Photo of an African woman at the gate of a village surrounded by a loose wooden fence


Exotic Ordinary

On understanding spirit mediums in Madagascar.

The sacred enclosure (valamena) of the main ancestral shrine, the Doany Miarinarivo in Majunga, Madagascar, August 2, 2007. The posts are spaced just wide enough for cats to enter. Photo courtesy of Sarah Gould

By Michael Lambek

“Philosophy,” writes Stanley Cavell, “does not seek to tell us anything new but rather to understand what human beings cannot on the whole simply not already know.”1 Anthropology, or at least ethnography, throws in our face what we do not or cannot already know. That is its attraction; as Clifford Geertz once said, citing Thoreau, it is not worth going halfway around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.2 But that in turn merely heightens the philosophical challenge of discovering in this strange material, despite its strangeness, maybe even because of its strangeness, a partial understanding of what we cannot on the whole simply not already know.

Anthropological fieldwork is often described as participant observation. But it might better be described as walking a fine line between making assumptions and questioning them. In coming to an understanding of an observed culture, the challenge is to find a judicious balance between rendering a given world exotic and banal, distinctively different and recognizably human, describing for new readers both what they could not have already known, and what they and I could not have not already known (about our common humanity). In sum, the challenge is to recognize the ordinary.

In northwest Madagascar (not so far from Zanzibar), Sakalava place the posts that ring their sacred enclosures close enough together so that dogs cannot enter—but wide enough apart so that cats can. The enclosures house the ancestors, or their remains, and the ancestors are said to like cats. I cannot explain why the ancestors are hospitable to cats but not dogs; no one has ever explained it to me and I have not discovered any structure of symbolic oppositions that might underlie it. But I like the fact, the human fact, that the ancestors like cats.

Perhaps there is an association, something feline about the ancestors. The ancestors are very independent, coming and going as they please. Occasionally they will approach and acknowledge you or your gifts to them, but often they are disdainful and unpredictable, sidling or stalking off, or simply not coming when called. They are not hungry for affection like dogs, not dependent or mutually affectionate, but they do like to be pleased and flattered. Pleasing the ancestors calls for music and dance and liquor, and then, if they please, the ancestors rise in the bodies of their chosen human hosts, the spirit mediums, and drink, dance, and chatter alongside their living followers. When they have had enough, they slip away to their own destinations.

This comparison is fanciful and entirely mine; perhaps the fence posts are spaced as they are simply so that the cats can keep down the mice and so the dogs will not defecate on sacred ground. More likely, the spacing has to do with the expense of posts or the careful maintaining of a partial visibility. But then again, some ancestors do like cats of specific colors, and their mediums may keep and feed cats of that color. This is a relatively insubstantial detail, not central to the respect addressed to the royal ancestors or to the daily practice of their spirit mediums, something no one would have bothered to mention if I hadn’t been sitting around bored one afternoon and inquired idly about a cat. But to keep cats of only a specific color is different from merely liking cats. It is a playful supplement, a minor register on which to produce distinctions among the various ancestors,3 and identifications between each ancestor and his or her respective mediums. Alongside the ostensible strangeness of long or recently deceased members of the royal clan coming as they please to possess and disrupt the living, there are ordinary things here, about cats for example, that I both cannot know in advance and cannot not already know.


Spirit possession is an endlessly intriguing phenomenon. It exhibits a unique ontology in which alternate beings temporarily take over the minds and bodies of spirit mediums and speak and act in their place. It thereby offers a lively realization of figures who are not merely products of an abstract set of relations that structuralists discern in myth or architecture, but are lived out in the embodied performances of ancestral spirits and the mundane practices of the spirit mediums (feeding cats, for example). A radical, if highly episodic, transformation in consciousness and yet a complex and elaborately coordinated performance and lived practice, spirit possession also necessarily articulates the deep motivations of the individual spirit mediums as well as the collective representations of the world in which they find themselves. In northwest Madagascar, these representations are condensed into the characters and relations among a large number of personages who represent former rulers and their entourages. Successive historical generations meet and converse with one another in the present in a kind of poiesis of history.4 Moreover, even as the living are interpellated by figures from the past, possession retains a compelling relevance for contemporary issues. In Madagascar it continues to be very popular, and even moves along with the times; for example, the practice travels with spirit mediums who immigrate to Europe.

