The Dogon are an ethnic group living in the central plateau region of the country of Mali, in Western Africa, south of the Niger bend, near the city of Bandiagara, in the Mopti region. The population numbers between 400,000 and 800,000. The Dogon are best known for their religious traditions, 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.
The principal Dogon area is bisected by the Bandiagara Escarpment, a sandstone cliff of up to 500m (1,640 ft) high, stretching about 150
km (90 miles). To the southeast of the cliff, the sandy Séno-Gondo Plains are found, and northwest of the cliff are the Bandiagara Highlands. Historically, Dogon villages were established in the
Bandiagara area in consequence of the Dogon people's collective refusal to convert to Islam a thousand years ago. 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.
Among the Dogon several oral traditions have been recorded as to their origin. One relates to their coming from Mande, located to the southwest of the Bandiagara escarpment near Bamako. According to this oral tradition, the first Dogon settlement was established in the extreme southwest of the escarpment at Kani-Na. Over time the Dogon moved north along the escarpment, arriving in the Sanga region in the 15th century. Other oral histories place the origin of the Dogon to the west beyond the river Niger, or tell of the Dogon coming from the east. It is likely that the Dogon of today combine several groups of diverse origin who migrated to escape Islamization.
It is often difficult to distinguish between pre-Muslim practices and later practices, though Islamic law classified them and many other ethnicities of the region, (Mossi, Gurma, Bobo, Busa and the Yoruba) as being within the non-canon dar al-harb and consequently fair game for slave raids organized by merchants. As the growth of cities increased the demand for slaves across the region of West Africa also increased. The historical pattern has included the murder of indigenous males by Islamic raiders and enslavement of women and children.
Dogon art is primarily sculpture. Dogon art revolves around religious values, ideals, and freedoms. 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. 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, dogs, quadruped-shaped troughs or benches, figures bending from the waist, mirror-images, aproned figures, and standing figures. 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 design.
The blind Dogon elder Ogotemmêli taught the main symbols of the Dogon religion to the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule in October
1946. Griaule had lived amongst the Dogon people for fifteen years before this meeting with Ogotemmêli had taken place. Ogotemmêli taught Griaule the religious stories in the same way that Ogotemmêli
had learned them from his father and grandfather; instruction which he had learned over the course of more than twenty years. What makes the record so important from a historical perspective is that
the Dogon people were still living in their oral culture at the time their religion was recorded. They were one of the last people in Africa to lose their independence and come under French
The Dogon people with whom the French anthropologists Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen worked with during the 1930s and 40s had a system of signs which ran into the thousands, including "their own systems of astronomy and calendrical measurements, methods of calculation and extensive anatomical and physiological knowledge, as well as a systematic pharmacopoeia." The religion embraced many aspects of nature, which some researchers associate with an African Traditional Religion.
The key spiritual figures in the religion were the Nummo/Nommo twins. According to Ogotemmêli’s description of them, the Nummo, whom he also referred to as the Serpent, were amphibians that were often compared to serpents, lizards, chameleons, and occasionally even sloths (because of their being slow moving and having a shapeless neck). They were also described as fish capable of walking on land; while they were on land, the Nummo stood upright on their tails. The Nummos’ skin was primarily green, but, like the chameleon, it sometimes changed colours. It was said to at times have all the colours of the rainbow. In other instances the Nummo were referred to as "Water Spirits." Although the Nummo were identified as being "Dieu d'eau" (Gods of Water) by Marcel Griaule, Ogotemmêli identified the Nummo as hermaphrodites and they appeared on the female side of the Dogon sanctuary." They were primarily symbolized by the sun, which was a female symbol in the religion. In the Dogon language the sun’s name, nay, had the same root as "mother," na, and “cow,” nā. They were symbolized by the colour red, a female symbol.
It was the problem of “twin births” versus “single births,” or androgyny versus single-sexed beings, that contributed to a disorder at the beginning of time. This theme became a significant basis of the Dogon religion. “The jackal was alone from birth,” said Ogotemmêli, “and because of this he did more things than can be told.” Dogon males were primarily associated with the single sexed male Jackal and the Sigui festival, which was associated with death on the Earth. It was held once every sixty years and celebrated the white dwarf star Sirius B. The colour white was a symbol of males. The ritual language, "Sigi so," or "language of the Sigui," which was taught to male dignitaries of the Society of the Masks, "awa," was considered a poor language and only contained about a quarter of the vocabulary of "Dogo so," Dogon word language. The "Sigi so" told the story of creation of the universe, of human life, and the advent of death on the Earth, during funeral ceremonies and the rites of the "end of mourning" "dama.".
