African West Coast'S Dances Of Masks Ritual: A Vivid Portrayal

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Religious ritual is a significant action that expresses our deepest understandings of the world. Religious rituals are common in almost all religions and therefore the common topic of attraction for anthropologists. In this research paper, I observed a form of religious ritual which is practiced among the indigenous people of the African west coast, particularly the Ivory Coast. There are various forms of this ritual which consist of different masks and different dances accompanied by music. It is performed on different occasions and for various purposes. They are deeply connected to the ancient jungle and the leafy forest where is home to different ethnic branches of the Mande group. I have observed the dance of the masks for justice and the construction of the sacred bridges by holy spirits in the forest. Keywords: Religious rituals, ethnic group, African indigenous, the dance of masks


Ritual is an essential aspect of religion and almost all religions acknowledge its importance in human affairs. Rituals are activities that have a clear religious connection.’ A ritual is a link established between the present moment and original reality. The word ritual refers to symbolic action, which focuses on a certain kind of power through the use of natural signs and symbols. Rituals range from simple gestures such as bowing or shaking hands, to elaborate ceremonial dramas, such as the coronation of the traditional chief, modern chief, etc.’ ( Ogunleye 2014) There is no known religion without ritual.’In Christianity, for instance; offering, tithe, thanksgiving, penitence, etc, are important rituals that are observed. In Islam, ablution and Zakat have recognized rituals while in African religion, a rite-de-passage, i. e. a ritual event marking a person’s transition from one status to another, otherwise known as a ‘life crisis’ takes care of a person’s existence from the cradle to the grave.’ (Ogunleye 2014) 'Modern religion (Christianity) consists of beliefs (Dogma) and practices (Rituals).

In antique religions, mythology takes the place of Dogma. Myth is merely an example of religious usage. Hence the study of ancient religions not with myth but with the study of rituals and traditional usage.’ (Leach, 1961) Observation shows that indigenous people of Africa perform complicated and different rituals which are rooted in various mythological beliefs. However, the rituals themselves have a lot in common regardless of their origin. Rituals are performed periodically; on a specific time in a human life calendar. 'In traditional African environments, the ritual expression is a frequent occurrence that stages the specific moment of life from birth to death. Ritual is usually made of processes and sacrifices to satisfy the Gods and ease the personal or environmental transformation from one stage to another. It could be a young boy coming of age to become a man or a season coming to an end while another starts.’ (Kyalo, 2013) Among different ethnic groups that live on the African west coast and practice a variety of rituals, there is one thing common.

Many of the rituals are performed by Dancing masks accompanied by music and drumming. Masks come out occasionally and periodically. Their performances have significance relating to either stage of life of the human or seasonal changes. Moreover, they are the strong force of the constitution and their decision on matters related to justice and dispute is taken without further negotiation. In this research paper, I observed and analyzed the religious rituals of one region in the Ivory Coast where the ancient jungle is home to different ethnic branches of the Mande group. The most characteristic of these is Dan, who is related to the Guerre.

Dances of the Masks

In most parts of African continent, Masks are the foundation of the community. The exhibit their magical power through an esoteric dance and community members get power, faith and sense of belongingness by simply observing the. The masks often come out of their secret places when there is a dispute or crisis. Basically when their people need them. They come out to help individuals and empower their belief. .’An important example of the embodiment of religious thought is ritual is the masks and masquerades. . . Many masks depict primordial beings, cultural heroes, mythical ancestors and divinities whose significant precedents are re-enacted in performances. . . many masks are not anthropomorphic figures at all, but complex superstructures representing the cosmic order or dynamics.’ (Pernet, 1992) ' masks' formal, esthetic qualities convey fundamental values - such as 'coolness' representing mastery and containment of power.’ (Grillo, 2012)

