A Sudanese Sirius System

Note: The following article is translated and published in its entirety. It is written for professional anthropologists and ethnographers, and is presented here for the reader who is sufficiently interested in the subject to wish to pursue the source material. It is, therefore, supplementary information, and is not essential for the reader who merely wishes to follow the argument.



The indigenous knowledge about the Sirius system which is set forth in this chapter has been gathered from four Sudanese peoples:

  • the Dogon in Bandiagara

  • the Bambara and the Bozo in Segou1

  • the Minianka in Koutiala

The main investigation was carried out among the Dogon between 1946 and 1950, where the four major informants were:

  • Innekouzou Dolo, a woman aged between sixty-five and seventy, ammayana 'priestess of Amma', and soothsayer, living in the Dozyou-Orey quarter of Ogol-du-Bas (Lower Ogol Sanga-du-Haut (Upper Sanga). Tribe: Arou. Language: Sanga.

  • Ongnonlou Dolo, between sixty and sixty-five years old, patriarch of the village of Go, recently established by a group of Arou in the south-west of Lower Ogol. Language: Sanga.

  • Yebene, fifty years old, priest of the Binou Yebene of Upper Ogol, living in Bara (Upper Sanga). Tribe: Dyon. Language: Sanga.

  • Manda, forty-five years old, priest of the Binou Manda, living in Orosongo in Wazouba. Tribe: Dyon. Language: Wazouba.

The system as a whole was expounded by Ongnonlou, its various details by the other informants. Although he was not responsible for drawing up the Sigui calendar, Ongnonlou was acquainted with the principles behind it and, during the periods when the investigators were there, was able to obtain further information from the Arou at Yougo Dogorou on the one hand and, on the other, from the permanent steward of the supreme chieftain of the Arou at Arou-by-Ibi.2


Ongnonlou is in fact patriarch of the family from which the next holder of the title will be designated when the next holiday comes around.

Ongnonlou's learning, within an extremely secret body of knowledge, thus represents an initial acquaintance or, to use a Bambara expression, a 'slight acquaintance', and this point should be kept in mind. Just as, for the layman, the star Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, attracts his gaze, and plays the major role in the computation of the Sigui, so the rules of the Sirius system as revealed to the initiated in the first instance are at once simplified in some parts and complicated in others, so as to divert the attention from calculations which are more secret by far.

It must therefore be understood, once and for all, that the system described here represents one phase of the revelations permitted to initiates who are top-ranking but not specifically responsible for the calculations to do with this part of the sky.

For our part, the documents gathered together have not given rise to any original hypothesis or research. They have been simply pieced together in such a way that the accounts of the four principal informants are merged into one and the same statement.


The problem of knowing how, with no instruments at their disposal, men could know the movements and certain characteristics of virtually invisible stars has not been settled, nor even posed.


It has seemed more to the point, under these special circumstances, to present the documents in the raw.



Every sixty years8 the Dogon hold a ceremony called the Sigui (ceremony). Its purpose is the renovation of the world, and it has been described at length by them in 1931.4 Since the beginning of this investigation, we were faced with the question of determining the method used to calculate the period separating two Sigui ceremonies. The common notion, which dates back to the myth of creation, is that a fault in the Yougo rock, situated at the centre of the village of Yougo Dogorou,8 lights up with a red glow in the year preceding the ceremony.


This fault contains various altars, in particular busts of Andoumboulou (the name given to the people of small stature who formerly lived in the rocks), and a rock painting called amma bara, 'god helps', to which we shall refer later. Furthermore, and before this red glow appears, a spot situated outside the village becomes covered with elongated gourds of a type which no one would have sown.

When these signs are observed, an apparently simple procedure of calculation is carried out, solely by the people of Yougo Dogorou who belong to the Arou tribe:6 the council of elders assesses the interval by means of thirty two-yearly drinking-bouts when beer made from millet is drunk; and the eldest elder marks up each bout with a cowrie shell.

These bouts are held about one month before the first rains, sometimes in May or June, in a tent or shelter pitched to the north of the village centre.7 But this rule is only theoretical: between the last Sigui, celebrated at the beginning of the century, and 19318 there has been only one bout, halfway through the period; but the two-yearly cowries were set down and gathered into a pile representing the first thirty years. From 1931 onwards, the drinking bouts took place every two years. When the second pile consisting of fifteen cowries has been collected, the second Sigui of the twentieth century will be celebrated.9

According to Manda, the priest, the calculation of the Sigui is recorded above the door of the sanctuary of Binou by two figures made of millet pulp representing the god Amma and his son, Nommo, Instructor of the new world.10 The first consists of a vertical oval - the egg of the world - and its major axis, Amma in the original darkness. In the right-hand half, each year is marked with a dot, starting from the bottom.


