On being present to history

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Michael Lambek. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.018


On being present to history

Historicity and brigand spirits in Madagascar

Michael LAMBEK, University of Toronto, Scarborough

This article explores the unexpected arrival of new spirits in possession of young spirit mediums at an annual ceremony in Majunga, Madagascar. I explore the significance of the event for local politics, but also use it to exemplify a form of historicity distinct from that of Euro-American historicism, with respect to both the structure of historical temporality and the nature of historical truth/knowledge, experience, responsiveness, and action. I argue further that the action of the spirits or mediums is simultaneously an interpretation of circumstances and that we might think more broadly of historical action as interpretive.

Keywords: historicity, history, responsiveness, interpretation, spirit possession, Madagascar

If we define spirituality as being the form of practices which postulate that, such as he is, the subject is not capable of the truth, but that, such as it is, the truth can transfigure and save the subject, then we can say that the modern age of the relations between the subject and truth begins when it is postulated that, such as he is, the subject is capable of truth, but that, such as it is, the truth cannot save the subject. (Foucault 2005: 19)

In July 2012, participants at the week-long Great Service commemorating Sakalava royal ancestors held annually in Mahajanga (northwest Madagascar) were confronted with a band of some thirty spirits who darted through the crowds and attempted to exert some control over them. The spirits appeared in the bodies of human mediums (who were in a state of dissociation while possessed). Malagasy are used to seeing spirits, especially at events like the Great Service, but these spirits were unexpected and different. They were bare chested, carried sharp spears, and drank the spurting blood of the sacrificed cattle. Perhaps most disconcerting, they possessed the bodies of youths and even children rather than adults. Their presence was unprecedented, and unlike most spirits, who are named and individuated [318]ancestors of the reigning Sakalava monarchs, their identity was unknown, their number large, and they did not speak but only grunted. The spirits were observed with a mixture of fascination and apprehension. They were called jiriky, described alternatively as brigands or wild and primitive, possibly nonhuman, forest dwellers.

In this article, I attempt to understand this event. I use the presence of the spirits to speak at multiple levels of generality, about immediate politics at the shrine and royal politics more broadly, about the national situation in Madagascar, about the nature of Sakalava historicity in comparison with Euro-American forms of historical consciousness, hence about the relation of historicity to historicism, structure to event, and anthropology to history as disciplinary forms of inquiry. However, I take these more or less in reverse order.

In her novel Bel canto, Ann Patchett writes of an event that “it was the interpretation of their lives in the very moment they were being lived” (2001: 156). This remark is suggestive for how we might approach an anthropology of history, such that the historical event is constituted not simply through interpretation after the fact, as part of a retrospective narrative, but as itself an active and immediate interpretation of the context, the historical climate or moment, in which it takes place. I apply Patchett’s insight to the historical event just described, an event that I, too, witnessed.1 I argue that the possessed enacted an interpretation of the climate of affairs in which they were caught up, an act of interpretation that was simultaneously an intervention that changed the climate itself. I mean here in the first instance the arrival, indeed irruption, of the spirits as a historical act or intervention that was simultaneously an interpretation of the historical moment, but additionally the interpretations of the onlookers as simultaneously active historical responses to the presence of the spirits.

Such acts are “history” as it happens. But because the original interpretation and intervention occurred by means of spirit possession, that is, through a form of passion or what Foucault calls spirituality, acting through and transfiguring the subject rather than objectively discerned by the subject—hence as apparition or revelation rather than representation2—the context is one that is quite different from historicist formulations of deliberate effective action (historical agency) and empirically verifiable truth (historical records and scholarly historical accounts). Sakalava history, qua events and interpretations, is here constituted by means of a different historicity—a different way of collectively being in time: a being in time that includes its own understanding of being in time. This understanding is constituted by means of a different relation to truth than the historicity that affords or goes under the name of “history” in Euro-America, and particularly as the latter shapes and is shaped by the discipline of history as it provides dominant understandings of what happened, how and why it happened or happens, and how, pace [319]Marx, people make their history, and also record and verify it, as well as how scholars and lay people narrate and think about it.3

In the next section, I offer a brief contextualization with respect to how people in northwest Madagascar acknowledge history. I take “history” here both with respect to predecessors and the past and with respect to what is happening in the immediate present (as history, as we say, “is made”). In subsequent sections, I describe and reflect on the singular event noted above. I do not problematize the concept of “event” itself. However, although the event at hand was somewhat extraordinary, I take it to further develop what I have elsewhere (Lambek 2010a) called ordinary ethics, that is, the relatively preobjectified ethical dimensions of everyday life as constituted through criteria and performative acts. The ethical is immanent in the social (Lambek 2015a); intrinsic to practical judgment, embedded in the performativity and temporality of action, and evident also in the ironic acknowledgment of the limits of criteria for action and judgment. Along this axis (largely implicit in this article), the argument is not to demonstrate something of the difference between Malagasy and Euro-American historicity but rather to demonstrate something of the sameness of human action (and being) as it unfolds and is interpreted in time. It is the explicit conjunction of these tasks—elucidating difference, clarifying similarity—that perhaps best serves to distinguish anthropology qua discipline or tradition from that of history. In this case, the universalism in question is grounded neither in abstract reason nor in ostensibly “deeper” reaches of human psychology or biology, but in the human lifeworld. Ethics is entailed in human sociality—in the temporality of language and action and in the recognition of the limits of what we can know (about ourselves) and of what we can do.

Sakalava historicity

This essay is part of a larger project that I think of as an ethnography of northern Sakalava history and historicity.4 My understanding of Sakalava historicity is drawn from participant observation research conducted in the cosmopolitan port city of Majunga (Mahajanga) in northwest Madagascar. Since 1992 (over a total of eleven visits and a sum of some nine months’ duration), I have followed the community of practice that continues to reproduce the ancestral northern Sakalava polity of Boina under conditions of encapsulation within an increasingly impoverished and [320]weakened but still functioning postcolonial state.5 Here practical ethical issues have to do with maintaining deference to the past, in several of its distinct periods and manifestations, in face of the contingencies of the present. Indeed, that past serves as an ethical anchor in the face of a troubled present characterized by endemic conflicts among members of the royal clan over succession to office and among spirit mediums over access to relatively wealthy transnational clients.

Spirit possession, in which human mediums speak periodically as the others who possess them and live in close relation with those spirit others the rest of the time, is widely prevalent. Malagasy spirit possession has a privileged place in observing, manifesting, and thinking about history insofar as many of the spirits are figures who were formerly alive, locate themselves within a clear and extensive genealogy of the ruling clan, and index particular times past. These figures bring the past explicitly into the present, in what I have elsewhere (Lambek 1998, 2002) called a poiesis of history.

