Laird Scranton, Author of the Month for August 2008
Comparative Cosmology: The Dogon, Buddhism and Ancient Egypt
By Laird Scranton
Laird Scranton has established himself firmly as a leading interpreter of the mystery of the Dogon tribe of West Africa and their ancient Egyptian heritage. Laird will join us during August 2008 on our Author of the Month message board to answer queries from posters and to discuss his work
The study of ancient symbol and myth is often hampered by evidence which, for any given culture, may have become fragmented over time. Fortunately, our ability to 'read past' these apparent gaps in evidence is often enhanced by the parallel nature of myth and symbol in different cultures. So striking are the similarities between the cosmological myths of ancient cultures - and so thin the likely trail of transmission from one culture to another by conventional means - that Carl Jung was impelled to propose his famous theory of archetypes, postulating innate psychology as a credible way to explain their near-global appearance. It is these same abiding similarities in world myth and symbol that give rise to the study of comparative cosmology - a discipline in which similar symbolic systems are closely compared as a technique for revealing potential new insights into the nature of ancient cosmology.
Stranding squarely at the crossroads of comparative cosmology we find the Dogon tribe of modern-day Mali. Studied exhaustively by French anthropologists Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen in the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties, the Dogon were documented as preserving a secret cosmological tradition that is cast in the familiar themes, symbols and storylines of the classic ancient cosmologies. Moreover, the Dogon priests seemed to retain a clear sense of the deepest meanings of their own symbols, which they were able to convey in modern terms to the French researchers.
The potential importance of Dogon myth and symbol as a pivotal resource for the study of comparative cosmology is underscored by several suggestive points: First, the Dogon share many key cultural and civic traditions in common with ancient Egypt - such as the founding of districts and villages in deliberate pairs, called Upper and Lower. They observe the same calendars as the ancient Egyptians, and the Dogon priests maintain a mode of dress similar to that of the ancient Egyptian priests. The Dogon still make use of many of the same agricultural methods that were practiced in ancient Egypt. Furthermore, the Dogon share important religious rituals - such as the wearing of skull caps and prayer shawls, the practice of circumcision, and the observance of a Jubilee year - in common with Judaism as well as ancient Egypt.
Conceptually, Dogon cosmology begins with an aligned pyramid-like structure called a granary, which the Dogon priests tell us defines a world-system or plan. In many ways, the structure calls to mind an early form of a pyramid, and several of its key structural and symbolic features are found reflected in the pyramids and similar aligned structures of Egypt, India, China, and the Americas.
Controversy relating to the Dogon began in the 1970's, with the publication of Robert K.G. Temple's book The Sirius Mystery, which suggested that the outwardly-primitive Dogon were in possession of unexpected astronomical facts relating to the stars of Sirius. Temple claimed that the Dogon knew both of the existence of a tiny, dense dwarf star called Sirius B that is locked in a binary relationship with the larger sun-like star Sirius A, and defined the correct orbital period for the two stars - details that should have been unknowable without the aid of a powerful telescope. Since these same facts had already been acknowledged by Western scientists by the time they were documented for the Dogon, popular researcher Carl Sagan suggested that the Dogon may have simply learned the facts from some knowledgeable modern visitor, then incorporated them into their pre-existing body of cosmological knowledge.
During the 1980's, a second wave of researchers, including Belgian anthropologist Walter Van Beek, restudied the Dogon. Although Griaule and Dieterlen had previously characterized Dogon cosmology as a closely-held secret tradition that was largely unknown to the average tribesperson, these secondary researchers reported an inability to recreate Griaule and Dieterlen's findings. On that basis, Professor Van Beek first concluded that much of what Griaule reported may have been fabricated on his behalf by what he perceived as overly-obliging Dogon priests. Later, Van Beek went a step further by suggesting that the classic Dogon granary form, as reported by Griaule, was in fact, a structure known only to Griaule.