The Antemoro People of Madagascar -Culture, Religion & Language
Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, is home to numerous ethnic groups, each with its own unique culture and traditions.
Among these groups are the Antemoro or Antaimoro, who have a rich history and continue to contribute to the cultural fabric of Madagascar.
The Antemoro primarily reside along the southeastern coast of Madagascar, between the cities of Manakara and Farafangana.
In this region, they engage in various economic activities such as rice and coffee cultivation, salt production, and the manufacture of charms.
However, their reputation as powerful sorcerers and astrologers is perhaps their most well-known attribute, and it is largely due to their monopoly on the knowledge of writing using the Arabic script to transcribe the Malagasy language.
The Antemoro are believed to have originated from settlers who arrived in Madagascar from Somalia during the 15th or 16th century.
These early settlers converted the Antemoro to Islam, but the religion was soon abandoned in favor of traditional beliefs that emphasized the importance of ancestral worship.
Despite this shift in beliefs, remnants of Islam remain in fady, or taboo customs, such as the prohibition against consuming pork.
In the 16th century, the Antemoro established their own kingdom, which replaced the Zafiraminia, a previous ruling class that also descended from seafarers.
The Antemoro kingdom was known for its powerful sorcerers and astrologers, who migrated throughout Madagascar, practicing their arts for local communities, advising kings, and even founding new principalities.
This mobility and their creation of a network of spiritual advisers across the island are credited with helping to forge a common Malagasy identity and raising awareness of communities beyond one’s own.
Despite the eventual dissolution of the Antemoro kingdom in the late 19th century, the Antemoro have continued to be a significant cultural force in Madagascar.
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Their ombiasy, or astrologer sages, continue to practice their arts and offer arcane services to communities throughout the island. In fact, nearly every village in Madagascar has an ombiasy, with many of them being either Antemoro themselves or having received training from Antemoro ombiasy.
Today, the Antemoro are an integral part of the diverse cultural tapestry that makes Madagascar a truly unique and fascinating place.
Identity of Antemoro people
The Antemoro people, whose name means “people of the coast” in the Malagasy language, reside on the southeastern coast of Madagascar, mainly between Manakara and Farafangana.
With an estimated population of 500,000 in 2013, the Antemoro are one of the larger ethnic groups in Madagascar.
They are believed to be descendants of Muslims who arrived in Madagascar during the 14th century and intermarried with the local population.
The origins of the Antemoro have been the subject of scholarly debate, with some claims suggesting a direct link to Arabia.
However, other scholars argue that their roots are more likely connected to groups originating in the Swahili coast. Regardless of their origins, the Antemoro have a rich cultural heritage that reflects the fusion of their African and Islamic roots.
The Antemoro people have a long history of trading, and their livelihoods have traditionally depended on the products of the land and sea.
They are known for their cultivation of rice, coffee, cloves, vanilla, and other spices, as well as their production of sisal, a natural fiber used in textiles and other materials.
The Antemoro have also been involved in fishing and trade, using their boats to navigate the Indian Ocean and trade with other coastal communities.
Despite their long history in Madagascar, they have faced a number of challenges over the years, including colonization by the French and economic marginalization.
Many Antemoro have migrated to urban areas in search of better opportunities, while others have turned to agriculture and fishing to sustain their livelihoods.
In recent years, efforts have been made to preserve and promote their culture, including the development of tourism programs that showcase their unique customs and traditions.
Today, this group continue to be an important part of Madagascar’s cultural and ethnic mosaic, reflecting the island’s long history of migration, trade, and cultural exchange.
The Antemoro people are concentrated in the southeastern coastal regions, with a higher population density around Vohipeno and Manakara.
Their social hierarchy was traditionally divided into two classes: the mpanombily or tompomenakely, who were the noble class believed to have descended from Arab settlers from Mecca, and the menakely, which consisted of the working and slave classes.
Some scholars suggest that the menakely were either local Malagasy who submitted to the rule of the Arabs or slaves brought along by the Arabs.
The mpanombily comprised several noble clans such as Anakara, Onjatsy, Tsimaito, Antaiony, Antalaotra, Antaisambo, Antaimahazo, and others, each with specific privileges and responsibilities within the society.
The Antemoro society had a complex system of assigning specific duties and responsibilities to particular clans.
