mohara, magic, healing, witchcraft, death, sorcerer, moesgaard museum, de etnografiske samlinger, ethnography, collections, museum, aarhus, denmark

Mohara: Material Spirits of the Sihanaka

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In this guest blog, MA in Anthropology Anders Norge Lauridsen tells the fascinating story of how he procured a pair of mohara; sacred spirit amulets shrouded in mystery, for Moesgaard Museum. So read on, and travel with Anders to the Sihanaka of Madagascar:

”So, is this also what mohara looks like among the Sihanaka?” I ask. The entire family gathered around the dining table leans toward my laptop, scrutinising the screen. I’m back in the village of Anororo to do more fieldwork and to search for an arcane, ethnographic object called a mohara to bring home to the Ethnographic Collections at Moesgaard Museum. During my Master’s fieldwork in 2015 I heard rumours of sorcerous horn charms, which everybody agreed had great powers to do good as well as bad, but which nobody admitted to own or to know where to find. Nevertheless, I have flung myself into a quest of finding a mohara.

My host mother, my field assistant, and our new goose keeper boy watches in complete silence, while my host father lets his index finger convoy his gaze from picture to picture on my screen. I’m displaying a simple screenshot of a Google image search for “Mohara Madagascar” to discover if the mohara of the Sihanaka people, who inhabits Anororo and the surrounding region, looks like the ones from the larger and more famous Malagasy ethnicities, which can be found online. My eyes run from face to face and in spite of the darkness of the dining room, their faces emanate great excitement. All of a sudden, the goose keeper boy slowly raises his fingers to one of the mohara on the screen and whispers: “My grandmother had such a one…”

Everybody pricks up their ears and stares at the boy. “What did you say?” My host father grabs his arm firmly and starts interrogating him. With his shy eyes on the table and with a tiny, timid voice the boy stutters that his family has two mohara, which protect them from misfortune, especially lightning strikes during the rainy season. Their mohara are black zebu horns decorated with beads, and though it’s a material object it’s also treated as a living divinity: Occasionally, animal sacrifices are made for them, the taboos of the mohara are obeyed by the family, and every year before the rain sets in the family bathes the mohara in order to make them tokavina – that is, to “activate” their powers of protection of the family.



A possessed seer during an immense ritual

In the following days, my field assistant and I discuss at great length with my host father how to procure a mohara – or rather, two mohara, as they come in pairs: male and female. Mohara are made and owned by mpihanjaka, that is, people possessed by spirits. Only people possessed by royal spirits, those from the west coast Sakalava ethnicity in particular, are capable of creating mohara. Therefore, other mpihanjaka occasionally ask the mpihanjaka who know about mohara to create a pair for them and their families as protection against misfortunes like flooding, lightning strikes, and leprosy.

In Anororo there is no shortage of mpihanjaka – during my six months in the village I have talked to at least a dozen of them. However, my host father insists that we address a mpihanjaka whom he knows very well; my host family fears that someone could put “something bad” in the mohara that could harm me or the family. Moreover, my host family, who are protestants, tells nobody about our search for the mohara as they don’t want other Christian villagers to associate them with “unchristian paganism” like mohara; in general, the veneration for spirits goes quite well hand in hand with Christianity in Anororo, but the particular use of mohara is strongly condemned, perhaps because missionaries in Madagascar have compared mohara to biblical idols. I suggest to the family that we enquire my host father’s cousin who is a mpihanjaka, or perhaps the family of our goose keeper boy, but he refuses and emphasises that we keep it a “secret familial”.


A woman in this house failed to observe the taboos of the spirits. Upon the destruction of her house caused by a lightning strike, she consulted a powerful mpihanjaka to remedy her relation to the spirits.

One day, my host father tells me that he has found someone who knows about mohara. His name is Andrianasy, he is in his mid-sixties, and he has been a mpihanjaka in Anororo since 1970. We ask him in and while being comfortably seated in an armchair in the entrance hall he is informed by my host parents and my field assistant that I am interested in mohara. Having produced countless mohara over the years, Andrianasy is an expert and he agrees to make a male and a female mohara for me. However, the family repeats again and again that the mohara “must not be made tokavina [activated], it will just be put in a ‘house of treasures’ [museum].” My host father looks Andrianasy in the eye and admonishes him: “Don’t use any strange wood in it, maybe it will cause bad dreams and the like!” Moreover, he warns me not to tokavina the mohara when I get them: “If you use them, they will ‘turn‘!” – ‘turn’, as in ‘the weather turns bad’.

Over the next weeks, Andrianasy comes by four times to bring us up to date on his production of the mohara and to explain about the use of mohara and his experiences as a mpihanjaka. Andrianasy is of short stature, he always carries a bucket hat, and the left side of his lower lip droops as if due to some facial paralysis. Nevertheless, he has some indescribable faculty for mesmerising the audience with his voice and even with his speech pauses.

When Andrianasy was only 15 years old, he became gravely ill. After the young boy had spent more than three years in bed, going through agonising suffering, which the doctors could not do anything about, his parents consulted an esteemed mpihanjaka, who identified the cause of the suffering: An ancestral spirit wanted to mitsangana (lit. “arise”, i.e. possess) in the young Andrianasy. At a waterfall considered sacred in Madagascar, the spirit manifested itself and took possession of Andrianasy’s body; thereby, a lifelong, reciprocal relationship between human host and possessing spirit was established. When I ask Andrianasy, if he willingly accepted the initial possession he laconically states: “If I had refused, I would have been killed. It was a force that compelled me, whether I wanted to or not.”


Andrianasy possessed by the royal spirit Randriamisara. The photo was taken in 2004 in Mahajanga, where Randriamisara is said to be buried.

