The Dogon are an ethnic group located mainly in the administrative
districts of Bandiagara and Douentza in Mali, West Africa.
This area is composed of three distinct topographical regions: the plain, the cliffs, and the plateau.
Within these regions the Dogon population of about 300,000 is most heavily concentrated
along a 200 kilometer (125 mile) stretch of escarpment called the Cliffs of Bandiagara.
These sandstone cliffs run from southwest to northeast, roughly parallel
to the Niger River, and attain heights up to 600 meters (2000 feet).
The cliffs provide a spectacular physical setting for Dogon villages built on the sides of the escarpment.
There are approximately 700 Dogon villages, most with fewer than 500 inhabitants.
A Dogon family compound in the village of Pegue is seen from the top of the Bandiagara escarpment.
During the hot season, the Dogon sleep on the roofs of their earthen homes.
Abdule Koyo, a Dogon man, stands on the top of the Bandiagara escarpment that overlooks the Bongo plains. As the rocky land around the Bandiagara has become less and less fertile, the Dogon have moved farther from the cliffs. Millet cultivation is more productive in the fertile Bongo plains.
The precise origin of the Dogon, like those of many other ancient cultures, is undetermined. Their civilization emerged, in much the same manner as ancient Sumer, both sharing tales of their creation by gods who came from the sky in space ships, who allegedly will return one day.
The early histories are informed by oral traditions that differ according to the Dogon clan being consulted and archaeological excavation much more of which needs to be conducted.
Because of these inexact and incomplete sources, there are a number of different versions of the Dogon's origin myths as well as differing accounts of how they got from their ancestral homelands to the Bandiagara region. The people call themselves 'Dogon' or 'Dogom', but in the older literature they are most often called 'Habe', a Fulbe word meaning 'stranger' or 'pagan'.
The religious beliefs of the Dogon are enormously complex and knowledge of them varies greatly within Dogon society. Dogon religion is defined primarily through the worship of the ancestors and the spirits whom they encountered as they slowly migrated from their obscure ancestral homelands to the Bandiagara cliffs. They were called the 'Nommo' - [see below and on the file Amphibious Gods.]
There are three principal cults among the Dogon; the Awa, Lebe and Binu.
The Awa is a cult of the dead, whose purpose is to reorder the spiritual forces disturbed by the death of Nommo, a mythological ancestor of great importance to the Dogon.
Members of the Awa cult dance with ornate carved and painted masks during both funeral and death anniversary ceremonies. There are 78 different types of ritual masks among the Dogon and their iconographic messages go beyond the aesthetic, into the realm of religion and philosophy.
The cult of Lebe, the Earth God, is primarily concerned with the agricultural cycle and its chief priest is called a Hogon.
According to Dogon beliefs, the god Lebe visits the hogons every night in the form of a serpent and licks their skins in order to purify them and infuse them with life force. The hogons are responsible for guarding the purity of the soil and therefore officiate at many agricultural ceremonies. [Serpent is a metaphor for DNA]
One of the last smelting was done in Mali, in 1995, by the Dogon blacksmiths. The event became the subject of a film which was entitled 'Inagina, The Last House of Iron'. Eleven blacksmiths, who still hold the secrets of this ancestral activity, agreed to perform a last smelt. They gathered to invoke the spirits.
Youdiou Dances - During the Dama celebration, Youdiou villagers circle around two stilt dancers. The dance and costumes imitate the tingetange, a long-legged water bird. The dancers execute difficult steps while teetering high above the crowd.
The cult of Binu is a totemic practice and it has complex associations with the Dogon's sacred places used for ancestor worship, spirit communication and agricultural sacrifices. Marcel Griaule and his colleagues came to believe that all the major Dogon sacred sites were related to episodes in the Dogon myth of the creation of the world, in particular to a deity named Nommo.
Binu shrines house spirits of mythic ancestors who lived in the legendary era before the appearance of death among mankind. Binu spirits often make themselves known to their descendants in the form of an animal that interceded on behalf of the clan during its founding or migration, thus becoming the clan's totem.