Spirits embody and give voice to the past, and spirit mediums channel, respond to, and live with the past, deferring to it but also sometimes regretfully acknowledging the termination of prior commitments or modes of doing things. Spirit possession offers a kind of frame for a privileged account, practice, and expression of personhood and historicity, a regional and embodied Geertzian textual production through which to compose and read things critical to, for, and of particular historical events, political circumstances, and social arenas, and also perhaps the world more generally.6

Sophie Goedefroit and Jacques Lombard say of Sakalava that “the living and the dead of the same lineage are contemporaries” (2007: 79).7 This is, in effect, a form of heterochrony, the copresence of original “non-contemporaries” from various temporal periods. The past is manifest as former monarchs who rest together in mortuary villages but return periodically and in a partially reanimated form. Sakalava historicity is neither strictly cyclical and reversible nor strictly linear and irreversible, but folded (like an accordion, the favored instrument to draw the ancestors who lived during the colonial period). The present remains beholden to and in conversation with a steadily accumulating past (somewhat in the manner [321]in which we draw upon dead but not forgotten theorists) that itself moves forward in time.

The demise of royalty and the disposition (curation and storage) of royal bodies, along with the determination of who will be their successors, produce a set of events and moments of crisis at which history is placed at risk even as it is reproduced. The former monarch is absorbed more fully into the objectified yet personified past for which he or she had served as the living representative and trustee.8 The successor exemplifies both rupture and continuity, and in the continuous competition between lineage segments there is a challenge as to which of these modalities will prevail.

An ethnography of succession, then, is an ethnography of how history is conceived, maintained, reproduced, and challenged—lived, made, debated, voiced, and sometimes annulled or voided. Such ethnography both elucidates historicity, as it is conceived and represented, and documents history, as it happens, as it is continuously made, practiced, and interpreted. Along with an abstract, structural, and idealized account of historicity (as folded and the like), it must consider what constitutes historical acts and interventions and how they happen. It examines, in a phrase (Sahlins 1985), the relation between structure and event, a relation that is itself historical and historicized—and deeply contested and political. Sakalava events coalesce around the deaths of monarchs, conflicts over their remains, acts of curation of ancestral houses and enclosures, and so forth. Occasionally there are unexpected actions on the part of the spirits themselves, like the event with which I began.

It is perhaps worth remarking on the similarity between the temporality of the ancestral world and one with which we are much more familiar. The ancestral world is a grammatically imperfect (continuous) past rather than a grammatically perfect one, and it contains primarily intransitive rather than transitive forms of action.9 In these respects, it resembles the shadow world of anthropological fieldwork and its own form of historicity, known as the ethnographic present. The ethnographic present is a form of historicity that merges the historical present with the physical presence of the ethnographer into a kind of hyperpresent, hyper (to ethnographers and perhaps their readers) for both its intensity and its durability. Similarly, the Sakalava ancestral world merges the historical present with the embodied presence of the historical ancestral spirits.

Sakalava historicity is further characterized by a mode of address, not only the way people address time, history, and change, but more saliently how they are addressed by history. Such address has both “model of” and “model for” aspects, respectively retrospective and prospective. Modes of address derive from a certain construal of temporality and hence also of what constitutes an event, acts, and actors, and they exhibit a set of criteria, acts, and actors for moving on. As Malagasy recognize the present and look toward the future, working toward [322]specific goals, they understand that present acts and future goals must be validated by means of acknowledgment of and by the past, and sometimes protected or corrected by the past. The past is, in a sense, both immanent in the present and imminent, threatening to irrupt and interrupt. Maintaining a balance in response to the respective calls of past, present, and future is a general and perhaps universal matter of ethical and political commemorative practice (Lambek 1996), but the immediacy and vocalization of address is something distinctive of this part of the world.

To invoke the ethical is not to idealize the situation. In the course of fieldwork, I have found myself continuously in the midst of messy things, strong disagreement over how to conduct the annual Great Service and over the redistribution of the gifts that arrive (Lambek 2002), and quarrels over burial and succession (Lambek 2013b). Succession itself can only be validated by custodianship over the past, specifically over ancestral relics and corpses that have been subject to dispute for decades (Ballarin 2000), and by the ancestral voices manifest in spirit possession. I do not know what the immediate end of these disputes will be, though I have learned that quarreling itself will be endless. Such quarreling is intrinsic to what an earlier generation of anthropologists referred to as segmentary structures, characterized by processes of fission and fusion (Evans-Pritchard 1940; Gluckman 1963). Whereas I was first called to Majunga in the hope that I might contribute to resolving conflict or restoring justice (Lambek 1997), I have come to realize not only the insignificance of my position and the naïveté of my politics but also that the nature of the system is such that there is no possibility for permanent resolution and no privileged place from which to speak objectively of justice or know what that would be. There is only a series of interested, excitable voices, speaking from the present and the past, and including, at any given moment, some voices of reason, compromise, or genial disinterest.

In sum, Sakalava historicity is characterized by several distinctive features. These include ethical responsiveness as people are impassioned by their situation or subject to the emotions, will, and address of the spirits. There is also ethical responsibility, in the sense that people must care for the past, conserve the remains, and listen to and please the ancestral spirits—as the ancestral spirits, in turn, care for the present, as manifest both implicitly in human flourishing and explicitly in direct appearances. This historicity is further characterized by the folding of linear historical time, such that figures who lived and reigned at earlier periods can appear together in the present. This folding is a form of heterochrony, insofar as figures from different periods—articulated in a linear genealogy that is carefully maintained—can appear alongside one another. That is, there are contemporary encounters that include the copresence of figures recognized as noncontemporaries to one another (when they were alive). This poiesis of history, constituted by the visits of ancestral spirits from multiple locations in the past, each with its distinct voice, clothing, assumptions, prejudices, and habits, is characterized by the sort of irony that Kenneth Burke (1945) attributes to drama, with multiple characters and voices each contextualizing the others and all of them setting off the author’s voice. However, among Sakalava, there is no single dramatist, no master compositor, but only the distributed voices of the various spirits and mediums. Sakalava poiesis is theater without an individual author or director, history without a master historian,[323]

The embodied and personified quality of history also lends it vitality and affords an affective register, which, in the event at hand, as I will show, is one of danger and vigilance but also hope and resilience. Those who encounter the spirits, their spectators and addressees, respond with mixtures of fascination, terror, affection, amusement, bemusement, attention, and impatience; or, on some occasions, simple indifference. Finally, it needs to be emphasized that historicity of this kind exists alongside other modes of historicity, including those maintained by people who have refused subsumption in the Sakalava political order (and hence possession by royal spirits) and those who objectify Sakalava historicity as “culture” or “custom” within a historicist model or simply recognize the additional force of local, regional, and national politics and the subjection of national sovereignty to transnational bodies like the International Monetary Fund.

