The Dogons

In Mali, formerly called the French West Sudan, live a tribe called the Dogon. They are village farmers, planting millet, beans, and cotton, and keeping sheep, goats, and fowls, and they are also weavers of beautiful cotton garments, but they still have some minimal dependence on hunting. Among them are many expert horsemen. Most villages contain forges for ironworking, traditionally located on the north side. Their buildings are impressive structures of terre pisee, sometimes set in high cliffs and often painted with elaborate designs. Their territory lies across trade routes leading from the Mediterranean to the Gold Coast, but they were incorporated into the French colonies only in 1920, although French attacks on the area had begun in the 1890s. Histori cally, they have remained resistant to the encroachments of both Christianity and Islam, although the latter is now gaining ground.

In 1931, the French scholar Marcel Griaule began a lifetime of work among the Dogon. His Dieu d'Eau, an important work for nonspecialists, published in 1948, gave an account of Dogon cosmology as explained to him by his friend, Ogotemmeli. According to this account, the world has the form of a square platform, of dimensions 8 x 8 (in units that are not understood and may be inexplicable), erected on a circular base of 20 units diameter and a height of 10 units. Four stairways, each 10 steps high, climb the structure; on these steps live beings of various kinds. These have been diagrammed to scale in Figure 8.8. Five steps are said to be vacant, so that 35 classes of beings (mostly animals) are enumerated. The form of this diagram is similar to that of the heavenly diagram from Chellambaram and not unlike a Chinese shih (Figure 10.7) with base and top reversed. The arrangement of the animals is different, but it bears a generic similarity to the animal lists that are discussed in §§9 and 15; the west stairway, in particular, shows similarities in sequence to the Asian lists, if not enough to be certain of a historical relationship.

Again according to Griaule (1948/1966, pp. 210-211), the Dogon show a remarkable development of symbolic associations among different kinds of data, such as colors, direc tions, grains, internal organs of the body, "constellations" (one of which is Venus), stringed instruments, and regions. These are decidedly like the tremendous elaboration of such symbolic correspondence in Han China, except that the Dogon use a base of eight rather than five, as in Han China. It is curious however, that the other structural dimensions are simple multiples of 5, and that the Dogon indicate the "quality" of individuals in just five cases. We can see no suggestion of Mediterranean or Egyptian similarities in most of the described material, but derivation from Asia seems a structural possibility. Despite these interesting matters, what has attracted the most interest to Dogon cosmology is a report by Griaule and his colleague Germaine Dieterlen giving a Dogon account of the star Sirius.

An English translation of the Griaule and Dieterlen (1950) account of the astronomical and cosmological beliefs of the Dogon is found in Temple (1976), and a good summary is given by Cornell. At the heart of the Dogon cosmology appear a series of astronomical statements that are unexpected and remarkable. Mention is made in the Griaule and Dieterlen account of the four moons of Jupiter, of the ring around Saturn, of the revolutions of the planets around the Sun and of their elliptical orbits, and of the orbit of the binary star system involving Sirius. The binary contains a white dwarf (see §5.8.1) in a mutual eccentric orbit with a period of 50y. Although "Eagle-Eyed" Dawson

Figure 8.8. Dogon cosmology according to Marcel Griaule: The world has the form of a square platform, of dimensions 8 x 8 (in units that are not understood), erected on a circular base of 20 units diameter and a height of 10 units. Four stairways, each 10 steps high, climb the structure; on these steps are live beings of various kinds. Five steps are said to be vacant, so that 35 classes of beings (mostly animals) are enumerated. Drawing by Danny Zborover.

Figure 8.8. Dogon cosmology according to Marcel Griaule: The world has the form of a square platform, of dimensions 8 x 8 (in units that are not understood), erected on a circular base of 20 units diameter and a height of 10 units. Four stairways, each 10 steps high, climb the structure; on these steps are live beings of various kinds. Five steps are said to be vacant, so that 35 classes of beings (mostly animals) are enumerated. Drawing by Danny Zborover.

(Bobrovnikoff 1984) may have been able to discern the moons of Jupiter, there is no evidence of he or anyone else observing by unaided eye the other phenomena. Thus far, five explanations have been offered, Kelley feels none plausible.

