One evening, as the sun began to set, a Dogon priest called a “diviner” traced an intricate drawing in the ochre sands that lie at the foot of Bandiagara Cliffs. A series of six connected squares and an elaborate set of symbols were drawn in a pattern that represent the potential futures of the family, the village, regional peace and harmony, life and death, and the wishes of God.
The diviner next placed tiny sticks in the sand panels, representing God and the family. Several “I”-shaped tracings symbolized peace and death. Small heaps of sand with minute holes represented other concerns: harmony within the village, illness, next season’s harvest, even one’s own mortality.
As the diviner priest drew the patterns into the sand, he chanted to invoke the sacred fox to come weave a path of prophecy for his village across his creation:
“Fox, tell me please
is there something?
Will there be shame next year?
Fox, speak clearly.
Let the people coming to the field
stand eye to eye.
Throw your traces.
Give me your nails to mark the sand.
Be clear. Whatever you see, tell me
Give me your footprints.
The Dogon priest finished his chant as the last light of the day lingered in the western sky and then disappeared. The priest returned to his village. Nightfall invited the fox to visit the sacred Dogon markings.
At dawn the following day, sunlight traced the shadows of the fox path across the sand drawing. Indeed, the fox had visited in the night during our trip and with its tracings had foretold the future of the village of Yougou Piri. With these fortuitous markings, the fox had symbolically acted out the ritual of an oracle, a Dogon tradition that keeps life in balance for yet another year.