Dogon mythology, revealed to ethnologist Marcel Griaule in 1946 by the old initiated hunter Ogotemmêli, has been reconstructed in his book Water God. A complex mythological universe, handed down orally from generation to generation of initiates.

It is impossible to talk about the Dogon of Mali without mentioning the work of ethnologists Marcel Griaule (1898-1956), Michel Leiris (1901-1990), Germaine Dieterlen (1903-1999), Geneviève Calame-Griaule (1924-2013) and filmmaker Jean Rouch (1917-2004). Their contribution is essential to our understanding of the cosmogony and myths of one of Africa?s most fascinating ethnic groups.

Mali. Dogon Country. The masks are brought out for a funeral in Ogol du Bas. The masks from the sirige multi-storey house represent the great snake that growls in the secret language (sigi so) asking for protection from supernatural beings. They are accompanied by kanaga masks depicting the kommolo tebu bird, the link between heaven and earth © F Guenet.

Dogon Country covers a vast territory to the south-west of the Niger loop and is divided into three geographically contrasting parts: a sandstone plateau with a chaotic relief, a long sandy plain and the immense Bandiagara cliff, 250 km long and varying in height from 300 to 600 m, where small villages nestle in the scree at its foot; the other villages are located on the plateau above the cliff and on the plain. A heterogeneous territory where around twenty languages are spoken, " lexical differences sometimes require the use of a lingua franca such as Peuhl "says anthropologist Anne Doquet (1). But the Dogon Country itself is generally considered to consist of the cliffs and scree. It is only here that the masked dances associated with funeral rituals are performed.

Mali. House of the Great Hogon in the village of Arou. The sanctuary house was decorated with fresh paintings for the dama, the mourning of Ogosoulou Dolo. © F Guenet.

Originally from the province of Mandé in the former empire of Mali, the Dogon left these lands in the 14th century to escape, depending on the interpretation, the Islamisation of their territory or the forced enlistment of young men in the wars of the Mali empire. After a stopover in Ségou, then Djenné, they arrived in successive waves at the Bandiagara cliff, driving out or assimilating, depending on the source, the people who had settled there: the Tellem.

Mali. Dogon country. Society of masks. Kanaga mask dance featuring the kommolo tebu bird, the link between heaven and earth © F Guenet.

Dogon mythology, revealed to Marcel Griaule in 1946 by the old initiated hunter Ogotemmêli, has been restored in Water God (2). It was after a long association with the ethnologist that Ogotommêli decided, in the evening of his life, to pass on the sacred word to Griaule. For 33 days, Ogotommêli told Griaule about the genesis of the universe, the birth of the world, and the foundation and organisation of society. According to the ethnologist, these myths were " and gave the key to institutions and customs ".

Mali. Dogon Country. Bandiagara cliff. Funeral: Dama or mourning ceremony. Armed with rifles and spears, the men dance and simulate a fight in the alleys and square of the village of Ogol-Ley to frighten away the soul of the deceased. F Guenet.

Often perceived as a cultural continuum, Dogon mythic thought nevertheless presents certain variations and contradictions depending on the place, the 'informants' and the researchers. Nevertheless, the accounts gathered in the field confirm the richness and complexity of their mythological universe, transmitted orally from generation to generation of initiates.

Amma, unique and eternal Creator God

Mali. Dogon Country. Bandiagara cliff. A hunter from the ancient Tellem village of Koundou Ando sacrifices poultry blood to guardian fetish statuettes and the gods AMMA, BINU and LEBE © F Guenet.

It is an organised cosmogony in which the spoken word plays a fundamental role. As in many mythologies, speech is of divine origin. Amma, the unique and eternal god, created the world through his word. "reveals Geneviève Calame-Griaule in a filmed interview from 2018 entitled The oiled word (3).
So, according to Dogon cosmology (summarised), in the beginning there was nothing. Amma created the world with her words and her saliva. The universe is made up of 14 solar systems with flat, circular, disc-shaped planets arranged in a stack. The Earth is the highest of the seven lower discs. It is hemmed in by a snake that bites its own tail, preventing the Earth from being flooded by the waters of the oceans that surround it on all sides. Above it are seven other spheres, each with a sun and moon. All the discs revolve around a cosmic axis that corresponds architecturally to the central post of the house that supports the roof.
Geneviève Calme-Griaule reports that Amma created a double placenta, the primordial mother, which was fertilised by her words and into which he placed two pairs of twins, androgynous or mixed, depending on the story. " This indicates that the male and female elements were present in each of these two halves of the placenta, also known as the ?egg of the world? "(symbolised by the drum during ritual celebrations; when played, the sound and vibration of the skin evoke Amma's creative word). According to the Griaule school, one of these two beings, responsible for speech, life, water and fertility, is Nommo. His twin brother, who emerged prematurely from the primordial darkness against Amma?s will, is Ogo, the Pale fox. He committed an incestuous act with his mother the earth because he was looking for her complement, his twin. What's more, Ogo had stolen seeds from Amma to sow, but Amma dried up his field and only fonio grew, turning red and impure like menstrual blood. Ogo had just invented agriculture and ? introduced disorder into the world. It was he who invented funeral rites, wearing a blood-red fibre skirt and leading the procession of masks at ritual funerals, holding the thief's stick in one hand.

