N'tomo (Ancestor Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The social, economic and spiritual lives of Bamana men, in Southwestern Mali, are governed by six initiation societies collectively known as Dyow (also called Jow sing. Dyo or Jo). The six societies are N'tomo (also called N'domo), Komo, 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.

Each initiation society has its own associated mask type (mostly zoomorphic, i.e. based on animal forms) including the n'tomo mask. The main aim of the initial 5-year long N'tomo Dyo is to prepare uncircumcised boys for adulthood and to educate them about life including farming skills and discipline. The masqueraders wearing the masks, enter the village compound to announce the start of a ritual or a puppet masquerade.

Distinguishing Features

  • Made of wood
  • Two main types of mask:
    • 1) Oval humanoid face with prominent eyes, nose & mouth with superstructure of horns
    • 2) Abstract face with strong, angular ridged nose, protruding mouth & standing central figure or animal between horns
  • Thin & discrete mouth (highlights the need for control of speech and silence)
  • Overhanging brow
  • Convex forehead
  • Abstract model has a flattened facial plane
  • Linear incisions across face
  • Mask may be covered in cowrie shells, blood-red seeds or brass
  • Line of 3 - 10 vertical projections above the face
    • Male n’tomo mask = multiples of 3
    • Female n’tomo mask = 4 or 8 horns
    • Androgynous n’tomo mask (children are born as androgynous until circumcision) = 2, 5 or 7 horns
  • Number of horns also believed to signify aspect of human creation2
    • 3 horns = impulse & desire
    • 4 horns = passivity & sufferance
    • 5 horns = need for man to work in order to live
    • 6 horns = senses through which man comes to know the world
    • 7 horns = joining of man (4 horns) and woman (3 horns) in marriage and society
    • 8 horns = reincarnation

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