August 11, 2013
New Dawn No. 112
To all outward appearances, they are a
primitive tribe, who manage a near-subsistence living as onion
farmers, metal-workers, weavers, and artisans under the often
difficult conditions of a Sahelian climate, one that typically
provides four months of rain followed by an extended dry season.
The Dogon are the keepers of a well-preserved cosmology that is cast in the symbols and myths of the classic ancient cosmologies.
These myths provide a conceptual
framework upon which many Dogon civic traditions are based, and
often take forms distinctly similar to those that are known to have
in ancient Egypt.
Parallels such as these suggest that the
Dogon religion may well have had its roots in much more ancient
These studies culminated in two primary texts relating to Dogon religion, entitled Dieu D'Eau and Le Reynard Pale (later translated into English as Conversations With Ogotemmeli and The Pale Fox.)
Griaule and Dieterlen meticulously
documented a well-kept secret Dogon tradition - known primarily to
the Dogon priests and a relative handful of other tribe members.
In fact, the tradition as Griaule describes it is actually open to any person who chooses to pursue it in an orderly manner. Griaule and Dieterlen tell us that the Dogon priests are required to respond truthfully to any question posed to them that is deemed to be in order, or appropriate to the initiated status of the questioner.
Likewise, a priest is required to remain
silent - or even to lie, if necessary to protect inner secrets of
the tradition, in response to a question that is deemed to be
out of order.
Temple's book focused on unexpected Dogon knowledge of subtle astronomic details relating to the stars of Sirius, many of which should be undetectable without access to a powerful telescope. Temple offered this purported Dogon knowledge as evidence of a possible alien contact.
Soon after, popular researcher
Sagan countered the suggestion of an alien contact with the
proposal that the Dogon priests had simply learned these facts about
of Sirius from some modern visitor
- a suggestion that Germaine Dieterlen sought to refute by producing
a 400-year-old carved artifact that depicted the star system.
Van Beek wrote in his book Dogon: Africa's People of the Cliffs (p. 103):
Unfortunately, what Professor Van Beek
and his colleagues failed to notice - as apparently did every other
Dogon researcher for the first half-century following Griaule's
death - were the many abiding parallels that can be shown to exist
between Griaule's Dogon cosmology and that of classical Buddhism.
These structures are built on a common base plan and evoke a series of matching symbolic shapes, such as the figure of a circular base around a central point that represents the sun, intersecting perpendicular lines that symbolize the axis mundi, a dome or hemisphere that represents the concept of essence or substance (the Dogon say mass or matter), and culminate in a square that is said to represent the concept of space.
Both structures serve as the foundation
for a complex system of cosmology that ultimately defines matter as
the product of primordial threads woven by a spider; these threads
are said to pass through seven vibrations conceived of as rays of a
star of increasing length, and are characterized by the spiral that
can be drawn to inscribe the endpoints of the rays.
Such parallels leave Professor Van Beek
in the unenviable position of having falsely accused the Dogon
priests of fabrication - a claim that we know most assuredly cannot
(Details of Buddhist stupa symbolism
were documented some two decades after Griaule's death by Adrian
Snodgrass of the University of West Sydney, Australia - a leading
authority on Buddhist architecture and symbolism - in his book The
Symbolism of the Stupa.)
This possibility should not be a surprising one, since key elements of Egyptian cosmology are known to have existed in pre-dynastic cultures.
For example, there is clear evidence for the worship of both the mother goddess Neith and the creator god Amen that dates from pre-dynastic times - well before the first surviving written text in Egypt.
This view is also upheld by a variety of
on-going parallels that become evident when we compare Dogon
cosmological drawings with ancient Egyptian glyph shapes, and key
words of Dogon cosmology with likely counterparts in the ancient
Egyptian hieroglyphic language.
My personal view is that the natural impulses of humanity will likely be reflected in those of a typical five-year old, and in my experience, no five-year-old draws the sun as a circle around a central dot.
More often, he or she draws the sun as a
simple circle, perhaps colored yellow.
The base of these structures are established when an initiate draws a circle around a central stick or gnomen.
This simple act creates an effective sun dial which can be used to track the hours of a day. The sun glyph shape can be thought of as resulting from the circular progression of shadows that are cast by the sun as it shines on the central stick throughout the course of a day.
Consequently, the figure becomes a
sensible symbol to represent both the sun and the concept of a day
as defined by a single rotation of the earth in relation to the sun.
We can see these meanings play out symbolically in terms of the
ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic word for 'week', which is written with
only two characters - the sun glyph and the number ten.
These points define an east/west line or axis that will pass through the stick on the two equinoxes, and that moves progressively further away from the stick until the date of the next solstice.
In this way, the same sun glyph figure
can be used to track and measure the length of a season or a year,
and thereby comes to represent the concept of a period of time.
