The Dogon once believed that death did not exist, believing instead that immortal humans lived as serpents. However due to mankind breaking a religious restriction, people developed limited life-spans and eventually died. The first Dogon ancestor to die transformed into a serpent before metamorphosing into his permanent spiritual form. This change into the spirit form (nyama - 'soul and vital force of the ancestor') brought about negative influences to the community. As such, the villagers carved a wara mask (also called dannu; the 'Great Mask' or 'Mother of Masks') in the belief that the mask would hold the nyama of the deceased ancestor.
As the wara mask is believed to hold the spirit of the first deceased ancestor, it is used during the Sigi ceremony, held once every 60 years, commemorating the transformational process of the first ancestor. As well as honouring the first ancestor, the mask is also used to celebrate and honour later generations of deceased ancestors as a means to seek their blessings for the community. A new Great Mask is created for every Sigi ceremony.
NOTE: The Wara mask is sometimes (wrongly) called imina na, but this translates to 'voice of the Great Mask', an instrument used to mimic the sound of the Great Mask.1
NOTE: Even though the face of wara is in the form of a mask, it is never actually worn but instead displayed or carried for the community to view.