The Venus Calendar and Related Lore of the Dogon

by Philip C. Steffey, PhD


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The Dogon of Mali, who live on or near the rugged, arid, Bandiagara Escarpment about 150 miles south of the great bend of the Niger River, were among the last black African peoples to come into regular contact with Europeans. This began with a lost battle by the Peul of Macina, then ruling the Dogon, against a French Colonial army near Bandiagara in 1893, leading to indirect French rule via the Peul, whom the Dogon hated. In 1912 a Jesuit mission was established in the Sanga district, the natives' chief cultural and religious center since three elite clans, the Arou, Domno, and Ono, plus part of a fourth, the Dyon, settled there in the 13th and 14th centuries. A few years later an American Protestant mission opened in Sanga. But the Dogon people were less concerned with the foreign cultures these missions represented than with an oppressive Peul political administration, and in 1921 they rebelled, expelling the latter. A French army intervened and defeated the rebellion in fighting ending with the Battle of Tabi in 1922. Thereafter Dogon territory was placed under direct French Colonial control.

From 1931 till the outbreak of World War II in 1939, a team of French ethnographers (cultural anthropologists) led by Marcel Griaule of the University of Paris, visited Dogon country for periods of a few months to two years in order to learn and document the natives' languages, beliefs, and customs. The team included, at times, experts on African languages (Griaule was one), social and political organization, history, arts, and music, as well as cartographers and photographers. The product of this work, undertaken in awful conditions (heat, dirt, insects), among a primitive, materially poor people, was a flood of technical papers, popular articles, and massive monographs including Griaules's classic Masques Dogons (Reference 1) and Denise Paulme's Organisation sociale des Dogon ( Ref. 2). But something was missing.

Much had been learned about Dogon everyday life and traditions including religious rituals, but little about the underlying world view or belief system. We now know that the most knowledgable natives, still chafing at their people's treatment by the French for four decades, were suspicious of the ethnographers' activities and motives, hence were unwilling to reveal profound beliefs. Not until after the war, when Griaule's team returned and his personality and tangible assistance (e.g. improvement of a key water reservoir, simple medical aid) won him trust and respect, were the hidden beliefs divulged.

Griaule's "initiation" began in 1946 with a 33 day-long interview of Ogotemmeli, an elderly, blind ex-hunter and spokesman for Dogon sages who secretly prepared and monitored each day's presentations. Griaule learned that a complex creation myth was the basis for the rituals and ceremonies his team had observed and recorded in the '30's, as well as for others kept from him and his colleagues. The myth had cosmological, genealogical and religious elements, all preserved in oral tradition and art--including sophisticated symbol systems that verged on writing. The old sage's revelations were documented in Dieu d'Eau . Entretiens avec Ogotemmeli ( Ref. 3), but Griaule soon grasped that he had been told only fragments of the secret knowledge. Much more remained to be learned, and several years of field research lay ahead.

The next round of revelations, in 1949 by four of the people who had guided Ogotemmeli's, must have astonished Griaule at least as much. It was mostly about astronomy, some explicit, more in archaic mythic language. Many pictographs, including relatively permanent ones on rock or building walls, and temporary drawings on soft ground, were exhibited to support the oral lore. Unfortunately this round began with beliefs about celestial objects that puzzled Griaule, who was no astronomer and disliked the subject. It seemed that the Dogon knew that Sirius, the brightest fixed star (remote sun), had a companion with atypical properties for a star. Documented in Un Systeme Soudanais de Sirius ( Ref. 4), before there were recognized interdisciplines of archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy with practitioners trained to evaluate it, this apparent knowledge was a timebomb, inviting exploitation by literary sensationalists. That would happen a quarter of a century later, and the real astronomical knowledge of the Dogon would be obscured and stigmatized as a result. (The so-called "Sirius" knowledge, actually a hoax due to misidentifications, cannot be treated here.)

