Anders Norge Lauridsen | 9 March 2021
”I was asleep… And he came to throttle me. I was choking! A a a!”. With his hands in a firm grip around his own throat, Ralahy stutters painful gasps and rattles “a a a!” demonstrating how he had fought for breath. “I knew this man, a dead man… monsieur Andrianary […] Years after Andrianary died, [he came in the middle of the night,] he said ‘gotcha!’” In a grave tone, Ralahy recounts how he had trembled in fear, and he insists that it was no dream and that he had tried to talk to the ghostly assailant but was unable to say a word.
This vignette from my fieldwork in Anororo (Madagascar) is an example of what the Malagasy call tsindrimandry: nightly experiences of contact with spirits – sometimes profoundly dreadful and suffocative experiences like what Ralahy went through. However, as I described in an article last autumn in the journal Kulturo, there’s an astounding heterogeneity in what people in contemporary Madagascar refer to as tsindrimandry. Some experience downright corporeal assault from spiteful spirits, whereas others simply see, hear, or sense ghosts of the dead whose intentions may range from rebuking breach of tradition or demanding sacrifice to aiding the living with their spiritual powers to heal, divine, and epiphanise. All of these diverse experiences are called tsindrimandry.
I commenced the Kulturo article with the same vignette about Ralahy’s tsindrimandry. However, in this post, I take a very different path, a path that leads back to distant, preliterate times in Madagascar where historical sources run out. I take up where my Kulturo article on the present-day diversity of tsindrimandry experiences left off, and I do that by asking a question that for some reason lingers with me: Could tsindrimandry in some distant time originate in sleep paralysis? Being an anthropologist with a background in the history of ideas, I can’t help wondering about the conceptual history of the key notions in the human-spirit relations I study in Anororo. However, given the sad fact that tsindrimandry is virtually absent in historical sources from before the second half of the 19th century, my wondering in the case of tsindrimandry can’t escape being rather speculative. But here it goes.
Tsindrimandry is constituted by tsindri, which means “pressure” and mandry, which means “sleep.” “Pressure-sleep” is certainly a fitting term for experiences such as Ralahy’s, where the person wakes up in the middle of the night finding him- or herself mounted and throttled by a malicious spirit. As briefly mentioned in the Kulturo article, the world is astoundingly rife with horrid experiences of “pressure-sleep” that share a set of consistent, cross-cultural features: being awake, conscious, paralysed and terrified, difficulties breathing often accompanied by chest pressure, as well as sensing the presence of a malevolent entity (Adler 2011). We know of examples from more than 30 countries such as bei guai chaak (“being pressed by a ghost”, China), boratat (“someone who presses on you”, Morocco), sebeteledi (“someone who exerts pressure or force”, Botswana), and luupainaja (“the one who presses your bones”, Estonia) (ibid., 14-16). The most well-known is perhaps the Old Hag, the female incubus that mounts people in their bed so that they wake up and find themselves paralysed, terrified, and subject to painful pressure from the hag’s unbearable weight.
How can these “pressure-sleep” experiences be so incredibly similar all over the world? It wasn’t until the 1980s that a scholar named David J. Hufford realised through his fieldwork on Old Hag folklore in Newfoundland that these experiences might have to do with a at the time poorly understood parasomnic condition: sleep paralysis (Hufford 2010). In short, sleep paralysis is when one can’t move or speak as one is waking up, often accompanied by the feeling of a strange presence that presses one down and causes one to choke. It occurs when two normally separate states of consciousness overlap: wakefulness and dreaming. According to psychologists, this waking nightmare is caused by neurotransmitters accidentally waking one up without “turning on” the body’s ability to move (hence paralysis) and without “turning off” the dream-state of imagining freely (hence the sensed malicious entity) (Cheyne and Pennycook 2013). Despite being a common disorder that up to 25-30% of people experience at least once in their lifetime, sleep paralysis is only now becoming more widely known.
All right, if that’s sleep paralysis and the host of “old hags” from all over the world it plays into, then here’s my hypothesis. Despite the literal meaning of the word tsindrimandry, “pressure-sleep,” and the fact that it covers many experiences of nocturnal assault that contains both suffocation and paralysis, the ethnography on tsindrimandry – which is admittedly small and sporadic – is yet to be connected to the literature on sleep paralysis like many other “old hags” from elsewhere in the world have been. The question is, of course, whether it should be at all, given that so many tsindrimandry narratives both in Anororo (Norge Lauridsen 2020) and other parts of Madagascar (Blanchy and Andriamampianina Rahajesy 2001; Blanchy et al. 2006) pay no particular attention to neither suffocation nor paralysis. To be sure, many of them are entirely void of both.
