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The Dogon village of Banani.

The Dogon are a group of people living in the central plateau region of Mali, south of the Niger bend near the city of Bandiagara in the Mopti region. They number just under 800,000.[citation needed] The Dogon are best known for their mythology, their mask dances, wooden sculpture and their architecture. The past century has seen significant changes in the social organization, material culture and beliefs of the Dogon, partly because Dogon country is one of Mali's major tourist attractions.



[edit] Geography and history

The Bandiagara Cliffs

The principal Dogon area is bisected by the Bandiagara Escarpment, a sandstone cliff of up to 500m (1,640 ft) high, stretching for about 150km (almost 100 miles). To the southeast of the cliff, the sandy Séno-Gondo Plains are found, and northwest of the cliff are the Bandiagara Highlands. The current population is at least 450,000. Historically, Dogon villages have frequently fallen victim to Islamic slave raiders.[1] Neighboring Islamic tribal groups acted as slave merchants,[2] as the growth of cities increased the demand for slaves across the region of West Africa. The historical pattern has included murder of indignenous males by Islamic jihadists and enslavement of women and children.[1] As early as the 12th century AD the Dogon people fled west to avoid conversion to Islam and enslavement.[1]

At the end of the eighteenth century, the jihads that were triggered by the resurgence of Islam caused slaves to be sought for warfare. Dogon insecurity in the face of these historical pressures caused them to locate their villages in defensible positions along the walls of the escarpment. The other factor influencing their choice of settlement location is water. The Niger River is nearby and in the sandstone rock, a rivulet runs at the foot of the cliff at the lowest point of the area during the wet season.

[edit] Dogon art

Dogon wood sculpture, probably an ancestor figure, 17th-18th century

Dogon art is primarily sculpture. Dogon art revolves around religious values, ideals, and freedoms (Laude, 19). Dogon sculptures are not made to be seen publicly, and are commonly hidden from the public eye within the houses of families, sanctuaries, or kept with the Hogon (Laude, 20). The importance of secrecy is due to the symbolic meaning behind the pieces and the process by which they are made.

Themes found throughout Dogon sculpture consist of figures with raised arms, superimposed bearded figures, horsemen, stools with caryatids, women with children, figures covering their faces, women grinding pearl millet, women bearing vessels on their heads, donkeys bearing cups, musicians, dogs, quadruped-shaped troughs or benches, figures bending from the waist, mirror-images, aproned figures, and standing figures (Laude, 46-52). Signs of other contacts and origins are evident in Dogon art. The Dogon people were not the first inhabitants of the cliffs of Bandiagara. Influence from Tellem art is evident in Dogon art because of its rectilinear designs (Laude, 24).

[edit] Culture and religion

The majority of Dogon practice an animist religion, including the ancestral spirit Nommo, with its festivals and Sirian mythology. A significant minority of the Dogon practice Islam, and some have been converted by missionaries to Christianity.

The Dogon record their ancestry through a patrilineal system. Each Dogon community, or enlarged family, is headed by one male elder. This chief head is the oldest living son of the ancestor of the local branch of the family. According to the NECEP database, within this patrilineal system polygynic marriages, with up to four spouses can occur.


Most men, however, have only one wife; and it is rare for a man to have more than two wives. Formally, wives only join their husband's residence unit after the birth of their first child. Women may leave their husbands early in their marriage, before the birth of their first child. After having children, divorce is a rare and serious matter, and it requires the participation of the whole village. An enlarged family can count up to hundred persons and is called guinna.

The Dogon are strongly oriented toward harmony, and this harmony is reflected in many of their rituals. For instance, in one of their most important rituals, the women praise the men, the men thank the women, the young express appreciation for the old, and the old recognize the contributions of the young. Another example is the custom of elaborate greetings whenever one Dogon meets another. This custom is repeated over and over, throughout a Dogon village, all day. During a greeting ritual, the person who has entered the contact answers a series of questions about his or her whole family, from the person who was already there. Invariably, the answer is sewa, which means that everything is fine. Then the Dogon who has entered the contact repeats the ritual, asking the resident how his or her whole family is. Because of the word sewa is so commonly repeated throughout a Dogon village, neighboring peoples have dubbed the Dogon the sewa people.

