Suruku Epiphany

Bambara/Bamana Tribe (Mali) : 'Claiborne Suruku' (Hyena Mask)

Bambara/Bamana Tribe (Mali) : ‘Claiborne Suruku’ (Hyena Mask)

One of the tenets of animism would seem to be the availability of an infinite source of moral guidance from the natural order of nature in the world surrounding us. Many tribes were able to combine the best and worst characteristics of animal behavior as parody or as visual instruction.

The Suruku (Hyena) mask is performed during the Kore society initiation, the last of six male initiation societies of the Bamana/Bambara tribe (Mali, Africa)

What everyone knows is that the hyena is perceived as a lazy, strong, scavenger, “readily providing apt metaphors for all that is immoral, rapacious, and senseless. These are human shortcomings left behind as Bamana men achieve the ranks of Kore”. [4]

These are the lessons that are shared,

  • The hyena presents an excellent example of transformative choice within the animal kingdom.
    • It is a hunter as well as a scavenger, (one can be a king or a plebe)
    • It can work alone or in groups, (no man is an island)
    • It is hard to distinguish between male, and female, (everyone has a soft side)
  • The hyena when hunting will carefully go through a herd and select the weak prey, which they can then pursue for miles. To paraphrase Stienitz’s third rule of chess, The attack is to be directed against the weakest spot in the opposing position”.
  • Survival requires different natural skillsets, but also requires the ability and mindset to hunt alone, or work with a pack, (teamwork is always important).


Bamana Notes


The religion of the Bamana is directly related to the jow (initiation societies). As an initiate moves through the six societies, he or she is taught vital issues concerning societal concepts of the moral conduct of life, which contribute to the overall well-being of the individual and the community. Through the six levels of education the initiate learns the importance of knowledge and secrecy, is taught to challenge sorcery, and learns about the dual nature of mankind, the necessity for hard labor in the production of crops, and the realities of surviving from day to day. The final jow, Kore, is devised to allow a man to regain that portion of his spirit that has been lost to the god through the process of reincarnation. If a man is unable to regain his spirit for several lifetimes, he will be entirely absorbed by the god and will cease to exist on Earth. The goal of the initiate then is to usurp the power of the god and remain on Earth, undergoing endless reincarnation.

Use of Suruku mask[2]

All Bamana males advance through various levels of initiation and secret knowledge and the Kore mask appears for only the most senior of men representing their personal struggle to achieve knowledge and wisdom. The symbolism of this mask identifies it as a Kore society-mask combining human and hyena features. According to researchers hyenas are thought by the Bamana to represent foolish behavior reflecting an uninformed view of the world, very much like the young male initiates. Carved in secret by the blacksmith the mask is made from a single piece of wood.


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.

Adult Initiation[4]

Kore is the last and most significant of Bamana men’s associations (Colleyn 2008). Hyena masks are performed early in Kore to urge initiands to control their passions, unlike the “insatiably greedy” hyena. This mask’s sleek lines may reflect a Bamana aesthetic of “formal clarity which emphasizes rapid viewer accessibility” (McNaughton 1988: 109), yet Bamana “tend to be very situational in their… interpretation of images and symbols, preferring… to use specific events… as frames for their views on the meaning and quality of particular pieces” (McNaughton 1994: 33-4). The “formal clarity” of this mask must then provoke different interpretations because of its very openness of abstraction. The nature of the animal lends itself to such latitude of reference, for spotted hyenas are distinctly odd animals (Roberts 1995: 15-6) and readily provide apt metaphors for all that is immoral, rapacious, and senseless. These are human shortcomings left behind as Bamana men achieve the ranks of Kore.

A Brief review of Hyenas in African Myth and Ritual (Bamana)[5]

The hyena is depicted in African folklore as an abnormal and ambivalent animal: considered to be sly, brutish, necrophagous, dangerous, and the vilest of beasts, it further embodies physical power, excessivity, ugliness, stupidity, as well as sacredness.

In the transformative rituals of secret societies, such as the Kore cult of the Bamana (Mali), people “become hyenas by using zoomorphic helmet masks and playing dramatic roles, both of which refer to the dirty habits, trickiness, and nastiness of the animal mentioned above; they may also be used to invoke fear among the participants (STRAUBE 1955,2; ROBERTS 1995, 75—76). The initiates in these societies are thereby urged to avoid such habits and character traits in their own life.

The female of the spotted hyena has an elongated clitoris that in relaxed as well as erect condition is similar in shape to the male penis. In addition, it has a pseudo-scrotum that looks similar to the male scrotum. As a result, it is difficult (even for a zoologist) to differentiate between the sexes. As a result of this apparent lack of sexual dimorphism, people think that one and the same spotted hyena can alternately father as a male and give birth as a female (Grzimek 1970,192)/ The alternating androgyne consequently appears as an ideal in-between in the ritual domain. During initiation the role of the (spotted) hyena mask is often to transform the neophyte into a complete moral being, integrating his male principles with femaleness, as among the Kore cult of the Bamana in Mali (ROBERTS 1995,75—76).







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