Certain clans were responsible for butchering specific animals for human consumption, and others were responsible for safeguarding the sacred Antemoro idols and texts.
The Anakara clan, clustered around the mouth of the Matitanana river near the town of Manakara, was highly regarded as the noblest clan among the Antemoro people.
They spoke a secret language to communicate arcane knowledge amongst themselves and rarely intermarried with other Antemoro clans.
The Anakara clan held a privileged position in Antemoro society, as they produced the most powerful sorcerers and astrologers on the island.
They were believed to be in communication with powerful genies (ziny) and other spirits and were known to manufacture charms, cast spells, and practice geomancy using local gemstones.
To maintain their distinction from other members of Antemoro society, the Anakara lived in villages sealed off by spiked wooden palisades, allowing no one to enter without permission.
The rulers of the Anakara clan, known as andrianony, were selected through popular decision from among the noble clan.
Once selected, they were given a near-sacred status and established fady, or taboos, that were scrupulously observed for centuries after the ruler’s death.
The fady also forbade them from wearing shirts or hats, further distinguishing them from other members of Antemoro society.
The Antemoro people follow traditional spiritual beliefs and practices that are widespread across Madagascar. However, the degree to which individual Antemoro clans and families integrate Islamic elements varies.
It is common for them to create and wear amulets inscribed with verses from the Qur’an in sorabe script.
The Antemoro ancestors who founded the dynasty in the 7th or 8th century were originally monotheistic, believing in a creator god and many spirits that acted as intermediaries between the creator and living beings.
However, the focus on the spirits had grown stronger, and the creator god had been nearly forgotten by the time of their conversion to Islam.
Despite large-scale conversion to Islam with the arrival of Arab settlers, the core tenets of Islam were not fully retained and gave way to ancestor veneration and the observance of their fady.
The influence of Arab and Islamic cultures is strongly evident in Antemoro customs. Men’s traditional attire included a turban or fez-style hat, and loose robes similar to those worn in other Muslim regions.
Harefo reeds were woven into mats (tafitsihy), which were sewn together to create jackets and tunics (with long sleeves for older men), while a loincloth made of fanto (beaten barkcloth) was worn underneath.
Women wore sleeveless sheath dresses fashioned from two or three reed mats sewn together, belted at the waist, or draped over one shoulder.
Adolescent and adult women often donned a mat bandeau or halter top. Wearing lambas made of cotton or any material besides woven raffia mats was forbidden for women because it was believed it could make them more attractive to men from outside their clan, whom they were prohibited from marrying.
They were renowned throughout Madagascar for being the only ethnic group to develop a written form of the Malagasy language, sorabe, which utilized Arabic script.
This writing system was largely replaced by the Latin alphabet under the Merina monarchy in the 19th century.
Antemoro astrologers, who predicted the future based on lunar phases, were also celebrated in the pre-colonial era and served as advisors to many Malagasy kings, including the famous Merina king Andrianampoinimerina.
The Antemoro’s role in the development of the pan-Madagascar tradition of the ombiasy is rooted in this aspect of their culture. The introduction of royal sampy (idols) into the Kingdom of Imerina is also attributed to an Antemoro ombiasy.
Taboos (fady) among the Antemoro stem from ancestral traditions and Islamic and Arab culture. While Islam shares the Antemoro taboo against dogs as unclean, it actually predates the arrival of the religion on the island.
In contrast, the ban on consuming pork originated with the introduction of Islam. Traditionally, Antemoro clan members could only share meals with individuals from the same clan.
The Antemoro people communicate through a Malagasy language dialect, which is a member of the Malayo-Polynesian language family derived from the Barito languages, originally spoken in southern Borneo.
Their language is customarily written using the sorabe script, with mastery of this form of writing granting individuals’ unusual power and prestige.
Sorabe writings range from astrological instructions to historical records and other forms of documentation, and are regarded as sacred.
In terms of their livelihoods, many Antemoro work as ombiasy, offering their services as astrologers, sorcerers, or creators of powerful amulets, with some men travelling for up to ten months a year.
Coffee production is also widespread in their region, providing income for many families. Those without land typically migrate to the north and west to work as agricultural laborers.
Historically, the Antemoro Ampanira clan was a major producer and trader of sea salt. They are well-known for their handmade paper, often decorated with pressed fresh flowers and leaves, which is a significant product marketed to tourists.