The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 1/On the Oratory, Songs, Legends, and Folk-tales of the Malagasy (pp. 233-43)

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By the Rev. James Sibree, Junior.

(Continued from page 211.)


THERE was once a certain couple who were very rich, and they had three children, all daughters. And of these children of theirs, the youngest, Ifàravàvy ("last female"), was the prettiest.

One day Ifàra had a dream, and told it to her sisters; said she, "I have had a dream, lasses, and I dreamt that the son of the sun came from heaven to take a wife from among us, and it was I whom he took, for you two he left behind."

Then the two sisters were very angry about it, and said, "It is true enough that she is prettier than we are, and if a prince or noble should seek a wife he would choose her, and not care for us; so let us consider what to do. Come, let us take her out to play, and find out from people which of us they consider the best looking." So they called Ifàra, and said, "Come, Ifàra, let us go and play."

So they went away all dressed in their best, and soon met an old woman. "Granny," said they, "which of us three sisters is the prettiest?" "Ràmatoà (the eldest) is good looking, Ràivo (the middle one) is good looking, but Ifàra is better looking than either." "Oh, dear," said they, "there's no doubt Ifàra is prettier than we are." So they took off Ifara's làmba (the outer native dress, a large oblong piece of cloth).

Presently they met an old man. "Grandfather," they said, "who is the prettiest of us three sisters?" "Ràmatoa is good looking, Ràivo is good looking, but Ifàra is better looking than either." "Dear me! although deprived of her lamba she is still prettier than we are." So they stripped her of her under clothing.

Then they met with Itrìmobé. (This was an immense monster, half human and half beast, a man-eating creature, and with a frightfully sharp tail.) "Oh dear, if here isn't Itrìmobè! Who is the prettiest of us three sisters?" But with a snarl he answered just as the old woman and old man had answered.

So the sisters were beside themselves with anger because Ifàra was prettier than they were, and they said, "If we were to kill Ifara, perhaps father and mother would hear of it and kill us, so let us go and get some of Itrìmobè's vegetables, so that he may eat her." So the sisters said to her, "Come, Ifàra, let us see who can find the nicest vegetables." "Come along then," she said, "let us take some of those yonder" (meaning those of Itrìmobè). "Shall we get the ripe or the young ones?" said Ifàra. "Get those just sprouting," said they. Then they went to get them, but the two sisters took the full-grown ones. So when the three shewed theirs to each other Ifàra's were the worst. "Oh dear!" cried she, "why yours are the full-grown, you've cheated me." " It's yourself, girl, who would take the unripe," said the two; "go along and fetch some full-grown ones."

So Ifara went off to get them; but while she was gathering them she was caught by Itrìmobè. "I've got you, my lass," said he, "for you are taking my vegetables; I'll eat you, my lass." Then Ifàra cried, "I am sorry, Itrìmobè, but take me for your wife." "Come along, then," said he (but it was that he might take her home to be fattened, and after that eat her).

The sisters were exceedingly glad at this, and went away to tell their father and mother, saying, "Ifàra stole Itrìmobè's vegetables, so he has eaten her." Then the old people wept profusely for sorrow. So Itrìmobè fed up Ifara at his house, and would not let her go out of doors, but covered her with mats; while he went into the country hunting things to fatten her, so that Ifàra became very fat, and the time approached for Itrìmobè to devour her.

But one day, when Itrìmobè happened to have gone abroad hunting, a little mouse wearing plantain fibre cloth jumped by Ifàra's side and said, "Give me a little white rice, Ifàra, and I'll give you advice." "What advice can you give me?" said Ifara. "Well then, let Itrìmobè devour you to-morrow." "But what is the advice you can give me?" said Ifàra, "for I'll give you the rice." So she gave some white rice to the little mouse clothed in cloth of plantain fibre; and it said to her, "Be off with you, and take an egg, a broom, a small cane, and a smooth round stone, and escape southwards."

So Ifàra took the things and set off; but she put a plantain-tree stem instead of herself in her bed, and locked up the house. Presently Itrìmobé came home from the fields, bringing with him a spear for killing Ifàra, and a cooking-pot; so he knocked at the door, but no one opened. Said he, "Dear me, Ifàra's got so fat she can't move." So he broke open the door, and coming up to the bed thrust his spear through the mat, so that it stuck fast in the plantain-tree stem. Then he said, "Oh dear, Ifàra's so fat the spear sticks fast into her." So he struck it in again and licked the spear. "Why," said he, "Ifàra must be fat, for her blood has no taste!" But when he had opened the mat to take her for cooking, lo and behold, the plantain-tree stem! "Oho! the worthless wench has run off!" said he.

