Dogon Mythical Animal and Rider Figure
- Tribe: Dogon
- Origin: Mali
- Approx Age: Early 20th Century
- Materials: Wood
- Dimensions cm: 39 tall
- Ref. Number: 1023
A stunning Dogon mythical animal rider figure. This is one of those Dogon animals that keeps you guessing to what it is or could be. The figure has an aged patina with a few age cracks and one of the legs on the animal is slightly shorter, sadly the Dogon never carved these beauties to sit on display plinths.
Provenance: This little beauty was an attic find of an old couple who did missionary work in Africa between 1900-1920.
Dogon art presents a broad range of object types and styles. Among the human figures alone, some are well over life-size, while others are barely a few inches in height. Their repertoire of gestures is also varied, and includes figures standing, kneeling, sitting, or riding, raising one or both arms in a variety of poses, and holding or wearing articles related to their gender, age, occupation, or social status. In style they vary from full-volumed, sensitively modelled sculptures that are highly descriptive in their details to works that are reduced to abstract geometric shapes stripped of all but the barest references to human anatomy. The surfaces of Dogon sculptures also suggest that they are treated in a variety of ways and may therefore have a range of meanings. While some works are smooth, oiled, and polished, others are thickly coated with sacrificial materials, sometimes to the point of obscuring their sculptural form. The range of styles and imagery seen in Dogon sculpture suggests that they embody richer and more varied references than the simple identification as images of Nommo would encompass. Even if the ultimate meaning of Dogon art depends upon the concept of Nommo, as Griaule and Dieterlen and their followers propose, this meaning can only be enriched by adding to it the many other levels of meaning that arise from the particular settings in which the objects are located.
The Dogon place wood figures depicting men and women on many different kinds of altars, most of which are dedicated to ancestors, either real or mythical. Although figurative sculptures, called dege, are perhaps the most interesting types of Dogon art, varied in form and rich in imagery, they are also among the least well documented. Few altars have been described in detail or illustrated; those that have been described do not suggest any consistent pattern linking a particular style of figure or a specific posture or gesture with any one kind of altar.
There is also little information with which to identify the persons represented by the figures. Each lineage possesses an altar containing figurative sculpture, which is dedicated to its founders and to subsequent members who have died, known as vageu. In recounting the myth of the first person to die in human form, Griaule tells of how a wooden sculpture representing the dead man was carved in order to provide a support for his soul and his vital force (nyama), which were released at his death. The figure was placed on the man’s rooftop terrace along with a pottery bowl for libations. As death spread throughout the land, similar figures and bowls were placed on altars established by each lineage (Griaule, 1938: 171-72; Dieterlen, 1941: 18,22, 140; also Desplagnes, 1907:273). Photographs and drawings of vageu altars show rather simplified, even cylindrical, stick like figures leaning against the wall of the shrine (Dieterlen, 1941: pis. Vb and Vc, fig. 10). Along with the figures one also sees pottery bowls and small cups in which sacrificial liquids are offered to the ancestors and small notched ladders so the spirits can climb to the rooftop altar; iron hooks (gobo), cylinders of red ocher, iron ornaments, and pots of roots soaking in water are kept there also and are used in healing. Sacrifices are performed collectively on all these objects at planting and harvest times, as well as by individuals who have inherited the souls of particular ancestors. The altars are kept in the ginna, or lineage head’s house, of which there are several in each village. An altar can be found on the upper story of the house, in a corner of the living quarters, in the granary, in the courtyard, or even in a separate structure nearby (Paulme, 1940: 109-11; Dieterlen, 1941: 141-47).
Not all of a family’s deceased members are commemorated on the vageu altar. The souls of women who died during pregnancy or childbirth are considered dangerous, and the forces that cause such deaths are particularly contagious (Paulme, 1940: 531-36; Dieterlen, 1941: 195-205; Ortoli, 1941). The souls of these women, called yaupilu (literally, “white women”), are enshrined in a separate sanctuary, usually in a cave outside the village, and are cared for by a priest who is a skilled healer. Such a sanctuary contains the various pottery bowls, wooden sticks, and staffs found on vageu altars, as well as anthropomorphic wood figures representing both men and women (Ganay, 1941: 132; Dieterlen, 1941: 199, pls. XIIIa XIIIb; Dieterlen, 1981: 16). Every year, sacrifices are made to this altar by those who have been cured of illnesses caused by the spirits of the dead women, and the figures are completely smeared with the blood of the slaughtered sheep and goats.