Dogon Religion

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DOGON RELIGION . The Dogon inhabit the cliffs of Bandiagara, an area located in the southwestern region of the bend of the Niger River in Mali. This area consists of a vast, rocky plateau that ends in its southern part in a 124-mile-long (200-kilometer-long) cliff overlooking a vast plain. Numbering approximately 225,000, the Dogon are cultivators of millet and other cereals and breeders of small livestock; owing to the scarcity of permanent water sources on the plateau and on the cliffs, they have had to exploit all resources available to them. Onion and pepper gardens and plantations of large trees (ficus, baobab) surround the villages whose clay houses picturesquely conform to the jagged contours of the rock.

The Dogon are well known in ethnographical literature. Since 1931 they have been the subject of numerous publications by the French ethnologist Marcel Griaule (18981956) and by other researchers schooled in his methods. The Dogon are perhaps best known for their art, whose consummate form is sculpture in wood (masks, statuettes, locks).

The traditional religion of the Dogon is complex and involves, among other things, a rich myth of origin, belief in a unique god, and an intricate cult of the ancestors. Christianity has had little impact on their culture, but Islam, during the late twentieth century, made significant inroads, without, however, destroying the vitality of long-standing religious beliefs and practices.

The Creation Myth

The Dogon myth of origin provides both an explanation of the world and a justification of Dogon social organization. The creation of the world was the deed of the god Amma, the one god and image of the father who existed before all things. He traced the plan of the universe using 266 signs (a number corresponding to the gestation period for human beings). The design (the preliminary act of creation) corresponds to thought, which "conceives" before action or speech. Following an unsuccessful initial attempt, from which he salvaged only the four elements (water, earth, fire, and air), Amma placed in the "egg of the world," or the original placenta, two pairs of androgynous twins in the form of fish (to Sudanese peoples the catfish Clarias senegalensis represents the human fetus). Their gestation inside the egg was interrupted by an act of rebellion: one of the male beings prematurely left the "mother" (the placenta), deserting both "her" and his female counterpart, thus prefiguring the birth of single beings even though Amma had envisaged twin births. The solitary being descended into space and primordial darkness, taking with him a piece of the placenta that became Earth. Aware of his solitude, he traveled through space, attempted to reascend to heaven to join his female twin again, and even sought her out in the bowels of Earth, an incestuous act that brought to a climax the disorder he had already introduced into the world by leaving the placenta. The piece of placenta rotted and thus death appeared on earth.

Amma put an end to the male being's disorderly acts by transforming him into a fox, an animal that occupies a very important position in Dogon ideology. This small, wild creature, which is known more properly as Vulpes pallida, goes about only at night and never drinks water from ponds near the villagewhich, for the Dogon, explains why the fox was chosen to symbolize this enemy of light, water, fertility, and civilization.

The mythical fox Yurugu (also known as Ogo) was condemned to an eternal search for his lost twin. Moreover, he lost the ability to speak when Amma, from whom he had stolen speech, punished him by cutting off his tongue (indeed, actual foxes emit only a brief, almost clipped cry); but he still retained the power to foretell the future by "speaking" with his paws.

Unable to restore total order to his universe, Amma sought to mitigate the disorder let loose by the fox; he sacrificed Nommo, the other male twin who had stayed in the egg. Nommo's dismembered body purified the four cardinal points of the universe, and the blood that flowed forth gave birth to various heavenly bodies, edible plants, and animals.

Amma then burst the Digitaria exilis, a minuscule grain into which he had "rolled" all the elements of creation; these elements emptied into an ark of pure earth (the remains of the placenta). In that ark Amma also placed Nommo, whom he had already resuscitated, and his other "sons," the four pairs of heterosexual twins who are the ancestors of the human race. He lowered the ark from the heavens by means of a copper chain; the ark crashed onto Yurugu's earth at the time of the first rainfall, which formed the first pool of water. The sun also rose for the first time. Nommo went to live in the pool while the eight ancestors settled on the spot where they had landed. Using the pure earth from their ark, these ancestors created the first cultivated field, and cultivation then spread throughout Yurugu's impure earth (the bush).