The many close parallels that exist
between the Dogon and Buddhist cosmologies define a kind of
framework, within whose context we can make sense of the various
fragmentary references of Egyptian cosmology.
Like the ancient Egyptians and the Buddhists, the Dogon conceive of the processes of creation in terms of multiple Worlds.
The Dogon define a Second World similar to the Egyptian Underworld that is associated with a jackal - a figure who is symbolic of the concept of disorder - and is governed by a canine who is assigned the role of judge between truth and error.
Likewise, careful comparison shows that
many of the key Dogon cosmological drawings take shapes reminiscent
of ancient Egyptian glyphs and are often defined by the Dogon
priests in relation to concepts or meanings similar to those found
in ancient Egypt.
It is almost impossible for the comparative cosmologist to miss stark similarities between words such as Ogo (the name of a character who plays the role of light in Dogon myth) and Aakhu (the name of the Egyptian light god), or Sigui (the name of an important Dogon festival) and skhai (an Egyptian word meaning 'to celebrate a festival'.)
Support for these comparisons is most
often provided by the cosmology itself, which typically defines a
second level of meaning for important cosmological words - one that
is logically disconnected from the first such that one cannot
reasonably derive one meaning from the other.
The significance of these multiple meanings may be more obvious in the Dogon language, where - because no actual written Dogon language exists - words must be grouped based on similarity of pronunciation.
However in the modern view of the
Egyptian hieroglyphic language, the choice has been made to
categorize words based on commonality of spelling - not
pronunciation - and so any significance that may have originally
rested on similarities of pronunciation is often rendered
These are documented in greater detail
in my book The Science of the Dogon, but include such subtle
practices as the founding of villages and districts in deliberate
pairs - one called Upper and the other Lower.
Given the depth and breadth of these
other cultural parallels, it seems somewhat surprising that the
Dogon have no native written language, but rather simply define an
extensive set of drawn figures and signs. Many of these are closely
associated with concepts of cosmology, and often take similar form
and meaning to written Egyptian glyphs.
Support for this view can be found in
many other aspects of Dogon cosmology and culture, which can also be
seen to make sense if we postulate an early Dogon relationship to
Again and again we see non-deities in
Dogon cosmology - characters from Dogon mythology (such as a jackal
who symbolizes the concept of disorder and a fox who is defined as a
judge between truth and error) rise to the status of deities in
Such evidence again points to a likely
timeframe for any close contact between the Dogon and the ancient
Egyptians at or around the boundary between pre-dynastic and
Among others is the shape of a hemisphere or dome, which is associated with the concept of essence or mass, substance or matter.
Another is the shape of a square, which
the Dogon and Buddhists correlate to the concept of space. (One
expressed purpose of a
stupa is to define an ordered space
from a disordered field.)
My book Sacred Symbols of the Dogon traces the likely origins of these shapes along with likely relationships between them and ancient Egyptian counterparts, and illustrates how concepts such as mass and space play out symbolically in the definitions of various ancient Egyptian cosmological words.
It is not surprising that the decidedly
scientific creational themes of ancient cosmology should play out in
terms of symbols that appear to relate to scientific concepts.
The straightforward argument runs like this:
Perhaps the best clue to indicate that the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language was intended to be primarily symbolic - rather than phonetic - in nature lies with its lack of written vowel sounds.
Like ancient Hebrew and other contemporaneous ancient languages, vowel sounds are only implied in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic words.
When we interpret the word symbolically - by substituting concepts for glyphs to produce a symbolic sentence - any question of a missing vowel is rendered moot. No vowel is provided because none is required.
It is a known fact that Hebrew acquired
markings later in history to signal vowel sounds, whereas the
Egyptian hieroglyphs did not. To the comparative cosmologist, it
seems nonsensical to choose phonetic interpretation as the first
purpose of a language that deliberately omits key phonemes from
In Dogon myth, each discreet mythological character - such as the one true Dogon god Amma, who initiates creation, or Ogo, a character who plays the role of light in Dogon myth - represents a component stage of creation - the very same component stages that are illustrated by the Dogon cosmological drawings whose shapes we correlate to Egyptian glyphs.
This hint leads us to examine Egyptian deities and glyphs shapes in a similar context, and ultimately to uncover a systematic relationship between Egyptian deities and Egyptian glyph shapes - governed by similarities of pronunciation between the name of the deity and the corresponding glyph.
This relationship is outlined in great
detail in my book Sacred Symbols of the Dogon.
These begin with a Chinese sun glyph that takes a form similar to the Egyptian sun glyph and that carries the same three signature cosmological meanings. We know that Chinese language first emerged in the earliest Chinese civic centers that - according to some authorities - arose at the sites of important ritual shrines.
These proto-cities were carefully
aligned to the cardinal points according to the same principles as a