How The Universe Began ~ The Dogon View

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The Dogon people of the Bandiagara Plateau in Mali, West Africa have an extraordinarily complex cosmology that informs every aspect of their socio-sacred lives. First communicated  by Dogon elders to French anthropologist, Marcel Griaule, in the 1930s, it reveals, in particular, some astonishing conceptions relating to the star Sirius and of its smaller orbiting star now known to be a white dwarf and referred to by astronomers as Sirius B. The circumstances of how the Dogon may or may not have known about this invisible star companion have been hotly debated in recent years, and I’m not going into it here.  Instead, here is my very simplified version – or at least as far as I have grasped it – of how the universe began. Apologies to the Dogon for any error in my understanding:

Of the Cosmic Egg and Pale Fox 

In the beginning, so the Dogon people say, there was the giant egg, aduno tal. One day, for no reason that anyone knows, this egg began to pulse inside. Seven times it shook, and as it shook, it started to break open in a spiral until the shell expanded to the ends of the universe.

Thus was creation born and ever since, the Dog Star, Sirius has marked the place in the sky where it all began. The Dogon also say that it is the small star orbiting Sirius, the smallest, heaviest star that holds all the essence of the universe. Its movement on its own axis and around Sirius supports all of creation in space. They call it the fonio seed, which is their smallest grain, and in this way explain that the creative force of the universe exists in both the biggest thing, the giant egg aduno tal and in the smallest thing, kize-uzi, the fonio seed.

After the seven pulses of aduno tal, the Creator God, Amma, appeared and he made the sun and moon from discs of clay, and the stars from clay pellets thrown out in space. He also created spirit beings in the shape of two sets of male and female twins.

However, something went wrong in the making of the first pair of twins. The male was born before his due time and without his female twin, and as he broke from the egg, a piece of his birth-sac flew off into space and this became the Earth Mother.

This first son whose birth created the Earth was Yurugu, the Pale Fox. He was a rogue and trickster and he was also very jealous of Amma’s creation. He decided to take the Earth Mother for himself and make it even better than Heaven. So he fled there with kize-uzi, the fonio seed, which he meant to sow in the earth. But with all the bad beginnings, things did not go well for Pale Fox. The Earth remained in darkness and was dry as dust so nothing could flourish. At last Yurugu saw that the world would never be complete and good without the presence of his twin, the female soul.

So Pale Fox went back to Heaven to find his female twin and bring her back to Earth. But Amma, the Creator God, was angry at the way Pale Fox had interfered with his plans for making the universe and banished his first son back to Earth, where ever since he has roamed in darkness in the dry desert places, searching for his female twin.

The second set of twins that Amma made were the creator spirits called Nommo and these represented all the twinned things of the universe: male – female, right – left, order – disorder, high – low, odd – even, good – evil. Their upper bodies were human and their lower bodies like snakes. They had flowing green hair and were made of water, and glowing light, and all the essence of creation.

When these heavenly Nommo twins looked down from the sky they were sad to see the Earth Mother so disordered and naked. At once they collected many cosmic fibres that were full of life forces and went down and clothed the Earth in green just as if she were a woman. Also in these cosmic fibres were the first words ever to be known in the world.

Now the Earth Mother could speak, but not for long. For when Pale Fox learned of the Earth Mother’s new power, he wanted it for himself. One day he crept up on her and stole her skirt of heavenly fibres. In this way Pale Fox stole the word and ever afterwards has known the power of language and been able to reveal the plans of Amma his Creator father.

When Amma saw that his son, Pale Fox, still meant to spoil the Earth, he decided to create four more sets of male and female twins who would become the ancestor spirits of mankind and live on the Earth according to Amma’s plans. Most of all, Amma wanted to restore the imbalance in things that Pale Fox’s evil deeds had created. So although the ancestor spirits were born in an anthill inside the Earth Mother, they next had to travel up to Heaven to receive their father’s instructions for their future lives on Earth.

When the eight ancestors arrived in Heaven, Amma then gave each of them one of the eight grain-seeds that are grown by the Dogon people. He also gave each one some special knowledge such as agriculture, healing or divining, or a craft such as minstrelsy, iron-working, woodcarving or weaving. But to the first and oldest ancestor he also gave a granary made from a clay-lined basket that was shaped like the universe.

