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The Dogon’s Extraordinary Knowledge of the Cosmos and the Cult of Nommo

France, 1920: Marcel Griaule is a young man who is very well-established in his studies, especially in mathematics. He has recently served as a volunteer in the French Air Force and aspires to attend the prestigious Lycée Louis le Grande.

Although his future already seems marked, fate has other plans for him – a new road that begins to take shape when he decides to attend a conference that same year. The speakers are Marcel Mauss, anthropologist, sociologist, and historian of religions, and Marcel Cohen, linguist.

Griaule is struck by their words and decides to devote himself entirely to the study of anthropology. Between 1928 and 1933 he took part in two ethnographic expeditions, and in this period (1930) he came into contact with a mysterious African tribe: the Dogon.

The opportunity was given to him during a period of study in Mali alongside his pupil Germaine Dieterlen, who was also a pupil of Mauss and deeply interested in the study of ancient myths. From that moment, the mystery of the Nommo is born. It is an element of an ancient heritage of which we cannot expand without having first spoken of the Dogon people.

One People, Many Mysteries

The Dogon are a tribe that lives in a desert land of Mali, near the border with Burkina Faso. It is a place that welcomed them after their escape to avoid the expansionist pressures of the medieval empires…we are around the year 1000, during the fierce battles on the banks of the Niger river.

Many researchers have already discussed the range of mysteries that surround these people, but what interests us particularly for the development of the hypotheses contained in this article is their complex cosmogony, based on faith in a creative god, Amma, and in a creation produced by the movements of the “Egg of the World”.

A Dogon schematic of the “egg of the world”. (Nothing Too Trivial)

A Dogon schematic of the “egg of the world” . ( Nothing Too Trivial )

On the basis of these beliefs, the “Nommo”, the eight pro-genitors of the Dogon, brought to Earth a basket containing the clay necessary to build the grain stores of their villages. This image, which at first sight appears quite simple and devoid of particular significance, hides in reality a very profound knowledge of the universe and of the celestial bodies.

The granary represents the universe, its scales symbolize both the males and females that generated the Dogon and the various stars and constellations: in this sense we will find the Pleiades in the north, Orion in the south, and a comet in the west. So, everything started with a “basket”, or container, that carried life.

The Pleiades (Seven Sisters). (Public Domain)

The Pleiades (Seven Sisters). ( Public Domain )

Dogon Astronomical Knowledge

But the thing that most struck the two scholars was the finding that, despite the Dogon having come into contact with our civilization in fairly recent times (about the beginning of the century), they possessed incredible scientific and astronomical knowledge. Some of this knowledge was certainly the result of a cultural heritage that is millennia old, but one element in particular has decidedly current characteristics – the detailed knowledge of the star Sirius.

The Dogon were in fact aware of the fact that Sirius is a binary system (i.e. a system consisting of two stars, Sirius A and Sirius B); they were aware of the fact that Sirius B revolves around Sirius A with an elliptical orbit and over a period corresponding to 50 years; and the most disconcerting discovery was that the Dogon knew the exact position of Sirius A within the ellipse.

Sirius A and Sirius B as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. The white dwarf can be seen to the lower left. (NASA, ESA, H. Bond/STScI, M. Barstow/University of Leicester/ CC BY 3.0 )

Sirius A and Sirius B as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. The white dwarf can be seen to the lower left. (NASA, ESA, H. Bond/STScI, M. Barstow/University of Leicester/ CC BY 3.0 )

Many may wonder what is so disconcerting about all this? The amazement arises from the fact that it was only in 1862 when the American astronomer Alvan Clark deduced the existence of Sirius B using a telescope, among the most advanced for that era, and it was not before 1970 that there was confirmation of the existence of this star, not to mention a photograph of it.

Yet the Dogon knew of it hundreds of years before, and not only that, they called Sirius B with the name of “Po Tolo”; this name is certainly the most apt and shocking way to describe this system, the term Tolo, in fact, means star, while Po refers to a typical cereal that has the characteristic of being extremely heavy despite its small size; an expression, therefore, very close to reality since Sirius B is a white dwarf and, as such, has a very high density.