The voices of the individual spirits, from precolonial and colonial times and from what inhabitants of Madagascar refer to as the period of l’indépendance, acknowledge this multiplicity and irony, speaking simultaneously, but less often directly to each other than alongside each other. Among the most charming is the popular man-about-town Ndrankeindraza, who by special ancestral fiat is uniquely allowed to manifest simultaneously in multiple mediums. During the annual Great Service, his presence is everywhere, as he doffs his fez to friends and admirers and poses for his audience as the quintessential Sakalava hybrid, not Kisilamo (Muslim) so much as Kosilimo, as he once explained to me—Muslimish, Muslim-lite, a playful, cosmopolitan, good-humored position so characteristic of Majunga and the possession milieu. Alive in the mid-twentieth century, and a genealogical coeval of currently reigning Princess Amina, though chronologically several decades earlier than her, Ndrankeindraza is a bon vivant, the kind of minor royalty (he never reigned) without a steady income, kept in drink and taxi money by his subjects (notably by spirit mediums, both before and after his demise). Drink, yes, for alongside the fez, Ndrankeindraza carries a bottle, which he conceals beneath his clothing when he encounters his stricter ancestor Ndramañavakarivo, who lived in the early nineteenth century and is portrayed today in Majunga as a more serious and devoted Muslim, disapproving of his descendant’s easy ways.10

You can glimpse the way history qua linear succession is displaced or counterpoised with history as folded dramatic irony in Majunga. Sometimes, as with the insouciant Ndrankeindraza, this is light and comic, albeit now with serious if indirect allusion to contemporary Islamic movements, and sometimes it is heavy, disturbing, and tragic. I speak of this temporal counterpoint as historicity, and I see it as one of the tasks of anthropology to record and interpret diverse historicities along with, and perhaps in direct relation to, linear event histories and structural transformative ones. In this project, I believe I am not so far from one of anthropology’s own strongest and most ironic voices, namely that of Marshall Sahlins, as he says, “different cultures different historicities” (1985: x).[324]

Presence and responsiveness

Through spirit possession, the work of history, no less than the working through of history, is manifest, but less in deliberate acts of execution or commemoration than in forms of response (responsiveness and responsibility) and, in the first instance, of sheer presence. In this ethics of history, neither freedom nor conformity, opposed terms in Western thought (Laidlaw 2014), is the central issue. Spirit mediums are less directly agents of truth or history than its subjects or patients, caught up in an ethics of passion, in the sense in which Talal Asad has described “the passionate performance of an embodied ethical sensibility” (2003: 95), in contrast to ideas about individual responsibility in fully intentional self-creating and self-empowering subjects (Lambek 2010b: 731). This historical patiency manifests between spirit and medium as a mutuality of responsibility and care, but sometimes also as punishment or threat.

Philosopher Thomas Schwarz Wentzer (2014) describes a similar kind of historical encounter in terms of substitution and the displacement of pathos with responsiveness.11 There is substitutive and successional witnessing such that, in the autobiographical case about which he so beautifully writes, Wentzer was his father’s witness as his father was Wentzer’s. But whereas in the European case such responsiveness is generally limited to the personal domain or channeled through genres of memoir and fiction, in Madagascar it extends to the public sphere and carries more authority. The responsiveness and reciprocity of historical being can be experienced as and through a kind of public interruption. Here the mutuality highlighted in Wentzer’s case can be contemporaneous as onlookers and spirits each respond to circumstances and acknowledge and invite responses to each other’s responsivity.

Responsiveness is not restricted to the discursive realm. A truth that transfigures the subject may be seen or felt rather than spoken or heard; sometimes words are insufficient or unavailable. But not everything we see is equally transfigurative. In what sense, or how, are some interruptive presences powerful or true? What are the relations between appearing and revealing, vision and truth? When is response truthful or performance “real”? And, to borrow from Stanley Cavell and philosophy of language, (how) can or must we know what we see? When is “seeing it” “knowing it”?12 The spirit in the body of a medium is fully present. The relation between the image and what it is—the ontology of the image—is thus different than in a Jewish or Christian vision, and different from the kind of image found or sought in Sufism, painted on an orthodox Christian icon, or materialized in a Hindu or Buddhist statue. It is different also from the appearance of ghosts. In Malagasy spirit possession (as in much of Africa and Southeast Asia), the manifestation of the spirit is real in the sense of fully realized, at once iconic and symbolic of what it is, but most of all indexical. The spirit is here, and now, embodied and fully present to its audience. It addresses its onlookers in words or gaze or merely by its sheer presence. The presence of the spirit is a response to circumstance, but it simultaneously demands a response from those who encounter it. The presence of spirits, that is, their making an appearance, raises the following questions: Who are they and why have they come? Why do they arrive at just this moment and not another? And what does such presence signify? Is the apparition [325]the thing in itself? Is it auratic, in the language of Walter Benjamin (1969a), or some kind of refraction, theatrical representation, or copy? Is it a truth that, as Foucault says (see epigraph), can transfigure the subject? Does sheer presence determine truth, as a kind of Heideggerian disclosure or unconcealment?13 Or is the apparition—in this case, the spirit—someone to be known interpersonally or something to explained objectively? Answers to these questions refer to what Webb Keane (2007) has called semiotic ideology. And as the concept of ideology suggests, further questions are then: Who articulates the responses, who discriminates among them, and who legitimates or authorizes a conclusive answer?14

These were the kinds of questions that arose in the face of the sudden appearance of the new band of spirits in Majunga. No one challenged their existence, the force of their presence, or their indexical truth. And no one (except the anthropologists!) tried to displace this with a symbolic truth, worried excessively over what the interruption meant, or tried to capture a truth about the spirits. And yet no one, except the mediums themselves, was transfigured either. What was most at issue was the spirits’ iconic status: the forms in and through which they manifest.

The Great Service of 2012

At the annual Great Service held at the shrine of Ndramisara Efadahy, just outside Majunga, living humans and ancestral spirits (manifestations of deceased members of the royal clan) come together to celebrate their mutual ancestors, the founders of the royal lineage and the Sakalava polity of Boina. At the celebration, humans and the more youthful and junior spirits (present in the bodies of spirit mediums) rub shoulders in the crowds. People generally delight in observing the spirits, and many of the spirits delight in being seen, sometimes playing up to their viewers, striking disinterested poses (almost like fashion models) or, conversely, accosting the living, touching them, initiating conversation, sometimes drinking or dancing together. In general, the more junior the spirits, the more they want to be seen and heard, the more they call attention to themselves and say, in effect, look at me! The older and more powerful the spirits, the more self-contained, aloof, and disinterested they are. But unlike the spirits to be described shortly, all of these spirits have names; they are known, individuated persons, and by tacit arrangement, and with the exception of Ndrankeindraza, each of them appears on the shrine grounds in only one medium at a time.

One of the characteristics of visions as described by Yoram Bilu (2012) and Gabriel Herman (2011) is that they are events. Thus an apparition of the Virgin Mary can be highly marked and consequential, leading to new pilgrimages and pilgrimage sites. Spirit possession can also produce events rather than mere repetitions—new presences and new appearances that are markedly distinct and consequential. The Great Service in Majunga is an annual event but each time it takes place it is also eventful, a liturgical ritual that must be carried out according to [326]long-established procedure but whose felicitous enactment each year faces specific problems.15 Each annual service I have attended has been accompanied by particular anxieties or conflicts. These have to do with rivalries between members of the ruling clan and their respective factions, but also with national politics, and with echoes of ethnic tensions. One year the issue was AIDS: the venue and occasion were used to promote safe sex and even to offer HIV testing in the face of a strong sentiment by some mediums that this was inappropriate. Insofar as purification is a main vector of sanctity and theme of the festival (in which the relics are bathed), pollution is an ever-present threat that talk of AIDS appeared to exacerbate.