The priests of each Binu maintain the sanctuaries whose facades are often painted with graphic signs and mystic symbols. Sacrifices of blood and millet porridge the primary crop of the Dogon are made at the Binu shrines at sowing time and whenever the intercession of the immortal ancestor is desired.
Through such rituals, the Dogon believe that the benevolent force of the ancestor is transmitted to them.
Their self-defense comes from their social solidarity which is based on a complex combination of philosophic and religious dogmas, the fundamental law being the worship of ancestors. Ritual masks and corpses are used for ceremonies and are kept in caves. The Dogon are both Muslims and Animists.
Unfortunately, collectors have stolen some of the more intricately carved pillars, forcing village elders to deface their Togu Na posts by chopping off part of the sculpted wood. This mutilation of the sculpted pillars assures their safety.
Initially the anthropologists wrote it off publishing the information in an obscure anthropological journal, because they didn't appreciate the astronomical importance of the information.
What they didn't know was that since 1844, astronomers had suspected that Sirius A had a companion star. This was in part determined when it was observed that the path of the star wobbled.
In 1862 Alvan Clark discovered the second star making Sirius a binary star system (two stars).
In the 1920's it was determined that Sirius B, the companion of Sirius, was a white dwarf star. White dwarfs are small, dense stars that burn dimly. The pull of its gravity causes Sirius' wavy movement. Sirius B is smaller than planet Earth.
The Dogon name for Sirius B is Po Tolo. It means star - tolo and smallest seed - po. Seed refers to creation. In this case, perhaps human creation. By this name they describe the star's smallness. It is, they say, the smallest thing there is. They also claim that it is 'the heaviest star' and is white in color. The Dogon thus attribute to Sirius B its three principal properties as a white dwarf: small, heavy, white.
In the latter part of the 1940s, French anthropologists Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen (who had been working with the Dogon since 1931) were the recipients of additional, secret mythologies, concerning the Nommo. The Dogon reportedly related to Griaule and Dieterlen a belief that the Nommos were inhabitants of a world circling the star Sirius.
Walter van Beek, an anthropologist studying the Dogon, found no evidence that they had any historical advanced knowledge of Sirius. Van Beek postulated that Griaule engaged in such leading and forceful questioning of his Dogon sources that new myths were created in the process by confabulation.
Carl Sagan has noted that the first reported association of the Dogon with the knowledge of Sirius as a binary star was in the 1940¹s, giving the Dogon ample opportunity to gain cosmological knowledge about Sirius and the solar system from more scientifically advanced, terrestrial societies whom they had come in contact with. It has also been pointed out that binary star systems like Sirius are theorized to have a very narrow or non-existent Habitable zone, and thus a high improbability of containing a planet capable of sustaining life (particularly life as dependent on water as the Nommos were reported to be).
Daughter and colleague of Marcel Griaule, Genevieve Calame-Griaule, defended the project, dismissing Van Beek's criticism as misguided speculation rooted in an apparent ignorance of esoteric tradition. Van Beek continues to maintain that Griaule was wrong and cites other anthropologists who also reject his work The assertion that the Dogon knew of another star in the Sirius system, Emme Ya, or "larger than Sirus B but lighter and dim in magnitude" continues to be discussed.
In 1995, gravitational studies indicated the possible existence of a red dwarf star circling around Sirius but further observations have failed to confirm this.
Space journalist and skeptic James Oberg collected claims that have appeared concerning Dogon mythology in his 1982 book and concedes that such assumptions of recent acquisition is "entirely circumstantial" and has no foundation in documented evidence and concludes that it seems likely that the Sirius mystery will remain exactly what its title implies; a mystery.
Earlier, other critics such as the astronomer Peter Pesch and his collaborator Roland Pesch and Ian Ridpath had attributed the supposed "advanced" astronomical knowledge of the Dogon to a mixture of over-interpretation by commentators and cultural contamination