Ancestor Shrines

By Eileen Moyer
University of Amsterdam (formerly University of Iowa)

Mali; Dogon peoples


Wood, sacrificial materials

L. 41.9 cm (16 ½”)

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.236

Among Dogon, figures of dogs celebrate the memory of the fortuitous canine that discovered a watering hole during the search for their current homelands. The dog had run ahead of the party and returned to them with muddy paws, signaling that water was nearby. The joy and fortune of the thirsty immigrants is remembered through offerings made to similar shrines. Although the dog's outline is still visible, most of the details are obscured by the crust of sacrificial build-up, which has accumulated through years of use. Dogon believe that it is possible to take nyama (the life force) from one thing and deliver it onto another through sacrifice. Numerous substances are used for offerings, but include the blood of animals, as well as fruit pulp, porridges made from local millet grain, and specific medicines prepared from plants, oils, and charcoal. This object exhibits layers of encrustation that bear witness to the attention lavished upon it by those who owned it.