar. This makes him similar to Khong Lo in Vietnamese myths, Inugpasug in Inuit myths, Halmang in Korean myths and Moshiri in Ainu myths. A number of stories about the enormous Rapeto explain the origin of various geographical features throughout the land. His name was used to classify the Rapetosaurus, a dinosaur that used to inhabit Madagascar.
Once Rapeto asked his wife, the cattle goddess Rasoalao, to lend him her herds to trample down his vast, sprawling rice fields. She refused, so he dammed up the fields, causing them to fill with water and become Lake Itasy, where Rasoalao watered her herds. According to tradition this incident must have happened before the two deities married since the Merina priests said a wife would not have been allowed to refuse such a request from her husband. Once again we see that this type of sexism afflicted virtually all ancient cultures and is not characteristic of just one place.
Other myths recount how various valleys were Rapeto’s dinner bowls, various canyons were his footprints and islands in lakes were stones he kicked out of his way. Another prominent myth tells how Rapeto foolishly tried to drag the moon from the sky to serve as his daughter’s plaything but the moon seared him with its beams, dissuading him from the attempt.
That last particular myth is often used to point out the perils of hubris, like the tale of Icarus in Greco-Roman myths.
RAFARA – The Merina goddess of motherly love and devotion. She had been forced into a marriage to an ogre and had borne him a daughter named Indesoka. One day Indesoka’s playmates, who were pure-blooded ogres instead of a hybrid like she was, tricked her into breaking her evil father’s silver jug.
Indesoka used her powers as a demi-goddess to cause a cave to appear in the side of a stone mountain and hid within that cave, sealing the entrance behind her so that the stone seemed smooth and undisturbed. Rafara’s powers are greater and she is able to find Indesoka.
She agrees that the ogre would viciously injure the child for destroying his silver jug. Rafara tells her husband that Indesoka has run away but secretly takes food and drink to her each day, chanting the words that will cause the cave entrance to appear.
The ogre grows suspicious and spies on Rafara once when she enters the cave to visit their child. He chants the words to open the cave but the entrance will not appear for him. He angrily seeks out a diviner who advises the ogre to disguise his voice to sound like a female next time.
This advice is followed and the ogre tricks his way into the cave once when Indesoka is alone. The monster attacks the child and kills her, taking her flesh home like he would from a game animal he had hunted down.
Rafara realizes that the meat is from her daughter but pretends to be fooled and prepares the meal. After eating the ogre naps, allowing Rafara to gather up all of Indesoka’s bones and use her godly powers to restore the child to life.
Next she ties the ogre’s hair to the roof-post (similar to Okuninushi tying Susanowo’s hair to the rafters in Shinto myths) to prevent him from moving while she picks up a knife and slashes her husband to death. She serves his meat to all of his ogre relatives the next day and they all die from eating one of their own.
Rafara and Indesoka live happily from then on, and have access to all of the ogre’s horde of silver.
ANDRIANAMPOINIMERINA – A past King of the Merina people and the Demi-God who ruled over the birds called crows. From the time Andrianampoinimerina was a small child crows were his special protectors and always kept a watchful eye on him.
Once when a wild boar attacked the youngster the crows guarding him rapidly beat their wings in the eyes of the boar and pecked at it, ultimately driving it off.
Another instance of crows protecting the young Andrianampoinimerina came when his usurping Uncle Andrianjafy sent soldiers to kill the boy in the dead of night. The crows detected the approaching soldiers and began cawing to awaken Andrianampoinimerina, who escaped into the jungle.
Years later, 1787 to be precise, when Andrianampoinimerina became the king he rewarded his attendant birds by making it taboo to hunt them. He would also have ritual offerings of ox meat laid out for crows on a regular basis.
Another myth about this figure from his reign as king depicted him wanting to overcome the Marovatana people as efficiently as possible, hopefully without the need for yet another military campaign. To that end Andrianampoinimerina sought to absorb the Marovatana kingdom into his own by marrying their Princess Rambolamasoandro.