Possession depends, in the first instance, on the creative and practical energies of the mediums. The lives of individual spirit mediums have fascinated me since I first discovered in 1975 that the couple in Mayotte who had taken me in during my doctoral fieldwork were themselves mediums. The spirits who possessed them danced at the public events that were simultaneously healing rituals, initiations for new mediums, and parties for the pleasure of the spirits, and they and their spirits each worked as consultants and healers for those who came to them for help. But their respective spirits also rose at night and in private to speak to each other and to say things that would otherwise have remained unspoken, or, if spoken, might possibly cause affront or anguish. Their intimacy was understandable and very moving.5

Proceeding after some years from provincial Mayotte across a piece of the Mozambique channel to the center of the old Sakalava kingdom in Majunga (Mahajanga) in northwest Madagascar, I came to understand more clearly the public role of spirits who were ancestors within the royal clan. The ancestors themselves (along with their mediums) were energetic participants in activities designed to preserve and renew their habitat (shrines, cemeteries, houses) and well-being, in a complex social world of relationships among multiple generations, factions, branches, and places of habitation, as well as between living and ancestral members of the royal family, their officials and servants, and their subjects more broadly, the general public who took an interest in them.6

The intensity with which people join in collective projects or quarrel with one another, enjoying the means as an end or competing for distinct means and ends, is not easy to convey. But the fact of being a vehicle for diverse, distinct persons, and, indeed, what Marcel Mauss called personages7—public characters whose presence is guaranteed by successive or multiple members of a cast—evokes all sorts of questions on the order of what we like to call philosophy: on the relation between minds and bodies, on truth and irony, on meaning what one says and keeping one’s word, on the ethical consistency and continuity of individual persons or selves, and on the conduct and reproduction of history, on the very quality of temporality or historicity so constituted and its intrinsic relationship to personhood. Most generally, the figure, life, and practice of the spirit medium incites questions about the relationship of action to passion, agency to patiency, autonomy to subjection, and public vehicles to unconscious motivation and conflict.

It has not been fashionable in anthropology to focus on individuals. Ethnographers write about communities or relationships, social movements or institutions, or maybe assemblages, structure, or events, possibly case studies. Occasionally, one produces a life history, but these tend to be separated from the mainstream and classic works. And yet portraiture can be very effective and sometimes necessary.8 There is something deeply personal, and indeed ordinary, about the way Malagasy spirit mediums take on the obligations to perform as royal ancestors and to reshape their daily lives around the fact that they carry such ancestors. Here, I provide a highly unfinished portrait of one man, presented for its allusive qualities rather than its definitive conclusions. The subject is not yet a major player among the mediums of Majunga and may never become one of the more charismatic or powerful. Yet his story points to the future in an interesting way: it sets out the possible attractions of possession for an affluent and Western-educated middle class, anticipating both the novel ways that possession can come to be understood by new kinds of subjects and the ways that new subjects become integrated within an ongoing tradition. Like any account of spirit mediumship, it illustrates in a quite specific way how action and passion (call them “religious”) cannot be disarticulated from one another.


On July 11, 2009, I talked with a spirit medium as we sat on mats spread on the cement floor of a simple house in the quarter of L’Abattoir in the city of Majunga. L’Abattoir is an old neighborhood, laid out on a grid of some paved but mostly unpaved streets that transect the hilly terrain. Many of Majunga’s Muslims live here and also some of its best-known spirit mediums. We were in the house of one of these mediums, a woman called Dady Bery. Dady, or “Grandmother,” is a politely familiar epithet for senior women; Bery is not a distinctly Malagasy word but, like many names here, a comfortable abbreviation of a name from the French, in her case, Albertine. Dady Bery is known for her energetic involvement in activities focused on the long dynasty of Sakalava rulers, whose former members, when they rise and speak through the bodies of spirit mediums, are known collectively as tromba. Each tromba has an individual social identity, corresponding to the person they were when they were fully alive, albeit condensed into certain salient features, and each develops particular relationships with one or more spirit mediums.

My companion in Dady Bery’s front room was a man I’ll call Rakoto.9 During this season, many people involved with spirit possession come to Majunga and congregate in houses like Bery’s. Some years I come too, attracted not only by the activity but also by the fact that the ceremonial season is the driest and relatively coolest time to visit. I take advantage of the presence of visitors to get to know new people, and I was especially interested in having a chance to chat with Rakoto, whom I had met only a few days before. On that occasion, Rakoto had approached me with questions about my book on royal ancestral practices in Majunga. He asked me whether I was an anthropologist or a sociologist and requested publishing details of the book, with the intention of acquiring it. His manner was serious but genial. As we parted, he spoke to me in English, indicating that he would have no difficulty reading the work.