In 1952 Germaine Dieterlen joined Griaule's research team, bringing years of experience interpretating the beliefs and customs of the Bambara, longtime western neighbors of the Dogon and during half of the19th Century their rulers. There were many similarities between the two peoples' profound knowledge, so some of the material Griaule had recently translated was clarified. She also supplied some interest in astronomy. Griaule and Mme. Dieterlen interviewed scores more Dogon people, from commoners to village sages and high priests (hogon)until shortly before his unexpected death in 1956. Understanding of the creation myth improved somewhat, but variants of its episodes revealed by some informants led to confusing popular French (and a few English) articles, some about apparently ordinary "animal stories." Nothing reached the serious literature of anthropology or astronomy indicating that the myth involves many naked-eye astronomical phenomena expressed metaphorically or allegorically. For example, the "clavicles of Amma (God)" are sections of the Milky Way; the misadventures of the nommo(genie) Ogo, counterpart of the ancient Greeks' Phaeton, express the celestial motions, phase changes and eclipses of the Moon; the Ark of the Nommo is a giant asterism that has awed stargazers for thousands of years. That such meanings were not grasped was due to a cardinal sin of research on such material: Dogon informants did not identify astronomical objects in the night sky, but some were asked to do so on modern charts drawn for mid-northern latitudes!

Before Griaule's death a multivolume, detailed French translation of the Dogon creation myth had been planned, but when the task fell to Mme. Dieterlen almost alone, only a single volume could be completed. Published in 1965 as Le Renard Pale [The Pale Fox] (Ref. 5), it fortunately concerned the astronomy-permeated cosmogenic and cosmological beliefs and related practices. Also involving sub-Saharan West African botany, zoology, topography, meteorology, human history, religion and politics, agriculture, water management and other activities, the monograph has been difficult for me to translate into English. Frequent repetition of parts of main episodes, the variants mentioned above, and the mixing of unexplained Dogon words with French (evidently due to poor editing), make some sections incomprehensible. In ca. 1986 an obscure California company published an English translation, but I have not seen it, cannot endorse it, and doubt its accuracy unless technical specialists including an astronomer with naked-eye observing experience contributed. Portions in English appearing in Robert Temple's The Sirius Mystery (Ref. 6), selected to support his claim that alien astronauts provided remote ancestors of the Dogon with their astronomical knowledge, render some of the French too clumsily to be reliable.


The Venus Knowledge

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More explicit knowledge of Venus, a star to the Dogon, is related in Le Renard Pale (hereinafter L.R.P.) than any other astronomical object, including the Sun and Moon. Curiously, the star is not a major player in the creation myth. Here I will concentrate on the explicit material.

Venus was known by six names corresponding to three heliocentric stations and three zodiacal positions as follows, where tolomeans "star" and diacritical marks are omitted from the Dogon words.

(1) Obya (or Obia) tolo, meaning "fleeting" or "obscure star."

(2) Donno toloor Albana tolo, meaning "western" or "evening star" respectively.

(3) Yazu toloor Bayara tolo, meaning "morning" or "pre-dawn star" respectively.

(4) Enegirim tolo, meaning "goatherds' star."

(5) Dige tanu tolo, meaning "midsky-crossing star." Griaule and Dieterlen mistranslated this as "midnight star," an impossibility.

(6) Yapunu da (or dya) tolo, meaning "star of the dish of menstruating women." This name is doubtful, for elsewhere in L.R.P. menstruation, women, or menstruating women, are associated with Mars.

Station (1) surely is near conjunction with the Sun (see Figure 1), most likely superior, i.e. heliacal rising in the west or heliacal setting in the east. (The corresponding inferior conjunction stations are difficult to accurately date.) Station (2) probably means, specifically, at or near greatest elongation eastward from the Sun, and (3) greatest western elongation. From its name, alluding to midspring-early summer when goats are born and the herd needs extra protection from predators, possibly also to the constellation Auriga (originally the Goatherd), and from (5), position (4) is at or near maximum northern declination. Position (5) is clearly at or near the celestial equator; there are two crossings for each zodiacal circuit by the planet. Then (6), whatever its correct name, means at or near maximum southern declination. Due to the 3.4° inclination of Venus' orbit to the ecliptic and proximity to Earth during the most conspicuous segments of evening and morning apparitions, the planet's peak declinations can be several degrees greater than the ecliptic's +/-23.5°.

The phenomena of Venus were associated with the agriculture of millet, the main staple food of the Dogon in recent centuries. (It is a more robust and nutritious cereal than the U.S.A.'s birdseed variety. Evidence in L.R.P. indicates a much richer diet in the distant past.) Shrines called "altars" were built to the planet in each of its six positions (Figs. 2 and 3). A purification ritual was performed there at the time of millet planting, normally in early June, following the year's first good rain, and a sacrifice of millet gruel was offered soon after the harvest in September or October. The planting and germination were associated with Enegirim, position 4, groundburst with (5), early growth with (2), kernal appearance with (3), and maturation with Obya, position 1. Curiously, position 6 was associated with human consumption of the crop, normally lasting a year. Realistically, Venus cannot occupy the first five positions, in the given sequence, in a period of just 4 or 5 months, nor is it ever in (6) for a year. However, the association (4) is seasonally accurate and the order (2)-(3)-(1) is correct for any full apparition (evening and morning appearances) if the brief inferior conjunction is ignored. The association of a crop's maturation with Obyais plausible if the position here meant heliacal setting in the east, ending a full apparition counted from the previous heliacal rising in the west. On the other hand, we might expect a mature millet plant to mirror Venus when brightest, at or near stations 2 or 3, and (1) to be associated with the young plant's first eruption from the ground. Conceivably the correspondences recorded by Griaule and Dieterlen were partly misunderstood, or misstated by the informant. But there is enough real astronomy here to imply that Dogon skywatchers once observed Venus carefully and regularly enough to become familiar with its changing appearance and position among the stars.

The Venus Calendar

During the early 20th C., the Hogon of the Arou, the leading high priest of the Dogon, maintained a sort of Venus calendar on the east-facing outside wall of his house in Sanga. According to L.R.P., p. 481f., symbols composed of a circle and one to six rays, representing the six positions of Venus (Fig. 4) and called "eyes" by some informants, were drawn every three years on the allotted wall area, the odd numbers on the north side and the even ones on the south side. After the 6-symbol was drawn, denoting 18 elapsed years, the count was repeated beginning with symbol 1. See Fig. 5 for my reconstruction of the appearance of two count cycles. Many cycles were seen on the wall by the ethnographers, but their only record may be in Griaule's Signes Graphiques Soudanaise ( Ref. 7), a rare and elusive monograph I saw once for 10 minutes in the main research library of the University of California at Los Angeles, shortly before it was stolen. More important, though, is the recorded interpretation of the symbol pattern.

The 3-year intervals probably were derived from successive, same-season apparitions, evening-to-evening or morning-to-morning, which recur at 3.2-yr. intervals, i.e. two Venusian synodic periods. As shown in Fig. 5, the true intervals accumulated to 19.2 yrs. when the 6-symbol was drawn, not 18, a difference approaching one synodic period, hardly negligible if observation of the planet was really the calendar's basis. Without correction, the error would have grown to intractible values even if each new cycle's start was counted as 3 elapsed years. Griaule and Dieterlen overlooked this incompatibility as well as a more serious one with Venus' 8-year period of repeat apparitions--the correct basis for an accurate Venus calendar. The 6-symbol's interval, accurately timed, would have begun with an evening or morning apparition practically identical to the 1-symbol's.

The description claims that a solar calendar was the basis for the rounded intervals, implying that Venusian phenomena were paid only lip-service. However, the number 18 is not a special one in the Venus lore or elsewhere in the creation myth. Instead, 21, the sum of the integers 1 through 6, was "the count of the eyes of Venus." The Hogon's calendar would have required counting the third cycle's first interval to get 21, contradicting the claim of a reset to 3 years then. Interestingly, real observed phenomena would have produced the "eyes count" on average using just five symbols, viz. following an obya in year 1, solar month 6, the next obya are at year 3, month 1; 4,8; 6,3; and 7,10. The year-sum is 21 and also would be for a starting month of 7 or 8. For starting month 9-12 the sum would be 22, another special number to the Dogon. For month 4 or 5 the sum falls to 20 and for 1-3 to 19, so this scheme isn't perfect. The weather in Dogon country and Venus' and the Sun's declinations favored months 4 to 7--December or January to March or April on the indigenous agricultural calendar--for accurate observation of heliacal risings; the poorest period was June to October (rainy season), corresponding to months 9 to 1 or 2. So year-sums of 20 or 21 would have been most frequent. But complicating my analysis is the use of another calendar by Dogon skywatchers and priests, with the winter solstice as New Year's Day, to record some phenomena and schedule religious events. Also, the Moon's phase cycle was the short-term basis for month counts. (Calendric ambiguity is a major source of uncertainty in identifying astronomical objects and events in the Dogon lore. Griaule and Dieterlen never recognized this problem.)