Sirius the precious star

Following these events, Amma decided to reorganise the universe. He sacrificed Nommo, the Fox's twin brother, before resurrecting him by reuniting his scattered pieces. His blood flooded the empty space and the first star began to shine. This was Sirius, the precious star of the Dogon, named Sigi Tolo. Nommo then descended from heaven in an ark held together by a chain (symbolising the umbilical cord). This ark housed the eight ancestors of humanity in the form of four pairs of mixed twins, as well as plants and animals. They descended into the cold and darkness, guided by Sirius. Then the sun rose and the Fox fled, wandering alone in the bush. Night is now his refuge. The first rain began to fall (symbolising the fountains) and the ancestors were able to cultivate the land. Nommo taught the men to speak and the principal techniques of weaving and cultivating the land. These men and women, civilised by Nommo, begat all human descendants. They had four sons: Amma Serou, Binou Sérou, Lèbé Serou and Dyogou Serou. They founded the four original lineages: the Dyon, Ono, Arou and Dommo clans. But in those ancient times, men did not know death. " When they reached an advanced age, they were transformed into snakes, and then definitively into genies. Dyongou Serou then made a mistake that would upset the established order. Having just transformed into a snake, he came across some young people who were behaving disrespectfully towards the Earth. Seeing this, the old man let his anger explode and, forgetting that he was a snake, spoke to the young people in the language of men. As it was forbidden to speak the language of one world in another, Dyongou Serou found himself trapped between the two worlds and entered a new state that he created: death. " (4)
Every 60 years since then, the Dogon have commemorated their arrival on earth and the first sunrise at the Sigi festival, celebrating the revelation of the word and the death and funeral of Dyongou Serou, the first man to die.

The myth of Arou

Mali. Dogon country. On the desert plateau of Sangha, the divination of the Pale Fox is based on a series of questions drawn in the sand where peanuts are placed for small foxes to eat after dark. The next day, the diviners interpret the traces left by the Pale Fox. The next day, the diviners interpret the traces left by the Pale Fox © F Guenet.

This foundation myth is built around the arrival of the Dogon on the Bandiagara cliffs. It has many variants and revolves around Amma?s appointment of the youngest member of the Arou tribe, Aduon, as the presumed leader of the four founding tribes. Often cited as the first Hogon of the Arou, Aduon demonstrated his superiority over his elder brothers by possessing magical powers. Tradition has it that he resurrected in the form of a snake and guided the four tribes to the cliffs of Bandiagara, where they are settled today.

Mali. Bandiagara cliff. Initiation cave under the canopy of Komo Séssé near Arou, where the Grand Hogon must withdraw alone for a fortnight for his office to become effective. F Guenet.

The Grand Hogon of the village of Arou is the supreme spiritual leader of the 52 villages on the Bandiagara cliff and the highest spiritual authority among the Dogon. He is the representative of the Lébé cult, which is dedicated to Lébé Seru, the first Dogon ancestor buried in the land of the Mandé. When the Grand Hogon dies, a successor has to be found, which can take years. After much discussion and consultation with diviners who rely on cowries (shells) and the divination of the Pale foxTo this are added sacrifices and ceremonies to find out the name and date of enthronement of the new man, and the choice is made in a suspenseful African style. The ritual is spread out over several weeks. During these celebrations, attended by all the male representatives of the Arou clan and a large number of Dogon villagers from all the other tribes, a descendant of the Arou is appointed Grand Hogon by surprise. The chosen one was presented with a fait accompli and could not refuse. He became responsible for prosperity and maintaining order on earth. And so it was that Ogobara Din, a simple peasant, became "Ogodagalou" in 1992, succeeding his predecessor who had died in 1984. After a 15-day period of isolation in a cave, where he was visited and "fed" by the Lebe snake, his death as a common mortal, head of a family married to two wives, was symbolically celebrated in public. He will return to the village on the back of a man to his new and final place of residence, which he will not be allowed to leave until his death.

And what about today?

Mali. A mosque has been built among the granaries of traditional Dogon houses in the Songo plain, west of the plateau above the Bandiagara cliff. F Guenet.

It might be tempting to keep the Dogon as they are, with their myths, their culture, their animist rites and the festivals so popular with tourists. But it is unthinkable and undesirable to turn Dogon country into a reserve. Although their cosmogony has enabled them to resist the onslaught of Islam for the past 500 years, this proselytising religion is on its way to attack the cliffs. More and more Dogon, especially the young, are converting under the influence of the Peuhl, who have historically been hostile. But it seems that the adults are resisting, and that these astonishing people are still very attached to their traditions.

1 - Dogon masks, scholarly ethnology and indigenous ethnology. Anne Doquet. Editions Karthalla. 1999.

2 - Dieu d?eau, Entretiens avec Ogotemmêli, éditions Fayard, 1966.

3 -

4 - Narrative written by Gwénaëlle Dubreuil based on works by Griaule, Geneviève Calme Griaule and Abinou Témé in Les Mondes Dogon, exhibition catalogue, published by Hoëbeke, 2002.

Les Dogon du Mali, Gérard Beaudoin, published by Armand Colin, 1984.

Text Brigitte Postel

Photos François Guenet

This report appeared in the magazine Natives, Des Peuples, Des Racines n°5