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Cite as: Dobbin, Kristen. 2007. Interpretations of an Interpretation: Faults in Temple's Theory Based on the Ethnographic Method. PARA Research Paper A-03.

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Kristen Dobbin






Interpretations of an Interpretation:

Faults in Temple’s Theory Based on the Ethnographic Method








Department of Anthropology

McGill University

April 13th, 2007



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Robert Temple shocked the world in 1976 with his book entitled The Sirius Mystery, which claims extraterrestrial contact as a basis for Dogon beliefs systems. Temple’s theory is centrally based on Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlan’s ethnographic work, Le Renard Pale, from 1965 in which they set out an intricate creation story for the Dogon culture. Within this mythology was the claim that the Dogon were acutely aware of the specifics of the Sirius star system. Temple, working from his own interpretations of Marcel Griaule’s ethnography, questioned how it was possible that a “primitive” tribe in Africa, without modern scientific equipment, could have obtained knowledge of the characteristics of the star Sirius and of the existence of the secondary star, Sirius B. While Temple resolved this question through his hypothesis of early extraterrestrial contact, the ethnography on which his theory was grounded was being criticized for inaccuracies related to the ethnographic method itself.  Not only did Temple interpret the work of Griaule and Dieterlan, but Griaule and Dieterlan similarly interpreted the culture of the Dogon. The weakness is Temple’s theory derives largely from his poor background knowledge of anthropological methods, resulting in the uncritical and improper use of Griaule’s ethnography to formulate his ideas.


Robert Temple: Intellectual Biography

Temple received his degree in Oriental Studies and Sanksrit at the University of Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania.  He is also a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (Wikipedia 2007).  Temple has no previous background in anthropology or archaeology, despite the fact that his theories spring from these disciplines. In fact, Temple admits that he was first introduced to the Dogon through an article by Griaule and Dieterlan in a journal called African Worlds (Temple 1998: 41). He then went to the Royal Anthropological Institute to uncover what he could about the Dogon. From the information he retrieved, Temple began to formulate his theory of extraterrestrial visitors from Sirius. Reading the ethnography at face value resulted in the creation of an erroneous theory because of Temple’s lack of grounding in the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology. As in any other academic field, anthropology has developed a specific professional lexicon, nomenclature and conventions of writing and research (Erickson, “Conclusion,” 2006: 525). This often makes it difficult for outsiders, such as Temple, to interpret and understand the subtleties within anthropological writings.


Theoretical Specificity in the Anthropological Framework

Specific contextual knowledge is important for understanding the shape of the discipline of anthropology. Widespread academic and cultural upheavals of the 1960’s and 1970’s, including feminism, civil rights, the cold war, and post-colonialism, resulted in an increased interested in critiquing and deconstructing the empirical foundations of the discipline and its initial scholars (Erickson, “Overview,” 2006: 238). This trend has continued into the post-modern era, and issues of objectivity, including problems with authoritative interpretation, bias and selective retention of information, have remained central in anthropological discourse.  Since the mid 20th-century, the scientific objectivity so highly valued by anthropologists has been scrutinized. The ethnography, now criticized as an interpretation itself, is no longer seen as a social reality, but as a construction. Ethnographies “are, thus, fictions; fictions in the sense that they are ‘something made,’ ‘something fashioned’” (Geertz 2006: 326). “It has become commonplace that ethnographies are ‘double-mediated,’ shaped by the ideas and preconceptions of both ethnographer and informants. They are a ‘tale of two cultures-the fieldworkers and the others’” (Van Beek 1991: 139). This trend towards the recognition of the subjectivity of the discipline and towards a more reflexive theoretical approach has led to a number of critiques of early 20th century ethnographic works, which were often written within a colonial framework. As someone untrained in the specifics of the discipline of anthropology, Temple would likely not have been fully aware of the theoretical issues within Griaule’s “classic” ethnography when he appropriated it for his theories. The specific “dialect” and discourses that have surrounded anthropological theory in the modern and post-modern era, in this case issues in Griaule’s ethnography, were either ignored or were completely unknown to Temple.


