Dogon are one of the oldest populations in Black Africa and certainly one of the most mysterious. Dogon have many forms of oral literature. The extended family or “ginna” is composed of all the descendants of the same ancestor in the male line. Each ginna collectively has a set of houses and fields which property is definitive. It is the oldest man who manages the property and who lives in the big house symbol of the lineage. The woman belongs to the ginna of her husband and the child to his father’s ginna. Dogon society is made of many social groups, opposed but complementary: initiated and non-initiated, men and women, same generation groups, farmers and castes. The same generation groups are composed of boys who have circumcised together and who, therefore, are required to help each other throughout their lives. The different Dogon castes are: artisans of iron, wood, leather. Sexual relations with the members of the farmers’ group are forbidden.
Clothing has a great importance for the Dogon. The base of the Dogon’s traditional clothing was (and still is) made of white cotton strips made by the weavers. Their theoretical width is twice 80 threads, or between 15 and 20 cm. While some keep their natural ecru color, others are dyed in brown, red or indigo. Sewing is men business and some are well-known for their skill in this area. According to age, the clothes change: the trousers and tunic become larger. Until the age of 40, men are wearing a short and sleeveless tunic. The long tunic, closed and with sleeves, and the baggy trousers are the privilege of old men. An important accessory of men’s clothing is the hat which is becoming occasional in Dogon country. Two pieces of rectangular fabric are stitched together on three sides. There are eight ways to wear the hat, all of which have a name when the man is getting older. The adornment of the woman remains much more symbolic, and consists mainly of jewels and scarifications. Old women have their stomach covered with engraved patterns: small oblique and parallel lines forming zigzags. While the old women often go bare-headed, the young women wear a piece of cloth arranged in a turban and the men say that you can tell a woman’s mood according to the way she arranges her turban.
The majority of Dogon practice an animist religion including the ancestral spirit Nommo, with its festivals and a mythology in which Sirius plays an important part. A significant minority of Dogon people converted to Islam and some others to Christianity. The Dogon trace their ancestry through a patrilineal system. Each community, or family in the broad sense, is led by a patriarch. The leader is the surviving elder of the ancestor of the local branch of the family. Most men, however, have only one wife, and it is rare for a man to have more than two wives. According to their customs, wives will join the conjugal home only after the birth of their first child. Women can leave their husbands soon after marriage, before the birth of their first child. After childbirth, divorce is rare and taken very seriously, requiring the involvement of the entire village. A family in the broad sense can count to one hundred members. The Dogon firmly seek harmony, which is reflected in many of their customs. For example, in one of their most important rituals, women congratulate men, men thank women, young people express their appreciation for the elderly and the elderly grant the contributions of young people. Another example is the custom of refined greetings whenever a Dogon meets another. This routine is repeated several times throughout the village of Dogon all day long. During these formal greetings, the incoming person answers a series of questions about his entire family. Invariably, the answer is sewa, meaning that things are going well. Then the incoming Dogon repeats the ritual, asking the tenant how his entire family is doing. Because of the repetition of the term sewa in any Dogon village, the neighbouring peoples have named the Dogon the people of sewa. The Hogon is the spiritual leader of the village. He is elected among the oldest men of the families of the village. After his election he must follow six months’ retreat, during which he is not allowed to shave or wash. He wears white clothes and no one is allowed to touch him. His meals, prepared by virgin women, are brought to him in specific bowls, the ogo banya. He gets these specific bowls from his predecessor or during his induction ceremony. After his initiation, he will wear a red cap and an armband with a sacred shell that symbolizes his function. The Hogon must live alone in his house. The Dogon believes that the sacred serpent Lebe comes during the night to purify him and communicate wisdom to him. The Dogon are farmers and grow millet, sorghum and rice, as well as onion, tobacco, peanuts and some other vegetables. Marcel Griaule encouraged the construction of a barrage near Sangha and encouraged the cultivation of onions. The grain is stored in the granaries. The economy of the Sangha region has doubled since then and its onions are sold to the Bamako and even Ivory Coast markets. The Dogon also raise cows, sheep, goats and chickens and rarely hunt.