But just as Amma thought his plans were going well, the first ancestor who had received the granary stole a piece of Sun from the celestial smithy and hid the glowing coal inside some bellows. As he fled from heaven with the stolen fire, the Female Nommo tried to stop him with a lightning strike and the Male Nommo hurled a thunderbolt at him, but the thief saved himself by holding up the bellows. Then he escaped by sliding down a rainbow, and so brought the first fire to the Earth. Tumbling after him came Amma’s granary, which smashed on the ground, spilling out people, animals and vegetables across the world.

And so this is how the world began. But it then took Amma and the Nommo another twenty two years to order the universe so that everything was in balance. Meanwhile down on Earth, the Dogon people who descended from the four sets of twins have ever afterwards tried to order their lives according to Amma’s plan for the universe. This means that in building their homes and villages, or in the laying out of their fields, everything mirrors the spiral of the great cosmic egg as it began to pulse. But whenever they want to know what future Amma has in store for them, it is to Yurugu, the Pale Fox that they turn. For he stole the Word and can reveal Amma’s plans.

At sunset the Dogon men go out on the barren hillsides near their villages and draw a fortune slate in the sand. Then the following dawn they return and interpret their fate from the tracks that Pale Fox has left on their slate during the night. And though Yurugu still wanders the wilderness in darkness looking for his lost female twin, he also performs this important service for mankind. And for this at least, he is highly respected by the Dogon people.

Dogon2

Apologies too for the poor quality of these photos. The original slides are sharp enough, but they have not stood up to the scanning replications. Graham was in Mali during the 1980s – one destination among many on an Africa overland trip.

Now here is Marcel Griaule’s description of a Dogon village from Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (OUP 1965). In 1946, Ogotemmeli, a Dogon elder who had been impressed by the seriousness with which Griaule had treated earlier revelations of Dogon belief, summoned him to his home in the village of Lower Ogol, and over 33 successive days set out to elucidate the Dogon world view.

Lower Ogol, like all Dogon villages, was a collection of houses and granaries all crowded together, flat roofs of clay alternating with cone-shaped roofs of straw. Picking one’s way along its narrow streets of light, between the truncated pyramids, prisms, cubes or cylinders of the granaries and houses, the rectangular porticoes, the red or white altars shaped like umbilical hernias, one felt like a dwarf lost in a maze. Everything was mottled by the rains and the heat; the mud-walls were fissured like the skins of pachyderms. Over the walls of the tiny courtyards might be seen, under the floors of granaries, fowls, yellow dogs, and sometimes great tortoises, symbols of the patriarchs.

David Attenborough series The Tribal Eye 1975  episode 1 Behind the Mask visits a Dogon village. Etnografia has posted the other episodes in this classic series – made in the days of serious attempts to understand other people’s beliefs and culture.

64 thoughts on “How The Universe Began ~ The Dogon View

    1. So young, yes. Actually there are some archived progs on BBC i-player where he’s out in New Guinea and even younger!! Happens to us all – once when we were young…aaah. Btw – How did the cake go down?

      1. I have no idea about the cake, Tish. If any of the Santana entourage post a comment on Ems Facebook page l’ll let you know!
        However, the show was wonderful, especially all the audience singing Happy Birthday, with the cake taking centre stage.

  1. A very cool story. I love hearing different creation stories. Not surprisingly there are so many similar themes among them, which really tells one a lot about who we are as a species, and how similar we are from region to region. Our environment and history has a lot to say about the type of story we weave to tell similar lessons. I particularly like the similarity here to the story of Prometheus stealing the fire for mankind, and also just the idea of theft being require to reveal God to people. And that such people who commit that theft, while not favored by God tend to be favored by mankind as being on their side. Sort of saying “Yes God you are far more powerful, but you must somehow reveal some of your secrets if we are to survive”. It’s really all quite beautiful actually.

    1. Thanks, Swarn. Yes, it is fascinating to find the common themes and metaphors, which as you say, reveal a lot about us humans. I think there are North American and Inuit stories about raven stealing a piece of the sun to light up the world. The role of Creator on the whole seems to be acknowledged, but without reverence or particular expectations of what this being might do, having created. The Dogon beliefs are far more intricate than I’ve shown here
      There are other elements that are found, for example, in the Inca and Asian shamanic traditions like the four directions, and the four elements. And there are some interesting anthropocentric views. Griaule says they claim that man is the ‘seed’ of the universe – prefigured in the egg of the world. Takes some taking in 🙂