Marcel Griaule’s Original Ethnography 

Griaule’s work with the Dogon of Mali in the early 20th century represents a so-called classic work of ethnography. Van Beek argues that Griaule’s book, Dieu D’Eau, from 1948 revealed the world view of the Dogon in a manner of such completeness and sophistication that had never been seen before in ethnography (Van Beek 1991: 140). This account, based on Griaule’s primary informant, Ogotemmeli, begins with the god Amma taking a lump of clay, squeezing it in his hand and then creating the earth. This earth was flat and shaped like a female body, whom Amma then had intercourse with, creating the fox and the original Nommo twins from the first water. The twins gave the mother earth fibre for clothing, creating the eight spirals of the sun as a repository for moisture, wind and tornadoes. The fox was given the power of speech and prediction. Amma then created humans from clay, with the help of the male and female Nommo. They produced the first eight original humans, the ancestors of the Dogon. From there, the Nommo created a complicated stairway to the earth, from which descended the humans and animals. At this point, the structuring of human society was developed. According to the text, all of Dogon human life, society and culture is intimately linked to this creation myth. It has been noted that it is quite evident from the text that Griaule influenced much of the content of the discussions with Ogotemmili and also the structuring of the provided information into one coherent system. Griaule also speculatively connected Ogotemmili’s descriptions to the zodiac (Van Beek 1991: 140).  In his subsequent book, Le Renard Pale, Griaule described a different creation myth to that of his earlier writings, in which the god Amma creates the universe, stars, moons, planets and culture of the Dogon. The focus of the story is the sacrifice and resurrection of one Nommo (Dogon water spirit) to purify and redeem the earth from its twin, Ogo’s, wrongdoings. This act of sacrifice subsequently created the star system around Sirius, of which Sirius B is central. An ark of the eight original ancestors of humanity descended from the heavens to create civilization on earth. According to Van Beek, this is an entirely new paradigm of Dogon mythology, quite different from the initial Dogon cosmology outlined by Griaule in Dieu d’eau (Van Beek 1991: 141). These two major texts, distinguished from an earlier and more descriptive accounting of Dogon life from 1931-1947, are questioned for their validity.


Criticisms of Griaule

Griaule’s ethnographic works have been lengthily criticized for inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Walter Van Beek has undertaken the considerable task of addressing Griaule’s body of works, attributing his negative finds to the uniqueness of Griaule’s field situation, “including features of the ethnographer’s approach, the political setting, the experience and predilections of the informants, and the values of Dogon culture” (Van Beek 1991: 139). Van Beek argues that the pre-1947 publications, Dieu D’eau and Le Renard Pale are inconsistent and do not resemble ethnographies of the same culture. The world system presented by Griaule also depicts a society that is completely anomalous in the region, though it is noted that Griaule had said that the Dogon represented a typically “Sudanic” culture (Van Beek 1991: 142). Within ethnographic method, though it is recognized that the negotiations between interpretation and interaction will paint a unique image of cultures, these cultures will still be recognizable to a certain extent. While cultures are known to change and shift over time, they generally retain certain features “either as such or in the shaping of the transformation process” (Van Beek 1991: 143). Van Beek’s own research with the Dogon revealed a culture quiet different from that described by Griaule in the post-1947 writings.


Problems in Temple’s Logic: Drawing on the Ethnography

  • Subjectivity  

Temple’s main publication bears the traces of an unawareness of not only the specificities of the ethnographic method but also of the possible drawbacks of Griaule’s own work. As earlier noted, “anthropologists have a hundred ways of misinterpreting- deliberately, unconsciously, a lot, a little” (Bouju 1991: 161). Despite this, Temple argues that “there is no question but that we are indebted to Marcel Griaule’s personal qualities for laying open to us the sacred Dogon traditions” (Temple 1998: 46). Van Beek agrees to a certain extent, attributing much of the results of the ethnography to Griaule’s forceful personality, his leading questions and his presence as an active agent in the creation of the Dogon cosmology (Van Beek 1991: 153). Temple seems to believe that Griaule and Dieterlan had no investment or biases in their fieldwork, stating that their restraint in drawing conclusions from their discoveries, “is the greatest factor in favour of Griaule and Dieterlan’s discoveries” (Temple 1998: 71). But contrary to Temple’s belief, Griaule had a considerable impact on the production and interpretation of data. For example, Griaule’s informant Ambara spoke of stars of different generations, implying stars considered father and son to the “grandfather” star of Sirius. Griaule interpreted this as an awareness of Sirius as a double (or even triple) star (Van Beek 1991: 157). Griaule was well aware of the astronomical specificities of these stars, which he learned about during his studies in Paris and which had been featured prominently in the news at the time. Griaule, “driven by his own convictions” transformed the stars called potolo and sigu tolo by the Dogon, into the Sirius mystery by reinterpreting statements from his informants in light of his own knowledge (Van Beek 1991: 157). Despite the speculative assumptions in Griaule’s text, Temple states that areas of speculation are “such treacherous ground. It has always been my policy, as well as my tempermental inclination to stick to solid facts.” (Temple 1998: 48). What Temple is unaware of is that the ethnography on which he has based his facts is inherently subjective, open to considerable interpretation and bias on the part of the ethnographer. Temple takes the word of the ethnographers as truth or fact. For example, Temple claims that the Dogon knew of the elliptical nature of the orbit of Sirius B, without any access to Kepler’s laws. His assumption rests on the statement within the ethnography that Sirius A is one “foci” of Sirius B. Temple then states that the “technical term ‘focus’ has been supplied by the anthropologists- rendering the meaning of what the Dogon said in their own language” (Temple 1998: 64). Temple does not question the validity of this translation or the possibility for error or bias. Unaware of the subjective nature of ethnography, Temple would be unable to recognize the seams of knowledge where information of the Dogon and the interpretations of Griaule were sewn together.