The ancestors initially communicated by means of cries and grunts until one of the Nommo twins, the master of water, life, speech, and fertility, taught them language at the same time that he instructed them in the art of weaving. He then revealed to the ancestors such other fundamental techniques as agriculture, blacksmithing, dance, and music. The first human society was thus founded; marriage was introduced when the ancestors exchanged sisters.

The descent of the ark is analogous to birth. The ancestors of humanity who began their life on earth can be seen as newborns emerging from the maternal womb; the ark is the placenta, and its chain is the umbilical cord; the rains are the fetal waters.

Cults and Social Organization

The four male ancestors founded the four major religious cults, which are also the pillars of social organization; among the Dogon, social order cannot be dissociated from religion. The eldest of the ancestors, Amma Seru ("witness of Amma"), is associated with the creator god and with air (sky). The patriarch of the extended family is Amma Seru's representative in the human community. His residence, known as the "big house," is the focal point of the paternal lineage, and this is where the altar to the ancestors is situated. The altar is composed of pottery bowls (deposited there whenever a family member dies) into which the patriarch pours libations in honor of the ancestors.

Paternal lineages combine to form a totemic clan; all members of a particular clan must respect the same taboo, be it animal or vegetable. The clan is headed by a priest whose vocation is revealed through trances that incite him to seek an object hidden by dignitaries of the clan at the death of the priest he will succeed. He remains subject to these trances, which force him to wander through the countryside prophesying; he is said to be possessed by Nommo. As the representative of the ancestor Binu Seru ("witness of the binu "), the priest is responsible for the cult of the binu, the ancestors associated with the various animal and vegetable species. According to the custodians of profound knowledge, the binu are also symbols of the different parts of Nommo's dismembered body; the ensemble of these binu represents the body resuscitated in its entirety. The cult itself is associated with water, and its ritual is celebrated in sanctuaries whose façades are periodically redecorated with paintings done in thin millet paste; each transformation favors a specific eventthe coming of the rains, the harvesting of various crops.

The cult of Lébé is dedicated to the ancestor Lébé Seru ("witness of Lébé") who, having died, was subsequently brought back to life in the form of a large snake; this ancestor is associated with Earth (the planet and soil, as well as the mythic archetype Earth), and with vegetation that periodically dies and comes back to life. His priest is the hogon, the most senior of the region, whose authority once had political impact, since it was he who administered justice and controlled the marketplaces. The hogon and the totemic priest together celebrate the feast of sowing (bulu ) before the coming of the rains; they distribute to the villagers the millet seeds that have been stored in the preceding year. These seeds are thought to contain the spiritual essence of this cereal. The mythical snake Lébé is said to visit the hogon every night to lick his body and thus revitalize him.

The fourth ancestor, Dyongu Seru ("witness of healing"), has a different status. He was in effect the first human to die, following the breach of an interdiction. His cult is celebrated by the mask society (which exists only on the cliff and on the plateau). It is an exclusively male association, which all boys enter after their circumcision; each one must carve his own mask and must learn the society's secret language. The dance of the masks takes place as part of funeral ceremonies for men. Objects of death, the masks are strictly forbidden to women, who are associated with fertility and the forces of life. Women can only observe the dances from far away.

The death and resurrection of Dyongu Seru are commemorated through the Sigi, a spectacular ceremony that takes place every sixty years; the last one was held between 1967 and 1974. This feast also marks, on the human plane, the renewing of the generations (sixty years is thought to be the average human life span) and, on the celestial plane, the revolution of the "star of Digitaria exilis " around the "star of Sigi," or Sirius. The Dogon's longstanding knowledge of this Sirius satellite, which was only recently discovered by astronomers, is a mystery that science has not yet uncovered. The ceremony, celebrated from village to village over a period of eight years, includes dances executed by men in single file (each generation is ranked according to age-group). Their costumes and paraphernalia refer to both maleness and femaleness: for example, the cowrie shells that decorate the dancers' costumes and the fish-head design of their embroidered bonnets are symbols of fertility; when they drink the ritual beer, they sit on a ceremonial seat, which is a masculine symbol. Another important component of the Sigi ceremony is the erection of the "great mask," a single tree trunk or log carved in the shape of a snake to represent the resurrected ancestor.

