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Traditional beliefs of the Dogon

The Dogon are well known for their traditional beliefs, which today are best preserved in the inaccessible escarpment, where Islam has spread more slowly than on the plateau. Since the 1930s these beliefs have been studied, most prominently by Marcel Griaule and his collaborators and disciples who primarily worked in the village group of Sanga (Griaule 1938 and 1948; Griaule & Dieterlen 1965).

Three main divine beings exist in Dogon religion: Ama, the sky god, Nomo, the water god and Lewe (or Lebe) the earth god. Ama, the main god, is the creator of humans and all other life on earth. Since he actively interferes in human lives and can act negatively as well as positively, most sacrifices the Dogon perform are directed towards him. Nomo is most feared among the gods, which seems strange as the Dogon live in a region with restricted access to water. The main village altar is dedicated to Lewe, who appears in the shape of a snake (van Beek, 1988). Leweís main priest is the Hogon, the oldest man of the village (Dieterlen 1982). The Dogon narrate that the Hogon, living in an isolated house outside or on the edge of the village, is visited by Lewe during the night and licked clean. A range of spirits is associated with Lewe, such as the at¸w¸n¸ (andoumboulou), small black creatures of the scree that are said to be the first inhabitants of the region, the yËn˸, spirits of the trees and the yËb‰ (Yeban), spirits of the bush (van Beek 1988; Dieterlen 1941).

The Dama is a major ceremony of the Dogon rituals concerning death (van Beek 1991). The first funeral, when the body is actually buried, is accompanied by singing, dancing, as well as mask performances and takes place a few days after a person has died. The Dama, the second funeral, is a final farewell. It is often celebrated for several dead at one time, since it requires substantial financial resources to cater for the many participants. Frequently, several years, even decades can elapse between two Damas, which are usually held after a good harvest. The mask dances performed by the Awa, the mask association, form an important part of the Dama. About 78 different types of masks have been reported, which can be subdivided into six major categories: birds, mammals, reptiles, Dogon and non-Dogon characters, and objects (Griaule 1938; Imperato 1978). The best known and most popular mask is the Kanaga. The development of the Dama ritual mirrors changes in Dogon society (Van Beek 1991). Today the ceremony takes place later in the year just before the start of the rainy season, due to recently introduced intensive gardening during the dry season and absences of participants of the Dama because of migrant work. The mask performances are also subjected to change: some masks are abandoned and new ones are introduced under the influence of a changing world view. The impact of tourism on the mask dances is considerable, with special public mask dances staged at touristsí demand, and masks being fabricated for sale (Richards 2000).

Mask dances form part of another important Dogon ritual, the Sigui, which is performed in a 60 year cycle. The Sigui marks the replacement of one generation by another (Dieterlen & Rouch 1971; Griaule 1938: 165-278). The last Sigui was celebrated between 1967 and 1974. The ceremony commences in the village of Yougo-Dogorou and subsequently moves in westerly direction to other villages (Palau Marti 1957: 72). During the Dama and the Sigui the dancers are addressed in the secret language of the masks, Sigui-so (Leiris 1948). Although similar masks are fabricated for and used in both ceremonies, a specific mask is made only at the occasion of the Sigui: the Grand Mask. This mother of the masks can be up to 12m high and is kept in a specific cave close to the village (Griaule 1938; Imperato 1978).

Dogon culture is accumulative, new elements are easily incorporated and combined with existing customs. This is true also for religious ideas: variations in religious concepts between villages frequently result from the selective incorporation of outside ideas, often from Islamic and Christian sources. In some villages these external influences have replaced traditional religious beliefs completely or partially, in other villages they are incorporated only in certain rituals.

Literature

Beek, W.E.A. van
1988 Functions of sculpture in Dogon religion. African Arts 21, 4: 58-66.
1991 Dogon restudied. A field evaluation of the work of Marcel Griaule. Current Anthropology 32, 2: 139-168.
Dieterlen, G.
1941 Les ‚mes des Dogons. Paris.
1955 Mythe et organisation sociale au Soudan franÁais. Journal de la Societe des Africanistes 25: 39-76.
Dieterlen, G. & J. Rouch
1971 La cÈrÈmonie soixantenaire du Sigui chez les Dogon. Africa 41: 1-12.
Griaule, M.
1938 Masques dogons. Paris.
1948 Dieu d'eau. Entretiens avec OgotemmÍli. Paris.
Griaule, M. & G. Dieterlen
1965 Le renard p‚le. Paris.
Imperato, P.J.
1978 Dogon cliff dwellers. The art of Mali's mountain people. New York.
Leiris, M.
1948 La langue secrËte des Dogons de Sanga (Soudan franÁais). Paris.
Palau Marti, M.
1957 Les Dogon. Paris.
Richards, P.
2000 'Imina Sangan' or 'Masques ‡ la mode': contemporary masquerade in the Dogon region. In: Arnaut, K. (ed.), Re-visions, new perspectives on the African collections of the Horniman Museum. London: 107-123.

Author(s): Text: Brigit Dietz, extract from C. Kleinitz and B. Dietz (2003), Signs of the times, times of the signs: Rock art and circumcision at Songo. Leiden: Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (digital publication at www.rmv.nl)
Date created: 2003-10-18 - Date modified: 2004-03-02


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bob boy, 31/05/2006
Great site for getting facts. Needed a resource for a school projeect on Dogon's culture and got it from here. thx
Tigerkat, 08/10/2006
I'm doing a project on the Dogon too... were you about to find the literacy or life expectancy rates on the Dogon?

Mari Womack, 16/01/2007
I am a cultural anthropologist who has written two books on symbols. Dogon fear Nomo, the water god, because they so greatly depend on water. Nomo controls water, so he can withhold it, provide an adequate supply, or cause floods that destroy their crops. Ama, the sky god, and Lewe, the earth god, are more reliable.

Alex, 25/05/2007
Thank You

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OVGuillermo, 24/08/2007
Thank you for your site. I have found here much useful information.
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