When the seventh year comes round, a kind of trident is drawn on the outside, as an extension to the line of dots. The same thing is done on the left-hand side, in the order top-to-bottom. Fourteen years are counted in this way: the seven twin years during which the world was created, and to which a unit, symbolizing the whole, is added.11 Diagrammatically speaking, the figure shows the god's last gesture, raising one hand and lowering the other, thereby showing that sky and earth are made.

This drawing is repeated four times, making it possible to reckon a period of sixty years; it is accompanied by the figure of the Instructor,12 composed of two vertical legs supporting a head atop a long neck. During the first thirty years which are recorded by two ovals, the figure features only the right leg. During the second thirty-year period, the left leg is made a little longer each year in such a way that when the Sigui actually occurs it is the same length as the right leg.


It is by allusion to this figure that people talk about the Sigui 'getting to its feet' during this latter period.


When it is time for the Sigui, the elders gathered in the tana tono shelter at Yougo draw a symbol on the rock with red ochre (fig. i), which represents a kanaga mask;13 this, in turn, represents the god Amma; a hole is made in the ground below it symbolizing the Sigui, and thus Amma in the egg of the world. In effect these two signs should be 'read' In the opposite order: Amma, in the shadow of the egg (the hole) reveals himself to men (the red design) in his creative posture (the mask depicts the god's final gesture, showing the universe.)14

The hole is also interpreted as the hole which must be dug to put seeds in. From this viewpoint the holes are arranged in series of three, connoting three Siguis, placed respectively beneath the sign of three seeds, after which they are named. Thus the Sigui at (he beginning of this century was called emme sigi, the 'sorghum Sigui'; the next one will be called yu sigi, the 'millet Sigui'; and the one after nu sigi, the 'haricot Sigui'.

In theory, then, it would seem possible to record the Siguis using this simple method.

In practice, the holes become obliterated and the painting, more often than not, is touched up instead of being reproduced and thus forming part of a countable series. But there is another figure painted on the facade of the sanctuaries which reveals rather more specific data; it is called sigi lugu, 'calculation of the Sigui', and consists of a line of vertical chevrons, the notches of which are painted alternately black, red, and white; each colour corresponds to a seed, the first to millet, the second to the haricot and the third to sorghum (fig. ii).


This line can be read in two ways: Either by using just one counting system (for example the left-hand one), whereby each notch is the equivalent of twenty years; here, the notch upon which a Sigui actually falls is carried over to the following series: or, by taking the whole figure and counting twenty years for each notch, regardless of its positioning (the right column in fig. ii); here, the notch upon which a Sigui falls is recounted.

More consistent evidence of the celebration of the Sigui is provided by the large wooden mask, whose carving is one of the major concrete purposes of the ceremony. This mask - usually of considerable size18 - is seldom used, and is kept in some shelter or hideaway in the rocks, along with those which have been carved at previous ceremonies.


The care with which these masks are treated - for in some ways they are the village archives - means that it is not uncommon to come across series of three or four of them, the oldest of which date back, respectively, to 1780 and 1720,16 give or take a year or two. In exceptional cases, when the shelter has been well selected and under constant surveillance, the series may be longer still; thus at Ibi, in 1931, nine poles were counted, and

these must have succeeded three more which had been reduced to a few fragments and piles of dust and were still visible; as were the special places earmarked for them at the back of the shelter, all perfectly protected from the damp, vermin and animals. The oldest in the series of nine, which showed a continuous progression of ageing in the course of time,17 thus date from the beginning of the fifteenth century; and if the three others are taken into account, the remnants of the earliest would date back to the first half of the thirteenth century.18

It is not easy to come across material evidence dating back further than the traces of these poles at Ibi. But there is another object, existing in a single edition, which is fashioned during these Sigui ceremonies and which might also, be a significant milestone in the calculation process. With the festival in mind, each regional Hogon, as well as the supreme Hogon of Arou, has a fermentation stand woven out of baobab fibres; this stand is used during the preparation of the first ritual beer.


This beer is distributed in small quantities to each family; it is then added to everybody's cup, and thus ensures the homogeneousness of the beer drunk by the community. In addition to this, all the other fermentation stands are associated, by contact, with the principal one, which is exceptionally large: the lid measures 40 cm. (16 in.) in diameter, and the four 'pompoms' are the size of the normal object. As a result, it can only enter the large jars.

These objects are kept in the Hogon's house where they are hung from the main l»ram, and thus form a permanent sequence. Ongnonlou saw six or seven of them in the official residence of the Hogon of Sanga; the latter, one of the oldest men in Dogon country, has it that his great-great-grandfather had seen eight others which preceded the oldest in the present series.19


Assuming a total of fourteen objects for the Sanga chieftaincy, the first - which almost certainly does not denote the first ceremony held in this region - would have been woven in the twelfth century, if one reckons on the period separating two Siguis being sixty years.