Dyongu Seru is associated with fire, death, the wilderness (in his role as hunter and healer), and, consequently, disorderconnections that, in turn, link his cult with the mythical fox Yurugu who, on a more mundane level, is commemorated in divination rites. Diviners trace framed grids in the sand, and during the night small foxes come to eat the food offerings placed on these "tables"; the configuration of spoors left by the animals are then interpreted as responses to questions about the future. Yurugu, however much decried for being the source of disorder, is respected for his ability to foretell the future, a gift that even Amma could not take away from him. In effect, by liberating himself from all rules through his act of rebellion, Yurugu placed himself beyond time. Ultimately he incarnates individual liberty, in opposition to the group solidarity essential for the survival of traditional societies, and therein lies his ambiguity.

The Dogon religious universe is also peopled by various categories of spirits who haunt the wilderness, the trees, and inhabited sites; these spirits are the outcome of Yurugu's incestuous coupling with Earth. They represent natural forces and the original proprietors of the soil, with whom men had to ally themselves in order to gain possession of cultivable land. Offerings presented to these spirits on different occasions propitiate them and renew the original alliance.

Speech and Being

A human being is viewed as a whole composed of a body and the eight spiritual principles of both sexes. A vital life force (nyama ) animates the entire being. The ambivalence of the human condition (that is, its simultaneous maleness and femaleness), which recalls the law of twin births ordained by Amma but later destroyed by Yurugu, is mediated by circumcision and clitoridectomy; these procedures free the child from the influence of the opposite sex (located in the prepuce and the clitoris) and thus have an equilibrating function. Death destroys the tie that holds together the various components of a person's being; funeral ceremonies assure that each component is restored to its place and facilitate the transference of the vital force from the deceased to an unborn child, who will establish a cult for that ancestor.

Speech is fundamental in Dogon thought. It forms itself in the body, all of whose organs contribute to its "birth," and like human beings, it possesses vital energy and spiritual principles. The four basic elements enter into its composition, but water is the most essential component. In symbolic rapport with all technological processes, especially the art of weaving (the organs of the mouth are said to "weave" sounds), speech is both creative (on the divine plane) and fertilizing (on the human plane); in fact, intercourse between spouses is successful only if "good words" make the woman fertile. Speech is also the cement that holds together all social relationships and facilitates the advance of society, its progress and survival.

If ancestor worship and the belief in Amma dominate the religious beliefs of the Dogon, the mythical figures who command their worldview are Nommo and Yurugu: the two incarnate opposed and complementary principles (order/disorder, life/death, humidity/dryness, fertility/sterility) that wrangle over possession of the universe. That struggle, which is constantly rekindled, assures both the equilibrium and progress of the world.


The most complete and most detailed version of the Dogon origin myth is given in Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen's Le renard pâle (Paris, 1965). The first published version of the myth can be found in Dieu d'eau: Entretiens avec Ogotemmêli (Paris, 1948), Griaule's very popular book translated into English by Robert Redfield as Conversations with Ogotemmêli (London, 1965). Griaule's Masques dogon (Paris, 1938) still remains the definitive reference work on the mask society and on funerary ceremonies, as does that by Michel Leiris, La langue secrète des Dogons de Sanga (Paris, 1948), on the society's secret language. For information on perceptions of the person in Dogon society, one can consult Dieterlen's Les âmes des Dogons (Paris, 1941), even though our understanding of this question has been considerably enriched since that book's publication. Speech and its utilization at different levels of social life is analyzed in my own study Ethnologie et langage: La parole chez les Dogon (Paris, 1965), which has been translated into English by Dierdre La Pin as Words and the Dogon World (Philadelphia, 1986).

New Sources

Additional sources are Dirk Verboven's A Paxiological Approach to Ritual Analysis: The Sigi of the Dogon (Gent, 1986) and Germaine Dieterlen's Les Dogon: Notion de Personne et Mythe de la Creation (Paris, 1999).

GeneviÈve Calame-Griaule (1987)

Translated from French by Brunhilde Biebuyck
Revised Bibliography