  • Outside Influences

With the advent of modernism and post-modernism, cultures are no longer seen as demarcated by fact, as bounded and stagnant entities, but rather are viewed as constantly moving and changing. Cultures are viewed as porous and continually interacting through diffusion and hybridization. Temple states that there were no Western missionaries prior to 1931 in the Dogon area, and that the “White Fathers, the French missionary order, have confirmed this  (Temple 1998: 64). From this limited knowledge, Temple asserts that any transmission of Western knowledge to the Dogon would be impossible (Temple 1998: 64). In this assertion, Temple implies that African tribes are isolated, uneducated and ignorant (Ridpath 1978). He disregards the possibility for the diffusion and flux of cultures, despite his recognition of the close proximity of the Dogon to the cities of Timbuctoo, Bamako, and Ouagadonga in Burkina (Temple 1998: 61). Temple also acknowledges that the French explorer Caille visited Timbuctoo and the Bambara Tribe in 1830 (Temple 1998: 61). Because it was not direct contact, Temple does not link this early visit to the possibility of the diffusion of ideas to the Dogon. Temple is not aware of the fact that, within Dogon society, ideas and objects are easily integrated into preexisting structures and new etiological tales are mixed with previous lore (Van Beek 1991: 152). While masked as traditional, the Sirius mystery was likely adopted after the 1920’s when astronomers were first discovering the nature of Sirius B as a tiny, dense star, giving it a place in the public awareness (Ridpath 1978). Van Beek found that “foreign elements were adopted and in a single generation became ‘traditional,’” often not warranting any acknowledgement on the part of the Dogon as to the origins of these foreign elements (Van Beek 1991: 152).

  • Specificity of Locale

The specificity of locale is important in addressing the impact of foreign influences in Griaule’s ethnography and Temple’s interpretation. The Dogon were not isolated at the time of Griaule’s studies. They lived on an overland trade route, near the banks of the Niger River (Ridpath 1978). Temple makes the assumption that Griaule speaks for all Dogon when he sets out their world view in the ethnography. Griaule, in fact, studied a specific grouping of the Dogon in the unique area of Sanga. This is an administrative centre with the earliest Christian and Muslim influences and an unusually large population. It is likely that there would have been a variant or mixed version of Dogon culture in this specific region (Van Beek 1991: 143). This is most evident in the biblical references embedded in the creation story of Le Renard Pale. The concept of creation itself, the rebellion of Ogo, the atonement and crucifix of the Nommo, and the eight saved in an ark are all reminiscent of aspects of the bible. “Nommo is sacrificed standing upright, arms outstretched, tied to a tree with iron. After his death he is resurrected by Amma and leads the continuing creation of mankind” (Van Beek 1991: 156). The similarities between Dogon beliefs and the bible emphasizes the exposure of the Dogon to the scriptural religions. While Temple is convinced of the cultural isolation of the Dogon, he insists these biblical references are indicative that the Dogon received their knowledge from early Middle Eastern civilizations, rather than from contact with more contemporary cultures. Islam has been an influence in the area for centuries and Christian contact began in the early 1930’s, over thirty years before Le Renard Pale was published (Van Beek 1991: 157). This is certainly ample time for biblical beliefs to directly influence Dogon ideologies.

  • Informants

Griaule’s specific informants also had an unusual amount of outside contact. His main informant in Le Renard Pale, Ambara, had a French education abroad. He was also aware of other Malian cultures, including the Bambara and the Sonray. Ambara had much more exposure to outside cultures than an average Dogon would, adding to the possibility that Griaule’s ethnography is an anomaly (Van Beek 1991: 156). In light of the Dogon focus on the stars in the Sirius system, it would be right to assume that they “grafted on to their existing legend new astronomical information gained from Europeans, picking up what fit their purpose and ignoring the rest” (Ridpath 1978).  Again, Temple assumes in his use of the ethnography that Griaule’s limited and unique informants represent the entirety of the Dogon population.