A Dogon diagram said to represent Sirius B’s elliptical orbit around Sirius A. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

A Dogon diagram said to represent Sirius B’s elliptical orbit around Sirius A. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

All this information is practically inaccessible without adequate astronomical equipment, and it is useless to specify that the Dogon had never come into possession of any such instrument, they even ignored its existence.

But the mystery does not end here, the Dogon, in fact, used to represent the planet Saturn as surrounded by a sort of halo, thus demonstrating that they knew of its rings; moreover, they knew that the planet Jupiter had around “four companions”, which correspond exactly to its four main moons.

An artistic representation of Jupiter and its moons. (CC0)

An artistic representation of Jupiter and its moons. ( CC0)

As if this were not enough, they depicted the Earth as a sphere and knew that this sphere revolves around its axis, and together with other spheres (the planets), around the sun; last, but not least, it is surprising that the Dogon, or in any case the elders of the village, described our galaxy as an immense spiral shape. We know very well that this concept began to be disclosed by Western astronomers only at the beginning of this century.

For the Dogon, Sirius B was the first star created by God and it represents the fulcrum of the Universe. All matter developed from it, including souls, following a complex spiral motion – the same that is symbolized in the intertwined baskets.

Saturn is surrounded by rings, Jupiter has four main moons, and four calendars are used: one for the Sun, one for the Moon, one for Sirius, and one for Venus. Needless to say, that the Dogon believe a truth attested from ancient times – the fact that the planets orbit around the Sun.

The Dogon know what, logically, they should not know; their knowledge is not the result of ancient legacies acquired by observing the sky and the stars with the naked eye, as happened in other civilizations, they simply “know”; this is the most disturbing part of the Dogon mystery.

‘Master of the Slanted Eyes.’ Antropomorphic representation, probably a Dogon ancestor figure. (Public Domain)

‘Master of the Slanted Eyes.’ Antropomorphic representation, probably a Dogon ancestor figure. (Public Domain )

The Nommo Cult

An old Dogon legend tells of when the God of the universe, Amma, sent the Nommo to earth. This was a half-man, half-amphibian creature which landed in the land of the Fox, a territory northeast of Bandiagara, in the Mopti region; the Nommo was red, but when it touched the ground it became white.

Mali, Dogon container This container shows the "Ark of the world", in which Nommo, the mythical progenitor of humanity, is supposed to have come down from the sky. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mali, Dogon container This container shows the “Ark of the world”, in which Nommo, the mythical progenitor of humanity, is supposed to have come down from the sky. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The name Nommo derives from a Dogon word that translates as “to do well”; much more often, however, this is remembered as “The Master of Water” (perhaps a reference to the fact that the Nommo could not survive out of water), the Admonitor, or the Destroyer.

Nommo Figure with Raised Arms. (Brooklyn Museum/CC BY 3.0)

Nommo Figure with Raised Arms . (Brooklyn Museum/ CC BY 3.0 )

We do not know exactly how this figure can be placed in the various events that characterized the growth of the Dogon culture, but it is not so difficult to identify other very similar creatures in different cultures – not only geographically distant but also with respect to various historical moments.

The same type of creature is present in a history of Mesopotamia written during the III Century BC from the priest Beroso; his name was Oannes, his body was similar to that of a fish, he lived only in water, and had feet similar to those of man. Are these images referring to the same event?

Oannes. (Dr.regosistvan/CC BY SA 4.0)

Oannes. (Dr.regosistvan/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

In any case, this ancient, almost primordial figure occupies a prominent place in all African cultures; not infrequently, for example, in the most internal areas of Africa. People belonging to monotheistic religions turn to the priests of the various villages because in situations of extreme difficulty they invoke the assistance of the Nommo.

