First transcribed in 1830.


Madagascar’s Ibonia is a tale of an immaculate conception, a fiercely contested betrothal, and a bittersweet triumph. The epic was orally transmitted until 1830 when it was first written down in Malagasy. This occurred amidst monumental change in Madagascar. The Merina, under the leadership of King Ralambo (1575-1612) and his successors, began consolidating power in the island nation during the 16th century through their acquisition of firearms from European traders. The ascension of the Merina kings stratified society into andriana [“nobles”], hova [“freemen”], and andevo [“slaves”]. King Radama I (1810-1828) actively sought out geopolitical relationships with the Western colonial powers and openly welcomed missionary activity. As a result, Malagasy became a written language once English characters were deemed conducive to recording the strictly oral language. It was within this shifting cultural landscape that the Ibonia was first recorded.

Malagasy Couple. Couple, wood and pigment, 17-18th century, Madagascar, Metropolitan Museum of Art



There are 15 known textual variants amidst a plethora of oral variants. The story is shared among many Malagasy peoples, including the Tanala, Bara, Antakarana, Masikoro, and Betsileo. Scholars believe the story may have originated among the Saklava due to the presence of Saklavan cultural touchstones, such as the semi-divinity of kings, in the narrative. However, the best known version, translated by Lee Haring, is that told by the Merina.

The Ibonia is essentially a set of narrative events and plot devices connected by the cultural variations of the social group telling the story. Perhaps the most prominent culture-specific injections are the etiological tangents found within the narrative. An insular audience fully comprehends each allusion while any foreign ears miss the context necessary to appreciate the story’s depth. These allusions not only act as cultural purity tests but are uniquely central to Malagasy society, particularly for the Merina people.

The Merina believe that valuable information ought to be concealed – only those who know how to access it, can. Riddling is thus a common game played by Merina youth that helps transfer essential knowledge from one generation to the next. The cultural value of riddling is reflected in the Ibonia where the titular hero employs several riddles, particularly while he resides within his mother’s womb. Riddling prepares Merina youth to engage in hainteny [“word play”] in adulthood. Difficult to explain in writing, hainteny is metaphor-laden oral poetry where what is said is only as valuable as what is implied. Hainteny is often employed in verbal duels between two or more parties. The intention is not only to weave a coherent composition but to instill it with allusions to proverbs, folktales, and history that demonstrate a deep knowledge of Merina culture. Ibonia, the hero, engages in hainteny throughout the epic thereby establishing himself as an expert orator.

As Lee Haring so eloquently notes, “the subject of the epic was power; the intent was to remind Merina royalty of the glory of their past, and perhaps to incite them to some action in the present” (52). Within the long shadow of colonialism, the epic has taken on new meaning as testament to the resolute culture of Madagascar’s indigenous peoples.


The Story

Part I: An Immaculate Conception

Four brothers, the princes of the East, North, West, and South, venture to visit their grandfather Sky Father. Each brings an entourage of children to show that his lineage is alive and well. Sky Father is pleased with his progeny and is comforted in knowing that his legacy resides in good hands. “No swine or curs will inherit my land” (58), he boasts.

The Prince of the Center, along with his wife Rasoa, arrives late and without any children. Their arrival is anticipated by the earth which trembles before them while the lush grasses desiccate at their feet. Sky Father is glad to see his eldest grandchild but immediately recognizes that the pair are without children. Sky Father ascends his gilded throne, ushers in the princes’ father Heaven-Watcher, and speaks directly to the barren couple: “All is well. Excellent is your greatness. But there is no child to cry” (60).

Rasoa falls into heavy sorrow, exasperated at the prospects of leaving no legacy. The Prince of the Center advises that she seek the counsel of the diviner Ranakombe. Ranakombe ominously portends that Rasoa will carry a child destined for greatness in her womb for ten years. However, this comes at a cost as the child is prophesied to kill both his parents. This future is offered to Rasoa as a choice and an ultimatum. If she declines, she will be barren forever. Rasoa ponders deeply before determining that the only thing worse than death is a death without offspring.

