Religious Beliefs. The religion of the LoDagaa cluster centers on the Earth and the ancestors. The worship of the Earth (which is conducted by the Master of the Earth on behalf of the parish) relates to the fertility of the soil and, indeed, to all of its uses; it would be offended by having anyone who suffered a bad death interred within it or by having the blood of any member of its congregation shed upon it. The Earth looks after the community, but the ancestors supervise the lineage and are concerned with matters relating to the household and kin, that is to say, with a very wide range of human activity. Whereas the Earth is propitiated at a stone in a sacred grove, the ancestors are worshiped at anthropomorphically carved wooden shrines—one for each male who leaves behind sons; these are kept in a corner of the byre where the cattle are stalled.
There are a multitude of other supernatural agencies, the most important of which is the rain shrine, which draws its strength from the power of thunder and lightning. Most of the "medicine shrines" circulate throughout the region, and a selection will have been acquired by any of the more established houses—and even by distant clients. In the long run, their popularity waxes and wanes.
As intermediaries between humans and these deities, there is a body of beings of the wild—hill and water spirits—whose home is the bush (as that of humans is the cultivated lands) and whose flocks are the wild animals. In their rooms, most senior men and women have shrines to these spirits, by whom they have been "caught." They are associated with divination because they can reveal the truth through dreams and in other ways. They are also the ones who have, with the blessing of the High God, introduced humans to the main aspects of culture: the growth of crops, the making of food, the smelting of iron, hunting, and so forth.
The High God is characteristically "otiose" and has no altar, no means of communication. Muslims and Christians in the area are characterized as "praying to God"; for others, such a God is too far removed from human ways. Nevertheless, the myth of the Bagre society emphasizes the High God's role as Creator, and members of various syncretic cults, together with those who were converted en masse to Christianity, emphasize that potentially this God could play a greater part than was traditionally assumed.
Since the 1930s, mass conversions to Catholicism have taken place, beginning among the LoPiel population around Dissin. Since then, the religion has spread widely; churches and hospitals have been constructed and priests trained. Until the late twentieth century, Protestant sects had made little headway in the area, but conversions have recently been made among the Lobi. Islam was formerly confined to small trading settlements and to the major towns, such as Wa and Buna; it has made a few converts in the villages but remains largely identified with the states of the region.
Religious Practitioners. Practically every adult is an officiant at some shrine or another, but the main figure is the Master of the Earth. Some individuals develop special reputations as diviners. All are involved in sacrifices to the ancestors, to the beings of the wild, and to medicine shrines.
Ceremonies. Annual ceremonies are performed at household shrines, especially at the end of the farming season. It is toward this time that, among the central groups, neighbors dance in the marketplace to celebrate the flowering of the guinea corn. Not long afterward, lineages perform special sacrifices to clan deities, a time when they also poison their arrows. Traditionally, success in the hunt also elicited special ritual performances, as did killing someone in war, whether friend or enemy.
Birth and marriage were accompanied by little ceremonial. Death and burial, on the other hand, were occasions; the funeral ceremonies, which resulted in redistribution of the property of the dead (including sexual rights) and the creation of an ancestor shrine (if there were offspring), lasted for many months and brought mourners from far and wide.
The major ceremonial sequences, however, were those associated with secret societies: the Bagre in the east and the Dyoro in the west. The Bagre is performed by lineages when they have sufficient neophytes (and enough grain) to carry out a performance, with the participation of their neighbors as officiants. During the course of the long sequence of rites, the neophytes are placed under a series of taboos, from which they are gradually released. The rites are accompanied by an extensive recitation concerning the creation of culture. The Dyoro ceremony involves a visit by patrilineages to special centers, where the ancestors lived before reaching the banks of the Black Volta and where the principal rites of initiation take place. Indeed, the ritual reenacts the long-ago migration of the patrician and so preserves a little of its history. In the ceremony, which takes place every seven years, the initiates are killed off and revived.
Arts. Labouret noted the general features of the culture of this area (except for that of the Muslims). Clothing was absent except for the penis sheath for men and leaves for women (although this has largely changed). Women wore lip plugs and practiced excision, but there was no male circumcision. Separate flat-roofed compounds were constructed of clay and served as small fortresses. The spectrum of peoples in the area have similar techniques of metalworking and pottery making (including the lost-wax process); use bows, quivers, and arrows poisoned with Strophantus hispida; make three-footed stools, sometimes carved; and maintain secret societies and the use of the bullroarer.
Different types of xylophone serve as ethnic identifiers, but the social systems have many common elements. Most significant are the similarities and variants in social organization, in political systems, in religion, and in kinship.
The LoDagaa have expert xylophone players who perform at funerals, at the Bagre, and for dances of various kinds. They produce some carving: ancestor shrines, beings of the wild, deities, stools, and walking sticks. The Lobi formerly made masks based on Baule designs, at the instigation of Commandant Labouret. The LoDagga make many large clay sculptures of beings of the wild and of minor deities. There is virtually no painting, except for the application of white clay on the human body during funeral and Bagre ceremonies. Some practitioners carve figurative and decorative patterns on gourds.
Medicine. There are no specialist herbalists among the LoDagaa, although some men and women are recognized as knowing more than others. Some curative medicines ("medicines" are used for different purposes) are associated with shrines, others are "invented" by individuals going to the woods, and still others have been of long-standing use and are known to most households. Women's knowledge centers mainly around medicines relating to childbirth and female complaints.
The medical system is open-ended, and there has been no problem in assimilating European cures, especially pills and injections. Today there is a wide network of government and missionary hospitals and clinics. Many tropical diseases have been more or less brought under control (for example, cerebrospinal meningitis, leprosy, and sleeping sickness), but malaria has made an unwelcome comeback.
Death and Afterlife. Death, particularly of infants, was frequent. Those who have not yet been weaned are not mourned in the usual way, except by their mothers, because they are deemed to be wandering spirits, rather than humans. Precautions are taken against their return to this earth. For all others, however, the funeral rites are long and complex, and they involve the participation of many people. The burial performance takes three or four days, depending on whether the deceased is a male or a female, and that performance is followed over the next year by a series of rites that gradually release the widow (or widower) and the property and personality of the deceased and dismiss the soul to "God's country." The dead travel across the river of death with the aid of a ferryman; during the trip, those who have led evil lives may be punished for their misdeeds. In the course of the series of funeral ceremonies, a dead man also becomes an ancestor, with a shrine that will thereafter receive regular offerings of food and drink from his descendants, especially from those who have inherited from him.