Earth-shakers of Sahafatra : authority, fertility, and the cult of nature in southeast Madagascar
This thesis is a study of the people and of the land of Sahafatra in southeast Madagascar. It describes and interprets the system of authority in operation in the region in order to explore local conceptions of the nature of 'rulers' and of the nature of 'ruling'. The thesis demonstrates that the authority used by 'rulers' to justify their positions stems from two different sources: straightforward patrilineal descent relations, enabling access to the blessing of the ancestors; and the ability to survive what are regarded as 'life-giving' ritual tests, allowing the channelling of fertility directly from the 'environment'. Part I of the thesis introduces the people and the land and gradually develops the idea of a 'culture of testing' as an alternative to descent, showing that 'rulers' can rule over people who are not their biological progeny by passing through a demanding ceremonial procedure designed to prove their worthiness. Chapter 1 discusses the diverse origins and current social organisation of the people of Sahafatra; Chapter 2 describes the hierarchical authority system that they hold in common; Chapter 3 illustrates the connection between a leader's realm of authority and the selection procedure used to choose him; Chapter 4 describes and analyses the testing process that must be undergone to become a senior leader; Chapter 5 shows how by passing certain tests a ruler comes to be regarded as potent. Part II of the thesis shows how the 'culture of testing' is not an abstract form but is predicated on the connection between man and the 'environment'. It explains how the intimate involvement of man and 'environment' allows the 'culture of testing' to serve a powerful practical purpose: generating life and fertility for the people. Chapter 6 explores how mythological tests of the past have coloured attitudes towards testing now; Chapter 7 analyses the relationship between man and the general 'environment' and describes how man uses this relationship to access the 'force of nature'; Chapter 8 discusses how people 'ground' themselves in the land through particular funerary and commemorative practices. The Conclusion argues that although the two principles of authority, descent and the 'culture of testing', are in opposition to each other they can, and are, combined and mediated by the most senior leaders. The 'groundedness' of both principles and the inseparability of nature and society allow composite forms of power to be created out of apparently incompatible idioms.