In my experience, Rakoto was unusual, for several reasons. First, he seemed very much at ease, despite the fact that he came from the highlands (in fact, from the capital of Madagascar), and he was of Merina background, an ethnic group not generally associated with the spirit activities in Majunga and not always viewed favorably in a Sakalava milieu. (People at Dady Bery’s told me later that his background made no difference to them, affirming that the tromba were available for all Malagasy.) Second, he was much more affluent and had a more formal education than anyone I had yet encountered. He arrived with a cook and a chauffeur and could distinguish between the exotic categories of anthropologist and sociologist. He told me that his profession was that of “business consultant,” a phrase I had not heard before in Majunga. Third, he was completely fluent in French and perfectly comfortable speaking in English, the first and only time over visits stretching back to 1992 that I had used my native language in speaking with inhabitants of Majunga. Normally I speak a fractured version of the local dialect, offset occasionally by a few words of French.

Many factors determine which ancestors will possess a given medium, including unconscious motivation and prompting by the healers who initiate the new medium.

We settled down on the mats that replace the furniture in Bery’s front room during the ceremonial season, transforming it into a place where spirits can be called up and tired guests can recline. Rakoto explained that his father worked for the World Health Organization and said that his parents currently lived in Switzerland and his sister in France. He himself had lived in France for some eight years and had completed his degree in business administration there. He first heard of the tromba in 1998, when he was around thirty years old. He said his sister didn’t know anything about them; they had been raised “in traditions of liberalism and freedom.” But he was encouraged to find his own way and his parents had supported his decision to move into the tromba milieu. He was raised Catholic and remained a Catholic but didn’t attend church. He said, “I believe in God, I believe in humanity….”

Rakoto was first possessed by a tromba around 2005, when he was in his mid-thirties. Things had not been going well for him; he was facing many problems, both in his work and in his emotional life. He went for divination (sikidy) and was informed he had a tromba who wanted to rise in him. He sought out a medium with a tromba and that tromba treated him. The tromba in the healer was named Ndramamonjy; when Ndramamonjy rose in the healer, it was the first time Rakoto really saw a tromba up close. When Rakoto himself eventually entered trance, it turned out to be the same spirit. Then, without knowing much about them, he received in relatively quick succession three more trombas: Ndramañonjo, Ndramboeniarivo, and Ndransinint.10

Ndramamonjy is a member of the branch of the royal Sakalava dynasty that had relocated during the nineteenth century to Imerina, in the highlands. When Ndramamonjy appears, he dresses like someone from Imerina about a century ago and speaks in the highland dialect, which is also Rakoto’s. During his life he was a Christian. However, he was buried according to Sakalava ritual in the cemetery of Betsioko, fairly close to Majunga on the east, which is where all the immediate ancestors of the branch of the living members of the royal line currently in power in Majunga are buried and where the living members can expect to go following their own demise. In fact, Ndramamonjy is a direct ancestor (a “grandfather”) of the man who had just succeeded to office, Ampanjaka (Prince) Dzaofeno Richard.11 Of the other three tromba Rakoto mentioned, Ndramboeniarivo is a very senior ancestor, respected and feared in Majunga; he and Ndramañonjo are buried at the oldest and most important cemetery, Bezavodoany, to the southwest, and, indeed, are the two spirits who have the responsibility for maintaining the upkeep of the cemetery and organizing its annual “service” (fanompoa). The last spirit, Ndransinint, is popular in Majunga, rising in many mediums. Although he is from a minor lineage whose members cannot rule, he has responsibility for providing an opening sacrifice on the occasion of the annual service at the main shrine in Majunga. Each of these trombas rises in a number of spirit mediums, and in some mediums they serve as active public figures.

Rakoto could not have known at the time he was first possessed by Ndramamonjy that Richard would become reigning monarch, and hence that this particular ancestor would rise in significance. However, it is striking that Rakoto’s spirits are linked to each of the three major loci of ancestral power in Majunga and that, aside from Ndramamonjy, each of them has a significant role to play in the annual production of the public ceremonies. Moreover, Ndramboeniarivo is a particularly powerful and salient ancestor who possesses only a few mediums.

There are many factors that determine which ancestors will possess a given medium, including unconscious motivation and prompting or encouragement by the healers who serve to initiate the new medium. In Rakoto’s case, he has been situated to become a significant player eventually, should he wish to do so and if he performs his role patiently and well in the meantime.12 There are also, no doubt, other factors that motivate his possession by these specific ancestors. For one thing, Ndramamonjy, like Rakoto, is someone identified with the highlands, yet he, too, came down to the coast.

