The Dan are a Mande ethnic group from northwestern Ivory Coast and neighboring Liberia.
There are approximately 700,000 members of the group and their largest settlement is Man, Ivory Coast. Neighboring peoples include the Krahn, Kpelle and Mao. They are officially known as Yacouba (or Yakouba) in Ivory Coast. In Liberia, they are also known as Gio (Bassa for "slave"), which is considered a derogatory exonym.
They speak the Dan language, a Southeast Mande language. The Dan are known for their art, especially their mask rituals (Ge or Gle), as well as their secret society, Gor. Gor (Dan for "leopard") is a peacemaking society, not to be confused with the brutal Ekpe (leopard) society of Nigeria.
The Dan originally came from the western Sudan region to the north, part of present-day Mali and Guinea. The location and movements of the Dan, Mano and We can be reconstructed from as early as the 8th century , at which time the Dan and Mano were located in the savanna region of the northern Ivory Coast. In the tenth century, political turmoil, population growth and land depletion caused the Dan to migrate south of the Nimba range and into the high forests.
The Dan had a reputation as a fierce warrior society. One notable warrior chief was Grougbay Zobaneeay, who fought and pushed the tribes that once live in the present day Nimba County to as far as Loguatuo in Ivory Coast. Kipko Toh'ah-Gbeu drove the Kru men from what is now called Tapitah, Nimba County (prior to the arrival of Chief Tapeh); his last major war with the settlers was in Sanniquellie. He retired when he was wounded in the Sanniquellie war. Kipho gave his daughter Lhe'kpahseu in marriage to Grougbay Zobaneeay. Bho'Yaah, who lived in today's Garplay, Nimba County- in an alliance with Kipho Toh'Gbeu, made a truce to quit fighting the settlers. He was actually one of the last chief warriors of the Dan to have resisted the Americo-Liberian military push into Nimba. Gonsahn Ghe'Gbeu was from Miampleu Yeezleu, Nimba County. He also drove the Kphelehs from Eastern Liberia.
After Liberia became a nation in 1847, the new government in Monrovia began pacifying the Dan people. By the early 1900s, peace had been achieved, and administrative controls had been established.
The Dan are primarily a farming people who annually clear forest land to grow their staple foods and cash crops, such as rice, cassava, sweet potatoes, and a variety of maize. Today, they also grow cocoa, coffee, and rubber. Women are given a small plot of ground on which to grow their own vegetables to use in the households or to sell in the market. Greens are gathered from domestic and wild plants in the forest. Palm oil is extracted from the many wild palm oil trees and then used for such things as fuel and cooking.
Dan men do most of the agricultural work, but women help with the harvesting and weeding. Men also do all of the hunting and most of the fishing, while women tend to such domestic duties as caring for the children and preparing the meals. Children help by chasing cattle, or wild animals and birds away from the crops. The Dan also raise livestock such as cattle, cow, sheep, and goats, fowls, and chicken. Some of these animals (white ones) are eaten only on special ritual occasions involving much feasting, or to perform sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin.
The basic unit of Dan culture is the family. Dan culture is patrilineal and polygamous, so this unit comprises a husband, one or more wives and their children. Lineages, or groups of people descended from a common ancestor in the paternal line, live in distinct sections of the town, which are called quarters in Liberian English. Towns group together under a central government are called clans.
Dan men have their own fraternal societies, which marks their initiation into manhood and guides them throughout their lives. Men's societies, curator Barbara Johnson writes, "form the real socio-political unit of power in the Dan community today, as they did in the past." These societies controlled by the elders and acts as a source of power for the community. Boys initiated into the society are prepared to encounter the mysteries of the spirit world and to learn the rules of adult Dan men. Women, too, have a similar society.
These societies demonstrate their power and effectiveness through masquerades, wherein they call upon and control tutelary spirits from the bush, who appear as masked figures in this context. Using these mask-spirits, the societies are able to settle disputes, enforce rules, and correct behavior. All males attend bon, or bush school, during their initiation into these societies when they are adolescents.
