The social, economic and spiritual lives of Bamana men, in Southwestern Mali, are governed by a six initiation societies collectively known as dyow (sing. dyo). The six societies are n'domo, kòmò, nama, kono, chi wara and kore. A Bamana man must pass through all six initiation societies respectively to be considered a rounded man with full insight into ancestral teachings and traditions.
The kòmò initiation society of blacksmiths (numuw) and sculptors is responsible for educating its members about leadership and fighting skills, and most importantly, teaching initiates about how to harness and control natural and supernatural energy (known as nyama). Members use the knowledge gained to help their communities—they solve disputes, cure illnesses, hunt down witches and other negative spiritual forces, and generally protect the community from harm.
Each initiation society has its own associated mask type (mostly zoomorphic, i.e. based on animal forms). Kòmò is no different—its members (koine denw, meaning 'children of Kòmò') make use of the komokun (meaning 'head of Kòmò', pl. kòmòkunw; also called warakun, meaning 'beast') headdress. Believed to hold the secret knowledge, power and spiritual energy (nyama) of the kòmò society, komokunw headdresses have dual purposes—they are used as part of the costume worn during association meetings and are also used as altar shrine objects upon which sacrifices are offered.
When used during nightlong meetings, restricted to society members only, the headdresses are worn by the most senior members (komotigiw) and danced during performances that are said to harness the healing and divination powers of spiritual nyama. The headdresses are taken from their shrines and balanced horizontally on the foreheads of masqueraders. Combined with costumes of black feathers, amulets and hooded skirts, komokunw headdresses possess performers with the vision and knowledge required to identify malicious forces, locate criminals, and offer solutions to specific individual challenges.