Again, Ongnonlou counted a series of eight in the house of the supreme Hogon of the Arou, at Arou-by-Ibi. But he adds that the number 'should' be twenty-four, although he cannot explain if there is an ideal series which a complete sequence would aim for, or which, conversely, would correspond to reality if the fibers had not turned to dust..20

The methods described above for both keeping track of the ceremonies and for calculating the intervals between Siguis are simple and tend to be mnemotechnic. For the initiate they simply act as understudies for other more complex practices and knowledge to do with the Sirius system.


The Dogon names for this star - sigi tolo, star of the Sigui;21 or yasigi tolo, star of Yasigui22 - sufficiently indicate its relation with the ceremony of the renovation of the world which takes place every sixty years.

Sirius, however, is not the basis of the system: it is one of the foci of the orbit of a tiny star called Digitaria, po tolo,23 or star of the Yourougou,24 yurugu tolo, which plays a crucial role, and which, unaided as it were, hogs the attention of male initiates.

This system is so important that, unlike the systems of other parts of the sky, it has not been assigned to any particular group. In effect the Ono and Domino tribes govern the stars, the former including Venus rising among its attributes, the latter Orion's belt. The sun should be assigned to the most powerful tribe, the Arou; but so as not to be guilty of excess, the Arou handed the sun over to the Dyon, who are less noble, and hung on to the moon.


As far as the star Digitaria and the system to which it belongs are concerned, these are common to all men.




The orbit described by Digitaria around Sirius is perpendicular to the horizon, and this Million alluded to in one of the most common ceremonies in which masks play a part:

The period of the orbit is counted double, that is, one hundred years,28 because the Siguis are convened in pairs of 'twins', so as to insist on the basic principle of twin-ness.29 It is for this reason that the trajectory is called munu, from the root monye 'to reunite', from which the word muno is derived, which is the title given to the dignitary who has celebrated (reunited) two Siguis.

According to Dogon mythology, before the discovery of Digitaria the supreme chief was sacrificed at the end of the seventh year of his reign (the seventh harvest). This was the only computation known about; the year-unit had not then been established. The spiritual and material principles of the victim were conveyed to Digitaria - to regenerate the victim - whose existence was known but whose features had not been revealed to man, because the star was invisible.

This was the rule for forty-nine years for the first seven chiefs who thus nourished the laba ozu po ozugo po ya (the path of the mask (is) straight (vertical) this path runs straight)

But if one takes the pun into account - familiar to the initiated - between po:25 'straight' and po: Digitaria, the translation becomes:

the path of the mask (is the star) Digitaria the path runs (like) Digitaria.

A figure made out of millet pulp (fig. iii) in the room with the dais in the house of the Hogon of Arou gives an idea of this trajectory, which is drawn horizontally: the oval (lengthwise diameter about 100 cm. = 40 in.) contains to the left a small circle, Sirius (S), above which another circle (DP) with its centre shows Digitaria in its closest position. At the other end of the oval a small cluster of dots (DL) represent the star when it is farthest from Sirius.


When Digitaria is close to Sirius, the latter becomes brighter; when it is at its most distant from Sirius, Digitaria gives off a twinkling effect, suggesting several stars to the observer.


This trajectory symbolizes excision and circumcision, an operation which is represented by the closest and furthest passage of Digitaria to Sirius. The left part of the oval is the foreskin (or clitoris), the right part is the knife (fig. iv).

This symbolism is also expressed by a figure used for other performances2' (fig. v). A horizontal figure rests on a vertical axis which connects two circles: S (Sirius) and D (Digitaria); the centre of the figure is a circle T, which represents the trajectory of D. The line E is the penis, the hook B' the foreskin. Two horns hinge on the circle and reproduce once again the two parts of the trajectory (cf. fig. iv): A, the knife; B, the foreskin.


Thus the Sirius system is associated with the practices of renovating people, and, consequently - in accordance with the Black mentality - with the ceremonies which


But, having discovered the star, the eighth chief resolved to avoid the fate of his predecessors: with his son's complicity, he feigned death, lay dormant for a few. months and reappeared before the chief who had succeeded him; he announced that he had been to Digitaria, knew its secrets, and that, from then onwards, every Hogon would reign for sixty years - the period which would later separate one Sigui from the next.30


Restored to office, he raised the level of the sky which, hitherto, had been so close to the earth that it could be touched,31 and he completely reviled the method of calculating time, and the method of reckoning.

