Betsileo - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs and Practices. Christian missionaries have been active in Madagascar since the nineteenth century, and most Betsileo are either Catholics or Protestants. The Betsileo also continue to observe many aspects of their pre-Christian religion. Their supernatural realm includes beings, powers, and forces. Among the beings are deities, souls, ancestral spirits, ghosts of evildoers and legendary beings, and spirits of nature and water. The pre-Christian Betsileo recognized a creator god (still invoked to initiate ceremonies), Andriananahary or Zanahary, but he had little to do with human affairs. Christian missionaries chose another Malagasy deity, Andriamanitra, the sweet lord or fragrant prince, as equivalent to the Christian God. The Betsileo also recognize a manalike efficacious force called hasina —a sacred essence that flows from the land through ancestors to living people and into the sociopolitical order.

An exuberant ceremonial season spans July and, especially, August, the agricultural off-season. The largest ceremonies center on ancestral tombs. Besides funerals, which occur throughout the year, the most important ceremonial event is a famadihana —an occasion to enter tombs, remove, and rewrap corpses. Among the Betsileo, the most lavish famadihana occur when a new tomb is inaugurated, and mortal remains are carried to it from one or more old tombs. When large groups of people assemble for funerals and ceremonies, cattle are slaughtered, and meat is distributed.

Religious Practitioners. The knowledge that diviners, curers, and witches have of words, techniques, paraphernalia, and persons is dependent, in part, on their manipulation of hasina. Witches may cause illness and death from a distance by manipulating occult powers; sorcerers use actual poisons. Hasina has a malicious aspect, called fiery, which can be used to attack people and the social order. The dualism of the concept permits its use in explaining both illness and curing and both the quality that makes something taboo ( fady ) and the force that punishes taboo violations.

Specialists among the Betsileo include curers and diviners (see "Medicine"), as well as astrologers, who calculate "day and destiny." For a newborn child, an astrologer routinely determines—on the basis of the day, date, time of birth, and zodiac sign—that child's lifetime horoscope ( vintana ). Astrologers suggest ways of combating dangerous or unfortunate destinies. Astrology is also used to set dates of ceremonies and to schedule and coordinate agricultural activities.

Arts. The major traditional Betsileo art was the weaving of raw silk coverings called Jamba; these served as colorful mantles for the living and funerary shrouds for the dead. Through the early twentieth century, there was an active husbandry of silkworms in southern Betsileo country. In Tsienimparihy, one of the Arindrano statelets, the ruler collected silk as tribute and oversaw the manufacture and distribution of lamba landy, the most magnificent shrouds, due individuals of high status on burial. Factory manufacture has by and large supplanted the local weaving of lamba. As noted, Merina masons have taken over Betsileo tomb manufacture; Merina musicians also play at Betsileo funerals and ceremonies. The Betsileo have abandoned their traditional tattooing (Dubois 1938), but women still coif elaborate hairdos.

Medicine. Betsileo cosmology recognizes no conditions or events that lack cause, and causes are often personalistic. Diviners determine causes by examining patterns of seeds and beans as they fall in a gridlike setting. Diviners function as diagnosticians and curers; they are paid for their work. Causes of illness, sterility, diminished prosperity, or other misfortune include malicious use of occult powers by living people, ancestral displeasure, infringement of taboos, spirit possession, loss of soul, and action by ghosts. Once a diagnosis is made, the diviner suggests a course of action designed to effect a cure. This usually requires sacrificing an ox. Medical specialists also prepare, dispense, and prescribe concoctions made from native roots, barks, leaves, and pieces of wood, sometimes obtained from colleagues in the Tanala forest. A variety of these remedies is available in local markets.

Death and Afterlife. Upon death, at least two spirits leave the body. One goes to Ambondrombe, a mountain in Tanala country to the southeast, or nowadays to heaven or hell, and has no more to do with the living. The other ( ambiroa ) stays nearby, wandering the hills, occasionally invading homes and dreams. Ambiroa are summoned to receive offerings from the living at the start of any tomb-centered ceremony, the focus of Betsileo religion.


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