Finally, let us not forget the God fish Dagon of the Philistines, and the same symbol of the fish which the first Christians used to represent their deity. Whoever or whatever it was, the Nommo still continues to lengthen its shadow on African territory, perhaps as a messenger waiting to be able to reveal ancient truths to those who have the courage and the predisposition of mind to listen to it.

Nommo Archetype. (Nothing Too Trivial)

Nommo Archetype. (Nothing Too Trivial )

Did Ancient Aliens Impart Advanced Astronomical Knowledge to the Dogon Tribe?

Skeptics and proponents of the ancient aliens theory have faced off for decades on the issue of the Dogon tribe’s allegedly advanced astronomical knowledge.

Here’s a look at some of the arguments on both sides concerning this tribe from Mali, Africa, and its purported knowledge of the motions of a star not visible on Earth without modern telescopes. 

What The Dogon Are Said to Have Known

Sirius is the brightest star in the sky and had a prominent place in many ancient cultures. Sirius, which is about 8.7 light years from Earth, has a white dwarf companion star, Sirius B. Sirius B cannot be seen with the naked eye, and astronomers first guessed at its existence in the 1830s. They mathematically developed a theoretical model of its orbit around Sirius (now referred to as Sirius A) later in the 19th century.

The astronomers knew that Sirius B must be made of a super dense matter, but the specifics were beyond their comprehension until quantum physics helped explain it in 1926. In 1894, irregularities in the movement of Sirius B led astronomers to consider that a third star, Sirius C, may exist and exert an influence on Sirius B’s orbit. It is still a matter of debate whether Sirius C exists or not .

Sirius A and Sirius B as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. The white dwarf can be seen to the lower left.

Sirius A and Sirius B as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. The white dwarf can be seen to the lower left. (NASA, ESA, H. Bond/STScI, M. Barstow/University of Leicester/ CC BY 3.0 )

The Dogon are said to have known all of this centuries before Western astronomers began contemplating it. For them, Sirius is a three-star system. They allegedly accurately describe Sirius B: they say it is a companion star for Sirius that is invisible from Earth, that it has a 50-year orbital period, that it travels around Sirius A along an elliptical path, and it is made of a heavy substance not found on Earth.

The Dogon are also said to have understood that the Earth and other planets rotate on their axes, that they orbit the sun, that Jupiter has four moons, and that Saturn has a ring around it.

An article by NASA’s Chandra observatory  stated: “Carl Sagan commented in his book, ‘Broca’s Brain,’ the conclusion about planetary orbits, though a rare insight, is one that can be achieved without high technology, as demonstrated by some Greeks and Copernicus. As for the moons of Jupiter, and Saturn’s ring, with a combination of extraordinary eyesight and perfectly clear skies, it just might be possible to see them without a telescope.”

Could The Dogon Have Somehow Seen Sirius B Themselves?

But skeptics and ancient aliens proponents generally seem to agree that the Dogon could not have observed Sirius B or its orbit around Sirius A themselves.

The only way Sirius B would have been visible to the Dogon (and all other cultures) is if it were a red giant a few thousand years ago, according to Liam McDaid, an astronomy professor at Sacramento City College and a senior scientist for non-profit organization The Skeptic Society. If this were the case, anyone could have easily observed both Sirius A and Sirius B in action. Some say the ancients indeed described Sirius as a red giant.

But, McDaid explained in an article written for the society: “One problem with this idea is that Sirius B has been a white dwarf for at least tens of thousands of years. If Sirius B had been a red giant only a few thousand years ago, there would still be a bright and noticeable planetary nebula around it today. No such nebula is seen.”

An X-ray image of the Sirius star system.

An X-ray image of the Sirius star system. ( Public Domain )

 “The second problem is that ancient writers seemed to use color for stars in a way different from the way that we do (they described Pollux, Arcturus, and Capella as ‘red’—a modern observer would call them yellow-orange, orange, and yellow, respectively).

“And finally, even if Sirius B had been a visible red giant a few thousand years ago, how would the Dogon know that Sirius B was still there after it became a white dwarf?”

