African Textiles – Myth and Religion

Without doubt the most elaborate account of the religious and symbolic significance of weaving in an African society was that provided by the Dogon sage Ogotemmêli to the celebrated and controversial French ethnographer Marcel Griaule. As part of a complex narrative that apparently related all aspects of Dogon life to cosmological symbolism, the old man explained that each stage of spinning and weaving thread was a symbolic analogy to human reproduction and resurrection – “the making of cloth symbolizes the multiplication of mankind.” Underlying this imagery however, there was a more arcane linkage between the origin of weaving and the creation of the world itself. The face of the seventh Spirit ancestor became a living loom as he transmitted divine word in the form of cloth. Because of the link between weaving and the word, the processes of spinning and weaving could only be done in daylight hours. To work at night would be to weave silence and darkness into the cloth. As with other aspects of Griaule’s Dogon ethnology, his comments on weaving have recently been reassessed – see Gardi references below.

Dogon marriage cloth – imported thread embroidered on local indigo dyed cotton strips.

More common than this kind of extended cosmological analogy are myths that recount where or how the ancestors first learnt to weave. The Tukolor are one of the main weaving peoples of Senegal and Gambia. The weaving group among the Tukolor, called Maabo, preserve a body of myths and weavers’ lore that explains the secrets of the various looms parts, procedures to ensure effective weaving, and powers to protect the weavers from rivals. All of these are believed to have been passed on down the generations from their mythical ancestor Juntel Jibali. This ancestor who was himself half-man, half-spirit, came across a jinni spirit weaving in the forest while he was collecting firewood. He watched for a long time, listening to all the incantations the jinni spoke as he wove. Eventually he was able to make away with the loom itself, carrying it back to his fishing village in a canoe. Juntel’s mother, who was herself a spirit, then taught him how to grow and prepare the necessary cotton thread. [see Dilley for details.] Similarly the Asante have several mythological accounts of the origins of kente weaving. Hand woven cloth is sometimes regarded as having a spiritual potential not found in manufactured fabrics. An example of this is the wearing of bogolanfini (see here) by the Bamana of Mali to absorb “nyama”, a dangerous and polluting power released by activities such as hunting and in circumcision ceremonies. Among the Bunu Yoruba in Nigeria Elisha Renne found that special white cloths were used in healing women thought to be linked to water spirits. However although certain cloths have spiritual significance it is highly unusual for the imagery on cloths to directly represent spiritual entities. One exception though is the Aso Olona or Ogboni cloths of the Ijebu Yoruba, where the designs depict various types of water spirit.

Ijebu Yoruba aso olona sash.

Further Reading: 
Aronson, L. “Ijebu Yoruba Aso Olona” African Arts 25(3) (1992)
Brett-Smith, S. “Symbolic blood: cloth for excised women” Res 3 (1982)
Dilley, R. “Myth, Meaning, and the Tukolor Loom” Man 22 (2) (1987)
Dilley, R. “Tukolor Weaving Origin Myths: Islam and Reinterpretation” in A. Al-Shahi ed. The Diversity of the Muslim Community (London, Ithaca Press) (1987)
Gardi, B. “Textiles Dogon” in Bedaux, R. & Van Der Waals, J.D. eds. Regards sur les Dogon de Mali (2003)
Gardi, B. “Textiles dogon -Textiles tellem” in Leloup, H. Dogon (2011)
Griaule, M. Conversations with Ogotemmêli (1965)
Renne, E. Cloth that does not die (1995)