Dogon - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Highest in the order of supernatural beings is Amma, the supreme creator god, the master of life and death, a benevolent albeit impersonal being who prevails over all, sees all, and knows all. He is responsible for the creation of three other subordinate beings, the worship of which is the basis of several totemic cults. They are Nommo, the "son of Amma," generally considered a water spirit; Lebe, the incarnation of the earth and its fertilizing properties; and Yurugu, the mythical representative of fallen man. The Dogon also believe in various malevolent and benevolent spirits who populate the bush, trees, and uninhabited places.

Although the Dogon recognize the creator god Amma as the Supreme Being and address prayers and sacrifices to him, the core set of beliefs and practices focuses on ancestor worship. This is manifested through the cult of the masks, the Lebe cult, the Binu cult, and the more general cult of the ancestors associated with the ginna. The spread of Islam throughout Africa has brought about some degree of change in the basic religious orientation of the Dogon. Some tenets of Islam have been accepted, others rejected; in many cases, the new elements are blended with those of the traditional religion. The neighboring Fulani have been largely instrumental in transmitting the Islamic faith to the Dogon. About 10 percent of the Dogon are Christians.

Religious Practitioners. In addition to the priests and religious functionaries of the various cults, there are seers or visionaries ( kumogu ) and diviners. Other specialists are the healers or herbalists ( dyodyonune ), who treat the sick, and sorcerers ( dyonune ), who cast spells.

Ceremonies. The principal ceremonies center around agriculture and death. The great annual Feast of Sowing ( bulu ) begins in April or May, prior to the beginning of the rainy season, in all the villages of the region. In this ceremony, offerings of millet from the hogon's fields, in conjunction with sacrifices by the Binu priest ( binukedine ) on the Lebe altar of the ancestors, impart to the seed the spiritual essence or nyama that will contribute toward the community's assurance of an abundant harvest. The funerary ceremonies of the Dogon consist of two parts: the initial rites, which take place immediately following death and continue for about a week, and the more elaborate dama rites that terminate the mourning period after an indeterminate period of time. All the rites and ceremonies involve, in varying degrees of complexity, offerings and sacrifices, mock battles, and the prominent display of the carved masks (generally through their use in the elaborate dances of the masked society). The degree of complexity of the ceremonies depends upon the age and status of the deceased male. Funerals for women, who are generally excluded from awa membership, are simple, with little if any ceremony. Once in every sixty years—roughly within a Dogon's life span—a major Sigi (Siguí) ceremony takes place. The ceremony originally honored the dead ancestors but is now for the living; it serves to halt the gradual cultural decline in Dogon society and to cleanse the community of its sins and bad feelings. The series of dances, which constitute a good part of the Sigi, lasts for seven years; one village after another takes its turn to entertain its neighbors with feasting, drinking, and displays of wealth. At this time, new masks are carved and dedicated to the ancestors.

Medicine. The Dogon attribute illness to a variety of causes, such as the weakening of the vital life force (nyama), the creation of a state of impurity in the individual through the influences of evil spirits, violation of a taboo or prohibition, and sorcery. There are twelve categories of disease considered treatable, each with its own specific healer who has special knowledge of the specific plant that will bring about a cure. Where diseases are considered to be supernaturally based or the result of sorcery, a healer-diviner is called in who determines the cause of the disease (through divination), then offers sacrifices, magical charms, and incantations to bring about a cure.

Death and Afterlife. Death is conceived as the separation from the body of the two parts that make up the personality—the nyama, or vital life force, and the kikinu say, or soul. Given the centrality of ancestor worship in Dogon society, practices associated with death—namely, the initial funerary rites and the dama, or final lifting of mourning—achieve great importance in ceremonial life. Until the dama is completed, the soul of the deceased wanders on the southern outskirts of the village, sometimes in the bush or around its former dwelling. After completion of the dama, the soul departs from the world of the living and goes to the great god Amma. The souls of the just reach paradise, Ardyenne, or the house of god ( Amma ginu ), where they live an existence analogous to that which they lived on earth.

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