Until that time the ceremonies celebrating the renovation of the world had in fact taken place every seventh harvest;32 the Hogon made his calculations on the basis of five day periods, a unit which established the week as it still is today, and five harvest cycles. And as he was eighth in line, he counted eight cycles, in other words forty years, and the number forty became the basis for computation: the month had forty days, the year forty weeks (of five days each).


But the Hogon lived sixty years, a number which was interpreted as the sum of forty (basis of calculation) and twenty (the twenty fingers and toes, symbolizing the person and thus, in the highest sense of the word, the chief). Thus sixty became the basis for calculations33 and it was first applied to establish the period of time separating two Siguis. Although the orbit of Digitaria takes approximately fifty years and although it corresponds to the first seven reigns of seven years respectively, it none the less computes the sixty years which separate two ceremonies.34

As well as its movement in space, Digitaria also revolves (rotates) upon itself over the period of one year and this revolution is honoured during the celebration of the bado rite. On this occasion it ejects from its three spirals the beings and the things which it contains.


This day is called badyu, 'surly father', because it is marked by a general movement of the world which upsets people and places them in an unsure relationship with themselves and with each other.



The eighth Hogon instructed his people in the features of the star, and, more generally, of the Sirius system.

Sirius appears red to the eye, Digitaria white. The latter lies at the origin of things. 'God created Digitaria before any other star'.36 It is the 'egg of the world', aduno ted, the infinitely tiny and, as it developed, it gave birth to everything that exists, visible or invisible.36 It is made up of three of the four basic elements: air, fire and water.


The element earth is replaced by metal.37 To start with, it was just a seed of Digitaria exilis,38 pi, called euphemistically kize uzi, 'the little thing',39 consisting of a central nucleus which ejected ever larger seeds or shoots in a conical spiral motion (fig. vi). The first seven seeds or shoots are represented graphically by seven lines, increasing in length, within the sac formed in turn by an oval symbolizing the egg of the world.

The entire work of Digitaria is summarized in a drawing whose various parts are carried out in the following order :40 a vertical line issues from the oval - the first shoot to emerge from the sac; another segment, the second shoot, takes up a crosswise position, and thus supplies the four cardinal points: the stage of the world. The straightness of these two segments symbolizes the continuity of things, their perseverance in one state.


Last, a third shoot, taking the place of the first, gives it the form of an oval which is open in its lower section, and surrounds the base of the vertical segment. The curved form, as opposed to the straight, suggests the transformation and progress of things. The personage thus obtained, called the 'life of the world', is the created being, the agent, the microcosm summarizing the universe.

In its capacity as the heavy embryo of a world issued each year, Digitaria is represented in Wazouba either by a dot or by a sac enveloping a concentric circle of ten dots (the eight ancestral Nommos and the initial couple of Nommo).


Its continual movement produces beings whose souls emerge at intervals from the dots and are guided towards the star Sorghum41 which sends them on to Nommo.


This movement is copied by the rhombus which disperses the creation of the Yourougou in space. Six figures are arranged around the circle, as if ejected from it (fig. vii) :42

  • a two-pronged fork: trees;

  • a stem with four diagonal lines: small millet;

  • four dots arranged as a trapezium: cow with its head marked by a short line ;43

  • four diverging lines starting from the base of a bent stem; domestic animals;

  • four dots and a line: wild animals;

  • an axis flanked by four dots: plants and their foliage.44

The original work is likewise symbolized by a filter-basket made of straw called nun goro, 'bean cap'. This utensil consists of a sheath in the form of a continuous helical spiral, the centre of which starts at the bottom.45 The spiral supports a network of double radii.46 The spiral and the helix are the initial vortical motion of the world; the radii represent the inner vibration of things.


Originally, then, Digitaria is a materialized, productive motion. Its first product was an extremely heavy substance which was deposited outside the cage of movement represented by the filter-basket.47 The mass thus formed brought to mind a mortar twice as big as the ordinary utensil used by women.48 According to the version told to the men, (his mortar has three compartments: the first contains the aquatic beings, the second, terrestrial beings, and the third, the creatures of the air. In reality the star is conceived of as a thick oval forming a backcloth from which issues a spiral with three whorls (the three compartments).

According to the version instructed to the women, the compartments are four in number and contain grain, metal, vegetables and water. Each compartment is in turn made up of twenty compartments; the whole contains the eighty fundamental elements.

The star is the reservoir and the source of everything: 'It is the granary for every thing in the world.' The contents of the star-receptacle are ejected by centrifugal force, in the form of infinitesimals comparable to the seeds of Digitaria exilis which undergo rapid development :

''The thing which goes (which) emerges outside (the star) becomes as star, and enabled it to renovate the world periodically. Enlarge as it every day.51 In other words, what issues from the star increases each day by a volume equal to itself.