One thing, however, is the semantic field of tsindrimandry in present-day Madagascar; another is what it meant hundreds of years ago. One major obstacle in studying conceptual history in Madagascar is the fact that writing wasn’t introduced before the 1820s,[i] and the Europeans who visited the island in the previous centuries tended to be more interested in buying slaves, building colonies, or imposing their religion than examining the inner life of Malagasy people. As far as I have been able to find, the first sources to address tsindrimandry are François Callet’s Histoire des Rois from 1878-1881 (Callet 1972) and Charles Renel’s Les Amulets Malgaches from 1919 (Renel 1919). They both feature a variety of experiences referred to as tsindrimandry, although not as varied as today’s examples, and Renel translates it as “possession during sleep” (ibid., 26), explaining it as “a way of revealing” (ibid., 189). One exception to the absence of tsindrimandry in much older sources is a single mention in 1658 by Étienne de Flacourt, who translates it as “to obsess” (French: obséder) or “to possess” (French: posséder) (Blanchy and Andriamampianina Rahajesy 2001, 44). A proper analysis will take more than this blog post, but, for now, suffice it to say that Flacourt’s translations indicate close connections with spirit possession known under different names – bilo, salamanga, tromba, tsanganan-draha – and those are all experiences that usually involve coercion and suffering.
Let’s for a second leave the Red Island and take a quick trip to more northern skies in order to compare with a kindred concept. The common term for ‘bad dream’ in English, nightmare, along with its sisters cauchemar (French), Nachtmahr (old German), mareridt (Danish), mardröm (Swedish), stem from mare – a malevolent spirit. The mare’s name, in turn, most probably originates in Indo-European mar (“to pound, bruise, crush”) (Adler 2011, 13). In contemporary language, nightmare and its sisters, to be sure, apply to all sorts of unpleasant dreams. Yet, research shows that “until the seventeenth century, the primary referent of nightmare actually was what we call sleep paralysis, and it was consistently associated with supernatural assault” (Hufford 2005, 22). Although some may recall the old expression “being ridden by a mare,” nightmare no longer has this exclusive anchoring in sleep paralysis that it once had.
As regards tsindrimandry, we know that tsindry goes back to very early times in Madagascar; it originates in tindih (“pressed”) from an ancient Austronesian language (Brandstetter 1894, 159) that was, for all we know, transplanted from Borneo to Madagascar as early as the 7th century (Allibert 2008). That means that tsindry and, therefore, possibly tsindrimandry has been around for enough time to change significantly. Such conceptual change happened with the most famous of the Malagasy forms of spirit possession: tromba. In precolonial times (before 1896), it referred only to royal spirits taking abode in a few spirit mediums in particular places. However, under the new circumstances brought by colonisation, tromba became “popularised”; its former strict meaning watered down. Now, all sorts of spirits possess all sorts of people in all sorts of places (Sharp 1993).
What I suggest is that tsindrimandry may have undergone a transformation equivalent to the semantic watering-down of the concept of nightmare over the centuries. The present-day, broad meaning of tsindrimandry may very well originate in a much stricter definition of the concept limited to old hag-like experiences of nocturnal, suffocative and paralysing hauntings. In other words, it may very well originate in sleep paralysis.
Anders Norge Lauridsen is an anthropologist and a PhD student at SGS conducting research on spirits, tradition, local history and experimental methods in Anororo, Madagascar.
[i] With the exception of Sorabe, an Arabic-based alphabet that goes back to as early as 15th century Madagascar. Regrettably, this body of literature remains largely untranslated and inaccessible, however, one day it might lead to novel findings about the Malagasy past. References Adler, Shelley R. 2011. Sleep Paralysis: Night-Mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection. Studies in Medical Anthropology. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press. Allibert, Claude. 2008. “Austronesian Migration and the Establishment of the Malagasy Civilization: Contrasted Readings in Linguistics, Archaeology, Genetics and Cultural Anthropology.” Diogenes 55 (2): 7–16. Blanchy, Sophie, and M. Andriamampianina Rahajesy. 2001. “Possession, Trance ou Dialogue? Les Formes Récentes de la Communication Avec les Ancêtres en Imerina (Madagascar).” In Familiarité Avec les Dieux: Transe et Possession (Afrique Noire, Madagascar, la Réunion), edited by Marie-Claude Dupré, 23–61. Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal. Blanchy, Sophie, Jean-Aimé Rakotoarisoa, Philippe Beaujard, and Chantal Radimilahy. 2006. Les dieux au service du peuple : Itinéraires religieux, médiations, syncrétisme à Madagascar. Paris: Karthala. Brandstetter, Renward. 1894. “The Relationship Between the Malagasy and Malayan Languages”. The Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine XVIII: 155–75. Callet, François. 1972. Tantara ny Andriana eto Madagasikara (Histoire des Rois). Antananarivo: Imprimerie Catholique. Cheyne, James Allan, and Gordon Pennycook. 2013. “Sleep Paralysis Postepisode Distress” Clinical Psychological Science 1 (2): 135–48. Hufford, David J. 2005. “Sleep Paralysis as Spiritual Experience.” Transcultural Psychiatry 42 (1): 11–45. ———. 2010. The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Norge Lauridsen, Anders. 2020. “Tsindrimandry: Nocturnal Hauntings in Madagascar.” Kulturo 26 (50): 124–34. Renel, Charles. 1919. Les Amulettes Malgaches: Ody et Sampy. Tananarive: Imprimerie Officielle. Sharp, Lesley A. 1993. The Possessed and the Dispossessed: Spirits, Identity, and Power in a Madagascar Migrant Town. Berkeley: University of California Press.