Hogon House

The Hogon is the spiritual leader of the village. He is elected between the oldest men of the enlarged families of the village. After his election he has to follow a six-month initiation period, during which he is not allowed to shave or wash. He wears white cloths and nobody is allowed to touch him. A young virgin that has not yet had her period takes care of him, cleans the house and prepares his meals. She returns to her home during the night. After his initiation, he will wear a red bonnet. He has an armband with a sacred pearl that symbolises his function. The virgin is replaced by one of his wives, but she also returns to her home at night. The Hogon has to live alone in his house. During the night, the sacred snake Lébé comes to clean him and to transfer wisdom.

The Dogon maintain an agricultural mode of subsistence, and cultivate pearl millet, sorghum and rice, as well as onions, tobacco, peanuts, and some other vegetables. Marcel Griaule stimulated the construction of a dam near Sangha and incited the Dogon to cultivate onions. The economy of the Sangha region doubled since then and onions are sold as far as on the market of Bamako or even in Ivory Coast. They also raise sheep, goats and chickens. Grain is stored in granaries.

[edit] Circumcision

Circumcision Cave Painting

Boys are circumcised in age groups of three years, counting for example all boys between 9 and 12 years old. This marks the end of their youth, and they are now initiated. The blacksmith performs the circumcision. Afterwards, they stay for a few days in a hut separated from the rest of the village people, until the wound has healed. The circumcision is a reason for celebration and the initiated boys go around and receive presents. They make music on a special instrument that is made of a rod of wood and calabashes that makes the sound of a rattle. The village of Songho has a circumcision cave ornamented with red and white rock paintings of animals and plants. Nearby is a cave where music instruments are stored. The newly circumcized men must walk around naked for a moon after the procedure so that their achievement in age can be admired by the citizens of the tribe. This practice has been passed down for generations and is always followed, even during winter.

They are one of several African ethnic groups which practice excision of the female genitalia; see female genital cutting. According to Sékou Ogobara Dolo, at least in the Sangha region, the milder form is practiced. This means that only the clitoral hood is removed, which is similar to male circumcision. Girls are circumsized around the age of 7 or 8 years, sometimes younger. Circumcision for both male and female is seen as necessary for the individual to gain gender. Before circumcision they are seen as 'neuter'.[3][4]

[edit] Funeral Masquerade

Due to the expense, their traditional funeral rituals or “damas” are becoming very rare. They may be performed years after the death. Damas that are still performed today are not usually performed for their original intent, but instead are done as a source of entertainment for tourists interested in the Dogon way of life. The Dogon use this entertainment to gain profit by charging the tourists money for what masks they want to see and the ritual itself (Davis, 68). The traditional dama consists of a masquerade that essentially leads the souls of the departed to their final resting places through a series of ritual dances and rites. Dogon damas include the use of many masks and statuettes. Each Dogon village may differ in the designs of the masks used in the dama ritual. Every village may have their own way of performing the dama rituals. The dama consists of an event, known as the Halic, immediately after the death of a person and lasts for one day (Davis, 68). According to Shawn R. Davis, this particular ritual incorporates the elements of the yingim and the danyim. During the yincomoli ceremony, a gourd is smashed over the deceased’s wooden bowl, hoe, and bundukamba, (burial blanket), which announces the entrance of the masks used in this ceremony while the deceased entrance to their home in the family compound is decorated with ritual elements (Davis, 72-73). Masks used during the yincomoli ceremony include the Yana Gulay mask, the Satimbe mask, the Sirigie mask, and the Kanaga mask. The Yana Gulay mask’s purpose is to impersonate a Fulani woman and is made from cotton cloth and cowell shells. The Satimbe mask represents the women ancestors who are said to have discovered the purpose of the masks by guiding the spirits of the deceased into the afterlife. (Davis, 74) The Sirigie mask is a tall mask that is only used in funerals for the men that were alive during the holding of the Sigui ceremony (see below) (Davis, 68). The Kanaga masqueraders, at one point, dance and sit next to the bundkamba which represents the deceased.