At Ranakombe’s behest, Rasoa visits Male Rock of One Thousand Corners. There she is assailed by fierce winds, bolts of lightning, and a whole host of deadly beasts. Rasoa conquers these obstacles and finds a locust, the object of her quest, perched atop the rock. She grabs hold and is lifted into the sky, but she refuses to let go. The locust finally gives in and Rasoa takes it into the forest to receive a childbearing charm. Having triumphed over these many obstacles, Rasoa returns to her village, Iliolava, with the locust and the charm.

The locust is cast into a fire as instructed by Ranakombe. Yet it refuses to be cooked. Rasoa sends for the diviner who speaks to the locust and challenges it to step into the flames if it truly is the future king. The locust scurries into the flames and suddenly jumps onto Rasoa’s head, burrowing all the way into her womb. Rasoa’s quest for fertility is finally complete.

The opening arc of Ibonia powerfully captures the existential nature of barrenness among the Merina. The assembly before Sky Father and the impossible decision forced upon Rasoa each convey the critical importance of one’s legacy. Offspring not only mean a continuation of a family but also ensure the continuation of Merina culture. In this sense, the Merina arrive at a similar conclusion as Gilgamesh did some 3,000 years earlier. True immortality resides only in what we leave behind.


Part II: Ibonia’s Ascent

Three years into his gestation, Ibonia speaks to his mother from within her womb and proclaims that he will marry Iampelasoamananoro, the Girl of Grace. Almost as soon as Ibonia lays claim to her, Girl of Grace is kidnapped by Stone Man, “a nothing man looking for trouble…a dangerous man with powerful charms” (66). Rasoa dispatches villagers to rescue her but they return defeated. This episode establishes Ibonia as an omniscient being as he informs his mother that Girl of Grace has been kidnapped and sees the defeated soldiers returning before they arrive back in the village. Yet it is Rasoa who maintains sole control over the physical realm, organizing the rescue mission herself. Thus, Ibonia and Rasoa become two component parts, mind and body, of one being.

Years pass until the tenth and final year of Rasoa’s pregnancy. Ibonia’s confidence grows as he approaches the day of his birth. He employs haiteny to boast about his prowess, proclaiming that he is not rock, sweet potato, or dog, but rather, “I am Sky Lord on earth…Only I am the one who can fill the earth” (69). Ibonia then directs his mother to find a place to give birth. They venture to mountaintops and deep into forests, but each time Ibonia becomes dissatisfied for one reason or another. Each rejection ends with Rasoa physically assaulting the land resulting in shattered mountains and uprooted trees. It is during this episode that the audience receives an etiological tangent, alluding to Rasoa’s wrath as the reason waves appear on the ocean.

Their circuitous search ends where it started – the Prince of the Center’s throne room is selected as the only appropriate place for Ibonia to be born. Rasoa is instructed to swallow a knife in a banana and Ibonia will cut himself free. The Prince of the Center warns his wife that this plan will not end well for them. But she retorts, “What is bad is to have nothing. Even if he is trouble, this baby is the heir to the land” (73). Ibonia effectively births himself, killing his mother in the process. He ascends the golden throne and the entire earth shakes with his arrival.

Ibonia is a menace to his village. He batters the palace staff and refuses to sit still. When the Prince of the Center tries to bathe Ibonia, the young ruler kicks his father resulting in his death. Ibonia’s aunt consults Ranakombe, who informs him that Ibonia will only settle down once he is given a name. Ranakombe attempts to bestow many names on Ibonia, but each one is rejected. Ibonia momentarily considers adopting the name “Manly Princess,” “a woman’s name” (80), but ultimately turns that down as well. This consideration foreshadows Ibonia’s quest to rescue Girl of Grace and once more merge masculinity and femininity through their union. After many, many attempts, Ranakombe finally names the boy Iboniamasiboniamanoro, “He of the Clear Captivating Glance.”