Although the body of a mpihanjaka is permanently the ‘house’ of possessing spirits, a mpihanjaka is only possessed temporarily when the spirits are invoked in curing rituals. In a brief period after his first possession, numerous patients came to Andrianasy during such rituals to be aided by his spirit against all kinds of illnesses. Over the years, more and more spirits possessed Andrianasy, including creatures of the wilderness, such as a zazavavindrano (“girl child of water”) with green skin and long hair, and a kalanoro, an invisible pygmy spirit. Furthermore, Andrianasy became the “seat” of spirits of historical monarchs kings like Andrianampoinimerina (1745-1810), celebrated for initiating the unification of Madagascar, and Andriamisara (16th century) who founded the royal dynasty of the Sakalava, the Malagasy equivalent of the Mongol Empire (Kent 1970).tegning

Zazavavindrano drawn by Siale Antenah (13 years old)


Kalanoro drawn by Franco (12 years old)

Andrianasy’s repertoire of spirits grew to no less than 29, which gave him great powers of healing and divination, and a high-ranking, influential position in Anororo. When the crescent moon appeared on the night sky to mark the beginning of the full moon, Andrianasy’s house filled with people who came searching for the aid of the spirits – for the dancing, singing, and drumming of the ritual, or for becoming possessed themselves by the facilitation of Andrianasy’s spirits. However, Andrianasy’s relations with the spirit world became increasingly burdensome. Each spirit has taboos, which the mpihanjaka must also follow. Having 29 spirits, Andrianasy was prohibited from eating eel, crab, pork, chicken, hedgehog, burnt rice, beef from tailless zebu etc., and he regularly had to pay sacrifices like rum, honey, and food to his spirits. In 2005, he failed to sacrifice sufficiently, and as a result he once again found himself gravely ill. When Andrianasy attempted to invoke his spirits, they no longer came, and as a result, he decided to turn away from them when a Pentecostal pastor came to see him. He consented to discontinue serving the spirit masters, converted to Pentecostalism and burned all his mohara. As he explains to us, it took more than three hours for his mohara to burn and sounds like gunfire came from them as if they put up great resistance. As retribution, the pastor was paralysed for four days after the burning of the mohara.


A possessed mpihanjaka sprinkles the ritual gathering with sacred water.

The fourth time Andrianasy comes to our house; he brings us the finished mohara. Carefully unwrapping them from a red cloth he explains: “These are very saropady” – literally, “taboo difficult”, meaning that the mohara have numerous and demanding taboos that the owner must observe. He explains that they must be kept in the red cloth or in a white porcelain bowl, and the male must be on the right and the female on the left. “We do that because they are taking good care of us”, he stresses. In spite of his conversion to Pentecostalism eleven years ago and his change of occupation from mpihanjaka to chairman of the bicycle taxis of Anororo, his tie to the spirit world is not completely severed. When he created the mohara for us, he was still instructed by the voice of the spirit Randriamisara. Though Andrianasy no longer considers himself a mpihanjaka, his long-standing relationship with the spirits has naturalised certain action for him such as creating mohara – “It’s like when you eat rice with a spoon!” he says with an inscrutable smile.


Mohara decorated with eight different types of beads.

Our host father has supplied Andrianasy with a couple of horned zebu skulls as materials for the mohara, but Andrianasy discards them explaining that only horns from white-headed zebu can used for mohara – just like only white-headed zebu are used for ritual sacrifices. The male horn must come from a bull and the female horn from a cow. Moreover, the male is decorated with a pair of scissors, as hairdressing is traditionally considered men’s work among the Sihanaka. Correspondingly, the female contains seven sewing needles, as tailoring is done by Sihanaka women. When I ask Andrianasy the daft question why only the male mohara is pointed, he titters flakily and compares it to the male genitals.

In addition to zebu horn, the mohara are made from red fabric, nylon thread, and most importantly decorated with beads on the outside and wood on the inside. As described by the anthropologist Maurice Bloch, precious wood is associated with great hasina (sacred power) in Madagascar, and as Andrianasy explains, scores of different wood species with names like mpanjakabenitany (“great ruler of the land”) and tsirefesina (“beyond measure”) are usually placed in mohara. Such wood species of great value are, however, drawing close to extinction in many parts of Madagascar due to illegal logging, but even if Andrianasy would manage to get hold of these rarities, my host family forbids him from using them in the mohara, as I, their adoptive son, “would not be able to ‘bear’” such powerful substances. As a result, these mohara contain harmless pieces of pinewood.

Even so, Andrianasy ornaments the mohara with beads. To the untrained eye they may look like cheap, Chinese plastic beads (they most likely are), but to the Sihanaka beads are regarded as powerful and even dangerous objects. Some of the mpihanjaka I have talked to in Anororo are too afraid to use beads whatsoever, and many lay Sihanaka are able to distinguish between plastic beads of certain colours, shapes, and patterns belonging to different categories. The mohara of Andrianasy contain eight different bead types with names like tsiresitosika (“invincible”), tsilaindoza (“no accidents”), and tsimataomasomena (“no fear of red eyes”).

As the anthropologist F.A.E. van Wouden observed, exogenous objects from far-away places are considered remarkably powerful in the Austronesian culture sphere (to which Madagascar belongs). The mohara employed by the Sihanaka bear witness of this elevation of the foreign, ever since Arab and European traders introduced metal, fabric, and beads to Madagascar centuries ago, such material things have been pivotal in the relation between humans and spirits, as we see it in the needles, the scissors, beads, and red fabric of the mohara. Though I have no intention of tokavina (“activating”) the spirits dwelling in the interior of the mohara, I respectfully keep these material spirits in their red cloth on their long journey from Anororo to Moesgaard Museum.


//Anders Norge Lauridsen holds a Master’s degree in Anthropology from Aarhus University.

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