Then he snuffed the air to the east, but there was nothing there; he snuffed to the north, nothing there; he snuffed to the west, nothing there; he snuffed to the south, "Ah, there she is!" Off he sets, runs after her with all speed, and at last overtakes her; "I've got you, Ifàra!" So Ifàra threw down her broom, saying, "By my sacred father and mother, let this become a dense thicket which Itrìmobé cannot pass through." Then a very dense thicket grew up. But Itrìmobé took his tail and cut away perseveringly at the thicket until it was all cleared off. "I've got you now, Ifara!"

Then Ifàra put down her egg, saying, "By my sacred father and mother, let this egg become a great pool of water." Then a great pool appeared. But Itrìmobé began to drink up the water and kept pouring it into the river. At last the water was dried up. "I've got you now, Ifàra!"

Then Ifàra put down her small cane, saying, "By my sacred father and mother, let this cane become a dense forest." Then a dense impassable forest grew up. But Itrìmobé with his tail hewed down the forest, and kept at work until the whole was felled. " I've got you now, Ifàra!"

Then Ifàra put down her smooth round stone, and said, "By my sacred father and mother, let this become an inaccessible precipice which Itrìmobé cannot climb." So it became an immense precipice. Then Itrìmobé cut away with his tail incessantly, but at last his tail became so blunt he could do nothing more. He attempted to climb, but was unable. Then he called out, "Pull me up, Ifàra, for I won't harm you." But Ifàra replied, "I won't take hold of you until you have stuck your spear in the ground." So Itrìmobé stuck the spear in the ground, and Ifàra threw him a rope, which he laid hold of. But when he was nearly up he said, "I've got you, Ifàra, my lass!" Then Ifàra let him fall, and he was impaled on his spear and was killed.[1]

So Ifàra was there upon the rock; and she wept and was sad at heart for her father and mother. Then came a crow, and when Ifàra saw it she sang to it as follows:—

"O yonder crow, O yonder crow!
Take me to father's well,
And I will smooth thy tail!"

"And you say I eat unripe earth-nuts, and am I going to carry you there? Stay where you are," said the crow.

Then came a hawk, to whom she said:—

"O yonder hawk, O yonder hawk!
Take me to father's well,
And I will smooth thy tail!"

"And you say I am the eater of dead rats, and am I going to carry you there?"

After that a "Réo" bird (Leptosomus discolor) came, repeating its cry, "Reo, reo, reo," which, when Ifara saw, she called to thus:—

"O yonder reo, O yonder reo!
Take me to father's well,
And I will smooth thy tail;"

"Reo, reo, reo," said the bird, "come, let me carry you, my lass, for I feel for the sorrowful." So the bird took her away and placed her on a tree just above the well of her father and mother.

Soon there came a little slave-girl of theirs to draw water; she washed her face, and seeing a reflection in the water, cried out, "My word! to have a pretty face like mine, and yet carry a water-pot on my head!" But it was the reflection of Ifàra's face she saw in the water and took it for her own. So she broke the water-pot in pieces. Then Ifàra called out from the tree, "Father and mother are at expense to buy water-pots, and you break them!" So the slave-girl, whose name was Itrétrikandévo, looked all about her and said, "Wherever was that person speaking?" So she went off home.

On the morrow she came again to fetch water; and, washing her face again, saw a reflection in the water, and breaking the water-pot said, "A handsome face like mine, indeed, and have to carry water on my head!" But it was Ifàra's face she saw there. And again Ifàra spoke from up the tree, "Father spends money buying, and you a break." And again Itrétrikandévo looked about her, saying, "Whoever was that speaking?"

So she ran off to the village, saying to her master and mistress, "There was somebody speaking yonder at the well, but I could not see who it was; yet the voice was like Ifàra's!" So the pair went off to see; and when they got there, Ifàra came down, and all three wept for joy. Then Ifàra told them how her sisters had deceived her so that she might be seized by Itrìmobé. So they disowned the two daughters and kept Ifàra as their child.—(Translated from a story contributed by the Rev. J. Richardson to the Publications of the Malagasy Folk-Lore Society.)