The yingim and the danyim rituals each last a few days. These events are held annually to honor the elders that have died since the last Dama. The yingim consists of the sacrifice of cows, or other valuable animals, and large mock battles performed in order to help chase the spirit, known as the nyama, from the deceased body and village and towards the path to the afterlife (Davis, 68). The danyim then takes place a couple of months later. During the danyim, masqueraders perform dances every morning and evening for anytime up to six days depending on how that village performs this ritual. The masqueraders dance on the deceased’s rooftops, throughout the village, and the area of fields around the village (Davis, 68). Until the masqueraders have completed their dances and every ritual has been performed, it is said that any misfortune can be blamed on the remaining spirits of the dead (Davis, 68).

[edit] Cults

The Dogon know different cults:

  • Sigui: the most important ceremony of the Dogon. It takes place every 65 years and can take several years. The last one started in 1967 and ended in 1973, the next one will start in 2032. The Sigui ceremony symbolises the dead of the first ancestor (not to be confounded with Lébé) till the moment that humanity acquired the use of the spoken word. The Sigui is a long procession that starts and ends in the village of Youga Dogorou and goes from one village to the other during several months or years. All men wear masks and dance in long processions. The Sigui has a secret language that women are not allowed to learn. The secret Society of Sigui plays a central role in the ceremony. They prepare the ceremonies a long time in advance, and they live for three months hidden outside of the villages while nobody is allowed to see them. The men from the Society of Sigui are called the Oloubarou. The villagers are afraid of them and fear is cultivated by a prohibition to go out at night, when sounds warn that the Oloubarou are out. The most important mask that plays a major role in the Sigui rituals is the Great Mask or the Mother of Masks. It is several meters long and is just held up by hand and not used to hide a face. This mask is newly created every 65 years.
  • The Amma cult: worships the main, creator god Amma. The celebration is once a year and consists of offering boiled millet on the conical altar of Amma, colouring it white.
Crocodile Totem
  • The Lébé cult: worships the sacred snake Lébé, who was the first mortal human being. Lébé was transformed into a snake. The celebration is once a year and takes three days. The altar is a pointed conic structure on which the Hogon offers boiled millet while mentioning in his benediction eight grains plus one. Afterwards, the Hogon performs some rituals in his house that is also the home of Lébé. The last day, all the village men visit all the Binou altars and dance three times around the Lébé altar. The Hogon invites everybody that assisted to drink the millet beer.
  • The Binou cult: uses totems, common ones for the entire village and individual ones for totem priests. A totem animal is worshipped on a Binou altar. Totems are for example the buffalo for Ogol-du-Haut, and the panther for Ogol-du-Bas. Normally, nobody will ever be harmed by its own totem animal, even if this is a crocodile as for the village of Amani. Here is a large pool of crocodiles that do not harm any villager. However, a totem animal might exceptionally harm if one has done something wrong. A worshipper is not allowed to eat his totem. For example, an individual with a buffalo as totem is not allowed to eat buffalo meat, but also not to use leather from its skin and even not to see a buffalo die. If this happens by accident he has to organise a purification sacrifice at the Binou altar. Boiled millet is offered and goats and chickens are sacrificed on a Binou altar. This colours the altar both white and red. Binou altars look like little houses with a door. They are bigger when the altar is for an entire village. A village altar has also the ‘cloud hook’, that will catch clouds and make it rain.
  • The twin cult: the birth of twins is a sign of good luck. The enlarged Dogon families have cult rituals during which they evoke all their ancestors till their origin, the ancient pair of twins from the creation of the world myth.
  • The Mono cult: the Mono altar is at the entry of every village. Unmarried young men celebrate the Mono cult once a year in January or February. They spend the night around the altar, singing and screaming and waving with fire torches. They hunt for mice that will be sacrificed on the altar at dawn.

