Today, the cult of the Sampy is very badly seen in Malagasy society following the expansion of new religious doctrines. Indeed, Christianity condemns it by associating it with a blasphemous act implying a close relationship with the Devil himself; and thus redefines its position on the scale of good and evil. Nevertheless, it’s a practice that has been going on on the island for many centuries. It has always been intimately linked to the life of the society and has been a representative element of each community. Wouldn’t denying this belief be like denying a part of one’s own identity?

But still, it is necessary to know it.

sampy , image source : intrenet

What exactly is Sampy?

In fact, they are amulets made by particular people called Ombiasy. They are made from natural materials and then undergo a special ritual to give them their sacred character. According to beliefs, the Sampy are capable of blessing, protection, and healing. They are the object of worship and respect. They also inspire terror because they are conditioned by prohibitions known as Fady.

Sampy can be classified into two categories. Those that are meant to bless and protect an entire community by serving as a deity figure, and individual amulets that people wear on their person as protection. The latter are called Ody. The Sampy are sometimes considered autonomous beings; having their own name, their own characteristics, their own purposes, their own conditions and even their own home. Among the most famous are Ikelimaza, Rafantaka and Ramahavaly.

Today, there is no proof of the supernatural virtues of these amulets and many things even lead one to believe that it’s a ruse to which the Ombiasy had recourse to enrich themselves on the naivety of the people. Indeed, among the prohibitions and conditions that govern certain Sampy, it’s not uncommon for the Ombiasy to associate the effectiveness of the amulets with the quantity of offerings that he demands. Moreover, it’s also possible that some households invented their own fady to subject those who approached them to their convenience.

Sampy , image source : internet

But what if these superstitions, considered today as the testimony of a narrow mind, were in fact only the side effect of a misinterpretation of brilliant findings?

To avoid the question, it’s important to go back to the origins of the Sampy.

There is no source to determine the exact time when they were born into the local culture. Apparently, they were already known at the time of King Ralambo. However, the etymology of the word opens the way to a very interesting reflection. The word « sampy » would come from the verb « misampy » which means « to cling » or « to cling ». Indeed, in the time of our ancestors, people used to wrap a particular plant inside a piece of cloth whose opening was closed with a braided rope so that it could be hung around the neck. The small bags formed in this way, which were called Sampy, protected against colds, coughs and migraines thanks to the special aromas they gave off and were therefore used for purely medical purposes.

It was only later, by recycling oral traditions or perhaps for the sake of symbolism, that the concept of protective sacred amulets appeared. The idea spread over Imerina during the time of Andrianampoinimerina when he had the idea of promoting sampy in order to encourage the troops and incite them to fight. As with any other belief, using sampy made people feel protected, confident and initiated optimism.

So there are different ways to approach the veracity of sacred amulets. Compared to the high expectations of the devotees, these objects could be seen as the nonsense of primitive and illiterate minds. Nevertheless, the sampy had always basically ensured their purpose, which was to accompany the actions of the people, to help them prosper. In a symbolic way, because they simply believed in them, they had acquired, thanks to them, the confidence and the necessary courage to accomplish their duties.

The Sampy had thus, at a certain time, and this until their destruction, at the end of the reign of Ranavalona I, occupied a dominating place in the Malagasy society. They were closely linked to the life of a community, they accompanied people in every aspect of their daily life and helped to forge their way of life. For example, those who worshipped Ikelimalaza conditioned their lives to the requirements of his fady. They did not eat pork or shellfish, while those in Ramahavaly never baked grass inside their homes.

Sampy , image source : internet

The sampy imposed their strict rules and one respected them as if one’s life depended on it. But where is this fervent respect today?

If the traditionalist reign of Queen Ranavalona I allowed the Sampy to reach the peak of their expansion, it was put on hold when Queen Ranvalona II ascended the throne. Christianity had been established on the island and the destruction of amulets of any kind was ordered.

Nevertheless, what people had always believed in was quickly considered blasphemous, and it goes without saying that not everyone was going to abandon their beliefs so easily. The cult of the Sampy continues to this day in certain regions of Madagascar. For example, the moara is currently very widespread in the southwest. It is an amulet made from a Zebu horn that has been heated to harden it and whose surface is smoothed by scraping it. It’s decorated either with fabric, leather or colored seeds. The Dahalo often wear it around their necks with a leather or string belt when they steal zebu. These moara are apparently able to stop the impact of bullets and spears.

Thus, from the simple medicinal plant to the symbolic amulet; from the symbolic amulet to the figures of divinities, up to the demonic blasphemous practice; the conception of the Sampy has not ceased to evolve over the ages. However, they have left their mark on Malagasy culture in a particular way and remain today the vestiges of the cultural autonomy and spiritual singularity of Madagascar.

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