  • Colonial Setting

The specific political situation at the time of Griaule’s research, unrecognized by Temple, would have likely been a factor in the way Griaule’s information was presented.  Griaule capitalized on his colonial prestige and his informants likely saw him as occupying a place of undisputed power, “with a clearly expressed preference for specific information and his own ways of getting at it” (Van Beek 1991: 153). Ogotemmeli, for example, was acutely aware of what it was that Griaule wanted to hear (Van Beek 1991: 155). Because Griaule was highly respected amoung the Dogon, and because there is a heavy emphasis on consensus and the avoidance of contradictions, it’s likely that Griaule’s informants would have accepted Griaule’s interpretation as if it were their own (Ortiz de Montellano 2006). Van Beek notes that the Dogon would also probably have taken any opportunity to reverse the flow of information and thus reconfigure the balance of power (Van Beek 1991: 154). While Griaule made it clear in his field manual that it was necessary to be wary of the habitual lying of informants, he never doubted his own interpretations of Dogon information (Van Beek 1991: 154).  Because of this confidence, the ethnography is “a curious mixture of the two; bearing the imprint of a European view of African culture while at the same testifying to the creativity of the African experience” (Van Beek 1991: 155). The interaction between Griaule and his informants produced in Le Renard Pale novel tales that were heralded as “traditionally” Dogon, such as that of the Sirius mystery. 

  • Literal Reading

Within anthropological discourse, symbolism and metaphor are understood in cultural practices to represent a form of reality specific to a culture. Temple’s theory does not account for the space reserved for these forms of expression and he instead chooses to read Griaule’s entire ethnography literally. For example, Temple’s entire theory is based on the supposed Dogon knowledge of Sirius A, B, and C. In Griaule’s account, Sirius’ two star companions are given male and female attributes, implying that “they are not to be interpreted literally as stars, but as fertility symbols” (Ridpath 1978). Similarly, Temple’s version of a Dogon drawing of the Sirius system has been read selectively, with much of the original drawing omitted. After this omission, he then interprets the surrounding oval meant to represent the “egg of the world” as the elliptical orbit of Sirius B, a symbol which in fact lies within the circle, around Sirius A (Ridpath 1978).  Temple then reasons that the Dogon know of the elliptical nature of the movement of these stars. In addition, Temple argues that the Dogon are aware of the orbital period of the stars and places it at every fifty years, claiming that the Dogon count it as double to correspond with their principle of twinness, in following with the Sigui ceremony of the renovation of the world. This celebration is actually celebrated every 60 years by the Dogon.  This focus on the concept of twins also explains the Dogon belief that Sirius A had two companion stars (Ridpath 1978). The “two companion stars that the Dogon recognize are elements of a particular cosmology that would exist even if Sirius B did not” (Ortiz de Montellano 2006). Temple’s literal interpretations of the ethnography are often a stretch. For example, Temple argues that when the Dogon say that Sirius A and B were once where the sun is now, they are implying the moment of the coming to our earth from the Sirius system (Ridpath 1978). Temple takes this as indicative of advanced extraterrestrial visitors from the Sirius star system. Therefore, even if Griaule had been completely objective in his interpretation of the Dogon mythologies, Temple’s literal reading of the material denies the possibility for symbolic or metaphorical meanings, clouding any shred of truth in the matter further.  The entire Sirius mystery is based unequivocally on unwarranted assumptions (Ridpath 1978).


