Bambara Religion

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BAMBARA RELIGION . The Bambara, the most important Mande group, number about 1.5 million people. They are agriculturists who live in the Republic of Mali on both sides of the Niger River, from the capital city of Bamako northeast to Mopti. Bambara agriculture and religion are closely intertwined. For example, the Bambara high god is conceived of as a grain from which three other divine "persons," and finally, the whole of creation, are born. Bambara theology and religion are complex. Deep religious speculations exist among the Bambara sages and are transmitted orally without codification.

The Supreme Being and the Creation

The Bambara believe in one god, Bemba, or Ngala, who is the creator of all things and has, in a way, created himself as a quaternity. This quaternity consists of Bemba himself, Mousso Koroni Koundyé (or Nyale), Faro, and Ndomadyiri; the last three correspond to the four elementsair, fire, water, and earth. Before the creation Bemba was named Koni and was, in a sense, "thought" (miri ) dwelling in a void; he is also the "void" itself (lankolo ). Accordingly, he cannot be perceived by humans using their usual senses. His existence is manifested as a force: a whirlwind, thought, or vibration that contains the signs of all uncreated things.

Bemba realized the creation of the world in three stages, each corresponding to one of the three other divine beings. In the first stage, called dali folo ("creation of the beginning"), the naked earth is created. God is known as Pemba in this stage, and he manifests himself in the form of a grain, from which grows an acacia (Balanza ). This tree soon withers, falls to the ground, and decays. One oblong beam, however, called Pembélé, survives. An avatar of God, Pembélé kneads the rotten wood with his saliva and forms Mousso Koroni Koundyé ("little old woman with a white head"), who becomes the first woman and his wife. Although she is associated with air, wind, and fire, Mousso Koroni Koundyé engenders plants, animals, and human beings. But because her person is unbalanced, her creations are produced in haste, disorder, and confusion.

The second stage, called dali flana ("second creation"), brings order and equilibrium to the previous creation. It is conducted under the authority of the deity Faro, an androgynous being issued from the breath of Bemba and identified with water, light, speech, and life. Faro gives every creature and thing a place in the world, a physical space, as well as a position in relation to other beings and things. He stops short of differentiating between things, however.

Differentiation of creation belongs to Ndomadyiri, the heavenly blacksmith, who is the eponymous ancestor of all blacksmiths. His principal task is to separate and distinguish things from each other, to make, in a sense, a comprehensible "speech" from the thought of creation. He is associated with the earth (from which food originates) and with trees (which produce remedies for ill health).

Thus the supreme being of the Bambara exists first as a sort of repository of energy and then manifests itself as four "persons" who generate the creation by each performing a different phase of activity. In this way the creation proceeds from confusion to clarity, from the unintelligible to the intelligible.

Ancestor Worship and the Dasiri Cult

Only those who led exemplary lives and died in a "natural" way (not due to any sorcery) can become ancestors. An ancestor must have reached an advanced age upon death and lived a life that is beyond reproach ethically, religiously, socially, and intellectually. One generation must separate the living and the dead before the rites of ancestor worship can be celebrated.

Nonfermented foodstuffs (e.g., fresh water, saliva, kola nuts, and mixtures of millet flour and water) are offered to appease the ancestor. These often precede more sophisticated offerings such as sorgo beer and blood. The beer is meant to "excite" the ancestor and to make him shake off his indolence toward living persons. The blood, usually obtained from sacrificed chickens or goats, represents the communion of the living and the dead. The place of worship differs according to the ancestor, but both sides of the entrance door to the hut are a preferred spot.

The founding ancestor is held in higher esteem than all other ancestors. His preeminence appears in the cult of the dasiri, a group of genius loci, or spiritual places, chosen by the founding ancestor when he created the village. One finds in each agglomeration two sorts of dasiri : a fixed one (e.g., tree, rock), which functions as the axis mundi of the village; and a mobile one, embodied in a wild or domestic animal (except birds). Offerings are made to the dasiri each time a community member encounters difficulties or a significant household event takes place. Sacrificial victims are always white, a color that symbolizes calmness and peace.

Initiatory Societies and Spiritual Life

Bambara religious life is mostly fulfilled during the epiphanies, or ritualistic manifestations, of the six initiatory societies: the N'domo, Komo, Nama, Kono, Tyiwara, and Korè. Together they give their members a complete (according to the Bambara ideal of perfection) intellectual, moral, and religious education.

The N'domo, open exclusively to noncircumcised children, teaches the origin and destiny of human beings. The highlight of the annual N'domo ceremonies is a sacred play featuring an androgynous child dancer who maintains complete silence while he performs. Dressed so that not one part of his body is visible, the dancer wears a wooden mask with human features and horns. The N'domo comprises five classes, each representing one of the five other initiation societies. Passage from one stage to another prefigures the adept's access to the Komo, Nama, Kono, Tyiwara, and Korè. In its structure as well as in its ceremonies, the N'domo attempts to answer, in a symbolic way, the following questions: What is man? Where does he come from? What is his destiny? Its answers are: He is androgynous; he comes from God; his fate is to return to God.