A certain couple desired to have a child and said, "O, that we had a child, no matter whether like a ball, or of any shape whatever." After some time they had a child, for a son was born who had no legs or arms, for "God was disregardful," said the people. The father said, "Come, let us kill it,[2] for it's an unnatural thing." But the mother replied, "No, for I desired it earnestly from God, and that would be tempting God, so I don't agree, lest he should not give us another."

After some time the child grew, and one day his father went to the forest, and fastening up some food for the journey in a bag, the child jumped in too, for the name they had given him was Ikòtòbòribòry. Some of the food he put in a basket to be eaten on the road until he came to the forest, and that in the bag was for the journey home; but the child in the bag was not seen. So the foresters set out on their journey. "When night came on the child could not be found (at home); and for some time afterwards they searched for him but could not find him, and so at last they gave it up.

Meanwhile, his father arrived at the forest, and opening the bag he saw the child there half-famished. So he said, "So it is you, little rascal, coming in the bag, is it, that made it so heavy? you little wretch. I'll leave you to die, you are so troublesome." So he threw him out. But the child said, "father, please give me a cooking-pot, and fire, and water, and rice, and a little fuel!" His father replied, "Why, can you tend a fire?" "Yes," said he, "for I can add fuel with my mouth until I die." So he gave him some. Then the child said again to his father, "Please leave me at the foot of yonder big tree, daddy, and light the fire a little." So he kindled it, and left the child there alone, while he, its father, went away home.

When the man got to his house he said to his wife, "Our child went with us in the bag and we have left him there." The woman replied, "You carried my son away to abandon him because you disliked him, for while he was quite little you wanted to smother him." So they quarrelled together.

As for the child who was left at the foot of the tree, he made the fire burn up, and presently the tree was in a blaze. So the smoke ascended, and there came a messenger from God and said, "Little round one, put out your fire, for you are choking God's children." "That's exactly what I meant to do," said the boy, "for he has acted unfairly to me in giving me neither arms or legs, and that's why I have made such a smoke." So God's messenger went away, and when he came to God he said, "He says you have acted unfairly to him, in giving him no arms or legs, and that's why he is making such a smoke to choke your children." Then said God, "Go ye, bone-setter, muscle-producer, blood-maker, and flesh-smith, prepare him arms and legs." So these workmen went away, made them, and completed their work. Then the messenger came to God and said, "Completed."

Still, however, the child made the fire smoke, so God's messenger came again and said, "Why do you still annoy God's children with your smoke, although he has given you hands and feet? Why do you still do this? "Ikòto replied, "He has not given me a beautiful wife, and that's why I still make a smoke." So God's messenger went away again and said, "You have not given him a beautiful wife, and that is why he makes a smoke." So he sent him a wife as he wished.

After the messenger had gone, Ikòto still kept up his fire. Down came the messenger again, saying, "Why, Ikòtobòribòry, haven't you got a wife, you fellow? and yet why have you not put out your fire?" Ikbto replied, "He has not yet given possessions according to my heart's desire." "What then does your heart desire, fellow?" said the messenger. "Wisdom, honour, many slaves, many cattle, much money, long life." So the messenger went away to God and told him. Then said God, "Give them to him, for my children are choked." So they gave him what he asked.

Then Ikòto put out his fire, and having become very rich he went back to his father and mother. And when he came into their house they did not recognize him. So he said, "Where is your child?" They replied, "Ikbtobbribbry was his name, but he followed his father to the forest and died there." "Am I not he, father and mother?" They replied, "You are telling lies, for he had no arms and legs as you have!" He said again, "It was I who jumped into the bag and was thrown away by father when he came to the forest." Then his father and mother fell at his feet, and his father said, "It is true I threw you away, child; but however have you got feet and hands and wife and possessions?" He replied, "I so troubled God with my smoke that I obtained all I desired. My father will love me now I am so well off." Then his father replied, "I was very much to blame, child."