In 2012, the Great Service was ill timed, not only overlapping with Ramadan in a manner that could not have been avoided, but scheduled one Sakalava month later than it should have been.16 The officiating monarch under whose responsibility the felicitous and propitious unfolding of the Great Service lay was Ampanjaka (Prince) Richard, who had only recently managed to win control over the shrine from his distant cousin and rival, Ampanjaka Guy (Lambek 2013b), who in turn had attempted to succeed his own father, the late Ampanjaka Désy. Richard had replaced the armed soldiers, uncomfortably present at previous annual celebrations, with an unarmed garde du corps. But Guy still had his supporters among various constituencies, ranging from senior government officials to certain local spirit mediums eager to criticize Richard, and there was the sense that conflict bubbled just beneath the surface and could erupt at any time.

The tension that pervaded the shrine precinct also characterized the country as a whole. This was the period of national “transition” in which deposed President Marc Ravalomanana had been replaced by Andry Rajoelina and major international donors had withdrawn financial aid. Political legitimacy was in question and levels of economic insecurity had risen. The national army and police were widely perceived as unable to maintain peace in the countryside; indeed it was rumoured that some of their members were complicit in acts of theft and violence.

From the moment of our arrival in 2012, Sarah Gould and I kept hearing about brigands (fahavalo, dahalo) in the countryside and were warned about violence on the streets of Majunga as well. Brigands had even entered the main royal cemetery and ostensibly had stolen jewels from the bedroom of Princess Amina herself.17 Some of the accounts were highly exaggerated, but in the context of the failing state, insecurity was on everyone’s mind. A man from the capital described how automatic weapons were spreading not only among bandits and former soldiers, but also among the urban bourgeoisie, for protection. Since 2012, there have been various reports on the Internet of violent banditry, primarily in the south of the country where state control is weakest.18[327]

It was in this context that the group of youthful spirits made their unexpected appearance at the Great Service, dressed in red headbands and waistcloths, faces and bodies splotched with white clay, lithe, upright, brandishing spears, and sometimes making threatening gestures (Figure 1). The crowds parted to make way and stared at them with a mixture of apprehension and amusement. The new spirits were present in such large number and were so visible throughout the entire week of the Great Service that they appeared almost to take over the event. The Great Service unfolded as it should but there was a strong sense of disruption.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Jiriky on guard at the Great Service, 2012. (Photo copyright Sarah Gould.)

These spirits were quite distinctive. Unlike the tromba, who are individual royal ancestors, they went unnamed except for their generic category. They were referred to, collectively and individually (Malagasy does not mark the plural), as jiriky, a term that [328]means something like “wild forest dweller” (olo di añala). In contrast to the majority of spirit mediums, most mediums of jiriky (and the jiriky themselves) were male, but a few were young women. The vast majority came from the distant countryside, and were not people my friends and I knew. What was most remarkable was their youth. The jiriky were in possession of young mediums, mostly adolescents plus a few children and older people. It has been quite unusual for active spirit mediums in Majunga to be young. People explained that the mediums needed to be physically strong given the exertion of the jiriky. More significantly, youth and vitality are part of what the jiriky themselves signify. They are part of the symbolic register that Maurice Bloch (1986, 1992) has identified as the overcoming of wildness epitomized in youth as a central theme of rituals elsewhere in Madagascar. The wildness was further indicated by the fact that unlike spirits in the royal clan, jiriky did not speak to the living but only grunted, blew whistles, or gestured when they wanted to communicate with the crowd.

People were visibly surprised by the presence of the jiriky and initially unsure how to react. Moreover, they were uncertain and could not agree on who the jiriky were. Sarah Gould and I had a difficult time learning anything definitive about them beyond their appellation as jiriky. What was immediately salient was their sheer presence. At the Great Service of 2012, they seemed to be all over the place. They darted and loped through the crowds, their movements all the more striking in that running is strictly forbidden on the shrine premises. They held their spears poised, threatening the crowds, anticipating the arrival of the sacrificial cattle, guarding them, and then eagerly drinking blood and eating raw meat from the carcasses. Some even drank the blood spurting from the throats of the cattle as they were cut, directly incorporating their vitality (Ruel 1990) (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2:Jiriky with cattle blood 2012. (Photo copyright Sarah Gould.)

Discovering the identity of the jiriky

I have attended performances of the Great Service on several occasions from the early 1990s when there were only one or two jiriky present and where they simply wandered individually through the crowds, largely unremarked and alone. Regular participants were startled too at the way the numbers had grown exponentially. A shrine official said that in 2009 two jiriky attended the Great Service; in 2010 there were six of them; in 2011 eight; and in 2012 thirty-one. Like many others, a senior spirit medium said she was astounded both at their number and at their presence in children. She had no idea whether they were human and indicated she was afraid of the sharp spears and kept her distance.

A first association that people made was to bandits, and especially to the cattle thieves who rendered the countryside unsafe. This was also the association to which I jumped. But these were bandits who carried spears, not guns, and these were spirit bandits who possessed the living. Moreover, rather than stealing cattle from their rightful owners, they appeared to be protecting them on the owners’ behalf. They also policed the shrine, confronting onlookers who broke prohibitions, confiscating the shoes of those who wore them on sacred ground and ransoming them for small amounts of money, which they used to buy drinks. In this capacity they displaced not only the military, but also both the traditional guardians (ancestor people, razan’olo) of the shrine and Prince Richard’s new set of guards.

In fact, while most people seemed uncertain who the jiriky were, they appeared less determined than Sarah and me to find out, as it were to discover the truth rather than to simply accept their presence as true. Nevertheless, the interpretations and hypotheses they offered were all of interest, part of the interpretation of history as it happened. In particular, there was a sharp difference of opinion as to whether jiriky were human beings or some kind of nonhuman animal (taranaka biby, tsy olonbelo), an attribution indicated by the drinking of raw and spurting blood. Many onlookers said that in addition to blood, jiriky ate wild and raw foods like honey and crabs and that they inhabited both mangrove and dry forests. However, these informants were mainly urban dwellers, at some remove from the cattle-keeping lifestyle that has characterized many of the rural people of inland western Madagascar for centuries. One person compared and potentially identified them to Sarah Gould with Bara, an ethnic group far from Majunga among whom, he explained, men rustle cattle in order to acquire bridewealth. Here theft is explicitly in the service of social reproduction. Another person proposed that as past diviners (mwas) could make both people and other things, like trees, possess people, the original natures of the present jiriky were doubtless diverse. In my own imagination, they seemed like woodland sprites in their lightness of movement, grace, and charm.