The first is that the highly respected anthropologists who reported this information faked the data. This simple solution has been suggested (Brecher 1979, p. 109), but no one has espoused it.

If the anthropological reports are accepted as reliable, it is important to note that the Dogons reported that they learned these things from beings somewhat like men and somewhat like fish, who came from the Sirius system. Robert Temple (1976) has devoted a book to the defense of this view, but somewhat modified. Although Temple has developed some interesting comparative mythological data associated (sometimes very indirectly) with Sirius, the evidence hardly seems adequate to support such a radical hypothesis, notwithstanding that the supporting scholarship is of a high caliber, unlike the unreliable presentations normally associated with such ideas.

The third hypothesis has been supported by Sagan and Brecher in partly independent analyses that suggest that some European, perhaps a Jesuit priest, interested in astronomy, passed on the latest interpretations of Sirius and his white dwarf companion in the 1920s. Against this hypothesis is the situation that the informants of Griaule and Dieterlen would have been already mature individuals in the 1920s, and it seems difficult to believe that such a central part of their belief system could have been introduced in their lifetimes without their knowledge, particularly as apparently derivative beliefs seem to be widespread within the Mali region. Indeed, from an anthropological viewpoint, it is difficult to understand the mechanism by which such ideas could be introduced in such a crucial area of belief.

For those inclined to accept intervention by extraterrestrials as a legitimate theory, it should be instructive that Jupiter has more than 60 and not 4 moons, and therefore, the extraterrestrials would have been poorly informed, as would an itinerant clergyman-astronomer of the 1920s. The four brightest moons were discovered by Galileo in 1610 with only a modest telescope, whereas the others are far fainter and require much larger telescopes to see. The four Galiliean moons suggest, therefore, that unless the Dogons had among them an exceptionally sharp-eyed individual, either they had access to a concave mirror or to another modest telescopic aid or that they were in contact with an outside informant between the years 1610 and about 1892, when Jupiter V (Amalthea) was discovered. The apparent knowledge of the rings of Saturn, if this is correctly described, also limits the date of possible transference. Although Galileo was certainly the first astronomer to observe them, the first clear detection of the rings of Saturn as rings was done by Christiaan Huyghens in 1655 (Ash-brook 1984, p. 123), published in his book Systema Sat-urnium in 1659. A variant of Brecher's theory, suggested by Kelley—that the Dogon incorporated telescopic information into their system at a substantially earlier date than anyone else has suggested (except, of course, for the extraterrestrial enthusiasts)—appears to Milone to be the most viable theory. The duplicity of Sirius is no handicap to this theory either, although a 17th- or 18th-century Dogon discovery is effectively eliminated by it. The binary nature of Sirius was detected because of the variation in proper motion of Sirius by the astronomer Friedrich W. Bessel in 1844, who also determined its 50y orbital period, before the companion to the dog star ("the pup") was detected tele-scopically by Alvin G. Clark with an 18.5-in refractor in 1862. Although calibrations were less accurate than today, the approximate mass of Sirius A could be surmised and the mass and thus the orbit of the companion could be deduced by Bessel's time. Thus, the most logical dates of contact were between 1844 and 1892, and probably, because an observational confirmation would be attention-getting at the time, between 1862 and 1892. It would be instructive to search for records of travels by astronomically aware clergy or other outsiders in this interval.

Brecher has suggested two alternatives to the "wandering Jesuit" theory. One is simply that with a thousand cultures, more or less, each with its myths, some myths may randomly approach reality. The probability of coincidence in such cases is very difficult to gauge, because the belief components of the Dogon are not exactly the same as the simply stated modern facts, and the question of degree of correspondence makes such an assessment extremely difficult. Kelley feels that none of the series of astronomical statements by the Dogon have parallels in mythology elsewhere, except for statements about twin stars, mostly, like Castor and Pollux, clearly not referring to binary stars; he suggests further that for cosmological myths that mention the period of revolution of one star relative to an invisible companion, we have a sample of one—the Dogon myth. Thus, he argues, the statistical likelihood of this one being by coincidence a scientifically verifiable fact is essentially zero.

