4 The sikidy of Madagascar

In Madagascar, a system of geomancy has grown up partly derived from Arab influence and partly from local tradition and practice. This system of geomancy which is locally called sikidy is particularly interesting because it demonstrates that, despite geographical remoteness, it has a close connection with its European cousin, at least in the mechanical manipulation of the geomantic figures.

When Lars Dahle asked a Malagasy practitioner, 'what is sikidy?', the answer was, 'the Bible of our ancestors', indicating how central the practice was to the beliefs of the pre-Christian Malagasy people. Accordingly, practitioners of sikidy were called either mpisikidy (one who understands the sikidy) or ny masina (the holy or powerful ones) or in the southwest, ambiasa (derived from anbia, the Arabic for 'prophet').

The origin of the word 'sikidy' is not known for sure but it has been conjectured that sikidy is derived from arabic sichr, 'incantation' or 'charm'; or from cbikel meaning 'figure'. However, it is universally believed by the Malagasy people that this divinatory art was super-naturally communicated to their ancestors. They have a tradition that God gave it to Ranakandriana, who passed it on to a line of diviners terminating with one who gave it to the people, declaring:

Behold, I give you the sikidy, of which you may inquire what offerings you should present in order to obtain blessings; and what expiation you should make so as to avert evils, when any are ill or under apprehension of some future calamity.

Fortunately, the practical details of sikidy have been thoroughly documented by various missionaries and colonial governors from the mid-seventeenth century (notably Flacourt) to the late nineteenth century (notably Lars Dahle and William Ellis), and in this century by a number of French anthropologists.

The consciousness of time/space appropriateness which is strongly rooted in Chinese belief also manifests itself in Madagascar, and with it comes the use of common directional terminology. It is called vintana but owes its origin to the Malay word bintana and the migration of Malay ideas and people to Madagascar, as opposed to the Arab imported sikidy. The consequent confusion of these practices with the divinatory geomancy of sikidy is a conspicuously false trail which is immediately highlighted by conversation with practitioners of either art. Of course, the belief systems of any self-contained culture deserve to be treated as a whole, but to associate aspects of belief merely because they were mistakenly given the same English name, and attempt thereby to draw conclusions is bravely stepping on very shifting ground.

Let us examine sikidy in some detail, taking its mechanics step by step.

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