One person described the jiriky as formerly in the service of the founding monarch of the kingdom, who would send them into the forest to search for lost cattle and similar tasks. Another person suggested they were sent by this early king to maintain order at the current Great Service. A third identified them as members of the royal clan, and a fourth as soldiers attached to such a member of the clan who had lived in the bush and presumably raided others. In all this it is unclear whether the jiriky are bandits or soldiers, a distinction that may have [330]been irrelevant to most people in the past and one whose lines are indeed blurred again today. The jiriky are thus poised very interestingly between being under control of a centralized authority and outside it, exploiting people on their behalf and protecting them. They are at once potential thieves, cattle rustlers, warriors, guardians of order, and a kind of primitive rebel (Hobsbawm 1959). Some attributed to them a powerful medicine that repels gunfire or renders them invisible to government forces, while others explained the splotches of white clay on their bodies as marking the spots where they received wounds from soldiers’ guns.19 Implicitly, they raise questions of legitimacy concerning both royal and national governments.

Another theme was the primitiveness of the jiriky. In response to a question I had earlier posed him, Prince Richard lectured me in front of a large audience20 that they were not a different species but the spirits of deceased humans who could be likened to “cavemen” from the “Stone Age.” Prince Richard gave the anthropologist a lesson in cultural relativism, explaining that a simpler technology or diet does not make people any less human and that the jiriky are not lawless brigands (fahavalo), any more than were Stone Age people. Richard then shifted gears and briefly compared them to rebels, mentioning the menalamba (red shawls) uprising in the highlands under French colonialism (Ellis 1985).

This last interpretation is particularly interesting. Malagasy historian Solofo Randrianja (pers. comm., June 2012) made the point explicit, suggesting that the current influx of actual brigands (dahalo) throughout Madagascar, and including the jiriky, could be viewed as a social movement with a political agenda. In effect, Randrianja speaks to a claim for a moral economy. This is the contemporary manifestation of a deep structure that both links roving bands to royalty and opposes them to government by evoking earlier periods of Malagasy history. It has emerged at various times throughout that history, notably during periods of severe deprivation, exploitation, and anticolonial revolt.

Sarah Gould and I did not have much luck conversing with either the jiriky (after all, they did not speak) or their mediums (who seemed to blend into the crowd as soon as they were out of trance), but we were able to discover that the jiriky had their place within the broader Sakalava structure. As I have described earlier (Lambek 2002), one feature of Sakalava historicity is its distributed quality: each piece of history has living people who bear the responsibility to keep it alive, and the pieces all fit together even though each is not necessarily known beyond a small group of bearers and no one has the whole picture.

We confirmed that most of the mediums came from the region of Marovoay, having been sent to the Great Service by Ndramtiko, an ancestral diviner (mwas) and member of a royal clan (and now spirit). Searching through old fieldnotes, I came across a mention from 1994 that Ndramtiko was a Zafinifotsy, the first [331]Sakalava royal clan to enter the north (perhaps in the seventeenth century).21 This anchors his authority in a period before the arrival of the fraternal but conquering Zafinimena royal clan, whose ancestors are buried at the shrine in Majunga and whose contemporary descendants fight over succession.

We were able to find the medium of the sole jiriky elder and to call up the spirit in town after the Great Service. This elder, unlike the other jiriky, spent the entire Great Service seated near the cattle awaiting sacrifice. The medium himself was a middle-aged man named Hadja who said he had inherited the jiriky elder from his mother. He lived in a neighborhood quite distant from our own and we had never encountered him before, although he had a long-standing practice as a healer in Majunga. Hadja appeared to be unconnected to the large number of young mediums from the countryside. The jiriky elder in possession of Hadja explained that the jiriky were the spirits of former people who once may have stolen cattle but were not outlaws (fahavalo). They had brought tribute to the Great Service and were put to work, having been sent to serve to restore order there; for the youth, he said, it was a kind of “military training.”

Another person affirmed the jiriky were the soldiers of Ndramtiko and guarded his cattle deep in the forest. In a kind of folding in of later history, many of the jiriky were said to have been wounded or killed as a result of gunshots from the gendarmes. Whereas the jiriky carried spears, guns are now the weapons of choice of those terrorizing contemporary cattle keepers in the countryside.

The jiriky in royal politics: The future of the past

It is evident that the sudden appearance of the jiriky at the shrine can be linked to a political undercurrent of concern about insecurity and disruption of livelihood across the country, and this was the first lesson taken by many of the people who observed them. However, the more immediate (and less widely known) reason for their presence was connected to royal politics. Not only did they deliver and guard the sacred cattle on behalf of the ancestors, and not only did they monitor the behavior of onlookers, many of whom came increasingly as tourists or spectators rather than as practicants, but the jiriky were also there to warn the reigning prince himself. At a certain moment during the week, Ndramtiko rose within the scared enclosure (valamena) in what was said to be his very first appearance ever at the shrine and called for Prince Richard. Surrounded by the armed jiriky, and standing face to face with the reigning monarch, the ancestral diviner chastised him for having scheduled the ceremony on the wrong date.

I could not follow the speech (which I was lucky enough to stumble on), but apparently Ndramtiko told Richard that if he ever again made such a mistake, the spirits would withdraw protection from the shrine. Prince Richard politely acknowledged his error, apologized (nifona), and said it would not happen again.

After Richard withdrew, Ndramtiko gave a blessing to the spears and clothing of [332]each of the jiriky, empowering them while simultaneously affirming their subordination to him.22

The confrontation between the living monarch and an ancestral diviner with his own phalanx of armed guards demonstrates that if historical memory is distributed among various bearers, so, too, is authority. But what is manifest here is not simply a kind of organic division of power but also a mechanical division or balance among rival segments of the polity (Lambek 2002). Although no one said anything explicit to this effect, I am certain it is no accident that the person who brought the jiriky to the Great Service was Ndramtiko. It turns out that Richard’s rival, Guy, is a direct descendant (on his mother’s mother’s side) of Ndramtiko from Kalambay. Hence there was a whole other political dimension to the presence of Ndramtiko and his followers, one that I think most participants at the Great Service missed at the time.

This point is reinforced by the identity of Ndramtiko’s medium. If Ndramtiko serves as master of the jiriky, he and his medium no doubt played a role in recruiting them. The medium was an elderly man who came from the rural community of Ambalatany. Many of the young mediums appear to hail from Ambalatany as well. Ambalatany happens to be the home (mortuary village) of Ndransinint, a very popular spirit descended from a junior line of royalty that has held an implicit alliance with Guy, the man who was removed as reigning monarch in Boina by Richard and his supporters. Thus, another issue that caused much tension at the Great Service of 2012 concerned whether the man who had been installed as chief medium (sahabe) of Ndransinint at Ambalatany and who had been a close ally of Guy would be allowed to officiate in this role at the Great Service or whether he would be replaced by a medium of Richard’s choosing.23

Even more deeply than this, and more concealed, the claims of Ndransinint’s line potentially challenge the legitimacy of the lineage that has been reigning since the early 1700s. Ndransinint is a descendant of an older son by an earlier wife of the first monarch, a son whose succession to rule was prevented by the acts of a later wife on behalf of her own son who did become the second ruler and who (along with his father) is one of the four ancestors (Efadahy) whose relics rest at the shrine and who is venerated at the Great Service.

