Ancestral Initiation

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Sigi mask. Dogon artist; Mali, 1992. Photo by Victoria Rovine.

Eldest status in the community is occasionally recognized by initiation to a final circle of knowledge before death and the attainment of “ancestorhood.” Dogon people of Mali have a complex series of initiation rituals through the cycle of life, each with its own masks and related material culture (Ogobara Dolo 2002). Every sixty years, a ritual is held celebrating the closure of one such generational cycle called Sigi (Sigui, Sirigi). Sigi masks are enormously tall and symbolically complex, and their choreography reenacts creation of Dogon culture. Dancing while wearing such a towering structure requires great strength and skill. The mast is divided into “houses,” referring to the descent of the ark bringing human culture to earth, that the verticality of Dogon multistory dwellings reflects.