Part III: Ibonia Prepares for Combat

Ibonia stomps on the earth and far away in Stone Man’s village the land is devastated. The crops dry up, waters flood the town, and lightning strikes from above. Back in Iliolava, Ranakombe seeks to bestow another name, an honorific, upon Ibonia. Once again, Ibonia rejects the names by clearly explaining the unfavorable implications of each one. This naming process is essential to Ibonia’s identity formation. Ibonia’s identity vacuum slowly takes shape. With each name he dismisses, the audience learns what Ibonia is not. The passages concerning naming are structured like the verbal duels that are critically important to Merina society. In each case, Ibonia emerges as the clear oratory master with Ranakombe ultimately leaving the village in defeat.

The story then goes on something of a tangent to emphasize Ibonia’s physical prowess. From cow patty slinging to long distance leaps, Ibonia bests all the other boys in Iliolava without much effort. More years pass and Ibonia again longs to liberate his self-proclaimed bride while playing fanorona (a Malagasy board game which mimics battle strategy). The encouragement of his servants drives Ibonia to arm himself, much to the chagrin of his aunt who thinks the pursuit is a foolish endeavor. Ibonia takes up a spear, axe, knife, and ox, all of which he praises with sweeping haiteny:


Yes, I am a big man.
The name of my axe will be
Male Iron Sparing No Shrub
Struck By Pirogue Not Turning
Delicious As Unique Lemon Grass
Does Not Chatter With Birds
Does Not Think With His Knees
Peerless Life
Protector Against Death (94)


Ibonia visits Ranakombe and again engages in verbal sparring before asking for advice. Ranakombe directs him to enter the distant eastern forest and make a talisman out of the tree named Red Leafless. If Ibonia can remain submerged in water for an entire night with the talisman, then he is fated to rescue Girl of Grace. If not, he will be killed by Stone Man. Ibonia does as he is instructed and all the fates appear to be in his favor. Another series of tangential stories further flesh out Ibonia’s character: he is chastised for harassing the villagers of Iliolava and sent to defeat Crocodile, Savage Bull, Big Chameleon, and finally to rescue a kidnapped princess as punishments. Following hearty boasts, Ibonia easily dispenses with each beast.

Ibonia’s aunt makes a last-minute plea to get Ibonia to refrain from seeking out Girl of Grace as she is certain he will be killed by Stone Man. She brings him a series of eligible bachelorettes to wed but, like the names and birthing sites, Ibonia rejects each one. Determined to wed Girl of Grace but sympathetic to his aunt’s concern, Ibonia plants a totemic banana tree that will mirror his health. It will stay green and ripe as long as he is safe. But should it wither and die, his aunt will know Ibonja has fallen to Stone Man.


Part IV: The Battle with Stone Man

Ibonia reaches Mananivo, Stone Man’s village, with the help of a crocodile and a shark. He seeks out Old Man, an elderly slave to Stone Man’s family, for guidance on how to beat his master. Old Man warns Ibonia that “Stone Man does not like good people. He is envious and kills them all, the good people who come to Mananivo” (107). Ibonia learns Old Man’s habits and studies his walk before killing him and taking his skin as a disguise.

Ibonia stealthily enters the palace under the guise of the Old Man and, as is customary, is given lodging with Girl of Grace. Stone Man’s talismans alert him that his rival is coming but he in unable to detect the ruse. The next morning Ibonia embarrasses Stone Man in games of fanorona and cross-sticks as well as a feat of strength ploughing the fields. Each time Stone Man vows to kill Old Man, but his father restrains him from murdering a venerated member of their household.

Ibonia shapeshifts into a variety of forms to find and destroy Stone Man’s talismans. He is unsuccessful until he becomes the wind and easily removes their power. Ibonia turns back into Old Man and returns to Girl of Grace’s dwelling. He then removes Old Man’s skin and appears before her as Ibonia, reiterating his wedding vows. Girl of Grace accepts him but fears what is to come for them both.