Finally, Brecher has cited the view (described here in §5.8) that the companion star of Sirius was a red giant that evolved into a white dwarf within fairly recent historic times. As noted earlier, there is substantial if controversial evidence that the system appeared red between one and two millennia ago, implying that the then red companion to the white main-sequence star Sirius dominated the visible light of the system. However, at a distance of 2.65 pc, the maximum angular separation of the two components, if indeed there were a red giant in the system then, would not have exceeded 12 arc-seconds9 (recall that the resolution of the human eye of 2 to 4 arc-minutes), at any time, at least in the current orbit, so that the two stars would have appeared as one merged star to the unaided observer. It is possible that the Dogon possessed a concave mirror capable of resolving these two objects at that time. The size of a light gathering mirror or lens that could resolve such a separation is theoretically only 1cm in diameter (assuming excellent quality optics). The resolution of two objects differing by a factor of several hundred or less in brightness could be thus achieved, but this would be inadequate for the modern pair because of their great disparity in brightness (about 10 magnitudes or a brightness ratio of 10,000 times). Clark needed a finely made refractor with an aperture 18.5 in in diameter

9 The maximum separation is actually 11.3 arc-seconds.

in order to observe the white dwarf and, even then, was assisted in having the bright companion artificially occulted by the edge of a building (Warner 1968, retold in Ashbrook 1984). Consequently, it is extremely unlikely that the Dogons would have discovered the binary nature of Sirius telescopically within a millennium of the present; in fact, if they had a telescope in this interval, it is much more likely that they would have discovered hundreds of other stars in the sky to be doubles; yet none of these seems to be mentioned, nor were any of the other phenomena associated with improved resolution, including the craters of the Moon, except the Galilean satellites and the rings of Saturn. Thus, a 19th-century transmission theory appears to us to be the most viable. Because it is the case that an alternative and viable theory exists, we are certainly not constrained to accept the view that the anthropologists incorrectly reported data from alleged interviews with Dogon informants. If there was no other viable theory, we would have been forced to conclude that this was the case.

Whether there is a viable explanation for the Dogon beliefs or not, Kelley notes that there are a number of interesting parallels in the beliefs of the Dogons to those of Polynesia, as unlikely as that may seem from their geographical separation. In no place in Polynesia are they found as a fully unified system and in no place do they seem to include astronomical details of the sort that make the Dogon account so unusual. However, a number of arbitrary details are so closely similar to Dogon beliefs that hypothesizing a historical relationship of some sort seems necessary. This lends some support to the antiquity of the Dogon cosmological scheme. Directly or indirectly, Sirius is associated in both cultures with a similar concept of po as origin of all things, with Twins, with the Rainbow, with a spiral, with Digitaria grain, with fish-men, with the term lena, and with crucifixion. In both cultures, Sirius is referred to as a red star, as in earlier Mediterranean references (§5.8.4). In Hawaii, the name Red star is applied to Sirius (Johnson and Mahelona 1975, p. 41). The name Rehua, which is a plant (usually with bright red blossoms, but sometimes with white ones), was applied to Sirius among the Maori; it was applied to Antares among the Maori, in the Tuamotus, and in Hawaii, and it was probably applied also to Betelgeuse among the Maori (Johnson and Mahelona 1975, p. 105). Moreover, on Mangaia, the god Rongo (PP *Lono), identified with Sirius, was said to be the twin of Tangaroa (PP *Tanaloa, "Long Jaw"), sometimes the Milky Way, sometimes an unidentified star. All things were divided between Rongo and Tangaroa, but the share of Tangaroa consisted of red things (and fair-haired children).

The Dogon applied the term po both to the invisible companion of Sirius, which they said was the origin of all things, and to the very small grain called fonio or Digitaria. Throughout Polynesia, po was the name of the primal night or darkness, from which all things came. It was sometimes conceived of as preceding kore, "nothingness," sometimes as the successor of kore. Tregear (1891, p. 168) says that kore is "the primal Power of the Cosmos, the Void or negation, yet containing the potentiality of all things afterwards to come." Both kore and po appear as the names of a lengthy series of ages. Po is also related in various ways to *Vatea,

