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 so dayi.


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 ordered complexity.

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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