The Dogon Stages of Initiation
The following description of the Dogon system of graduated
initiation into the mysteries of tribal religion is taken from Le Renard Pale (The Pale Fox) by
Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen:
The Dogon, who have classified everything, have established a
layered hierarchy of their teachings they give to the initiates.
Their knowledge is staggered in four degrees, that are, in the order
of their importance, the giri so, the benne so, the bolo so, and the
The giri so, 'word at face value', is the first knowledge implying
simple explanations where the mythical characters are often
disguised, their adventures simplified and invented, and are not
linked together. It has to do with invisible deeds, concerning the
ordinary rituals and materials.
The benne so, 'word on the side', includes 'the words in the giri
so' and a thorough study of certain parts of the rites and
representations. Their coordination only appears within the great
divisions of learning which are not completely revealed.
The bolo so, 'word from behind', completes the preceding learning,
on the one hand, and on the other hand furnishes the syntheses that
apply to a vaster whole. However, this stage does not yet include
instruction in the truly secret parts of the tradition.
The so dayi, 'clear word', concerns the edifice of knowledge in its
But initiation is not merely an accumulation of learning, nor even a
philosophy, nor a way of thinking. It has an educational character,
for it forms the individual, moulds him, as he assimilates the
knowledge it imparts.
It is more than that, because of its vital
character; as it makes him understand the structure and system of
the universe, it brings the initiate progressively towards a way of
life which is as aware and complete as possible within his society,
in the world, as he was conceived and created by God.
. . . Thus, a 'fourth dimension' is introduced into the life of the
Dogon, peculiar to the myth and symbol which is as necessary to
their existence as food and drink, in which they move with ease and
flexibility, but also with the deep sense of the immanent presence
of the invisible thing they are invoking ... at a given moment, for
such and such a ceremony, they know to what sequence of the myth and
to which connections (their) act belongs ...
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