Because of this role, the star which is considered to be the smallest thing in the sky is also the heaviest:

'Digitaria is the smallest thing there is. It is the heaviest star:''52

It consists of a metal called sagala,53 which is a little brighter than iron and so heavy 'that all earthly beings combined cannot lift it'. In effect the star weighs the equivalent of 480 donkey-loads54 (about 38,000 kg. = 85,000 lb.), the equivalent of all seeds, or of all the iron on earth,6' although, in theory, it is the size of a stretched ox-skin or a mortar.



The orbit of Digitaria is situated at the centre of the world, 'Digitaria is the axis of the whole world,''56 and without its movement no other star could hold its course.


This means that it is the master of ceremonies of the celestial positions; in particular it governs the position of Sirius, the most unruly star; it separates it from the other stars by encompassing it with its trajectory.



But Digitaria is not Sirius's only companion: the star emme ya, Sorghum-Female, is larger than it, four times as light (in weight), and travels along a greater trajectory in the same direction and in the same time as it (fifty years). Their respective positions are such that the angle of the radii is at right angles. The positions of this star determine various rites at Yougo Dogorou.


Sorghum-Female is the seat of the female souls of all living or future beings." It is euphemism that describes them as being in the waters of family pools: the star throws out two pairs of radii (beams) (a female figure) which, on reaching the surface of the waters, catch the souls.


It is the only star which emits these beams which have the quality of solar rays because it is the 'sun of women', nyan nay, 'a little sun', nay dagi. In fact it is accompanied by a satellite which is called the 'star of Women', nyan tolo, or Goatherd, enegirin (literally: goat-guide), a term which is a pun on emme girin (literally: sorghum-guide). Nominally then it would be more important as the guide of Sorghum-Female. Furthermore, there is some confusion with the major star, the Goatherd, which is familiar to everyone.

The star of women is represented by a cross,58 a dynamic sign which calls to mind the movement of the whole Sirius system (fig. viii).

Sorghum-Female is outlined by three points, a male symbol of authority, surrounded by seven dots, or four (female) plus three (male) which are the female soul and the male soul (fig. ix).

Taken as a whole, the Sorghum-Female system is represented by a circle containing a cross (the four cardinal directions), whose centre consists of a round spot (the star itself) and whose arms serve as a receptacle for the male and female souls of all beings. This figure, called the 'Sorghum-Female pattern', emme ya tonu, occupies one of the Centres of an ellipse called 'the pattern of men', anam tonu, consisting of a full line called the 'goatherd's course', enegirin ozu, flanked by two dotted lines, the outside of which is the path of the male souls, and the inside the path of the female souls (fig. x).

The Sirius-Digitaria-Sorghum system is represented by a 'pattern of the Sigui', sigi tonu, consisting of an oval (the world) in which one of the centres is Sirius. The two alternate positions of Digitaria at the time of the Sigui are marked and the positions at the same moment of Sorghum-Female are marked on two concentric circles encompassing Sirius.

The Sirius system as a whole is drawn at Sanga in different ways, in particular at the bado ceremony.


On the facade of the residence of the great Hogon of Arou and inside the official houses assigned to the Hogons of Dyon, the course of these stars is represented by 'the pattern of the master of the star of the Shoemaker', dyan tolo bana tonu (fig. xi), composed of a vertical axis supporting, two-thirds of the way up, a bulge, Sirius (S), and broken at its base to form an elongated foot jutting to the left at right-angles, the course of the star of the Shoemaker (C).

It is topped by a semi-oval whose arms extend quite low down; the meeting-point (D) with this oval symbolizes Digitaria, whose course is traced by the right arm (F). But this arm is also the star of women whilst the left arm is Sorghum-Female (E).


The lower part of the axis (SC), longer than the upper part (SD), reminds one that the Shoemaker (C) is farther than Sirius is from the other stars, and revolves in the opposite direction.


Thus it is that during the bado ceremony the oldest woman of the family draws, at the entrance to the house, the 'pattern of the world of women', nyan aduno tonu,59 or 'pattern of the top and bottom of the world', aduno dale donule tonu (fig. xii).

It consists of an oval, the egg of the world, containing nine signs:

  • Da. - Digitaria. The open curve on the right indicates the acceptance of all the substances and matter placed in it by the Creator.

  • Db. - Digitaria in its second position. The open oval below marks the exit of the matter which spreads across the world; A and B also indicate the extreme positions of Digitaria in relation to Sirius.

  • / The star Sorghum-Female, counterpart of Digitaria. As it is the 'sun of women', It ii placed at the centre of the egg, like the sun at the centre of the solar system. The oval It framed by two times two small vertical lines symbolizing the rays emitted by the star.