Rakoto continued our conversation to say that although his troubles were cured once he had received and identified the trombas, their presence resulted in heavy consequences. He said, “I have to lead a double life. I have my life with my business associates and friends, and my life with the trombas.” To paraphrase Rakoto’s further remarks, he said he liked the tromba milieu because everyone was treated as equals; there were no status differences. Tromba also help people. And they provide a good means for exploring the major questions of life. His friends wouldn’t understand, but he sees his mission as trying to make a bridge between the two worlds. At the same time, the tromba constrain his life because of all the rules (fomba) and restrictions (fady) they entail. Ndramboeniarivo insists that Rakoto wear only a sarong (lamba) when he is at home (approximating the dress that was current in the precolonial period when Ndramboeniarivo lived). When friends visit, they don’t understand, and they ask him why he is dressed like that instead of in trousers; he replies that it is more comfortable. He can’t accept many invitations because of all the food taboos imposed by the spirits—especially on chicken and pork. Often these are mixed in dishes, as in charcuterie.

Rakoto invoked the informality and easygoing quality of life in Majunga, especially among the mediums, with their laughter and tolerance and, possibly, even celebration of personal idiosyncrasy. However, he also downplayed the hierarchy that exists among the spirits themselves and the rivalry between some of the mediums. He compared this world to the one of the bourgeois citizens of the capital of Madagascar. Sakalava do not eat pork and most would not know the concept of charcuterie. Middle-class Merina and Europeans do not relax at home in a sarong or recline in close proximity together on mats. Rakoto also described social circumstances very different from those of the majority of spirit mediums in Majunga, whose activities would by and large not cut them off from family, friends, or business relations. Spirit mediums in Majunga live as multiple persons, but they do not lead double lives. However, although most Sakalava men change from street clothes to sarongs at home, the requirement to do so is a stiffer one than most mediums face—an index, in part, of the singular power and demanding nature of Ndramboeniarivo and one of the reasons he possesses few mediums, but perhaps this also says something about Rakoto’s deeper psychological needs or identifications.

Rakoto was very open and friendly. To me, his manner was that of a European. His French was completely fluent and his English quite good; he said he would love to find a conversation partner in order to improve it. We discovered some intellectuals in the capital we knew in common. Most of these people didn’t know he had a tromba, he said. In his trips to Majunga, he combined his business with tromba activity, sometimes missing one for the demands of the other. On the day we spoke he had asked for the afternoon off, but would work at night to make up for it. He lived mostly in Tana (Antananarivo, the capital) but spent a good deal of time in Majunga, maintaining a residence and vehicle in each city. He traveled between the cities by taxi-brousse with his cook and driver. The cook was from Majunga and was also a spirit medium. She assisted him in his tromba activities and could tell him later what the tromba had said while he was in trance. She maintained his suitcase with the clothing and implements he needed when he became actively possessed. He trusted her, but she was his servant; during our conversation Rakoto sent her out to buy him some soap.

Rakoto was unmarried and had no children. He said he was still young and also that it was difficult to find the right woman; she would have to be someone who would accept tromba. Evidently, this was difficult in the cultural milieu in the capital in which he lived.

I asked Rakoto why he thought he was selected by Ndramboeniarivo (the principle being that it is the trombas who choose their mediums, not the reverse). He replied, “Maybe because we share things in common, have similar characters.” He had just finished telling me how severe (mashiaka; he used the French word sévère) Ndramboeniarivo was—and I said that didn’t sound like Rakoto. “I’ve never seen Ndramboeniarivo smile,” I added. Rakoto himself smiled at this and agreed. I continued, “Ndramboeniarivo loved his mother. …” (This is a central feature of his portrayal; the story of Ndramboeniarivo’s life contains certain features that compare with Oedipus.)13 “Yes,” he interjected, “We have this in common; I too am very close to my mother. I am her only son.” I added that Ndramboeniarivo was also violent. Rakoto said, “That was because he was king; back then kings had the power of life and death over their subjects. We shouldn’t judge them by current standards.”

Rakoto observed that practices surrounding the tromba were changing and would continue to do so, but that it was important to keep the tradition going. Many spirit mediums are reflective about their practices, but Rakoto begins his reflection from a somewhat different context than most of the others, one that could be characterized as “modern” or “secular.” For Rakoto, tromba activities signal a break in his habitus rather than an intensification in a certain direction. Moreover, he verges on a psychological explanation for the phenomenon and its attraction. And yet, aware of the possibility for cultural objectification, that is not the position he adopts. He speaks from inside the community of practice.

I asked Rakoto if he enjoyed being in trance. “Not really. It is a lot of effort and you exit very tired. Ndramboeniarivo is the most tiring; he doesn’t stay long, but a few minutes being in active possession by him is like several hours with one of the others.” This confirms what other mediums have told me. Did he have a favorite ancestor? “No,” he replied, but did I?


