The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Signs and Symbols in African Art: Graphic Patterns in Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy (1947-2019)
University of Iowa

Serpent mask, Bwa artist, village of Pa, Burkina Faso, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


The great serpent masks that appear in Dossi, Boni, and Pa, in central Burkina Faso commemorate an encounter between an ancestor and the great serpent of the wilderness near Boni. The story is told that one day the men of the village decided to attack a neighboring village to steal young women to become their wives. Plans were carefully made up, and the men set out on the attack, but the people of the neighboring village had been warned, and an ambush was set. The attackers were surprised and fled in panic for their lives, pursued by clouds of arrows. One of the men crawled into the deep burrow of the great serpent, calling out to the serpent to save him, that he intended no harm, and that if the serpent spared him he would honor it. The serpent not only spared him, but left his burrow to hunt game which he brought back to feed the man. When it was safe to leave the burrow he returned to Boni and told the diviner of his experience. The diviner, of course, recognized that the serpent was a protective spirit that would watch over the man if he honored it, and so he told the man to have a mask carved which he and his descendants were to wear to honor the spirit that had appeared in the form of a serpent.

This old story has a modern twist to it. In the past twenty years, the young men of Pa realized that most of the attractive young women of the region attended mask performances in Boni, where they admired the performance of the great serpent mask, and where the young men of the village, as a result, had considerable success in courtship and marriage, at the expense of the men of Pa. These young men went to the diviner in their town and explained their predicament. He cast his cowries and after some consultation with the spirits, informed the men of Pa that they, too, had a serpent in their own spiritual history. The young men quickly had a serpent mask carved and began to use it in their own performances. When numerous young women of marriageable age began to attend the performances at Pa, the success of the men in courtship and marriage increased dramatically. So a mask was invented to meet a very contemporary need.