  • S. - Sirius, 'star of the Sigui' or 'star of Yasigui'. The sign, so placed that it materializes the liaison worked by Sirius between the two stars described above, consists of a kind of X with one right arm - the ant, key - dividing a curved arm, the lower part of which is Yasigui; and the other part the piece of the organ which is detached during excision. Although female, the ant is here depicted by a straight rod, as if it were a man. This marks its domination of Yasigui's feminity, for Yasigui is maimed.

  • R. - The Yourougou. A hook, made up of a circular arc and a straight segment indicates that the first movement of the Yourougou describes a curve which goes around the sky; falling short of the goal, it descended directly, as is shown by the right-hand segment which is also the piece of bared placenta60.

    In effect, with Digitaria as the egg of the world (see earlier) this latter was split into two twin placentas which were to give birth respectively to a pair of Nommo Instructors. What happened, however, was that a single male being emerged from one of the placentas; in order to find his twin, this being tore off a piece of this placenta, which became earth. This intervention upset the order of creation: he was transformed into an animal, the pale fox, yuruga,61 and communicated his own impurity to the earth, which rendered it dry and barren.


    But the remedy to this situation was the sacrifice, to the sky, of one of the Nommo Instructors which had issued from the other placenta, and the descent of his twin to earth with life-giving, purifying rain.'2 The destiny of Yourougou is to pursue his twin to the end of time - the twin being his female soul at the same time. On the mythical level, Digitaria is thus considered to be the Yourougou held in space by Nommo, relentlessly revolving around Sirius, or Yasigui in other words, and never capable of reaching it.

  • N. - The figure of the Nommo consists of a vertical segment, Nommo in person, upon which, and slightly below the upper edge, rests a line broken into three unequal parts; the first is the seat of future female souls; the second the seat of the souls of the dead; and the third the seat of living souls.

  • Fa. - The star of Women, nyan tolo. An embryonic spiral calls to mind that it is the satellite of Sorghum-Female.

  • Fb. - The 'sign of women', nyan tonu, consists of a diagonal line, man, cut by a line which ends in a convex curve, woman. This shows the contact between the sexes.63 The rod is upright with astonishment at the sight of creation, which started with the system of women. Woman is a heavy-bellied profile, ready to give birth.

  • Fc. - The sex of women is depicted by an oval which is open in the lower part, womb-world, ready for procreation, gaping downwards to spread the seeds.



The Bambara call Sirius 'the star of the foundation', sigi dolo, which is the same term Used by the Dogon, and like them they call the star Digitaria fini dolo. "The expression fa" dolo fia, 'the two stars of knowledge', is generally attributed to it, because 'it represents in the sky the invisible body of Faro', conceived as a pair of twins.65 This name also implies that the star is the seat of all learning.

The Sirius system is depicted on the chequered blanket called koso wala, 'colored picture', consisting of ten sequences made up of some thirty rectangles coloured alternately indigo and white which symbolize, respectively, darkness and light, earth and sky, and, in Bambara mythology, Pemba and Faro.


Scattered throughout there are twenty- three rectangles with different patterns of small stripes placed in the direction of the thread, alternating the indigo, white and red. Twenty of them represent stars or constellations; the other three respectively represent the rainbow, hailstones and rain. The fifth sequence in the centre, in which there is no coloured rectangle, symbolizes the Milky Way. The ninth sequence, at one end, contains five black (not indigo) rectangles which point to the 'fifth creation, in darkness, which will occur with the arrival of the waters to come'.66

Sigi dolo is first depicted alone 'in the cold season and in impurity' by the ninth rectangle (third sequence); it is next depicted flanked by fa dolo fla (two red lines) in the fifteenth rectangle (eighth sequence).67

In Bambara mythology, Sirius represents Mousso Koroni Koundye, twin of Pemba, maker of the earth, a mythical woman whom he chased through space and was never able to catch.


In every respect Mousso Koroni Koundye is comparable to Yasigui.68


She inaugurated circumcision and excision and, as a result, Sirius is the star of circumcision, for both Bambara and Dogon alike.



The system is also known to the Bozo, who call Sirius sima kayne (literally: sitting trouser) and its satellite tono nalema (literally: eye star).

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  1. A member of the Bambara living in Bandiagara also confirmed the most important features of the system,

  2. Various pieces of information were supplied direct by the people of Yougo-Dogorou in 1931, 1936, 1948, 1949 and 1950.

  3. We ourselves accepted this figure in 1931 and it can safely be retained for the time being.

  4. Cf. Griaule, Masques Dogons, Travaux et Memoires de l'lnstitut d'Ethnologie de l'Universite" de Paris, vol. xxxiii (1938), chapter 1.