The king/ demigod knew that the Princess’ family would look favorably on a union with a wooer whose retinue entered their capital city Ambohidatrimo from the “correct” or “blessed” gate. Andrianampoinimerina released a crow from his hand in the direction of Ambohidatrimo and, after circling the city, the bird flew in through the southeast entrance.
Following the bird’s example Andrianampoinimerina and his twelve councillors likewise entered through the southeast entrance. The courting of Princess Rambolamasoandro was a success and the two kingdoms were joined together.
*** There is a great deal to be written about the historical figure Andrianampoinimerina but I’m covering JUST the tales that concern his fictional nature as a demigod. ***
Here is a non-crow related myth about this demigod from Madagascar.
Long ago the farmers in Andrianampoinimerina’s kingdom came to their ruler for help with their problem. They had a huge surplus of crops because there simply weren’t enough citizens nearby to buy them. Andrianampoinimerina had a solution.
He decreed that a special place be designated as a site for selling or exchanging surplus items that farmers or craftsmen had. These were the first markets in Madagascar (more on that claim below) and Andrianampoinimerina established the original three sites and days: Thursdays (the Merina equivalent of course) at Ambohimanga, Fridays at Tananarive and Saturdays at Namehana.
Later he adds another market at Ilanifasana, to be open on Sundays.
This myth provides an excellent opportunity to look at the way royal families in various places around the world and in various time periods elevated themselves as gods, complete with myths centering around them and their “great” accomplishments.
Andrianampoinimerina’s reign began in 1787, and even by then markets had been around for several centuries at least. Just like the Roman Caesars, the Egyptian Pharaohs, the Japanese Emperors and countless other aristocrats who conveyed “godhood” on themselves or their families, Andrianampoinimerina, as the ruler, had the cultural, political and military influence to introduce and enforce such myths.
Myths of this kind are even more helpful as time moves along, especially if the same dynasty remains in power. Eventually there will be no more citizens alive who remember the time BEFORE the fictional “achievements” of these self-styled divinities. Again we see how religion/ mythology and politics go hand in hand. Andrianampoinimerina would later be prayed to and revered as the establisher of markets on top of his equally fictional crow-related adventures.
We are all familiar with how religions and governments enforce such myths. Suppose someone in the land of the Merina objected to this particular myth and said “But my grandfather remembers markets from a time before Andrianampoinimerina was the king.” Accusations of heresy would be followed up by accusations of treason in cases like this where the religious powers were also the governmental powers. It’s the same concept as Orwell’s “We have always been at war with Eastasia.” The technology changes, but the oppressive ways of the ruling class never do.
The recently deceased dictator Kim Jong IL is a good modern-day example. In our more rational (in general) age, he did not claim godhood but did claim that he and his family were responsible for countless scientific, cultural and historical acheivements that they were NOT responsible for. Citizens lacked the power to challenge those myths, and so they became accepted like so much other false history has been for ages in every corner of the world. As Napoleon said “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”
This concept was understood at least as far back as Aristophanes’ political satire The Birds. In that comedy when the birds establish a kingdom of their own in Cloudcuckooland the first thing they do is rewrite mythology to make themselves the center of a new cosmology. They decree that THEY were responsible for creation, not the Greek gods and proceed from there with their new “Bird-centric” belief system .
One of my reasons for being so devoted to iconoclastic irreverence is because of the dangers of allowing religious or political myths to go unchallenged. Consider this an example for those commentors who often tell me they don’t get my joint obsessions with mythology AND with political satire.
I’LL BE EXAMINING ADDITIONAL MERINO DEITIES IN A FEW DAYS.
FOR THE MAIN LIST OF MERINA DEITIES CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2015/02/24/top-figures-in-merina-mythology/
FOR SIMILAR ARTICLES AND MORE OF THE TOP LISTS FROM BALLADEER’S BLOG CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/top-lists/
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