It was because of the birth of the single sexed male Jackal, who was born evil, that all humans eventually had be turned into single sexed beings. This was to prevent a being like the Jackal from ever being born on Earth again. "The Nummo foresaw that the original rule of twin births was bound to disappear, and that errors might result comparable to those of the jackal, whose birth was single. For it was because of his solitary state that the first son of God acted as he did." The removal of the second sex and soul from humans is what the ritual of circumcision represents in the Dogon religion. "The dual soul is a danger; a man should be male, and a woman female. Circumcision and excision are once again the remedy."
The Dogon religion was centered on this loss of twinness or androgyny. Griaule describes it in this passage:
"Most of the conversations with Ogotemmêli had indeed turned largely on twins and on the need for duality and the doubling of individual lives. The Eight original Ancestors were really eight pairs… But after this generation, human beings were usually born single. Dogon religion and Dogon philosophy both expressed a haunting sense of the original loss of twin-ness. The heavenly Powers themselves were dual, and in their Earthly manifestations they constantly intervened in pairs…"
The birth of human twins was celebrated in the Dogon culture in Griaule's day because it recalled the "fabulous past, when all beings came into existence in twos, symbols of the balance between humans and the divine." According to Griaule, the celebration of twin-births was a cult that extended all over Africa.
Today a significant minority of the Dogon practice Islam. Another minority practice Christianity. Today 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 polygynous marriages with up to four wives 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 household 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, which 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. 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 the word sewa is so commonly repeated throughout a Dogon village, neighboring peoples have dubbed the Dogon the sewa
The Hogon is the spiritual leader of the village. He is elected from among 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 clothes 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 at night.
After his initiation, he wears a red fez. 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. The Dogon believe the sacred snake Lébé comes during the night to clean him and to transfer
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 its onions are sold as far as the market of Bamako and even Ivory Coast. They also raise sheep, goats and chickens. Grain is stored in granaries.
In Dogon thought, male and females are thought to be born with both sexual components. The clitoris is considered male, while the foreskin
is considered to be female. Rites of circumcision thus allow each sex to assume its proper physical identity. 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 circumcised men must walk around naked for a month 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 that practices female genital mutilation. The majority of the Dogon women practice a class 2 circumcision, meaning that both the clitoris and the labia minora are removed. Girls are circumcised 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'.
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. 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 which they wore by securing them in their teeth, 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
Dogon society is composed of several different sects:
• The Amma sect: worships the highest creator god Amma. The celebration is once a year and consists of offering boiled millet on the conical altar of Amma, colouring it white. All other sects are directed to the god Amma.
• Sigui: the most important ceremony of the Dogon. It takes place every 60 years and can take several years. The last one started in 1967 and ended in 1973, the next one will start in 2027. The Sigui ceremony symbolises the death of the first ancestor (not to be confused with Lébé) until 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, Sigui So, 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 Olubaru. The villagers are afraid of them and fear is cultivated by a prohibition to go out at night, when sounds warn that the Olubaru 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 60 years.
• The Lébé sect: worships the ancestor Lébé Serou, the first mortal human being, who, in Dogon myth, was transformed into a snake. The celebration takes place once a year and lasts for 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 sect: 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 sect: the birth of twins is a sign of good luck. The enlarged Dogon families have common rituals during which they evoke all their ancestors till their origin, the ancient pair of twins from the creation of the world belief.
• The Mono sect: the Mono altar is at the entry of every village. Unmarried young men celebrate the Mono sect 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.
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.
• 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 number of female granaries is an indication for the number of women living in the guinna.
• Tógu nà (a kind of case à palabres): a building only for men. They rest here much of the day throughout the heat of the dry season, discuss affairs 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 with avoiding violence when discussions get heated.
• House for menstruating women: 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. This hut is also thought to have some sort of reproductive symbology due to the fact that the hut can be easily seen by the men who are working the fields who know that only women who are on their period, and thus not pregnant, can be there.
Dogon has been frequently referred to as a single language. In reality, there are at least five distinct groups of dialects. The most
ancient dialects being dyamsay and tombo, the former being most frequently used for traditional prayers and ritual chants. The Dogon language family is internally highly diverse, and many varieties
are not mutually intelligible, actually amounting to some 12 dialects and 50 sub-dialects. There is also a secret ritual language sigi sǫ (language of Sigi), which is taught to dignitaries (olubarū)
of the Society of the Masks during their enthronement at the Sigui ceremony. Women have no right to learn Sigui So.
It is generally accepted that the Dogon languages belong to the Niger–Congo language family, though the evidence is weak. They have been linked to the Mande subfamily but also to Gur. In a recent overview of the Niger–Congo family, Dogon is treated as an independent branch.
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.
About 1,500 ethnic Dogon in seven villages in southern Mali speak the Bangime language, which is unrelated to the other Dogon languages and presumed to be an ancient, pre-Dogon language isolate.