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The Mythology of the Dogon People

Sep 30, 2005 - ę Wayne Kreger

One of the more popular groups of people - in the eyes of mythologists, that is - is the Dogon people of Africa. The people number about 225 000 and can be found in Mali. The earliest recorded contact with Western groups is in the 1920's, however clues in the Dogon dialects and history of local communities show there has been a great degree of interaction between the varying people of that region. The Dogon community is now a major point of attraction for tourists, and since contact with outside groups there has been a growing Islamic and Christian presence. However, the mythologies of the Dogon people have been well preserved. They have been interviewed extensively, and from them we learn of the stories of creation, the beings Amma, Nommo and Yurugu, and the role of the pale fox.

Dogon cosmology begins with Amma, who is known as the "only" god, though from further study we find this is not accurate in Dogon culture. Perhaps this nomenclature indicates the special stature of holiness or mystery Amma possesses. Before the present cosmos, Amma made an attempt at creation, but it was impotent - he was only able to salvage the four elements of fire, water, air and earth, which find in our current universe. Amma's second attempt was the creation of the cosmic egg - we know that the egg is a popular symbol for creation, as it hold unlimited potential and is the form from which life springs. This egg is believed to have originated at what we call in the West Sirius B, a star that orbits Sirius (the "Dog Star"). Alternate interpretations of Dogon mythology by outsiders describe Amma as the egg, rather than the creator of the egg. This has profound impact on our understanding of Dogon religion - if Amma is the creator, then the universe is his creation. But if Amma is the egg, the Dogon people could be considered pantheists - believing that the universe is god.

In either case, the understanding of the egg in mythology is the same. Inside the cosmic egg there were two placentas - one with a pair of male twins and one with a pair of female twins. It was planned that in due time the twins would grow to maturity, become born and mate with one another to create divine offspring as the emanations of Amma. However, this plan would not come to fruition. One of the male twins, named Yurugu, was desperate to reproduce and forced with way out of the egg in search of a mate. His search was unsuccessful, but he used pieces of the placenta he had been gestating in to create the earth and proceeded to mate with it. His transgression in this act was two fold: he had arrogantly tried to imitate the act of creation that Amma had done, and he mated with the placenta from which he was born, essentially committing incest. Yurugu was punished by Amma for his mistakes - he was transformed into the Pale Fox, who was no longer capable of speech, but retained the ability to preform divination. The offspring of Yurugu and the placenta were the evil spirits that roamed the earth.

Yurugu's brother in the egg, Nommo, was rewarded for his commitment to Amma's plan, and was made lord of the universe. He had many children and in an attempt to rectify his brother's ill deeds descended to earth in a vessel equiped with all the necessary conditions for life - light and rain, for example. Here he organized the cosmos - turning chaos into order - and began the cycles of life, such as the seasons and inevitable change of night into day.

The Dogon creation story has great impact on the modern Dogon people. The four spirits created by Nommo as he came to the earth were the ancestors of the four social-religious groups of the Dogon people. As well, Pale Fox is still revered for his ability to tell the future and is used in any major undertaking the Dogon people begin. A patch of earth is set aside with bait to lure in a fox, and when the tracks are read in the morning the local elder is able to determine what Pale Fox is trying to communicate.

Finally, it is important to discuss the controversy that surrounds the universe's point of origin at Sirius B mentioned earlier. The star Sirius B, also known as "the Pup", is not visible to the human eye, but seen only with a telescope. Its existence was discovered when it was recognized that Sirius was a member of a binary star system. This, of course, should have been unknown to the Dogon people. Theories abound concerning contact between the Dogon and extraterrestrials. However, the most likely explanation is that the Dogon originally cited the visible Sirius as the origin of the cosmos - a proposition not unheard of in the study of mythology - and stories of Sirius B in Dogon mythology were a misunderstanding of early Western explorers. However, the issue is still debated by some.