I do not want to argue that there is a single reason, cause, or intention that would explain the presence of the jiriky or their salience at the Great Service. But it is also no accident that jiriky began to attend the Great Service in large numbers only once Richard took power. Their presence was a way of acknowledging his rule, but on condition that he rule well. They assisted in the felicitous enactment of the Great Service even as they interrupted it and put Richard on notice, serving on his behalf but outside his control. The popular appeal of the jiriky and the rural interests they [333]represented served as a latent threat to Richard’s own (wide) popularity and authority. Behind the spectacle that the jiriky provided and unknown to the majority of the onlookers, and perhaps to many of the mediums of the jiriky themselves, lay a warning to Prince Richard that he had better watch his step and acknowledge precedent. Their presence stated emphatically that their loyalty lay to the Great Service and the ancestors it honored (hence to the people, to those to whom prosperity was granted by the ancestors in turn), and not to the immediate interests of the living prince who happened to be currently in charge. They even hinted, as Guy himself had done, that other shrines and other ancestors might eventually take precedence.24 Apart from the particulars of the conflict, this speaks to a more general point that contemporary Sakalava rulers are supposed to hold themselves responsible to both the living and the ancestors, and that in both respects they hold their position in trust and for a larger good. This is true for rulers in the country more generally, indeed for the very understanding of government and power, albeit it is evident more in the breach than in practice. Thus, just as the presence of brigands may signal popular dissent and criticism of government from the perspective of “tradition,” so may the jiriky indicate popular interests and dissatisfaction within “tradition.” The message the jiriky bring to Richard is the same warning that, writ large and following Randrianja’s argument, underlies the presence of brigands on the national scene, reminding those in power of their responsibilities to the people and of the anchorage of this moral responsibility in the past, in reciprocity with the ancestors. This is confirmed by an incident that was said to have taken place at Ambalatany sometime before the Great Service when a jiriky hit a gendarme: suddenly, before the latter could retaliate, all the onlookers became possessed by jiriky as well, and so the gendarme could do nothing. The jiriky stand outside state power as represented by the gendarmes and they serve to protect popular interests.

Moreover, in line with the remarks about anticolonial rebellion, the jiriky speak to anxieties over continuity. As one man pointed out, the presence of the jiriky is less an innovation at the Great Service than a return to the past. Actually, it is less a return to the past than the reappearance of the past, an interruption set to address, warn, and assist the present. The presence of the jiriky is a potent force.

Nevertheless, the significance of the jiriky does not lie exclusively in the political register. They provided a spectacle that entertained the large crowds at the Great Service, whether by introducing a frisson of fear, indulging the curiosity of the primitive, or charming them with their playfulness. They also offered an injection of youthful vitality. Most salient was their sheer presence and immediacy, the kind of potency they manifested, and the thrill they produced. People disagreed on who the jiriky were and where they came from, but they were not worried about this, and did not seem to need to know. Whether the jiriky were primarily human or nonhuman, brigands or guardians, or how one interpreted the difference, mattered less than what their sudden arrival indexed and what they did in front of people. Indeed the visual aspect was played up by the spirits themselves. The jiriky shifted in their demeanor [334]between being supremely disinterested in the onlookers as they went about their business, suspicious toward and challenging those they observed breaking the prohibitions of the site, and humorously self-conscious as they posed for spectators. Thus one of them played up beautifully for Sarah Gould’s camera, nodding his head and smiling happily, his face covered in cow’s blood (Figure 2). Then he wanted to look at his photo through the lens and seemed very pleased by what he saw.

So one could say that these young people (mediums/jiriky) became visions for others and for themselves.25 Their presence could be read as expressing anxiety about the growing insecurity in the countryside, intervention in the politics of the shrine, or concern over the increased objectification of the Great Service and the incursion of tourists who did not observe the rules. But at least as important, their presence was an expression of the vitality of youth and a positive manifestation of social continuity and the reliability of the past as both a form of protection and a moral grounding for the present. The jiriky were also an index of young people’s engagement in the ancestral system, their succession to positions that bear the past, and of the continued support by youth of elders, the significance of the countryside for the city, and the vital role of “traditional” power in “modern” circumstances: in sum, they were an index of the future of the past.

Conclusion: The youthful face and force of the past

An anthropology of history must examine the relationship of event history to what I have called historicity. Here they are not opposed. The arrival of the jiriky exemplifies an event in the history of early-twenty-first-century Majunga, and their presence is a manifestation of Sakalava historicity. The jiriky exemplify aspects of the structure of that historicity, its complexity, texture, and depth; both the unexpected resources of its archive (James 1988) and the unexpected potential of its poiesis or creativity. Like all ancestral voices, those of the jiriky are relatively open, speaking as or from specific positions in the past, but doing so with originality and verve to changing present circumstances. Like all the spirits, as engaged and engaging persons they are open symbolic vehicles or signifiers rather than closed or fixed in their meaning. Their intervention is political and their performance aesthetic, but their sheer responsiveness, their attention and total engagement, could be described as ethical.

The jiriky demonstrate that ancestral history is not exclusively royal history or the history made and remembered by those in power. They complement royal and state voices with subaltern ones, and if the subalterns do not have full voices capable of articulating discursively, they certainly have a presence that is powerfully displayed. They confront members of royalty or others in power with their vitality, reminding people that the Sakalava polity is, in its own political metaphor, a bibimaroloha, a many-headed beast.

The presence of the jiriky served both to warn the reigning monarch and to signal disquiet at current circumstances in the country at large. The jiriky speak [335](perform, embody) truth to history (to present circumstances) even as they speak (embody) truth from history (the continuous past). Elsewhere, I have argued that Sakalava call upon and acknowledge the past in order to institute change and move forward successfully.26 Such acknowledgment is one side of a relationship in which the past can also address the present and offer its assistance or warning. Here it is the past that arrives unbidden (or, rather, bidden by Ndramtiko, who is also from the past) to acknowledge present trouble and restore well-being.

At the end of the day, perhaps the most important message stems from the youthfulness of the jiriky and especially of their mediums. Youth here is simultaneously indexical, iconic, and symbolic of vitality and resilience, of a future in continuity with and in acknowledgment of the past, and acknowledged and protected by its past. The past here is vigorous, youthful, and uncompromising. There is the sheer force and presence of the jiriky, their own enthusiasm and the corresponding enjoyment of their presence. There is the promise of youth to succeed their parents, to renew the present, ensure the future, and remain true to the past; conversely, there is the promise of the past to secure the present and to be there in the future, in the bodies of the next generation (Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3: The promise of youth. (Photo copyright Sarah Gould.)

