Travel with us to Madagascar and discover the power of mirrors with our guest blogger Anders Norge, MA student at the Department of Anthropology, Aarhus University.
Accompanied by my host father Robert and my field assistant Fara, I arrive at the house of Gérard. Gérard is a cousin of Robert and he is one of the mpitaiza (seers) in the village of Anororo, Madagascar. The crescent moon reveals itself on this sultry afternoon, which is the perfect time for the villagers to consult the mpitaiza. When we step in, a young woman with a child is already there to seek the assistance of Gérard, or to be more precise: the spirit that possesses Gérard during these séances.
Before the spirit takes hold of his body, Gérard needs to prepare for the ritual; he puts on a floral skirt and sits down before the Northeastern corner of the house. Northeast is considered sacred in Madagascar and is associated with ancestral spirits – one of which Gérard is about to summon. A mandatory selection of ritual objects are placed on a papyrus mat in the corner; two bottles of rum (male and female), a soup plate with water and a coin from the colonial age, a package of cigarettes that I give him on request, and a large pile of kakazo – pieces of eucalyptus wood which can be used for divination, or – as they will be used today – as herbal medicine. The essential object of divination on this afternoon is the mirror.
Gérard takes the mirror and paints twelve spots on it with a lump of white clay. My host father assists in opening the rum bottles, while Gérard sprinkles holy water from the plate onto the Northeastern corner. Then he looks into the mirror. Seconds pass, perhaps even minutes. The afternoon heat is reflected in all of our lethargic faces, nobody utters a word. All of a sudden, Gérard straightens up with a jerk, and he stretches his arms above his head as if he awakens. The spirit has mipetraka – ‘taken up residence’ in Gérard’s body. He sprinkles additional water on the mirror and takes a sip from the plate. He extends his hand to his right, and we all take his hand one by one to greet the spirit, while his gaze is still fixated on the mirror, like a driver who cannot let his eyes leave the road.
He – this composite agent with the body of Gérard and the mind of the spirit – lights a cigarette and gazes rather casually into the mirror for minutes while we all wait. At last, he turns to the young mother and asks: “Why have you come?” She explains that her child has a pain in the stomach, mainly addressed to Gérard’s wife, who – as most mpitaiza spouses in Anororo – serves as a mediator and interpreter between spirits and patients; most spirits in Anororo originate in faraway Northwestern Madagascar and speak the Sakalava language, which differs significantly from standard Malagasy. They whisper in a confidential tone while referring to previous events that show a history of familiarity between the spirit and the young mother.
Gérard’s wife assists her possessed husband in rummaging the numerous kakazo, searching for the perfect piece of wood to be used as medicine for the child. After a long time of carefully examining single pieces of kakazo, not unlike jewellers’ meticulous scrutiny of precious stones, they find the perfect one and give it to the mother telling her to boil a healing kakazo tea for the child.
Another young woman called Lalaina comes in and sits down between us, engaging in a likewise confidential conversation with the spirit. The rum is passed around. Robert dozes on his stool. Gérard’s teenage daughter takes ‘selfies’ on the bed behind us. A group of children step inside with a basket full of small fry. I think to myself that unlike many possession rituals, the atmosphere this afternoon is actually much more quotidian and relaxed than solemn and ceremonious.
Robert clears his throat and inquires about Lalaina; she is the young mother’s sister-in-law and she consults the spirit due to the fact that her husband disappeared a week ago without a trace. While she explains the circumstances surrounding her husband’s sudden disappearance to Robert and Gérard’s wife, Gérard – or should I say Tsiminarivo, as the spirit has introduced himself – looks into the mirror smoking his third or fourth cigarette. He looks like someone who is following two conversations at once; the discussion between Robert and the women, and something in the mirror, which the rest of us cannot see. This is called sikidin’na tatatra (mirror divination) in which the mpitaiza sees answers in the shape of images in the fanjava, which is the ritual name for the mirror meaning ‘illuminator’.
Now Gérard-Tsiminarivo removes his eyes from the mirror and addresses Lalaina: “He is still there”. He is referring to the village and house of Lalaina’s mother-in-law, who, it turns out, has a bad relationship with Lalaina. They discuss how they can drag Lalaina’s husband away from his mother by means of ody gasy – sorcerous objects to cause harm or seduction among other things. As described in James Frazer’s theory of sympathetic magic, this type of sorcery is most efficient trough contact with the target or his belongings such as hair.
Gérard-Tsiminarivo: “Could you give him something in a drink?”
Lalaina: “Something in a drink? He would not drink that…” [It would be too obvious]
Gérard-Tsiminarivo: “Either you caress him, or he drinks something”
Lalaina: “If I caress him, it might be that I can ‘catch’ him…”
Gérard-Tsiminarivo emphasizes that it is difficult to fanainga lavitra – “lift from a distance”, so he asks for some hair from Lalaina’s husband. Moreover, he suggests that Lalaina buys a red sewing thread; moving the thread will attract the husband as it would attract a playful cat. In the meantime, Robert interferes:
Robert: “Do you pray [are you Christian]?”
Lalaina: “I’m a Catholic”
Robert: “Good, you have to mix them [Christianity and ody gasy]. Say to Jesus: ‘I would like my husband to come back, but I will do it with ody gasy’”
Most Malagasy draw on ancestral as well as Christian ideas. Even the mirror divination with the ancestral spirit today is witnessed by Jesus in a colourful poster on the wall (as seen in picture 2). When Gérard gets to his feet laboriously and panting and takes off his ritual skirt, we know that Tsiminarivo has left his body. He chats merrily with the women in the local dialect, and Robert, my assistant Fara, and I bid them all farewell thanking them for their time.
Walking back from Gérard’s, my field assistant and I discuss the experience, but both of us are torn between referring to the composite agent as “Gérard” or “Tsiminarivo”, torn respectively between ancestors and Protestantism, European secularism and ethnographical openness.
// Anders Norge
Anders Norge with some of his informants in front of the monumental graves of Anororo. The names of informants in this text are pseudonyms.