"daylight" (Maori Atea, Mangaia Vatea, Hawaiian Wakea). In Mangaia, Vatea is a "god, half-man and half fish in shape ... the father of gods and men" (Tregear 1891, sub kore). Vatea and his wife, Papa, had twin children, Tangaroa and Rongo (*Lono) (Tregear 1891, p. 28, sub Atea). The concept is close to that of the bisexual Nommos, of whom there were five pairs of twins, with bodies supple as water, and one leg either a drumstick or a fish (Laude 1973, catalog numbers 1-7). Nommos may be drawn almost entirely fish-like (cf. Temple 1976, pp. 210-212). In the Marquesas, it was believed that Atea, as Light, "evolved himself" and then brought forth Ono (*Lono, "sound"). Light and Sound then made war on po and set limits to night. In Hawaii, Wakea made land and sea, the heavens, sun, moon, and stars from the calabash (ipu) of his wife Papa. Lono (*Lono) is once called Hakuakea, "Lord Atea" (Tregear 1891). Lono-meha, "solitary Lono" is a name for Sirius, as is ipu-o-Lono, "the calabash of Lono" (Johnson and Mahelona 1975, pp. ix, 1, 3)10 Among the Maori, Rongo is said to have had 13 brothers, including five pairs of twins (Tregear 1891, p. 424). In Mangaia, *Lono was the 1st of 13 gods of night and was said to be incarnate in the spiral-shaped conch shell (Gill 1876, pp. 95-96).

Also in Mangaia, te-aka-ia-roe is translated as "the root of all existence" (Tregear 1891, p. 168), and in Hawaii, 'a'a from *aka, "root" is a name of Sirius. Another Hawaiian name of Sirius is lena, "to stretch out, extend"; "to bend, as a bow," which is suggestive of widespread identification of Sirius as the Bow Star, although that does not appear among the Dogon, apparently. However, it is said that one of the Nommos was crucified on a kilena tree. Among the Maori, it is said that the great Rongo is Rongo-nui-a-tau, and among the Hawaiians, one of the cognate forms is kau (from *tau), which may mean "to suspend or hang up ... to crucify ... a (human) sacrifice spread out in the form of an 'x'" (Tregear 1891, sub tau). Allen (1899/1963, p. 125) refers to "the Egyptian Cross" as an asterism formed of Procyon, Betelgeuse, Naos (Z Pup), Phaet (a Col), and Sirius, with the latter "at the vertices of the two triangles and the centre of the letter."

In Mangareva, it is said that Rongo was visible as the rainbow; among the Maori, Rongo was god of the sweet potato, which he brought in his belt, which in turn, was identified as the rainbow (Tregear 1891, sub Rongo). Temple (1976, p. 215) writes that "the great Nommo manifests himself in the rainbow." According to Laude (1973), the 7th Nommo stole coals from the sun and fled down the rainbow as a spiral path.

Perhaps the most striking similarity is that in Hawaii, Kama-pua'a, "pig-youth," is a form of Lono and has at least 17 other forms, one of which is a surgeon fish, and one is Digitaria pruriens—a different species of the grain that gives Sirius its name among the Dogon (Handy and Handy 1968, pp. 47-48).

Finally, the widespread Polynesian myth of lifting up the sky, most commonly attributed to Maui, is occasionally ascribed to *Lono, and Sirius is associated with 'amo, "the balance pole which is used across the shoulders to bear

10 For a discussion of the significance of the calabash for Polynesian navigation, see §11.3.

heavy weight," the pole being associated with Orion's belt (Johnson and Mahelena 1975, p. 127). Is the sky-lifting myth perhaps to be associated with the heaviness of Sirius's invisible companion in Dogon myth?

Temple draws attention to the identification of parts of the diagrams of the Sirius system with a knife and the circumcision ritual among the Dogon as evidence for the relationship of the Dogon with Egyptian practices and beliefs. Although we know of no association between circumcision and Sirius in Polynesia, circumcision was an important element of some Polynesian cultures.

Thus, although we are unconvinced by interstellar diffusion theories, we seem to have a major puzzle in earthly diffusion for a number of astronomical/mythological ideas about the Sirius system. If these indeed have a common origin, this may have important implications about the spread of other ideas and mythical beliefs, and the curious similarities that appear in widely separated cultures.

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