Finally aware of the intruder in his midst, Stone Man engages Ibonia in verbal dueling as he is unable to reach the young hero barricaded in Girl of Grace’s room. Ibonia defiantly brags that “the living belong to Ibonia, the dead to Stone Man” (113) before exiting the house to face his foe. The two fight with guns, spears, and finally hand-to-hand but neither gains an advantage. Ibonia invokes his talismans for power, and they give him strength enough to drive Stone Man so deep into the earth that he disappears. Ibonia covers the hole in the earth and returns to Iliolava with Girl of Grace.


Part V: Ibonia Brings Order and Departs

Ibonia and Girl of Grace are married for ten years. Three years before his death, Ibonia gathers his family together and proclaims, “close at hand is the day when Ibonia will be removed…for to the earth we return. [Ibonia] is not of those who are buried to rot he is of those who are planted to grow. Dead by day, alive by night. [Ibonia’s] return is coming” (115).

He leaves them with a set of guidelines to govern society. Principal among these rules is a prohibition on breaking marriage vows regardless of one’s social class. Secondly, he changes his name once more, adopting Thunderer-Heard-Afar because “one’s name on earth does not go back to heaven” (115). Finally, he promises to return as the thunder that echoes in the heavens.

Three years later, Ibonia unceremoniously dies.



The Ibonia epic is not as well-known as its Mediterranean counterparts, yet one might argue that it is much more relevant in the modern era. Its message is abundantly clear: children, legacy, and the continuation of culture are existentially important. Every bit of Ibonia’s story is carefully crafted to demonstrate the impact he has as a harbinger of societal and cultural resurrection. Prior to his conception, the land literally wilts before the Prince of the Center and his wife Rasoa. The shame Rasoa carries as a barren woman drives her to make the ultimate sacrifice because “What is bad is to have nothing. Even if he is trouble, this baby is the heir to the land” (73). She critically recognizes that ensuring the future of her people ought to take precedent over all else. Even her own life.

Ibonia is more than merely “He of the Clear Captivating Glance.” More than the vanquisher of Stone Man or even a semi-divine hero king. Ibonia represents cultural authority. There is a profound synergy in the cycle of birth and death in the Ibonia. The ten long years Ibonia gesticulates is later matched by his ten-year reign as king. Ibonia’s first proclamation, that he will marry Girl of Grace, occurs three years after his inception in his mother’s womb. His last proclamation, setting down the laws to govern society, takes place three years prior to his death. Ibonia’s promise to return is ultimately a promise that this cycle of life and death will continue into the future. It is a promise that there will be a future for the Malagasy peoples. Ibonia will return in every boy and girl whose births ensure a future for Madagascar.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the epic was finally written down during the height of colonial encroachment. The Merina’s rise came at the expense of neighboring Malagasy groups who fell victim to enslavement and cultural erasure. Simultaneously, foreign tendrils began making inroads in Madagascar and threatening all indigenous cultures on the island. The symbolic importance of Ibonia as cultural continuity took on a powerful new meaning within this backdrop. The publication of Ibonia not only proclaimed the beauty and intricacy of Malagasy culture to the world, but it also defiantly stated that Malagasy culture was not going away any time soon.


Demetrios Kavadas
 City Living NY

Works Cited

Haring, L. (2013). How to Read a Folktale: The Ibonia Epic from Madagascar. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.



English translation.

Haring, Lee (2013). How to Read a Folktale: The Ibonia Epic from Madagascar. Translation and Reader’s Guide. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. Other editions:


Further Analysis

Haring, L. (2007). Stars and Keys: Folktales and Creolization in the Indian Ocean. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Wells, H. and Ranalarimanana, V. (2023). “Man is the Center: Centripetal Power in the Malagasy Epic Tale of Ibonia.” In The Epic World. Ed. Pamela Lothspeich. London: Routledge Publishing.

Le Mythe d’Ibonia (2013) by Alliance Française

TV Spot 1:


TV Spot 2: 


“Iboniamasy – Iboniamanoro”: