The ‘Dog Star’ or Sirius is a star that has its influential place in astronomical history. It is mentioned as far back as the Babylonians and was used to help signal the annual flooding of the river Nile with the ancient Egyptians. Being the brightest star in the visible sky does make it quite hard to ignore and it is not hard to believe that it took a special place in many civilisations and cultures throughout human history. But like many notable objects in history, Sirius is not without controversy! This brings us to the Sirius Mystery.
The human view of the world and universe throughout history has always been quite controversial, from arguments about the earth being flat to believing the Milky Way was the only galaxy in the Universe. With the advancement of technology and more thorough methods of research we have been able to disprove or correct certain beliefs and theories and give answers as best we can to some of those mind boggling astronomical questions. But that does not mean everyone comes to the same conclusions and may ignore sound practice to create something more fantastical!
Step up the Dogon people of Mali in West Africa. The Dogon are a small tribe with a population of 400,000 – 800,000 that can be found in the interesting stone hut cliffs of Bandiagara and Douentza areas in Mali near the Niger River. They have a vibrant culture and are famous for their masked dances, wooden sculptures, architecture and religious traditions which attract many tourists. But they have perked the interest of ancient astronaut chasers for well over half a century thanks to Robert K G Temple. In 1976 Temple wrote the book, The Sirius Mystery, an influential piece of bad archaeology that has fuelled many people’s belief in the involvement of extra-terrestrials in the knowledge and practices of ancient cultures. Can’t see how a seemingly vibrant African tribe could lead down the path of a seemingly sci-fi story line? Let me enlighten you.
Temple’s book is based on the research of French anthropologist Marcel Griaule and his student Germaine Dieterlen. Between 1931 and 1956 they lived among the Dogon Tribe studying the tribe and their practices both past and present. This included all aspects of their culture and lore. It is here that Griaule recorded something unusual. The Dogon were reported to have been quite selective of who in their tribe knew of their history and lore and only a select few elders actually had the honour of having the oral history passed onto them. It was a blind hunter called Ogotemmêli who gave them an account of the secretive Dogon lore. What struck Griaule as strange was the information appeared to contain fairly accurate astronomical information which included a detailed account of Saturn’s ring system; an account of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter and most impressively, the knowledge of the star system of Sirius. Ogotemmêli knew that the brightest star in the visible sky was not a lone star, but in fact a bright star with some companion stars, even invisible companion stars. What is strange is that this was being recorded when it had not even been confirmed that there was in fact a companion star to Sirius; Sirius B, a white dwarf star first photographed in 1970! Ogotemmêli even drew (note that he was blind) a detailed drawing of the Sirius star system as he believed it looked.
When asked how this information was obtained in their history Ogotemmêli stated that it was an alien race from the Sirius star system that came to them thousands of years before to impart their knowledge. They called them the Nommos and they were believed to be merman like in appearance; think less ‘Little Mermaid’ and more ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ (Editor’s note: my first thoughts are of HP Lovecraft‘s Deep Ones: the Esoteric Order of Dogon perhaps)!
We actually can find reference to strange creatures such as these in many ancient astronomical cultures including the Sumerians, Egyptians and Babylonians and this was one of the flimsy connections Temple tried to piece together to try and prove the truth to the existence of these ancient alien astronauts by linking them to the part fish, part men creatures that an ancient Babylonian writer called Berossos claimed emerged from the ocean to teach civilisation to Humanity.
Griaule and Dieterlen in many people’s opinions foolishly took this sole source as the truth and without confirmation of any of the other elders they made their own cosmological evaluations from Ogotemmêli. He published Dieu d’eau: entretien avec Ogotemmêli (God of water: conversations with Ogotemmêli) in 1948 and many where all too willing to accept it as truth in its entirety, including Temple. He took great interest in the ‘gospel’ of Ogotemmêli and came up with some seriously questionable statements about Dogon lore and astronomical history. He took great interest in the drawing of the Sirius star system that Ogotemmêli produced, including the highly elliptical orbit of Sirius B. Again Temple pushes the shock of how a ‘primitive’ tribe would be able to know of the existence of Sirius B. He also accepts that there are other stars in the Sirius star system, including a third companion star, Sirius C which has never been photographed and only a minority of astronomers believe in its existence.
Perhaps it is in everyone to hope that aliens have visited us before as that does make things seem more interesting. It’ like magpie catching sight of something shiny, it is human nature to have their interest roused at something strange or unusual. All in all it sells books to have an unusual hook. But forgive the wet blankets of the world; the reality is much more beneficial no matter how boring some may believe it to be. Even having the slightest amount of common sense would have you asking questions about his dubious claims in The Sirius Mystery.
You do not have to dig far to start seeing the more logical explanations of the findings of Griaule and Dieterlen. First look at the claims of seeing the rings of Saturn and the largest moons of Jupiter. Yes, they were not officially discovered until the creation of the telescope but perhaps, with the much darker skies of the past and maybe even with a simple magnifying object, seeing these astronomical objects may not have been as impossible as we may think. Early Chinese astronomers have records of a moon going around Jupiter using just the naked eye. There is also a simplistic technique that some reports say can help us see the fainter objects in the night sky. It is the use of averted vision; the practice of using one’s peripheral vision to look at something. So instead of looking at an object straight on you avert your vision so that it is not directly in your eye line but rather to the side. Some people who have done tests with this method have claimed they have gained up to 3-4 magnitudes and that the method really helps people to see nebulae and star clusters, although of course some have claimed that it did not work for them at all. Proof of this can be seen in astronomical history with Aristotle claiming to have observed the star cluster m41 this way and many ancient records note of the use of ‘dark eye’ a synonym of averted vision. So there is proof this was a simple method used in ancient times and could be a reason for the Dogon’s supposed astronomical knowledge. But did Temple consider or explore any of these avenues? In short … no!
The historian in me though has had a screaming question from the onset of these original findings; was any other elder Dogon tribe member who was privy to the ancient Dogon lore, able to confirm the claims of Ogotemmêli? The answer would be no! Ogotemmêli was the sole source of information for the French anthologist and his student’s astronomical findings and using one source to make such claims is just not good business! Strangely enough there where many people over the years who did not just accept these findings and did question them but it was not until 1991 that someone actually went and visited the Dogon tribe and checked the facts with the existing tribe members. Anthropologist Walter Van Beek had taken an interest in the topic and decided to get answers of his own which really lays all bare. He made sure to ask as many Dogon people about Ogotemmêli’s claims and what he discovered was not that surprising. 15% of adult Dogon males had the Dogon lore orally passed onto them and none had knew of its supposed link to their past and practices. They knew it was of course a star but in Van Beeks findings, it appeared none of the elders he asked even believed astronomy to be an important part of their religion. They did not even agree Sigu tolo (the name that Ogotemmêli had given that they believed to be Sirius) was actually Sirius and the belief was more that it was actually the brilliantly bright Venus! The original description of To Polo, which was assumed to be Sirius B differed to the various descriptions of it by the tribe members that Van Beeks asked. They actually stated that To polo would get brighter some times and would sometimes appear like a group of twinkling stars. A reference that some believe sounds much more like the star cluster the Pleiades. All this is a little too messy and confusing to really suggest a definitive answer to what it could be.
Now there is a mention of the water spirit Nommo but not in the capacity that Ogotemmêli claimed as it is not a very important figure in their culture and definitely not as creator or giver of civilisation. Van Beeks found that the main astronomical influence in Dogon religion, if any, was actually more focused the position of the Sun and the phases of the moon. It’s quite strange that Temple pushed the idea of an alien race giving the Dogon all this random astronomical information with the account of just one man. Outrageous claims like this can cause a well-respected author to become a laughing stock over night and normally one would seek much more concrete evidence before putting it out for the world to see.
The study Van Beek carried out really called Temple out on the conclusions he made of Griaule and Dieterlen’s findings and even called out the original French anthropologists findings as well. One of the strangest but most telling findings that Van Beek uncovered actually came from the actions of Griaule’s very own student, Dieterlen. Griaule died in 1956 so has missed all the controversy around their work but Germaine Dieterlen did live to see it. In fact Van Beek felt duty bound to show her his findings and conclusions before he published it for the world to see and to give her the opportunity to try and question or defend her and Griaule’s work. But she did not. Instead she rather begged for Van Beek not to publish it and never once defended it or questioned his findings. This lack of defence really seals the deal in my eyes and pokes the final holes in the flawed work. How can Temple’s book be accurate if one of the original anthropologists who’s work his book is based on will not even defended the ordinal research and findings?
I know there will be many who will still believe in the original findings and conclusions of Griaule and Dieterlen and believe the contents of Temple’s The Sirius Mystery infallible, and it is every person’s right to believe in what they wish. But if you really open you mind and apply common sense and just do the slightest bit of research into it, it really falls apart. There is too much that makes no sense and too many plausible explanations. As my mother has always said, the simplest explanation is often the right one! And as my university lecturer always said, never rely on just one source!
(Article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer)