Lugbara Religion

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LUGBARA RELIGION . The Lugbara are a Sudanic-speaking people of northwestern Uganda and the northeastern portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, culturally related to the Azande and Mangbetu to the northwest. They are largely peasant farmers who grow grains and keep some cattle and other livestock. Their land is about 4,000 feet above sea level, well watered and fertile, with a population density of over two hundred people to the square mile in the central areas. The Lugbara have a politically uncentralized society in which traditional authority is held by the elders of small patrilineal lineages. Such lineages are the bases of local settlements and are linked into a segmentary lineage system of the classic kind. Above the elders, ritual and political authority is exercised by rainmakers, one to each clan, and occasionally by prophets. Since colonial rule was established by the Belgians in 1900 and the British in 1914, there have been administrative chiefs and headmen, but these stand very much outside the religious system. Catholic Verona Fathers and the Protestant African Inland Mission have been active since World War I and have had considerable success in education and conversion; there are relatively few Muslims. In the 1950s, when the main anthropological research was carried out, the mass of the people adhered to the traditional religion. Since then this situation may have changed, due mainly to the political upheavals and population movements under presidents Amin and Obote: the traditional lineage system has been severely weakened, and the cults associated with it have lost their importance.


The Lugbara have a corpus of myth that tells of the creation of the world and the formation of their society. One myth tells that at the beginning humans dwelt and conversed with the Deity in the sky, coming daily down a rope or tower to farm; a woman who was hoeing cut it down, and since then people have lived on earth, ignorant of divine will and subject to change and death. Another myth states that the Deity (Adroathe diminutive form of the word adro, connotating his distance from humankind, not lack of power) created a man and a woman far to the north. The woman was created pregnant and gave birth to animals and to a son and a daughter. This sibling pair gave birth to another, and several such generations followed. Each is credited with the invention of processes of transformation of natural products into domestic ones: smithing, potmaking, hunting, and so on. Finally there were born two sons, the culture heroes who formed society as it ideally is today. Each of the two culture heroes hunted with his sons, killing and eating a son each day; this filial cannibalism led to their expulsion, and each hero (accompanied by a sister's son and a bull) was compelled to cross the Nile and to go to the mountains in the middle of the country. There the two heroes hunted and killed buffalo but lacked fire to cook the meat. Each hero then descended to the plains and found there a leper woman with fire. After cooking and eating the meat, each hero cured one of the leper women (thus making her physically complete) and impregnated her. The armed brothers of the leper women forced the heroes to marry the women and provide cattle bridewealth. Each hero eventually did the same with some thirty women, whose sons were the founders of the present sixty or so clans. The heroes then retired to their mountains and died.

The myth explains the existence of social groups and settlements, of marriage and the legitimacy of offspring, and of feuds (the traditional basis for the maintenance of social order). The preheroic period is timeless, asocial, amoral, and marked by lack of order and authority; the postheroic period, structured by the passing of time, is both social and moral, with order maintained by genealogically sanctioned authority. The periods are bridged by the heroic mediators. The same pattern may be seen in spatial terms, with related lineages in a settlement's neighborhood, then a belt of people feared as magicians, and beyond them an amoral wilderness of strange, incestuous, and cannibalistic people. The myths explain the form of society, its relationship with the Deity, and the distinction that runs through Lugbara cosmology between the inside of home and settlement and the outside of the bushland, where spirits and other manifestations of the extrahuman power of the Deity dwell. Lugbara ritual is concerned essentially with the maintenance of the boundary between these two moral spheres.

Sacrifice to the Dead and Spirits

Sacrifice is not made to the Deity. The central cult is that of the dead, who are considered senior members of their lineages and who bridge the main cosmological boundary. The Lugbara concept of the person is important here. Men are considered persons of the home and women things of the bushland, having the potentially dangerous power of procreation that links them with the Deity. A person is composed of physical elements such as body and blood and the mystical ones of soul, spirit, and influence. Only men have souls (orindi ), the seat of lineage authority, although those women born first of a set of siblings may have souls when they grow old; both men and women have spirit (adro ), the seat of idiosyncratic and antisocial behavior; and both have tali, the seat of influence gained over others. At death the soul goes to the deity in the sky and may later be redomesticated by a diviner as a ghost (ori) as well as an ancestor (aʾbi). Only the heads of lineage segments who leave sons are usually made into ghosts; others join a collectivity of ancestors. The spirit goes to the bushland, where it dwells with the immanent and evil aspect of the Deity (Adro ); the tali merges with a collectivity of tali.

Death is marked by elaborate mortuary rites, which are the only important rites of transition. The corpse is buried and dances are held at which men of lineages related to the deceased dance competitively and aggressively to demonstrate their relative seniority within the total lineage structure. When death occurs, it is said that disorder has entered the community, and clan incest is permitted as a sign of this disorder; after a certain period has elapsed, order is reestablished by more dances and the distribution of food and arrows.

