Ancestral Initiation

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

Dogon peoples, Mali, Ginna shrine. Photo by M. K. Roberts, A. F. Roberts.

Ancestral shrines may be active oracles to which problems are presented when crisis strikes. For Dogon people in Mali, the family shrine is a ginna (building) which reminds inhabitants of the constant presence of lost loved ones. The niches of a ginna façade serve as a dovecote but also receive regular ancestral offerings, for they denote a generational hierarchy extending heavenward. The resulting checkerboard resonates with the “houses” of Sigi masks and painting on the façades of binu shrines to rain and fertility. At a deeper level, the same pattern reminds people of the warp and woof of weaving, and for some anyway, of the woven words of God (Amma) through which Dogon existence began (Griaule 1970, Apter 2005).