[336]Throughout this essay, I have had in mind the remark by Foucault (2005: 19) that served as the epigraph:

If we define spirituality as being the form of practices which postulate that, such as he is, the subject is not capable of the truth, but that, such as it is, the truth can transfigure and save the subject, then we can say that the modern age of the relations between the subject and truth begins when it is postulated that, such as he is, the subject is capable of truth, but that, such as it is, the truth cannot save the subject.

This is as good a summary as I know of one way to depict modernity. Academic history is one of the discourses said to exemplify modernity, and anthropology likewise. Conducting an event history illustrates our capacity to discover the truth, but it is a truth that manifestly does not save or transfigure us; the image that captures history in this sense is Walter Benjamin’s (1969b) mournful angel looking back at the ruins. Sakalava historicity is quite different. The Sakalava past does not disappear; it moves forward with the present and sometimes folds or erupts into it. And Sakalava do not so much discover the past or the truth as it discovers them.

Of course, Sakalava are coeval with us; they read history and they are subject to the force of global history: the neoliberal policies that impoverished Madagascar; the alignment of American interests with President Ravalomanana; the foreign leases of vast tracts of land that helped instigate the coup against him; the international sanctions that followed; and so on. Sakalava discuss national and international politics, and many young people are attracted to transnational media. I would say that their historicity is not one that creates a sharp divide between the modern and its other. It is rather characterized by the immodern. This is a term I coined (Lambek 2013a) to get away from both the dualism and the linearity inherent in oppositions like modern/premodern or modern/postmodern. The immodern refers to what exceeds the modern rather than what opposes, precedes, or succeeds it. Depending on context, it can connote “beyond,” “other than,” or “more than” —much as words like immoderate, immeasurable, and immortal do—hence it can encompass the modern (cf. Chakrabarty 2000). (In a sense, we are all immodern now, but we do not all acknowledge it equally.)

The truth in Sakalava historicity happens in a kind of Heideggerian unconcealment, here simply emerging from and as the presence of the jiriky. This truth is manifest as the unbroken connection of the past to the present, as evident in its ability to appear unbidden and reveal itself. Whereas anxieties in many parts of Africa are connected to the sense of a rupture with the past and a removal or distancing of ancestral protection (e.g. Ashforth 2000), hence with occlusion, in northwest Madagascar anxiety led to revelation and affirmation of a positive connection with the past through the vigilance of youth to provide not only physical protection but also moral order and a kind of joyous playfulness. Such visibility indexes something that is the antithesis of witchcraft and corruption.

To live history is to be present to it.[337]

Historicist/ethnographic postscript: “The best army against modernity”

I have taken the presence of the jiriky as an expression of Sakalava historicity and as simultaneously a historical interpretation and historical act. I also documented the event in a conventional historicist mode. I can extend this documentation from 2012 with observations during a brief visit in 2015 when I caught the last day of the Great Service. In 2015, there were more jiriky present than ever, some in possession of even younger mediums (as young as five, said one person). Their role in crowd control was more explicit and the spirits had gained the power to speak; at least, they exchanged greetings with people. However, perplexity about their nature and presence continued. A member of royalty compared them to wild beasts (biby). An elderly medium of senior tromba said she had no idea who the jiriky were. “It is all very new; people like us have no idea why they are here or what they are doing.” Another medium, close to Prince Richard, said, “No one understands them; we are all astonished at their presence and don’t know what to do about them.”

An advisor of Prince Richard explained in a mixture of Malagasy and French, “The jiriky are spirits who live in the forest (añala) and who serve the monarch (roi) to keep order. They can recognize plants and have remained relatively sauvage. They don’t recognize modern things and flee from them. They form the best army against modernity.” By the striking last phrase, he meant in the first instance that they dealt with transgressors of taboos at the shrine, but the phrase can be taken much more broadly.

The advisor also pointed to an incident when a person who appeared to be a jiriky stabbed a woman (nonfatally) and made off with her handbag. “No doubt this was an imposter. But the real jiriky should have recognized and prevented it. The vrai have to recognize the faux.”

A further concern—and another new event—was the appearance at the Great Service of many spirits of yet another kind, also bare chested and carrying spears. They announced they were Betsirebaka (people from southeast Madagascar) and drank coffee instead of liquor. But their waist wraps were black, a color absolutely forbidden (fady) at the shrine, and the advisor felt that if they had exercised their duties properly, the jiriky should have removed them. In effect, the jiriky had failed in their role to protect the shrine.

Prince Richard met with his advisors to discuss how to “maitriser les jiriky,” how to keep them in line. They decided to talk to the mwas (Ndramtiko) and tell him that things had gone too far and that he needed to exercise discipline over his troops.

Finally, a few informants associated the presence of the jiriky with an outbreak of mass possession at a school in the countryside. As reported by an advisor, Prince Richard considered the outbreak a response to Christians who were trying to overturn Sakalava customs. “It is appropriate for them to exist side by side,” he said, “but not to try to destroy each other. Our ancestors are angry (razanay meloko) and caused the mass possession.” Another informant clarified that the Christians had bragged about cutting down the forests in which the jiriky found their food; since their environment has been destroyed, they have begun to enter people. He suggested that the jiriky were “antiestablishment” and could resist royalty as well [338]as the government or church; they had been present in the region long before any of these forces.

In sum, the jiriky remain ambiguous, controversial, and outside control. If their presence indicates a kind of implicit political intervention and ethical interpretation of historical circumstances, it is met with explicit local interpretations. Both the interruptive presence of the spirits and the interpretations of that presence are continuing and open-ended responses in and to the present by means of the past—and hence historical in multiple senses.


Different sections of the article have distinct origins. One draws from a presentation in the panel “Beyond the Historic Turn: Toward an Anthropology of History” organized by Stephan Palmié and Charles Stewart for the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in Chicago, November 2013. Another began as a contribution to a conference on “Visions and Apparitions from an Interdisciplinary Perspective” organized by Yoram Bilu and Gabriel Herman at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Van Leer Institute, May 8–9, 2013. A version of the article was presented at the African Studies seminar at Harvard, November 6, 2014, and benefited from the critical insights of Jean and John Comaroff as well as Jacob Olopuna and other participants. I am grateful to all parties for their invitations and provocations; to five thoughtful referees; to Solofo Randrianja for a critical insight; and especially to Sarah Gould for sharing the field research and ideas. Gould has written her own complementary papers on the event and has supplied the magnificent photographs in this one. Thanks also to the Canada Research Chairs program and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for financial support, and the people in Madagascar who have instructed and inspired me.


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Sur l’être présent dans l’histoire: Historicité et esprits brigands à Madagascar

Résumé : Cet article étudie l’arrivée inattendue de nouveaux esprits dans les possessions de jeunes médiums lors d’une cérémonie donnée annuellement à Majunga, Madagascar. J’y évoque la signification de cet évènement pour la politique locale, et je montre également que cette cérémonie révèle une forme d’historicité différente de celle de l’historicisme Euro-Américain, à la fois du point de vue de la structure de la temporalité historique, et de la nature historique de la vérité, du savoir, de l’experience, de l’attention et de l’action. Je suggère aussi que l’action des esprits ou des médiums est une interpretation des circonstances, et que nous pouvons penser l’action historique plus généralement en tant qu’action interprétative.