  5. Ibid., pp. 167 ff., where this fault in the rock is described in detail.

  6. The Dogon are divided into four tribes, each of which had a different role at one time. The four are the Arou (soothsayers), the Dyon (farmers), the Ono (merchants), and the Domino (who were confused in this respect with the Ono).

  7. The spot is called tana tone; cf. Griaule, op. cit, p. 171.

  8. Or 1933.

  9. Probably in 1961 or 1963, if this computation is valid. (The information came from a prominent member of the Yougo aged between fifty-five and sixty.) It is a matter of common knowledge that the next Sigui will not be celebrated for another ten years or so (we were told this in late 1950).

  10. These figures are described in M. Griaule and G. Dieterlen, 'Signes graphiques soudanais' L'Homme, 3 (Paris: Hermann).

  11. The Dogon count a week of five days as six days, just as in French a week of seven days is referred to as 'eight days' and a fortnight as 'fifteen days'.

  12. For a discussion of this substitute for God the Creator cf. Griaule, Dieu d'eau, Paris, Editions du Chene, 1948.

  13. For a description of the mask cf. Masques Dogons, pp. 470 ff.

  14. This information came from a prominent member of the Yougo Dogorou. According to all the initiates, the kanaga mask represents on the one hand the static gesture of the god, and on the other hand the swastika, through the repetition of the same gestures at an angle of 90 deg. to the first. The second figure represents the god whirling round as he comes down to earth to reorganize the world in chaos.

  15. The largest known example is ten metres long. It was brought back by the Dakar-Djibouti Mission and given to the Musee de l'Homme in Paris; cf. M. Griaule, Masques Dogons, pp. 234 ff.

  16. Thus the Yendoumman Damma niche contains three specimens; the Yendoumman Banama contains four; the Yendoumman Da, three; the Barna, four; and the Ennguel-du- Bas, three. Cf. M. Griaule, Masques Dogons, pp. 24a ff.

  17. Ibid., pp. 245 ff.

  18. For another index that enables us to establish the minimum age of some of the villages, cf. Griaule, 'Le Verger des Ogol (Soudan francais)', Journal de la Societe des Africainistes, xvii, pp- 65-79

  19. The Hogon of Sanga, who was enthroned in 1935, was thus the oldest man in the area at that date (i.e. the oldest of the Dyon). If we agree that he was born in about 1855, his great-grandfather, who, he claims, was very old when he himself was a young goatherd, w.is probably born between 1770 and 1780.

  20. Each fermenting-receptacle is evidence of the Sigui for which it was woven and is known as such. This means that these objects form a sequence that is considered by the people to be more than purely numerical.

  21. BO. The period indicated by a scries of this kind would be 1,440 years by the time the next Sigui came round. It would apparently correspond to the sequence of sixty reigns in which each Hogon appears and which itself covers a period of about 1,500 years. The supreme chiefs of the Arou tribe are in fact chosen when still young, unlike the practice current among the other tribes. The average reign is likely to be twenty-five years.

    a 1. Sigo dolo in Bambara.

  22. For a discussion of this mythical figure, who corresponds to the Bambaras' Mousso Koroni, see later in this article.

  23. The po, Digitaria coilis is commonly called 'fonio' in West Africa.

  24. For a discussion of this mythical figure see later in text.

  25. In the song the vowel becomes slightly nasal.

  26. The saying that 'if you look at Digitaria it's as if the world were spinning (po tolo yenehe aduno gonode ginwo) was probably coined to convey this impression.

  27. cf. M. Griaule, 'Signes graphiques des Dogon', in M. Griaule and G. Dieterlen, 'Signes graphiques soudanais', L'Homme, 3 (Paris, Hermann).

  28. In the system of notation based on the figure 80 this number is called '80 and 20'. The period of fifty years is very close to that of Sirius's companion. Cf. P. Baize, 'Le Compagnon de Sirius', L'Astronomie (Sept. 1931), p. 385.

  29. For a discussion of this principle cf. Griaule, Dieu d'eau, pp. 183 ff.

  30. After this reform the Hogons' sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice.

  31. This belief still obtains among the Dogon, and also among many other peoples; cf. Griaule, Jeux Dogons, Travaux et Mimoires de L'Institut d' Ethnologic de l'Universite de Paris, vol. xxxii.

  32. For a discussion of the symbolism attached to the number 7 cf. Griaule, Dieu d'eau, p. 60.

  33. The figure 60 is the old base of the system of notation still used in the Sudan for a number of ritual calculations. In several Sudanese languages 60 is known as the 'Mande calculation', because the system is believed to have spread from Mande. Nowadays the various districts use 80 as a base for their calculations. Cf. G. Dieterlen, Essai sur la religion bambara (Paris: PUF).