Then said Andrianambìniny (Mr. Prosperous), for that was the name Ikòto took after he became wealthy, "I am the child who did not disown the father, although the father disowned the child." So all the family rejoiced for the coming of Andrianambìniny, whom they thought dead, but who was still living, wealthy and beloved by all. And this is the origin of the saying, "A relative is a relative to those who have property; a father is a father to the well-to-do; but it is the mother who does not forsake whatever is one's condition."—(Translated from a contribution by Rev. C. F. Moss to the Publications of the Malagasy Folk-Lore Society.)

A variant of the above story is given by the Rev. W. Montgomery under the title of Ilòhanihiàny, i. e., "His-head-only." In this version it is the deformed boy's brothers who leave him in the forest, but the main story and incidents are substantially the same. The concluding sentence is, "This is the origin of the old saying, "Although men wait not for God, I will yet wait for Him.'"


Once upon a time, it is said, the ear, the eye, the mouth, the hand, the foot, and the belly, disputed together about seniority; and in this manner went the dispute:—

Said the Ear, "I am the eldest of all, because it is I who hear all things whatsoever."

And when the Eye heard that, he answered, "It isn't you who are the eldest, but I; for although you, ear, may even hear, if it wasn't for me, the eye, seeing, then you would see nothing of the way you ought to tread."

And when the Mouth heard that, he was angry, and said, "You fellows here are talking nonsense, and disputing as to who shall be the head; while neither of you are the eldest, but it is I myself; for although you, ear, may ear, and you, eye, even may see, if it was not for me, mouth, speaking, you would remain silent as stone or wood."

And when the Hand heard that, he was startled, and said, "Why, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves for talking such rubbish, and each of you saying, 'It is I who am eldest.' Why don't you think a little before you speak? For although you all may be here, ear, and eye, and mouth, if it wasn't for me, the hand, which takes hold and works, what could you all accomplish? So let everyone be still, for there is no one of you eldest, for I, the hand, alone am the eldest."

And when the Foot heard that, he burst out laughing, and said, "What a set of fools! just look at the shadow first before you peer into the glass. People like you, indeed, quarrelling about seniority! For what are you but maize hung up, so that although you, eye, may see, and although you, mouth, may speak, and although you, hand, may take hold, if it wasn't for me, the foot, to go and carry you, what would you be better than the bottom of the basket, to sit still without any other business than to be friends with the ashes?[3] Don't dispute any more about seniority, for none of you is worthy to be senior. For it is I, the foot, only who am senior."

And the Belly, when he heard all that, said, "How is it these fellows have a mouth that is never tired, and lips above and below, and are not torn to pieces like a rag?"

"This Ear, forsooth, making himself to be senior! The dog has ears just as much as you, and hears the abuse and evil words spoken by others; but its belly does not know rest, and is happy to bear the abuse of others."

"And you, Eye, making yourself to be senior! Every living thing sees the darkness and the light; but the belly does not observe, for the eye looks upon the good and the evil."

"And you, Mouth, also, making yourself to be senior! The pig, too, has a mouth the same as you, but its belly is happy in doing evil, and devours that which it had vomited."

"And you, Hand, also, making yourself to be senior! The crab has hands just as much as you, but its belly has no thought, so its hands can do nothing of themselves, either separately or altogether."

"And as for you, Foot, making yourself to be senior! You see that the ox has feet just as much as you; but its belly is foolish, and so it is made a treader of rice-fields and a breaker up of clods.[4] So this is what I declare to you: Don't dispute any more about seniority, for it is I alone who am the eldest, because it is I, the belly, who am the thinker and observer, and receptacle for the food which is to strengthen you all."

So they all humbled themselves to be juniors, and the belly only was agreed to as the eldest; and they gathered together there all the emotions expressed in such phrases as "My heart is troubled," "My liver is troubled," "My bowels are troubled," "My belly is troubled," &c.

The meaning of this amusing fable will be clearer if it is remembered that the Malagasy use the word for belly (kibo) in a very wide sense, as including heart, bowels, liver, womb, stomach, &c.; and that in these organs they (like Orientals generally) place the seat of the emotions and feelings, and the intelligence also. The similarity of the main idea of the fable to that of Esop's "The Belly and the Members" is obvious, an idea which is probably found in almost every nation, as is also seen in its very full use as an illustration by St. Paul in 1 Cor. xii. 12-25. It will be noticed that seniority is equivalent among the Malagasy to headship or lordship.


