Ancestral Initiation

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

Dogon ideograms painted on the wall of a rock shelter in the Songo region, high in the Bandiagara cliffs, Mali, 1986. Photo by Mary Kujawski Roberts and Allen F. Roberts. Submitted by Allen F. Roberts.

A Sigi mask's “houses” refer to human generations as well in Dogon thought, as they extend upward toward Amma, the Supreme Being. They also refer to a symbolic nexus of checkerboard patterns that ultimately suggests the elementary emanation of the Word of God (Griaule and Dieterlen 1986: 467). Once every Sigi cycle, the paintings are renewed at the Songo rock shelter where initiation begins for many Dogon boys. Performance and visual arts come full circle, then, as boys learn essential knowledge through initiation, even as elderly men are celebrating their last triumphs. With civil strife in northern Mali and the conversion of many Dogon to Islam and Christianity, these practices are changing to meet new circumstances. Some also live on as folklore, removed from original circumstances to stimulate cultural tourism (Hoffman 1993).