  34. There is a contradiction here that has not so far been solved. On the one hand the Dogon accept that Digitaria is in orbit for fifty years and this figure governs the way the Sigui is calculated. On the other hand Siguis are held at sixty-year intervals. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the date of the last Sigui, which was celebrated at the very beginning of the twentieth century, was allegedly brought forward. Does this indicate that the date was regularly brought forward for each ceremony? The uninitiated would thus be kept going with the idea that the official period was sixty years and that, for accidental reasons, it happened to be reduced to a half-century.

    The foregoing myth is given here as an indication of the changes or combinations in the system of computation that occur in the 'history' of the black peoples.

  35. po tolo amma tolo la woy manu.

  36. According to Innekouzou, po tolo, 'Digitaria star', has a hidden etymological derivation from polo to, 'profound beginning'.

  37. See below.

  38. The Digitaria seed is made up of four parts, only one of which, the outer casing, has a name, kobu. The other three are known as yolo.

  39. This expression is always being used by Manda, whose extremely punctilious mind thus avoids even mentioning the name of one of the most basic tabus of the totemic priests.

  40. For further details cf. Griaule, 'Signes graphiques des Dogons'. See also Griaule, 'L'imagc du monde au Soudan', Journal de la Societe des Africainistes, xix, 2, pp. 81-89.

  41. Cf. below.

  42. They are counted clockwise, starting from the highest figure on the right-hand side.

  43. This cow is an avatar of the Nommo.

  44. It should be remembered that the Dogon, like the other black peoples, use several different symbols or even several different sequences of images to express a single idea or object. Conversely, a symbol often represents several different things.

  45. The shape of this basket is roughly the same as the outline of a mortar.

  46. On the system of symbols represented by this basket.

  47. It is understood that Digitaria was the same shape as a basket, but was not a basket.

  48. The initiates have a different idea of these dimensions.

  49. aduno kize fu guyoy.

  50. This drawing is executed in Wazouba inside the sanctuaries during the festival of agu.

  51. kize wogonode para gwdy wokuwogo dega bay tuturu byede.

  52. po tolo kize woy wo gayle be dedemogo wo sige be, 33.

  53. This has the Same root as sagatara, 'strong, powerful' (native etymology).

  54. The number 480 is the product of the base number 80 times the number of tens in the base number 60, which was formerly in use. It is used here to symbolize the largest number of all.

  55. Versions of, respectively, Innekouzou, Manda and Ongnonlou.

  56. po tolo aduno fu dudun gowoy.

  57. The men have two twin-souls of different sexes. Cf. Griaule, Dieu d'eau, pp. 183 ff. The same idea is current among the Bambara, cf. Dieterlen, Essai sur la religion Bambara, chapter 3.

  58. The figures reproduced here are used in Wazouba.

  59. This figure was taught to Ongnonlou in August 1950, by the Hogon of Sanga.

  60. Yourougou, who was born a single being, is fated to pursue the female soul that is his ideal twin to the end of time. In particular he tried to seize it by snatching away from his mother, the Earth, part of the placenta that emerged after he was born, because he thought it was his twin soul.

  61. Vulpes pallida.

  62. Cf. Griaule and Dieterlen, *Le harpe-luth des Dogon', Journal de la Societe des Africainistes, xx, 2.

  63. A man could just as well call it anam tohu, 'drawing of men'.

  64. Fini, from which fonio, a word used throughout Sudanese Africa, is derived, is the same word as po.

  65. The expression may possibly indicate the Sirius and Digitaria grouping, or Digitaria and another companion. For Faro, or Fanro, the Bambara equivalent of the Dogon Nommo, cf. Dieterlen, Essai sur la religion Bambara, chapters 1 and 2.

  66. Cf. ibid., chapter 1. This refers to a future world that will be heralded by flood-waters.

  67. The koso wata blanket, which is worn by elderly initiates at the major Bambara institutions (dyo), belongs to a series of eight ritual blankets with patterns and colours representing mythology, cosmology and the social structure. They are used at night or worn as clothing, depending on the status, duties and aims of the wearer. Apart from their economic value, they are evidence of the wearer's knowledge. Their ritual use is plain, particularly during marriage ceremonies. The Dogon have similar blankets. The one known as yanunu represents a sort of very rough map of the world showing the most important stars.

    For a discussion of the way the Bambara and Dogon set great store by weaving and the various cotton strips, cf. Dieterlen, Essai, chapter 5, and Griaule, Dieu d'eau.

  68. For a discussion of the parallels between Mousso Koroni Koundye and Yasigui, cf. Dieterlen, Essai, chapter 1. For a discussion of Mousso Koroni Koundye, Pemba and Faro, cf. S. de Ganay, 'Aspect de mythologie et de symbolique bambara', Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique (April/June 1949); Dieterlen, Essai, chapters 1 and 2.