In old times, they say, there was a certain man who, among others, was appointed to serve in the wars. So his wife and children and family were exceedingly sorry and troubled; and he himself also was very sad and full of fear, for it was a serious matter to go to the wars. So he went to consult a famous diviner. And when he got there, the diviner worked the oracle, and the man was seen by the divination to be liable to regret; but yet he would not be hurt by gun or spear, or by any sharp weapon. So the diviner spoke to him thus: "Thou, Sir, art not to be hurt by the hand of man, nor hurt by your own hand; nevertheless you are liable to this little matter called 'regret ' (énina). Still, Sir, if you invoke (or make an offering to) the 'god in-the-house' (i.e. the sunlight entering into the house through a hole in the ridge), and the road be straight, and if you offer money to the ancestors, and kill an ox of the right colour for the tribe and the family that they may bless you (literally, "blow water on you"), for you are overtaken by blame from the dead, and have blame from the living, then you shall be free. Therefore make this (aforesaid) offering (sòrona). And this also is the expiation (fàditra, a word from the same root as fàdy tabooed, consecrated, devoted) you shall make: an unfinished web of cloth, an unpierced gourd, a weed, an unripe lemon, something which has died of itself, a withered banana, a stone which has stopped the way, earth which has caused one to fall, a twisted tree, a liàna climbing a tree, a road which leads nowhere. These are the things you are to take for an expiation. And these also are the things for divination: a piece of unbroken money (a dollar), two small coins, a cloth in one unjoined piece, a bowl (called "step of divination"), a chopper, scissors, a fine cock, honey from living bees, and pieces of money of the value of eightpence and a halfpenny. If therefore you do all this, you shall free from blame from the dead and shall be blessed by the living, you shall have no hindrance, but shall return in health and prosperity here to your ancestral home."

And when the man heard about these many things to be done and to pay, he was discouraged and could not hold up his head; so he said, "Yes, I understand it, and I thank you, may you be blessed by the ancestors; but I will wait a little first to consult with my wife and children at home, for to save my life what would I not do, although it cost a great deal to accomplish?" And when he came to his wife and children he told them all about it, and they replied, "Who can possibly do or agree to all these different things? So, let us seek another diviner, for this one is only anxious to get for himself, and he cares nothing about saving people's lives." So the man agreed; the more so since he was already indisposed to do it, and his agreeing to it in the presence of the diviner was all pretence and hypocrisy.

So he consulted the oracle through another person, and this diviner said to him, "The oracle is startled; however, go away a little first and then return; but when you get home, take care and avoid broken pottery, and old bones, and things that are dead, and earth from a broken fence-wall; then take different kinds of beads (names given, one of them meaning 'Not overcome by calamity,' Tsiléondòza); and to-morrow evening come back here again, that we may know exactly the divination." So the man went back again to his wife and children. And when he had told them they agreed to it, and did accordingly; still, on the morrow he did not return to that diviner again, but changed to another one. And when he came to this other diviner it was simple and easy what he declared, for a cloth only was to be the expiation (fàditra), and the offering (sòrona)^ white beads called haren-tsi-maty (i.e. "riches not dead"=lost), and a straight road. (This diviner was not skilled.) So the man was glad because there was so little to be done, and went away home. And when he told his wife and children they also were glad.

So when the time came to go to the wars the man went away. And when they had gone about three weeks the soldiers came to a dense forest, and a herd of wild hogs rushed out, with tusks whetted and foaming at the mouth. On their approach everyone was taken by surprise and ran off; some made their escape, but some were unable to move from the place, and this man leaping, was caught by a liana and hung there helplessly. After being there for some time the liana broke, the man fell down and broke his thigh. So then he remembered the words of the skilled diviner to him, "You will be overtaken by regret, if you don't do this." Then the man, it is said, lamented thus: "Would that I had followed the skilled diviner's instructions!" And that, they say, was the origin of the expression "Injay," that is, "Would that!"

  1. Malagasy spears have a small blade at the foot, by which they are stuck in the ground when encamping, &c., so that the large blade stands upright.
  2. The word here employed, ahòhoka, is that used to describe killing new-born children born on one of the unlucky days, by putting them face downwards in a shallow wooden dish filled with water.
  3. Alluding to the ashes carried in baskets as manure for the rice-fields.
  4. Oxen are driven about on the soft mud of the rice-fields, over which water has been allowed to flow, after they have been dug up by the spade.