Signs and Symbols

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

Binu or lineage shrine in a Dogon village in Mali, 1986. Photo by Mary Kujawski Roberts and Allen F. Roberts. Submitted by Allen F. Roberts.


The sacred signs that Dogon boys begin to learn during initiation at the Songo rock shelter have layers of meaning that will be slowly revealed—at least to some men—over the course of their lives. Some symbols are quite simple, others exceedingly complex, and reveal one of the wonders of African visual arts: the economy of form found in simple geometries often allows unlimited interpretation. Indeed, the Songo shelter is a lieu de memoire (“place of memory”) where boys learn the science and lore of their ancestors, reinterpreted through every narration to meet the intellectual needs of the moment. The same signs appear in other spheres of secular and sacred life, painted on vessels or walls to remind people of the cohesive principles of Dogon thought. Here, for instance, is a binu shrine in the village of Sangha, dedicated to the fertility of people, livestock, and crops. Some of the ideograms of boys' initiation were reproduced on its façade as photographed in the late 1980s.