Michael LAMBEK is Professor of Anthropology and holds a Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto. He is the author of three monographs on the western Indian Ocean: Human spirits (Cambridge University Press, 1981), Knowledge and practice in Mayotte (University of Toronto Press, 1993), and The weight of the past (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), and is the editor of several collections, including Irony and illness (with Paul Antze, Berghahn, 2003), Ordinary ethics (Fordham University Press, 2010), and the Companion to the anthropology of religion (with Janice Boddy, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). Recent works include The ethical condition: Essays on action, person, and value (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and, with Veena Das, Didier Fassin, and Webb Keane, Four lectures on ethics (HAU Books, 2015).

Michael Lambek
Department of Anthropology
University of Toronto
19 Russell Street
Toronto, M5S 2S2


1. I have used Patchett’s line elsewhere (Lambek 2014) to describe the practical constitution of everyday lives as people live through interpreting (selectively and judiciously appropriating or avoiding) the exemplars, means, and media their culture makes available to them.

2. I am indebted to Ato Quayson for the formulation of revelation versus representation in remarks delivered during a symposium on “Living Structuralism,” Toronto, October 3, 2015.

3. There is an extensive literature on the relationship of anthropology to history. From the side of anthropology, notable contributions include Sahlins (1985) and Comaroff and Comaroff (1992). From the side of history, Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) was a landmark work. A helpful recent discussion of historicity is Hodges (2015).

4. The first phase of this ethnography of history has been published as The weight of the past (Lambek 2002). There I drew on a set of conceptual tools, including chronotope, poiesis, historical conscience, and orchestration of voice, to unpack how Sakalava conceptualize, perform, live, suffer, enjoy, play, speak, and acknowledge their history, in sum how—in a word that is closest to their own imagery—they bear or carry it. I take the development of such terms as part of an anthropology of history no less than an ethnography of history.

5. In brief, “Sakalava” is a term that now marks ethnicity but originally referred to a political organization, one offshoot of which expanded from the southwest to the northwest around 1700 CE and created the kingdom of Boina, which subsequently fragmented into multiple related polities. Affiliation in northwest Madagascar is bilateral and hence not exclusive; terms like “Sakalava” in practice operate at multiple levels of abstraction. Moreover, many people who do not otherwise consider themselves Sakalava participate in the community of practice concerning royal ancestors and spirits.

6. For additional compelling accounts of possession along these lines, see Lan (1985) and Boddy (1989), and on mimesis, Kramer (1993) and, more generally, Taussig (1993).

7. “Les vivants et les morts d’un même lignage sont des contemporains” (2007: 79). Goedefroit and Lombard are speaking of southern Sakalava, at great distance (some 500 km) from the northern Sakalava of Majunga, and drawing on fieldwork conducted over a decade earlier than mine. For further depictions of Sakalava death and temporality, see Lambek (2001, 2015b). Important work on northern Sakalava includes Baré (1977), Feeley-Harnik (1978, 1991), Sharp (1993), and Jaovelo-Dzao (1996).

8. Mortuary disposal is significant for all members of the royal clan and all can become spirits, but I am thinking specifically about reigning monarchs.

9. As one reviewer correctly remarked, “Isn’t the Malagasy world of the living also dominated by intransitive action? Individual agency always seems relatively obscured or minimized in grammar, the event more important than the doer.”

10. Both the heteroglossia and the earthy quality of many of the spirits bring to mind the voice of Bakhtin.

11. He draws on the ideas of German philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels (e.g., 2011).

12. Cavell’s famous question (1976) is Must we mean what we say?

13. For further discussion, see Lambek (2010c).

14. The answers can change, as when presence dissolves into mirage, a dreamer awakens, or an iconoclastic movement dismisses previous truths.

15. As Rappaport (1999) points out, the performance of any ritual is characterized by the conjunction of the canonical (repeated, orderly) and the indexical (unique, circumstantial).

16. Sakalava months are anchored in the solar year, whereas Muslim months are fully lunar.

17. Amina is ruler of the adjacent and related polity; both she and Richard celebrate their mutual ancestors at the Great Service.

18. “Hundreds of civilians and dozens of government soldiers have been killed by dahalo, heavily armed cattle rustlers that often resemble militias more than bandits. They steal zebu cattle for commercial profit and terrorise villagers along the way. One estimate found that there were over 160 attacks in two months, involving more than 3,000 cattle—for a commercial value well above $1 million. Accurate figures are scarce, however, as most thefts go unreported. (Madagascar’s unforgiving bandit lands, IRIN, 18 July 2012). Shortly after President Rajaonarimampianina’s inauguration, fifteen dahalo were killed in a firefight with government forces (Vangaindrano: Quinze dahalo abattu dans une fusillade, L’Express de Madagascar, 8 February 2014). Without adequate government security, affected communities have formed self-defence units, known as zamas (The Zebu and the Zama, IRIN, 14 April 2014). The situation has reportedly continued to deteriorate (Madagascar: la situation sécuritaire se dégrade dans le sud, RFI, 8 May 2014)” (Crisis Group Africa 2014: 19). Zama is the term for mother’s brother. The issue of security is more extensively discussed in Sarah Gould’s analysis of the jiriky (2013).

19. There are many jiriky, and each one is in fact a distinct individual, with slight differences in clothing, ornaments, and wounds. However, their individuality seems less salient here than that of tromba, who are members of the royal genealogy.

20. The audience was significant as they were largely a contingent of men from the very place and with the same politics as those who brought the jiriky.

21. The information came from oral historian Amady Sarambavy, who also stated that Ndramtiko resides (is buried) at the shrine (doany) of Kalambay, located on the route to Mampikony. He was the son of Betsoliha.

22. I was kept at a distance from the speech and prevented from directly observing the blessing because, as a vazaha (white foreigner), I epitomize those who subjugated the kingdom to colonial rule and can still pollute its sacred force. This identity becomes salient in highly charged situations or where people are unfamiliar with me.

23. There was suspense up until the last minute. In the end, there was a compromise and Ndransinint appeared in the bodies of at least three different mediums, without conflict.

24. Guy himself was not present at the Great Service. There were rumors that he was making alliances with “traditional rulers” reigning elsewhere in Madagascar and with various state officials in the capital, or that he might try to take back the shrine by force (as he had attempted in a previous year), or even that he was building a new shrine.

25. While I cannot speak to the motivations of the mediums, their possession enables them to play a public role and indexes their commitment, position, and belonging (cf. Sharp 1993).

26. In an essay itself now twenty years in the past (Lambek 1996), I argued that individuals and communities exercise judicious balance between remembering past events and letting them go. Subsequently (Lambek 2002), I described the elaborate ways in which Sakalava do bear their past, seriously, sometimes painfully, sometimes playfully, but also ask its permission and sanctification to move ahead in new directions. Change should be acknowledged, not simply take place.