Beliefs and cults
The Pale Fox
The “Table” serves as an instrument of divination. The person, who has problems, will find the “medium” to predict the future or give him some advice. Away from the village, the medium, following the client’s explanations, traces a large rectangle divided into several squares, each of which receives different signs and little sticks planted in the ground. Then the diviner asks the customer to throw on this “table” a handful of peanuts, and both leave the place until the next morning. During the night a fox (or Jackal) comes to eat the peanuts by trampling the “table”. In the morning, the diviner returns with his client, and interprets the traces left by the fox, and according to these and the spilled sticks predicts the future. Any adult man can be a medium when he learns the art.
The most popular astrologers are the high dignitaries of the Masks Society, the hunters and the healers. The totemic priests, the Hogon, and all those who worship Amma and Nommo, enemies of the jackal, can not approach the tables of divination. Any dogon, man or woman, can ask a medium to question the jackal by offering the peanuts that will attract the animal. Mediums also have tables called instruction tables (made of twelve boxes), that will allow them to communicate directly with the jackal.
The foundation of the main Dogon cults are: binou cult, society of masks that represents the red loincloth of the earth and dead men and animals , cult of Sigi where the statue of the snake represents the first death. This mythology is commemorated by a number of rites.
The cult of Lebe
The Dogon do not possess their own scripture and their symbols are meant to express the Genesis. Their transcription and transmission is exercised by high dignitaries as well as with totemic priests: the more a man knows about symbols, the closer he gets to the great knowledge. Dogon rituals focus on the concept of transmitting the vital force necessary for the balance of society, the Hogon being the guardian of the greatest strength. The main worship is Lebe (God Snake) cult, whose Hogon is the representative, which is a ceremony to the glory of the Nommo. The shrine for this celebration is located at the Hogon place. Other shrines, dedicated to the Nommo, can be installed in the village, in a ginna, or at the entrance of the village.
The cult of the Binou
The devotion of Binou takes place in a sanctuary which aspect varies according to the villages; it can be a true rectangular construction with curved corners and two round towers slightly higher than the building. The door of the sanctuary is often lower than a man standing and blocked by large stones. On the roof, above the door, there are two holes where the porridges of cereals and the blood of the sacrificed animals are poured; between the two, a wood beam supports the “cloud hook”. The totemic priest keeps his utensils inside the building where he alone can penetrate, because no one must see the secret signs that are traced there. The facade is covered with black, white and red signs. The private shrines are inside the houses. Shrines are built with a upstretched stone covered with mud taken from a pond in memory of Nommo; this mud is mixed with seeds or mud from an earliest shrine. Each individual has two shrines, a “head shrine” and a “body shrine”. The Dogon make sacrifices on these shrines in order to increase their vital force; at their death, their personal shrines are destroyed.
Society and religious rites
Masks are a real institution. Whoever has a mask should not let his family know. If he dances with his mask, he must not be recognized. Masks are mainly used during funeral ceremonies. In some villages, there are still more than a hundred masks belonging to men who compose the Society of Masks. We must differentiate the proper mask that covers the head of the dancer and the costume. Some masks, such as the farmer, the Fulani warrior, the marabout or the hunter, do not wear a skirt but a cloth costume. On the face, we put a proper mask made of braided fibers, or a rounded carved piece of wood. Hoods are generally used to represent birds or mythical creatures and sometimes human beings. In contrast, wooden masks are used to represent animals. There are two types: the masks which represent the animal (this is the case of the black monkey, the antelope, the hare, etc.) and the masks depicting a human face topped by the symbol of the represented animal (white monkey, kanaga, etc.). Carving a mask requires multiple precautions; the dancer must make sacrifices to protect himself from the nyama (vital energy) of the trees and pay a tribute of one cowries to the owner of these trees. He cuts the wood with an adze. The carving is made on the entire mask and one part will never be finished before another.
Dogon music is closely associated with different rites: weddings, funerals, etc.
Highly codified, the Dogon dances express the formation of the world, the organization of the solar system, the worship of divinities or the mysteries of death. The most spectacular dance is the “turtle doves” dance where the dancers are on stilts