The Dogon are a ethnic people living on the Bandiagara plateau geographically located in the small west African nation of Mali. According to statistics, there are roughly 1.6 million Dogon, many of whom practice traditional animistic religion.
Much of what historians and scholars of religion know about the Dogon, their religious beliefs and rituals is credited to the work of Marcel Griaule (1898-1956), a French anthropologist who engaged in ethnographic research of several African cultures during the first half of the twentieth century. Griaule specialized in studying Dogon culture. Through his access to a blind elder called Ogotemmêli and living with the Dogon for fifteen years (prior to meeting Ogotemmêli), Griaule obtained a wealth of data on their socio-religious beliefs, practices, and rituals. He presented his work in his book Conversations With Ogotemmêli: an Introduction To Dogon Religious Ideas (1948).
Dogon Origin Myth and the Nommo
The Dogon believe that all objects are endowed with spiritual power and that they universe was originally contained in a seed or an egg containing the germ of all things. All that exists first began as a vibration in this egg. Man’s form was prefigured in the egg so that it is echoed in the form of the universe itself.
The Dogon worship the male-female twin ancestral beings called the Nommo. According to Dogon belief, the Nommo were fathered by the god Amma when he created the cosmic egg, and they are typically described as amphibious, fish-like beings. The Nommo are said to have been inside the egg awaiting birth so that they could bring order to the world. The egg was shaken, however, and one of the male twins, Yurugu, broke out of it prematurely and created the Earth from his placenta. The father Amma then sent the three remaining Nommo down to earth where they established the institutions and rituals necessary for the renewal and continuation of life. However, because of what happened to Yurug, the world is imperfect and has been tainted right from the beginning.
Historically, the Dogon people have attempted to escape the encroachment of Islam and Islamic influences. This, along with their desire to settle in an area where there is water, led them to relocate and construct their settlements in defensible positions along the walls of the Bandiagara escarpment. Although the escarpment and Dogon villages were open to tourism in recent history, Mali security forces have advised tourists not to visit the area due to hostilities between ethnic groups. The Dogon regard their villages and settlements as a living person and thus all Dogon settlements are laid out in the shape of a human body with its structures possessing anthropomorphic significance. They believe that this arrangement reflects the creator god Amma while its anthropomorphic designs mirror the creative power of the Nommo; for example, women’s menstrual huts located on the village’s east and west sides are constructed as hands while family homesteads, assembled in the plan of a male body (the kitchen is the head, the two storerooms the arms, central room as the stomach, and the entrance passage as the penis) are the chest.
The Hogon is an elderly male, spiritual leader of the Dogon village who lives alone in a hut constructed, furnished, and decorated to symbolize the universe. The Hogon moves with the rhythms of the world: at dawn he sits facing east towards the rising sun, then walks through the homestead following the order of the four cardinal points, and at dusk sits facing west. His attire also symbolizes the world: in the Hogon’s cylindrical headdress is a woven image symbolizing the seven spiral vibrations that shook the cosmic egg of the world. This all evidences the Hogon’s important socio-religious function, particularly in times of crisis. During moments of crisis the village chiefs will gather around the Hogon’s headdress. The Hogon will speak into it and upturn it on the ground. Upturning the headdress is also symbolic for how the world has been upturned and needs to be restored to harmony by Amma.
The Dogon have several elaborate masks, some which resemble an animal or a human being, worn by dancers at funerals. Funeral rituals are performed to guide the spirit of the deceased person into the afterlife. Every few years the dama is organized. This is a ritual through which all those who have died since the last dama join the realm of the ancestors. The deceased, believed by the Dogon to be in the realm of the ancestors, are worshiped together with the spirits of the ancestors.
Ambalu, S. et al. 2013. The Religions Book. p. 48-49.