[edit] Dogon villages

Dogon villages have different buildings:

  • Male granary: storage place for pearl millet and other grains. Building with a pointed roof. This building is well protected from mice. The amount of filled male granaries is an indication for the size and the richness of a guinna.
A Dogon's male granary
  • Female granary: storage place for a woman's things, her husband has no access. Building with a pointed roof. It looks like a male granary but is less protected against mice. Here, she stores her personal belongings such as clothes, jewelry, money and some food. A woman is economically independent and earnings and things related to her merchandise are stored in her personal granary. She can for example make cotton or pottery. The amount of female granaries is an indication for the amount of women living in the guinna.
  • Toguna (also called case à palabres): building only for men. They rest, discuss and take important decisions in the toguna. The roof of a toguna is made by 8 layers of millet stalks. It is a low building in which one cannot stand upright. This helps avoiding violence when discussions get heated.
A Toguna
  • House for women that have their period: this house is on the outside of the village. It is constructed by women and is of lower quality than the other village buildings. Women having their period are considered to be unclean and have to leave their family house to live during five days in this house. They use kitchen equipment only to be used here. They bring with them their youngest children. This house is a gathering place for women during the evening.
A typical Dogon Village

[edit] Languages

Main article: Dogon languages

Dogon has been frequently referred to as a single language. In reality, there are at least five distinct groups of dialects[5] The Dogon language family is internally highly diverse, and many varieties are not mutually intelligible, actually 12 dialects and 50 variations. There is also a secret language Sigui So, which is used by the Society of the Masks during the Sigui ceremonies. Women have no right to learn Sigui So.

It is generally accepted that the Dogon languages belong to the Niger-Congo language family, but there is less certainty about their place within this family. The Dogon group has been linked to the Mande subfamily but also to Gur. In a recent overview of the Niger-Congo phylum, Dogon is treated as an independent branch before Volta-Congo.[6]

The Dogon languages show few remnants of a noun class system (one example is that human nouns take a distinct plural suffix), leading linguists to conclude that Dogon is likely to have diverged from Niger-Congo very early. Another indication of this is the Subject Object Verb basic word order, which Dogon shares with such early Niger-Congo branches as Ijoid and Mande.

[edit] Dogon and Sirius

Certain researchers investigating the Dogon have reported that they seem to possess advanced astronomical knowledge, the nature and source of which has subsequently become embroiled in controversy. From 1931 to 1956, two French anthropologists, Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, spent 25 years with the Dogon, during which time they were initiated into the tribe.[7] Griaule and Dieterlen reported that the Dogon appeared to know that the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, has a faint companion, Sirius B, which requires a fairly large telescope to be seen. They also claimed that the Dogon appeared to know of the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter.[8] Neither Griaule nor Dieterlen ever presented any verifiable evidence for any of these claims.

The idea was made widespread when author Robert Temple wrote a book suggesting an extra-terrestrial source for the Dogon's knowledge.[9] No additional verifiable evidence was presented. Previously, Griaule and Dieterlen had made no claims on the source of the Dogon's knowledge.

More recently, doubts have been raised about the validity of Griaule and Dieterlein's work.[10][11] The anthropologist Walter van Beek concluded after his research among the Dogon that,

"though they do speak about sigu tolo [which is what Griaule claimed the Dogon called Sirius] they disagree completely with each other as to which star is meant; for some it is an invisible star that should rise to announce the sigu [festival], for another it is Venus that, through a different position, appears as sigu tolo. All agree, however, that they learned about the star from Griaule"[12]

Griaule's daughter, Genevieve Calame-Griaule, has retorted that criticisms of her father's findings are mostly rooted in speculation.[13] An independent assessment is given by Andrew Apter of the University of California.[14]

