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Legends of Madagascar
by Peter Tyson

Crocodile Caves homepage

To the Westerner, many beliefs of the Malagasy, the people of Madagascar, may boggle the mind. (The Malagasy, of course, may feel similarly about many Western practices.) For starters, the Malagasy believe their ancestors live on in the afterworld, communicating with the living through spirit possession, taboos, and other means. Taboos are particularly potent for some Malagasy: Never eat while lying down, your parents will be choked; never point at a tomb, your fingers will fall off, and so on. During exuberant celebrations known as famadihana ("bone-turnings"), certain tribes regularly disinter and rewrap their dead kin in new burial shrouds, essentially to keep them content in the afterlife so they will bestow blessings on their survivors.

The Malagasy hold to the inexorable forces of destiny, so much so that in former times babies born on unlucky days were put to death by, among other horrific means, placing them alive in anthills. Arguably most disconcerting to foreigners is mpakafo, literally "heart-stealer," a widespread fear in rural Madagascar that white people have come to the island to kill Malagasy in order to feast on their vital organs, which they somehow need to survive.

Perhaps most outlandish for the modernized Westerner, however, is the pervasive belief in various and sundry beasts that tread the diverse landscapes of this 1,000-mile-long island. Some of these creatures are benign, many nefarious. Some are human, many decidedly not. Most sound mythical to the outsider, but some are possibly all too real.

Ghosts of the dead

To the Malagasy, the ancestors are protective spirits if you treat them well, but angatra, or ghosts of the dead, are something else entirely. The Betsimisaraka, one of the island's 18 officially recognized tribes, have a particular dread of the angatra, which are said to haunt the graves of the individuals to whom they once belonged and can cause living persons who offend them to fall ill or suffer misfortunes. Loud talking and laughing is said to be particularly objectionable, and no Betsimisaraka would tread near a grave at night or even build a house too near a gravesite for fear of angering the angatra.

Some of these ghosts of the dead are known as kinoly. Kinoly look like real people, though they have red eyes, long fingernails, and a nasty habit of eviscerating Malagasy. One story holds that a Malagasy who once met a kinoly asked it, "How is it your eyes are so red?" and the kinoly said, "God passed by them." The Malagasy then asked, "How is it your nails are so long?" The ghost replied, "That I may tear out your liver" and immediately did so.

Spirits of a long-vanished people known as the Vazimba are also said to haunt the landscape.

In the 1885 issue of The Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine, a periodical published in the Malagasy capital in the 19th century, the English missionary G. Herbert Smith recalled the time what he described as a ghost attacked one of his boatmen:

[A]bout midnight we were aroused by terrible groans and exclamations, and on our going to him, we found him sitting up trembling, and he declared to us that he had not been asleep, but that soon after he lay down something came and grasped him by the throat, preventing him for some time from calling out. He assured us that there was a ghost there, and that he must come and share our house, which he did.

Another missionary, as reported in the 1892 Annual, once made the mistake of showing a visiting chief and his entourage a skull he kept for study:

I shall not soon forget the look of horror that took possession of his friend, and positively believe the sight of the skull had a reflex action on his pneumogastric nerve, so that he had to make a speedy exit, followed by the whole company, who had observed the object of terror by that time and its effect upon their leader.

Spirits of a long-vanished people known as the Vazimba are also said to haunt the landscape. The Malagasy claim the Vazimba lived on Madagascar long before the first Malagasy scraped ashore in their oceangoing outrigger canoes about 2,000 years ago. When I visited a cave system known as Anjohibe ("Big Cave") in the western part of the island, for instance, local Sakalava tribesmen warned that Vazimba lived in the caverns.

Wild men and other monsters

The wilderness has its own ghosts, which come in the form of kalonoro, the so-called "wild men of the woods." The belief is pervasive in and around the Marojejy Mountains in northeastern Madagascar. Indeed, when I hiked in some hills near the Marojejy massif in 1996, my Betsimisaraka guide told me that wild men lived in the rocky hills and ate nothing but land crabs and fruit.

"Kalonoro are by far the most mysterious, frightening, and bizarre (hafahafa) of the Malagasy spirits," writes the anthropologist Lesley Sharp in The Possessed and Dispossessed (University of California Press, 1993). Small of stature, with long flowing beards, eyes that glow like coals, and feet that point backward, the kalonoro live deep in the forest, where they occasionally appear at hunters' campfires.