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In the village of Betigoazone on the west coast where one of the major dance of the masks ceremonies happens, many clans and families live. The sound of the drum invites people to gather in the main square as the masks have arrived for their annual performances. Music has always been an important part of these ceremonies.’In traditional African societies, music-making is generally organized as a social event. Public performances, therefore, take place on social occasions—that is, on occasions when members of a group or a community come together for the enjoyment of leisure, for recreational activities, or the performance of a rite, ceremony, festival, or any kind of collective activity, such as building bridges, clearing paths, going on a search party, or putting out fires—activities that, in industrialized societies, might be assigned to specialized agencies.’ (Kwabena Nketia)

Each mask belongs to a different family. Some are very old and come out only on very special occasions. Some masks are only come out every five years, some every ten years or even fifty. The Masks decorations are fascinating and it depicts how important they are. It is believed that they are the true face of the protector spirit that reveals itself in the dream. The man who carries them is off importance and speaks of their level as well, He is called initiator and he accompanies the mask and take care of it during the dance. The chief of the clan choose him. Before the ceremony begins he goes into a deep state of trance. He is expected to perform an elaborating ritual including animal sacrifice before taking the Mask out. The crowd adore the masks but they are scared of them too.

The masks are the source of strength and spiritual peace for them hence they stay away from them not to offend them by physical touch. At time Masks may allow certain individuals apart from the initiator to touch them but that is rare. The Mask must go back to their hidden place soon after they come out. It is not allowed to keep them out for more than four days. As a matter of fact there must be compulsory rituals and sacrifices before putting them back to their secret resting place. Once it comes out, each mask must return to its secret dwelling place within a certain time between two to four days.

Before it is again put away the obligatory sacrifice and rituals must be performed. While Masks are performing, the gathered villagers enjoy and feel excited with the power and professional performance and they believe only divine spirits can do such acts. The clan chiefs observe the ceremony. From time to time they give orders to the initiated for the mask to do something specific.

Bridges of Spirits

In Ivory Coast ancient jungles, such as the Tai jungle, and leafy forests are home to ethnic groups that are branched from the Mande group. The most popular of these groups is Dan community and they are related to the Guerre. Their villages are built up in distance from one another. Their dome shaped houses are covered with large cone pointed roofs made with palm leaves and straw. It is an effective solution during the heavy rainy seasons. Each village is governed by the council of elderly men. They often dictate the rules of the society, protect the secrets of the community and make sure that the traditional laws, the gua, are obeyed. A great part of the mythology of the Dan is born in the heart of the jungle where nature and magic melt into one.

The Dan have always respected their natural surroundings, as something sacred, as it is the indisputable genesis of their cosmogony. The bridges of the spirits are found within the depth of such green realm. They believe these bridges are not the work of man. The supernatural beings of the forest themselves build these bridges, to make it easier for the men who live here to move through the forest. Nobody knows how the bridges are made. They are the sophisticated work of supernaturals that wave hundreds of Lianas from the jungle to connect the opposite side of the river or a ravine. These bridges are sacred, because they are made with lianas, and everything that comes from the jungle is revered. Hence they walk barefoot while crossing in awe and respect. The chief of the secret society of the initiated is responsible for the spiritual welfare of the people is also the guardian of the bridge. He performs a certain elaborative ritual at the time the bridge is not of any use due to lianas lose their elasticity and become prone to breakage in less than a year.

Once a year, during the ritual they cut off the bridge and then they start to evoke the spirits of the forest to build up a new one. The ritual consists of spreading colorful rice and sacrificing animals. The new bridge will be installed during the night by the supernaturals. During such occasions, villagers are not allowed to come out of their houses. By dawn, they will find a new bridge installed and ready to use. Such ritual acts are to be interpreted ' in the context of belief: they mean what the actors say they mean.’ (Goody, 1961)


Ritual is a symbolic activity, that brings together the mind, the body and the emotions of participants and at the same time, binds people to a community of shared values. In ethnic communities of Africa, rituals are a form of cosmology and practiced a religion that empowers them as a member of the community with spiritual peace and faith. The power of the supernatural depicts in the form of magic and myth that stems from the environment.

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