A five-symbol calendar obviously would eliminate the 6-symbol but is consistent with the millet-development lore described above, wherein the yapunu da position is excluded. A five-symbol calendar also could record real Venusian phenomena. I believe the Hogon's calendar was a degraded, simplified derivative, possibly a century or less old when the French ethnographers documented it. A numerology-based need for six symbols to represent three zodiacal positions as well as three heliocentric stations, even as observational determinations were waning, led to the 6-period calendar with its inaccurate, rounded periods and meaningless (or perhaps unintended)18-year sum. The succession of elderly hogons who maintained this calendar may have failed to notice its growing departure from reality due to relatively short terms in office.

Loose Ends and Miscellany

I have been unable to discover any involvement of real, individual heliocentric and zodiacal positions of Venus in the Hogon's calendar, other than a probable obya as the "primordial" beginning, or any consistent temporal relationship between the two types that might explain the north-south alternation of the count-symbol placement on his wall. A single column would have sufficed. During the five full apparitions of 1980-87, every donno coincided with a zodiacal position, but the pattern was enegirim, ditto, dige tanu, yapunu da, dige tanu. Only two or three obya and yazu had such coincidences and some were with nonideal enegirim, etc. This apparition sequence occured in ca. 1850-80, in the early 18th C. and so on; at other times obya or yazu had the strong coincidences.

There may be more to the "eyes of Venus" lore than described above. One Dogon informant told Griaule and Dieterlen that, "The eye of yazu occurs at six years," suggesting a special phenomenon. We know from Fig.1, bottom, e.g. that Dogon skywatchers once memorized the celestial paths of objects that moved sensibly relative to the fixed stars. Venus' paths had to be for a fixed local time since too few other stars are bright enough to serve as references in twilight and/or at low altitudes. For 40 minutes after sunset, the loci of the planet's positions (azimuth and altitude) throughout evening or morning apparitions, viewed from Dogon country, have four distinct forms: bells tipped on their sides, rough ampersands, rough ellipses, and clipped figure-8's. Figure 6 shows examples of each form. The ellipses may have been regarded as lidded eyes, that traced during an evening apparition the eye of donno, a morning figure the eye of yazu. The apparitions of the late 1970's-late`80's had two evening eyes, one perhaps too fat, the other (Aug.`84-March `85) slim and more realistic but with its major axis tilted ~35° to the horizon. During other periods decades from those mentioned there were two morning eye-figures, but the occurrence of just one evening and one morning eye remains to be proved.

The ampersand loci are of interest too. They resemble profiles of quadrupedal animals, e.g. goats. The clipped-8's could have been associated with Venus the midsky-crosser. Perhaps the sky figures accounted for references to all of the calendric symbols as "eyes" although only two of each ten (PM and AM) figures were eyelike.

One of the most startling remarks by a Dogon informant was "Jupiter follows Venus in revolving around the Sun." Robert Temple exploited this as evidence for ancient astronaut-supplied knowledge of the planets' orbits in space, but if so, where are the Earth and Mars? I see a smart deduction by the Africans from careful, naked-eye observations of Venus, that ancient skywatchers in many lands could have made but for reasons unknown didn't, and an inference that Jupiter, second only to Venus in brightness, behaves similarly. Mars' celestial motion and large brightness variation made it too complicated to interpret so.


1: Griaule, M., Masques Dogons (Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie, Musee de l'Homme,1938).

2: Paulme, D., Organisation sociale des Dogon, (Paris: Editions Domat Montchrestien, 1940).

3: Griaule, M., Dieu d'eau. Entretiens avec Ogotemmeli (Paris: Editions du Chene, 1948).

4: Griaule, M., Journ. de la Societe des Africanistes, XX, 273, 1950.

5: Griaule, M., and Dieterlen, G., Le Renard Pale (Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie, Musee de l'Homme, 1965.

6: Temple, R. The Sirius Mystery (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1976). Reprinted in ca. 1990.

7: Griaule, M., Signes Graphiques Soudanaise, L'Homme (Paris: Hermann et Cie, 1951).


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