In the 1889 Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, one L. H. Ransome recounts the time ten years before when a wild man was captured near the northeastern town of Maroantsetra:

We were informed by a trader from Mauritius, a Mr. Carmes, who saw him, that ... [he] was caught by some Malagasy in the employ of a Manahar trader, while asleep on the branch of a tree, and when taken resisted violently, biting his captors severely; after a few days' confinement, however, he ceased to be aggressive. Mr. Carmes describes him as being a powerfully built man of about five feet nine inches in height, his face and body being thickly covered with long black hair; his mode of walking was peculiar, as he traveled very fast, with his head down, occasionally going on all-fours, his eyes (which resembled in expression those of an animal rather than of a human being) invariably being fixed on the ground. When caught he was perfectly nude, but wore clothes when provided with them. He could never be induced to eat flesh or any kind of cooked food, subsisting entirely on manioc and other roots; nor would he sleep in a recumbent position, but when resting preferred to squat on hands and feet on a stool in a corner of the house. After some weeks he commenced to learn a few words, and by means of these and signs it was understood that he had a father and two brothers in the forest where he was taken. These were found and surrounded by a search party one night, but being disturbed, easily eluded their pursuers, jumping from tree to tree like monkeys and running on all-fours. The captured man died five months after being taken.

Ghosts and wild men are comparatively harmless next to certain creatures thought to prowl the Malagasy forests. The fanany is a snake-like animal with seven horned heads. The songomby is an ox that moves like the wind and eats people, while the lalomena is another ox-like beast that lives in the water and sports bright red horns. Most frightening is the tokantongotra ("single-foot"). This large white creature has only two legs, one jutting out of its chest and the other from behind its paps, yet it is said to be as fast as lightning and goes about at night attacking and devouring Malagasy.

Explaining away ... or trying to

Western skeptics might have answers for all these creatures, humanoid and otherwise. Ghosts are merely the product of vivid imaginations conditioned by millennia of indigenous superstition, they might say. Anthropologists claim to have found no evidence that the aboriginal Vazimba people—or anyone else for that matter—lived on Madagascar prior to the arrival of the first Malagasy around the time of Christ. The story of the kinoly ripping out its victim's liver smacks suspiciously of "Little Red Riding Hood" ("Oh, grandmother, what great big nails you've got!" "The better to rip out your liver with, my child!"), while the wild men might be simply lemurs or perhaps a tenacious legend about a pygmy race thought to live in the interior.

One should not forget the once-mythical creatures that eventually became the gorilla, the okapi, and so forth.

Non-believers can explain away the creatures as well. The fanany simply embodies the universal fear of snakes, while the ox-like beasts and the "single-foot" may represent a lingering memory of the extinct pygmy hippopotamus that once lived on Madagascar. Finally, many of the so-called eyewitness sightings took place in the 19th century, a time both less scientifically rigorous and arguably more prone to superstition than today.

Yet as the paleoecologist David Burney once told me, one should not forget the once-mythical creatures that eventually became the gorilla, the okapi, and so forth. Burney has a reason to remember this. While working in Belo-sur-Mer, a remote port town on the west coast of Madagascar, Burney met villagers who told him about a creature they called the kilopilopitsofy ("floppy ears"), which they had seen in the vicinity as recently as 1976. In its particulars, the animal sounds remarkably like the pygmy hippo, which scientists think disappeared about 1,000 years ago. The villagers also described a large, ground-dwelling lemur that runs in a forward-facing fashion like a baboon. No such creature is known to survive on Madagascar today, though the description answers to at least two types of extinct giant lemur. Could it be that two of the island's extinct megafauna actually survive in the sparsely inhabited, extremely remote dry forests around Belo-sur-Mer?

One could extrapolate to ask the same question of other inaccessible and little-visited regions of Madagascar, including the Marojejy Mountains mentioned earlier. Even after centuries of exploration, beginning with the first European sighting of Madagascar in August 1500, half a millennium ago, many areas remain unexplored. Who knows what dwells therein?

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It is thought in Madagascar that the tiny stump-tailed chameleon is a forest genie that can bring bad luck.


An idol worshipped by Malagasy in the 19th century


Malagasy living around Anjohibe Cave believe that spirits of the Vazimba reside within the caverns.


As we looked off toward the Marojejy Mountains, this Malagasy guide told me of the "wild men" who live in the hills, surviving on fruit and crabs.


A widespread Malagasy fear of snakes such as this native boa may have spawned legends of the fanany, a snake-like animal with seven horned heads.


The aye aye, a bizarre nocturnal lemur with the teeth of a beaver, the ears of a bat, and the tail of a fox, was considered fantastic before the first specimens came into European hands. What other Malagasy creatures currently considered mythical by outsiders could in fact be real?

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Peter Tyson is editor in chief of NOVA online.

A slightly different version of this article originally appeared on The Wilds of Madagascar Web site.

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