      1. I also like the duality theme as well they have. The Nommo who are the Gods of things that are pairs, and the formation of the other sets of twins, male and female. There is obviously a certain ying and yang quality here, but I was also find it interesting the importance they place on different genders. God is a ‘he’, Earth is a ‘she’. The stealer from God is a he, but he is incomplete without his twin sister. So at first I’m thinking there is a little more leaning towards males being more important, especially with God being a male, but then again there is still this recognition that there is no real dominance of one gender over another when it comes to life. But it does make me wonder, why choose a gender at all when it comes to a creator? I started reading the Upanishads a little, and that creator is also male, but then there is a quick recognition that without a woman, the male is incomplete. I guess we can’t help but assign gender to our deities, because it’s what we know…but given that women actually give birth, I wonder why a male would be a choice at all as the creator of the universe?

      2. That is a very big question, isn’t it. You’ve made me think of the so-called Venus figurines of the Paleolithic, thus making me wonder if there was a time when there were female creators. Or what happens in matriarchal societies, which I know are uncommon? The Mbuti (pygmies) of the Congo sing and dance to rejoice the Forest God as their parent. I don’t think it has a gender – more essence of forest. I’m also thinking about the Inuit. They don’t appear to have a gendered creator, but they do have Sedna the female entity who rules the sea and everything in it. Perhaps hunter-gatherers have an ungendered perspective because the sexes are equally valued? (Functionalist interpretation). Now look what you’ve started. So many lines of enquiry 🙂

      3. LOL…well I just wanted to give you something to do. And since I am in professor mode right now, please turn in your paper by next Friday. Thanks! 🙂

        That would seem to be an interesting thesis topic though…whether or not there is a difference between the gender of the creator based on whether the culture is hunter-gatherer or is sedentary and has developed farming (which usually leads to more class structures).

  2. Well I for one can’t wait to get to the other side and find out the real story. I find it interesting that all ancient cultures basically have the same understanding of things.

    1. No telescopes. The way Griaule’s account reads it’s more like remote apprehension. A sort of meditative embrace of the universe – the infinitely large and infinitesimally small. There is some unverified suggestion that they originated in ancient Egypt, and thus came to west Africa with some very old knowledge. In ancient Egypt Sirius was also v. important –
      its heliacal rising was key to knowing when the Nile floods were in the offing. The Dogon calendar also depends on similar observations.

  3. Fascinating, Tish, and I enjoyed the photo anyway. 🙂 Reminds me that I need to go through all my slides of my year-long trip through Europe in the mid-seventies (how many reading this were even alive then?) and see about getting prints made of them. Hopefully they’re still good.

    janet

      1. I’ll find lots of amazing memories, Tish, and hopefully enough good ones that I can have them put on a disc or two to share with my family, who’s never really heard much about the details of the trip and certainly never seen the photos.

  4. A fascinating and complex story of the Dogon’s creation theory. It does tie in with so many other cultures myths/legends knowing about the stars existance is a mystery that I guess will never be solved. Just having a read over my morning cuppa, then going out so will leave David Attenborough (I love his documentaries) to savour when I get back. Happy gardening now Tish?

    1. I think all these stories from traditional societies are so enriching in their imagery, which in turn expands one’s thinking – not so much about believing as about BEING. As to gardening, still waiting for the promised warm spell, though the seeds are sprouting – indoors that is.

      1. Yes I sometimes ponder on why/how/when these myths/stories/legends/theories began. But then I just shrug my shoulders and think “well does it matter how and why, we are here so just get on with it!!!” But it is still interesting.

  5. Creation myths are fascinating, especially the similarities and differences you find around the world. Mali (and Ethiopia) have been top of my bucket list years, but I doubt I’ll ever get there.

    1. Yes, both are totally fascinating countries – to which I am unlikely to go either. I gather Mali has been invaded by extremists who keep causing mayhem there. Very sad for a once great empire.

  6. I love a good creation story. I studied Sociology and Religion (as it impacts societies) but never came across this one. Everytime I see Sirius, I will think of this story. Funny how a trickster (the Pale Fox) is so well regarded by the Dogon, but I guess he is the only one who possesses the knowledge of divine language to communicate what Amma wants. I think the pictures are perfect – their retro quality lends to the story).

    1. I’ve only skimmed the surface of it too. The more I read of it, the more fascinating it becomes – a conception that the Creator and the Creator’s creations can keep getting things wrong, and causing disorder in the universe or for each other on earth.

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