[edit] Notes and references

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ a b c Christopher Wise, Yambo Ouologuem: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant, Published 1999, Lynne Rienner Publishers
  2. ^ Timothy Insoll, The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa (2003) Cambridge University Press
  3. ^ " listing for the "Cruelest Journey: 600 Miles to Timbuktu"".
  4. ^ Salak, Kira. "Nonfiction book about Mali, "The Cruelest Journey"".
  5. ^ . The diversity is recognized since Bertho (1953). A very detailed recent study can be found in Hochstetler et al. (2004)
  6. ^ Williamson and Blench (2000), p. 18.
  7. ^ Ivan Van Sertima, Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, (1983) ISBN 0-87855-941-8
  8. ^ M Griaule, G Dieterlen, The Dogon of the French Sudan (1948)
  9. ^ Robert Temple, The Sirius Mystery, 1975
  10. ^ Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano. "The Dogon Revisited" (HTML). Retrieved on 2007-10-13.
  11. ^ Philip Coppens. "Dogon Shame" (HTML). Retrieved on 2007-10-13.
  12. ^ Walter E. A. van Beek et al. Current Anthropology, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 139-167. "Dogon Restudied: A Field Evaluation of the Work of Marcel Griaule".
  13. ^ Genevieve Calame-Griaule: "On the Dogon Restudied." Current Anthropology, Vol. 32, No. 5 (Dec., 1991), pp. 575-577
  14. ^ Andrew Apter, Cahiers d’Études africaines, XLV (1), 177, (2005), pp. 95-129. "Griaule’s Legacy: Rethinking “la parole claire” in Dogon Studies".

[edit] References

[edit] The people

  • Marcel Griaule: Conversations With Ogotemmeli: An Introduction To Dogon Religious Ideas. 1st. ed. 1965. ISBN 0-19-519821-2
  • Marcel Griaule: Dieu d'eau. Entretiens avec Ogotemmêli. (1966) Ed Fayard. ISBN 2-213-59847-9 (the original French work of Griaule (that was published in 1948) on his discussions with Ogotemmêli)
  • Bedaux, R. & J.D. van der Waals (eds.) (2003) Dogon: mythe en werkelijkheid in Mali [Dogon: myth and reality in Mali]. Leiden: National Museum of Ethnology.
  • Morton, Robert (ed.) & Hollyman, Stephenie (photographs) & Walter E.A. van Beek (text) (2001) Dogon: Africa's people of the cliffs. New York: Abrams. ISBN 0-8109-4373-5
  • Wanono, Nadine & Renaudeau, Michel (1996) Les Dogon (photographs by Michel Renaudeau; text by Nadine Wanono). Paris: Éditions du Chêne-Hachette. ISBN 2-85108-937-4
  • Eds. Petit Futé. Mali 2005-2006 ISBN 2-7469-1185-X
  • Sékou Ogobara Dolo: La mère des masques. Un Dogon raconte. (2002) Eds. Seuil ISBN 2-02-041133-4
  • Gerard Beaudoin: Les Dogon du Mali (1997) Ed. BDT Développement. ISBN 2-9511030-0-X

[edit] The languages

  • Bertho, J. (1953) 'La place des dialectes dogon de la falaise de Bandiagara parmi les autres groupes linguistiques de la zone soudanaise,' Bulletin de l'IFAN, 15, 405–441.
  • Hantgan, Abbie (2007) Dogon Languages and Linguistics An (sic) Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography
  • Hochstetler, J. Lee, Durieux, J.A. & E.I.K. Durieux-Boon (2004) Sociolinguistic Survey of the Dogon Language Area. SIL International. online version
  • Williamson, Kay & Blench, Roger (2000) 'Niger-Congo', in Heine, Bernd and Nurse, Derek (eds) African Languages - An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University press, pp. 11—42.

[edit] Dogon Art & Funeral Masquerade

  • Laude, Jean. African Art of the Dogon: The Myths of the Cliff Dwellers (New York: The Viking Press 1973).
  • Davis , Shawn R. “Dogon Funerals” in African Art; Summer 2002, Vol. 35 Issue 2

[edit] Further reading

  • [1] Griaule, Marcel and Dieterlen, Germaine (1954) "The Dogon", in African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples, edited by Daryll Forde
  • Salak, Kira (2004) The Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu,

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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