Signs and Symbols

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.

Besides dramatizing the epic struggles of cultural heroes, initiation educates boys about the precepts of social life, as situated in the greater universe of nature. Dogon boys from the region of Songo in Mali undergo phases of their initiation in a rock shelter high in a steeply rising butte. Dogon hold that this is where human life began. The shelter wall has been painted with ideograms, which generations of boys have learned to read. Circumcision is practiced at the foot of the wall, dramatizing the loftiness of the place and the information it imparts. The ideograms refer to “the life of the world”: astronomy, masks and sacred paraphernalia, spirit figures, totemic prohibitions, and ritual specialists and cycles. “The designs are mnemonic devices recalling local legends and histories; they teach adult behavior and responsibility. Historically, the site is a classroom full of practical knowledge, a visual narrative depicting the ‘social organization of truth’” (Hoffman 1993: 231). Conversion to Islam may be changing these places and practices for at least some Dogon people.