The Dogon Decoded 

Van Beek found, in his own research, that the concepts addressed by Griaule in his later ethnographic works “surfaced only as allusions, fragments of ritual expression” in contemporary Dogon life (Van Beek 1991: 144). Creation myths are not important to the Dogon and the creation stories expressed in Dieu D’eau and Le Renard Pale were unrecognizable to contemporary Dogon. Astronomy does not figure prominently in Dogon religion and while the Dogon are aware of Sirius as a star, as it is the brightest in the sky, it is not important for daily life or ritual (Van Beek 1991: 147). Van Beek found no one outside of Griaule’s circle of informants who knew of Sirius. In addition, no one within the circle knew anything of Sirius as a double or triple star, or about the mass, orbiting time or weight of the stars (Van Beek 1991: 150). Because of these facts Griaule’s post-1947 works should not be read as truth. The ethnography is the “product of a complex interaction between a strong willed researcher, a colonial situation, an intelligent and creative body of informants and a culture with a courtesy bias and a strong tendency to incorporate foreign elements” (Van Beek 1991: 157). Temple’s lack of grounding in anthropology left him susceptible to making uncritical assumptions and interpreting the ethnography inaccurately. The proven falsities within the so-called Dogon creation myth shatters the entire structure on which Temple based his theory.  In terms of “its assumptions, method, and techniques, Griaule’s research can no longer be considered ethnography, for they contradict the methods and techniques of ethnographic research today” (Bouju 1991: 159). In proper post-modern anthropological form, Van Beek’s criticism of Griaule has been subsequently critiqued for his methods of research. Anthropology in the modern period shows an acute awareness of the drawbacks of the ethnographic method.


The Implications of Temple’s Theory

Though the theory has been proven unreliable and fallacious, Temple’s Sirius Mystery has serious implications. The theory is, in a sense, a double-edged sword, and has been appropriated for racist theories from two sides. On the one hand, Temple traces the Dogon knowledge of the stars to early Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations, including Egypt and Sumer, who were supposedly contacted by advanced extraterrestrials from Sirius (Temple 1998: 46). Temple proves this alien contact by noting how these high civilizations seemed to spring up from nowhere. He argues that “people and civilizations are vastly different things,” thus quantifying grades of culture in a hierarchy. The theory of cultural relativism seems unavailable to Temple (Temple 1998: 47). By stating that knowledge reached the Dogon via these other civilizations, Temple degrades the Dogon’s own ingenuity, creativity, and intelligence, implying that an African civilization could not possibly have come up with this knowledge on their own. Temple explicitly states that the Dogon brought the knowledge of the stars “from the Mediterranean world into an obscure wilderness area where it has survived the ravages of time” (Temple 1998: 258). Not only does Temple explicitly state in his book that the Dogon live in an area close to a number of cities, but his statement implies that the Dogon are a stagnant and static group that has remained unchanged throughout time. In this way, Temple reinforces stereotypes of the “primitive” African tribe. Similarly, Temple’s theory has been re-appropriated on the other side, for Afro-centrist thinkers looking to reclaim history for the purpose of black pride. This group attempts to recover “suppressed” histories of the true ingenuity and the contribution of African civilizations to the progress of world society (Ortiz de Montellano 2006). These individuals believe that the insistence on early knowledge of the stars in Egyptian and Dogon cultures is due to an inherent black superiority that has been denied throughout the ages. They even go as far as claiming that the melanin present in black skin has the ability to pick up energy frequencies from the star Sirius, proof of their ability to contact the superior extraterrestrials (Ortiz de Montellano 2006). The Afro-centrists have utilized Temple’s theory, grounded in a faulty ethnography, to manipulate it for their own ends. 



Temple’s lack of knowledge of the specific problems that plague the ethnographic method led him to use the provided information without caution and to interpret it at face value. Temple fallaciously interpreted Griaule’s interpretation of the Dogon. Griaule’s research has been subject to attacks within a post-modernist paradigm concerned with issues of truth, bias, context and objectivity. He has been disparaged for his lack of material grounding; there is no accompanying socio-economic data and no connections are made between ideology and social structure (Van Beek 1991: 142). In fact, “the entire Dogon question may be futile theorizing because Griaule’s original data, on which this whole edifice is built, is very questionable. His methodology with its declared intent to redeem African thought, its formal interviews with a single informant through an interpreter, and the absence of texts in the Dogon language have been criticized for years” (Ortiz de Montellano 2006). The influence of this cosmology on other disciplines is extensive, most notably that of Temple and the “extra-terrestrial addicts of ‘cosmonautology,’ who have found, especially in the Sirius tales and the account of the ark, some of their ‘definite proofs’ of alien visits to this planet” (Van Beek 1991: 141). Most of those influenced on an interdisciplinary level have taken the Griaule’s texts at face value. Temple himself points out issues within interdisciplinary research, though he does not recognize his own participation within that framework. After the ethnographers state that Sirius B is scarcely visible, Temple says that this indicates “their own lack of astronomical expertise, for the star is totally visible” (Temple 1998: 42). Temple points out the way in which crossing disciplines has the potential for transgression and error. Marcel Griaule’s original ethnography, as analyzed by contemporary writers, was affected by inherent faults in the ethnographic method itself. Temple’s use of the ethnography, on which he relied heavily to develop his own claims, is therefore similarly fraught with issues.







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