After their initiation into the N'domo, Bambara boys are circumcised. The operation has a double goal: to suppress their femininity (represented by the foreskin) and thus guide them to seek the opposite sex in marriage and to introduce the spirit to knowledge. Once these goals have been met, the boys are entitled to seek entry to the Komo society, whose purpose is to reveal to them the mysteries of knowledge.

Komo initiation societies consist of dances performed by masked individuals and sacrifices offered at the society's various altars. The Komo dance mask represents a hyena. Its jaws emphasize the animal's crushing force, which symbolizes knowledge. It should be noted that knowledge, as presented in the Komo, constitutes an entity in itself, independent and distant from man and "descending" upon him when he acquires it. For this reason, the Komo mask is worn on top of the head, like a helmet, and not on the face.

The Nama teaches its adepts about the union of spirit and body, of male and female, and of good and evil. Initiation ceremonies are particularly concerned with the union of a man and woman in matrimony and with the duality of good and evil (evil is symbolized by sorcery). The third society, the Kono, deals with the problems of human duality in greater depth. It examines the union of thought and body, a union that gives birth to the conscience.

The Tyiwara, the fourth society, is meant to teach its adepts about agriculture and work in the fields. It confers special significance on the relationship between the sun and the nurturing earth. At its annual festival, the growth of edible plants, and of vegetation in general, is ritually mimed by two dancers in a performance invested with cosmic sym-bolism.

The Korè is the last of the initiation societies. It bestows knowledge of man's spiritualization and divinization; an initiate learns how to resemble God, that is, how to become "immortal." Its vast program of initiation is conducted over several weeks for two consecutive years. The society marks the final attainment of the knowledge that assures salvation. The term salvation should not be interpreted here in its Christian sense; salvation, for the Bambara, consists of the ability to return to earth by being reborn within one's own clan lineage. The reincarnations continue as long as one's descendants preserve one's memory and cult. The Korè's ceremonies are held every seven years.

The Bambara believe that by following the exigencies of their religionby not only assisting at religious ceremonies but also participating in themthey can vanquish death and become equal to God. This kind of immortality, proposed to the faithful by the Korè, exemplifies the spiritual finality of Bambara religion, whose aim is to make the believer participate in the deity's essence. The faithful Bambara is not meant to enjoy the presence of God eternally, however: his destiny is to be continually reincarnated so that he can return to his clan. His postmortem contact with God is like a brief, gentle "touch"; he will not be attached permanently to the creator until all reincarnations within the clan cease.


To the best of my knowledge, the most complete and current survey of Bambara religion remains my own work The Bambara, "Iconography of Religions," sec. 7, fasc. 2 (Leiden, 1974). It not only offers a rich and original analysis of Bambara iconography but also provides a fresh view of the rites and institutions of these people. My Sociétés d'initiation bambara: Le N'domo, le Korè (Paris, 1960) is an essential study of two of the Bambara initiatory societies and the mystical life, and my Antilopes du soleil: Art et rites agraires d'Afrique noire (Vienna, 1980), which treats the Tyiwara, is a penetrating study of the religious role of the Bambara bestiary. Germaine Dieterlen and Youssouf Cissé's Les fondements de la société d'initiation du Komo (Paris, 1972) is a remarkable introduction to the inquiries on the Komo. For brilliant studies of some of the Bambara creation myths, see the following works: Solange de Ganay, "Aspects de mythologie et de symbolique bambara," Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique 42 (April-June 1949): 181201 and "Notes sur la théodicée bambara," Revue de l'histoire des religions 135 (1949): 187213; Solange de Ganay and Dominique Zahan, "Un enseignement donné par le komo," in Systèmes de signes: Textes réunis en hommage à Germaine Dieterlen (Paris, 1978), pp. 151185; Germaine Dieterlen, Essai sur la religion bambara (Paris, 1951); and also by Dieterlen two articles in the Journal de la Société des Africanistes, "Mythe et organisation sociale au Soudan Français," vol. 25, nos. 12 (1955): 3976 and "Mythe et organisation en Afrique occidentale," vol. 29, nos. 12 (1959): 119138.

New Sources

Cissé, Youssouf. La Confrérie des Chasseurs Malinke et Bambara: Mythes, Rites et Recits Initiatiques. Paris, 1994.

Dieterlen, Germaine. Essai sur la Religion Bambara. 2nd edition. Brussels, 1988.

Djata, Sundiata A. The Bamana Empire by the Niger: Kingdom, Jihad and Colonization, 17121920. Princeton, N.J., 1997.

Dominique Zahan (1987)

Translated from French by Eva Zahan
Revised Bibliography