The reason Rakoto had leisure to chat was that he was waiting to attend a ceremony for a client who was ill and needed to have his tromba rise. Dady Bery had invited him to enable the presence of Ndramamonjy. As Rakoto and I talked, Dady Bery reclined on a mat in the next room, eating popcorn and then taking a nap. Eventually she made a couple of phone calls and located the client who finally arrived, some two hours late.

The client was a Creole speaker from the French island of La Réunion, accompanied by a woman and another man. They brought in a crate each of soft drinks and beer, a bottle of hard liquor, cigarettes, sticky pastries, and two large boxes of perfume, marked Kenzo and Givenchy, as well as some cash that they placed on the altar. Dady Bery took the client to bathe in medicated water and an accordionist began to play. Some twenty people, singing and clapping, encouraged the man’s spirit to rise, and eventually they began to drink the liquor. Despite much effort on the part of the company, and the client himself, who was crouched in supplication with sweat running down his forehead, the three spirits wanting to possess him never fully rose. (Like cats, they chose to disregard the entreaties.)

The event lasted three hours. During this time Dady Bery was possessed by a senior ancestor from precolonial times, who sat dressed in a long red cloth on a low bench—clothing and furniture characteristic of his status and historical period. As Ndramamonjy, Rakoto changed into a waist wrap and a long white shirt pulled over his head and decorated with a white pompom. He draped a white cloth patterned with large red tear drops over his shoulders in highland style, placed a jaunty straw hat with a black band around it on his head, and held a beautiful stick of blonde wood indicative of his royal authority. Seated above the client on a chair, he lightly touched the client’s back from one side, as did the ancestor in Dady Bery, from the other side.

What is striking to me in these spirit mediums is the care—care in the senses of caring about and caring for, giving attention to detail at multiple levels and in many directions, throwing their energy into it, and alternating between being their active selves and passionate vehicles for spirits. They point to a strong ethic, an ethic at once of action and subjection, compassion and rigor, tolerance and discernment. Their practice is at the same time marked, distinctive, and admirable, and perfectly ordinary. I left before the ceremony ended and have not had the chance to speak with Rakoto since. I never asked him whether he had a cat, but the spirit medium of Ndramboeniarivo whom I know best has a cat with patches of red, white, and black fur (telovolon, literally “three-haired”), the color combination, so the medium says, favored by the severe, demanding ancestor.14


  1. Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know (Stanford University Press, 2010), 204. The title of this great memoir appears to approach knowing from a somewhat different angle.
  2. Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (Basic Books, 1973), 16.
  3. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1966).
  4. I have explored these ideas in my article “The Sakalava Poiesis of History,” American Ethnologist 25, no. 2 (1998): 106–127, and my book The Weight of the Past: Living with History in Mahajanga, Madagascar (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002).
  5. See my Human Spirits (Cambridge University Press, 1981) and Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte (University of Toronto Press, 1993).
  6. As I note in Weight of the Past, not everyone in this ethnically and religiously heterogeneous city of perhaps 300,000 inhabitants was equally interested in the subject; some were indifferent or attempted to ignore it entirely.
  7. Marcel Mauss, ”A Category of the Human Mind: The Notion of Person; The Notion of Self,” in The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History, ed. Michael Carrithers, Steven Collins, and Steven Lukes (Cambridge University Press, 1985), 1–25.
  8. For some notable examples, see Gananath Obeyesekere, Medusa’s Hair (University of Chicago Press, 1981); Vincent Crapanzano, Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (University of Chicago Press, 1980); and Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth (Princeton University Press, 2005).
  9. The letter “o” in Malagasy is pronounced like “u” in English. Thus tromba rhymes with “rumba” and Rakoto rhymes approximately with “you too,” though the vowels are shorter. Dady Bery is a background figure in this essay; she will be the subject of subsequent work.
  10. “Ndra-” at the beginning of the names is an honorific; Ndramamonjy translates as “Lord Who Saves.”
  11. Ndramamonjy’s brother was the direct ancestor of Richard’s main rival for the position.
  12. He might, for example, become the leading active medium of one or more of these figures in the capital. One prerequisite for leadership is financial means, which Rakoto certainly has.
  13. See my articles “Sacrifice and the Problem of Beginning,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13, no. 1 (2007): 19–38; and “How Do Women Give Birth?” in Questions of Anthropology, ed. Rita Astuti, Jonathan Parry, and Charles Stafford (Berg, 2007), 197–225.
  14. My research is supported by a Canada Research Chair and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Michael Lambek holds the Canada Research Chair in the Anthropology of Ethical Life at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His books have been short-listed for the Innis Book Prize, the Herskovits Award, and the Victor Turner Prize.

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