Gor society. Like many Mande cultures, societal organisation centers around "societies": either age group, caste, occupational, or geographic. In the recent historic period, Dan communities were for the first (known) time allied into a political organization, created through the Leopard society (Gor). The Gor spirit of the society focuses on peacemaking between communities which have often been in conflict around the powerful spirit Gor, who is responsible for peacemaking.
Individual villages, even those unified under the Leopard society, still maintain a high degree of political independence.
Dan villages are divided into quarters, each housing an extended family or lineage. Each quarter is headed by a "quarter chief," who is chosen either for being the oldest male in the family or for having the most aggressive personality. Although the village or town chief administers authority over the whole village, the real power comes from the council of elders who assist the chief in all decisions. Honorary chief titles can be given to non-tribe members who have assisted the tribe in charitable means.
The Dan have a complex traditional religion. The Dan believe in Zlan, a Supreme God who created the universe and everything in it. They believe that no one can reach him or see him physically. Instead, they worship Zu, an independent spiritual power. The majority of the people believe in reincarnation, through which Zu can enable a person to pass into another person or even an animal after death. The Dan believe that Zu is present in all aspects of the universe and is appealed to for many kinds of help. Zu is harnessed through masquerade or divination practices; the Dan harness du by creating an object for du to embody. Dreaming is the means through which people communicate with Zu.
Traditional Dan huts were small, single-room dwellings made of mud and thatch. Each wife of a man had her own hut where her children lived until they were old enough to move out. Today, houses are large and rectangular with several rooms. A lot of changes have been made to the old traditions, but while some of the old traditions are still being practiced, it's only in indigent regions.
Dan arts are notable for wood sculpture, including a huge variety of masks, each with unique forms and purposes. Dan masks are the most important art form of the Dan people. Artisan also produce traditional wooden spoons.
Masks are the most important art form of the Dan people of Liberia. The Dan people refer to these masks as gle or ge, terms that refers both to the physical mask and the individual spirits the mask is believed to embody during masquerade performances.
Gle.Scholars use the terms ge and gle interchangeably to refer both to Dan masks and to invisible, supernatural spirit forces that live in the forest but esteem to enter the civilized world of the village. The only way they can do this, the Dan believe, is through masquerade. In order for a gle to be embodied during a masquerade, an initiated member of a Dan men's society must have a dream that reveals the exact nature of the gle, its intended function, and the masquerade through which the gle would manifest. The council of elders, once they are told of the dream, decides whether the masquerade ensemble should be created for that man to wear and perform. The wooden gle is accompanied by a full-body costume constructed of raffia, feathers and fur. It is believed that each gle has its own personality, preferences, dance and speech patterns and is given a personal name. The wearer of the mask takes on all of these qualities during the masquerade. Having come from the dark, mysterious realm of the forest, a gle is believed to be unpredictable. Therefore, an attendant always accompanies the gle masquerader to control it and interpret its speech.
Dean gle and Bu gle masks. Gle can be divided into two categories: that of dean gle, which is a gentle, peaceful gle without a gender, but whose qualities are thought of as feminine and that of bu gle, which is the war gle named after the sound of a gunshot, whose qualities are thought of as masculine. The dean gle mask represents an idealized version of Dan beauty. It is characterized by narrow eyes, an oval shape, a smooth forehead, and a mouth slightly open to expose teeth. Dean gle's functions are to teach, entertain and nurture. Bugle masks are designed to frighten. Their eyes are depicted as protruding tubes and the surface of the face has boldly projecting angles. The most powerful bugle masks are decorated with animal and human deposits such a bone and fur.
Ma go, personal miniature masks. Similar to gle masks, miniature masks are carved to embody du tutelary spirits, but their main function is the protection of their owner from harm. These masks may also be used in divination and as sacred objects upon which to swear an oath - thus man go are treated like other sacred objects and are fed with ritual offerings and kept hidden from public display. In some cases, an owner of a full-sized mask may carry a miniature version of the large mask to serve as a ma go.