McDaid concluded, as did famed astronomer Carl Sagan, that the Dogon’s knowledge of Sirius B must have come from an advanced culture. Sagan and McDaid said it must have come from modern Western culture, others say this is unlikely.

A Hogon, a Dogon spiritual leader.

A Hogon, a Dogon spiritual leader. ( Senani P ./CC BY SA 3.0 )

What are the Chances of Receiving the Knowledge From Western Contact?

The theory that the Dogon possessed this advanced knowledge of Sirius B is based on the anthropological accounts of Dr. Germaine Dieterlen, the Secretary General of the Société des Africainistes at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, and Dr. Marcel Griaule who visited the tribe together in the 1930s.

Robert Temple’s book “The Sirius Mystery,” published in 1976, popularized the ancient aliens theory as an explanation of the Dogon’s knowledge. He refuted the arguments given by Sagan for why the Dogon may have gained the astronomical knowledge through contact with the Western world.

Cover of the first edition of Robert Temple’s book “The Sirius Mystery.”

Cover of the first edition of Robert Temple’s book “The Sirius Mystery.” ( Fair Use )

In an open letter to Sagan , written in 1981, Temple stated: “As [Dr. Dieterlen] has spent most of her life living with the Dogon and knows them and their traditions more intimately than anyone else alive, her opinion on a possible Western origin for the Sirius traditions of the Dogon is of the highest importance. She answers such suggestions with a single word: ‘Absurd!’”

During an interview for a BBC special, she had shown a 400-year-old Dogon artifact representing the three stars of the Sirius system. This part was edited out of the American broadcast, Temple said, which may be why American skeptics have overlooked this evidence and Dieterlen’s testimony.

In a sober and lucid interview for a rather bizarre show, “Talk Psychic,” Temple stated: “If you ask the Dogon, they will tell you, and that’s what nobody else wants to hear. They say that their ancestors were given the information from visitors from the system of the star Sirius.”

Temple said the knowledge of the Sirius system is pervasive in Dogon culture, “embodied in … hundreds or thousands of objects, symbols, woven blankets, carved statues, et cetera.” He thinks it is impossible that the knowledge could have seeped into the culture so quickly from the time Western astronomers made these discoveries to the time Dieterlen and Griaule began their research in 1931.

‘Master of the Slanted Eyes.’ Antropomorphic representation, probably a Dogon ancestor figure.

‘Master of the Slanted Eyes.’ Antropomorphic representation, probably a Dogon ancestor figure. Public Domain )

 “And how these hundreds or thousands of objects are meant to have been expertly fabricated fakes purporting to be centuries old … baffles me even more,” he continued. “It is considerations like these and many more (such as the tribal sacredness of the tradition making it unlikely that it could have come from Western intruders who would not have been highly regarded or in the confidence of the meticulous and traditional priests) which lead Dr. Dieterlen to reject the suggestion of Western origins as ‘absurd.’”

In 1979–1980, anthropologist Walter van Beek studied the Dogon. He found the Dogon cosmology much different than reported by Griaule and Dieterlen. Van Beek said the Dogon understanding of the Sirius system was not clear or unified. He received various explanations from various Dogon sources, and some of them said what they knew of the system came to them from Griaule.

A Dogon village.

A Dogon village. ( Public Domain )

Griaule has been criticized for using leading questions and planting the astronomical knowledge in the Dogon.

Griaule has been criticized for using leading questions and planting the astronomical knowledge in the Dogon, while Griaule’s daughter Genevieve Calame-Griaule has also criticized van Beek’s methods. It is unclear whether changes in the Dogon since the 1930s may account for van Beek’s findings.

The Dogon’s contact with Western society, with people who would have known of the astronomer’s discoveries, was limited in the 19th century into the early 20th century. But, some interaction did occur, so it is not impossible that they came into contact with the information this way. Even if they did, however, is it possible they already had this understanding of the Sirius system?


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