Vandenhoute distinguished two large groups of masks: the gebande and the genome. Gebande is the most sacred examples of Dan masks while Genome is a lower rank of masks. The classifications relate to the content which the Dan attribute to the mask, rather than the appearance of the mask.
Gebande masks can be divided into a series of subgroups and categories:
Daniel B. Reed calls music the "fuel" that drives gle performance. Reed writes, "Performers use music to attract the spiritual power that enables them to solve sorcery conflicts and heal, manifesting Dan spiritual powers in collaboration with the Ivorian judiciary to combat socially destructive spiritual behaviors."
Contemporary gle performances incorporate elements of popular culture. For example, gle may reference technology, mention Jesus or Allah, incorporate mass-mediated popular music and sing or speak in many languages.
Before a gle can perform, his performance must first be approved be the proper authorities - those affiliated with the "sacred house" of a particular gle. A person or group of people may hire a gle, but in order to do so they must also present their reasons why, as well as where, when and how the gle will perform, to these same authorities. The process that the authorities undergo to determine whether the gle can perform is shrouded in secrecy, but essentially the authories consult a powerful spirit, called the yinan, by "throwing" kola nuts, a process used in divination. If the answer is "yes" to the question of whether the gle can perform, then the cost of the performance is assessed and the performance planning begins.
There are a series of rules that must be followed in order for the gle to manifest. Many of these concern women, who are forbidden from seeing certain genu (pl. gle)
The wunkirmian is a large ceremonial ladle that is carved to honor a particular woman who has distinguished herself through generosity or hospitality. The wunkirmian is owned by the wunkirle, who is considered the "most hospitable woman" of her village quarter. Traditionally, she chooses her own successor.
Curator Barbara C. Johnson describes the role of the feast ladle in a Dan feast: "At feast times [the wunkirle] marches with her spoon at the head of the line of women from her quarter. Each woman carries a pot of cooked rice or soup. The wunkirle either distributes to the food to the guests, or more frequently uses her ladle to indicate the distribution. At some feasts the wurkirlone of a village compete with each other in generosity by distributing small gifts of peanuts, candy, coins and other foods. The women dance at these times. The wunkirle's prestige may be indicated by her being carried in a hammock through the village by the women of her quarter. They also contribute gifts of their own, but always in the name of the wurkirle."
Besides acting as "emblems of honor," feast ladles have spiritual power. According to the Dan, the ladles embody du and contain the power of the wunkirle. The wunkirmiam is for the woman what the masks are for the men; wunkirmiam are the woman's chief liaison with the power of the spirit world and the symbol of that connection. Like masks, each wunkirmian is given its own name.
The most common form of the wunkirmian has a handle carved as a human head that displays the characteristic of the buangle mask: narrow eyes and an oval face. The face on the ladle depicts a specific woman.
Janus-faced heads on a staff are reported to be carried by certain masked performers. The two faces looking in opposite directions symbolize the supernatural ability of the gle to see in all directions.
Like feast ladles, these heads are considered powerful spiritual objects that act as receptacles for du. Some are created as portraits of deceased family members that embody that person's spirit.
It is difficult to determine the antiquity of brass casting among the Dan, but it is clear that the practice began at least in the early 19th century if not much earlier. Some scholars believe that the We people to the East may have introduced the practice to the Dan. Brass casting was a practice of Dan blacksmiths. In Dan communities, the blacksmith was always awarded a high status because he was responsible for agricultural tools and weapons. Brass-casting took place at night to protect the object from onlookers. Brass-casters created brass objects using the cire-perdue, or lost wax method.
By the late 1930s, a Liberian government decree outlawing all brass jewelry resulted in an abundance of brass, which brass-casters used to figurative sculptures. Typically, figures stand at about 8 inches tall and carry objects of cultural importance in their hands. The figures were made principally as prestige items.