Ghosts are given individual shrines (in the shape of miniature huts) where they may be offered sacrifices; other patrilineal ancestors have collective shrines; and there are shrines for matrilateral ancestors. The ghost shrines for the recently dead are located in the compound, but after a few generations they are moved outside, a sign that their incumbents have merged spiritually with the Deity. The forms, distribution, and details of oblation with regard to these many shrines cannot be given here.

Sacrifice at the ghost shrines is part of the process by which lineage authority is exercised by the elders. Hence, it lies at the heart of the maintenance of social order within the community. Sacrifice follows on the invocation of the ghosts. It is believed that an elder whose authority is flouted by a dependent sits near the shrines in his compound and ponders the offense; the ghosts hear him and decide to send sickness to the offender to show him the error of his behavior; the offender then falls sick; the elder consults oracles that state which ghost is responsible and what oblation is demanded. In actuality a person falls sick and the process only then begins. If the patient recovers, then a sacrifice is made (if he or she dies, then the Deity is responsible and nothing can be done). The animal (ox, sheep, goat, or fowl) is consecrated and slaughtered. Part of the meat and blood is placed in the shrines; part is cooked and eaten later by the congregation. Some of the cooked meat is divided and taken home by the members of the congregation, who are members of lineages that share the same ghosts. The elder and others concerned discuss the case until a consensus has been reached that the original offense or dispute has been settled and atoned; they bless the patient with their breath and spittle, and the assembled kin, seated by generation and so representing the unity of normally competitive lineages, consume the cooked meat and beer. The stated purpose of this rite is to purify the home, to remove conflict and ensure unity and continuity. Sacrifice is also made, usually on behalf of junior kin, to the collectivity of lineage ancestors and to matrilateral ancestors.

Offerings are also made to many kinds of spirits (adro ), invisible powers that are of a different order of existence than that of humans. Such spirits are beyond the understanding or control of normal people. Spirits are held to be innumerable. At one time or another, some are attached to prophets; others represent expressions of divine power (lightning, winds). All have as a central attribute the ability to possess a living person and to make the victim tremble or shake, a condition curable only by a diviner. Initial communication with a spirit is by its possession of a living person; almost all cases are of women, in particular those in an ambiguous moral situation (such as that of a persistently barren wife). The possessed woman consults a diviner to discover the identity of the offended spirit, then places a small shrine for it where she periodically makes offerings of grain and milk. There are no spirit cults as such; offerings are only made by individuals.


The need for the living to know the identity of the dead and the spirits with whom they come into contact requires divination. There are several kinds of oracles and diviners. Oracles, operated by men in the public space of the open air, consist essentially of material artifacts that select names put to them by those consulting them. Diviners are postmenopausal or barren women, who divine under possession in the darkness of their huts with only the client present. They confirm the identity of a spirit or of a witch or sorcerer (which oracles cannot do) and also redomesticate the soul when it has gone outside of the social realm to live with the Deity in the sky. Their power is thought to come directly from the Deity and is feared as being spiritual and dangerous.


Evil is represented as the work of harmful human beings assumed to be witches and sorcerers. Using the classic distinction made for the Azande by Evans-Pritchard, witches are believed to harm others by an innate mystical power; among the Lugbara they are older men who bewitch their own kin because of envy or anger. Sorcerers use material objects or medicines, and among the Lugbara they are women and young men who lack the authority that witches have to pervert power for their own ends; because of this lack, sorcerers must turn to material means (including both poisons and nonpoisonous objects). Sorcerers are especially held to be women who are jealous of their co-wives. Both witches and sorcerers are believed to cause sudden and painful sicknesses, and their identities may be discovered by diviners who can also cure the affliction, usually by sucking its essence from the victim's body. Whereas witchcraft is traditional and, although evil, not particularly morally reprehensible (since the witch merely has the innate power and may not always be able to control it), sorcery is seen as a modern phenomenon and an abomination because it is deliberate and malign in its purpose.

Rainmakers and Prophets

Each subclan has one rainmaker, the senior man of the senior descent line. He is believed to be able to control the rainfall by manipulating rain stones kept in a pot buried in his rain grove. In the past he was expected to end interlineage feuds by cursing the antagonists with impotence if they crossed a line drawn by him between their territories. He tells his community the times for planting and harvesting. And he is thought to be able to end epidemics and famines by beseeching the Deity. In brief, he is able to regulate the rain that links sky and earth, to control the fertility of human beings and of crops, to mark territorial and moral space, and to establish the orderly passage of time. He is held to be a repository of some of the secret truth and knowledge of cosmic categories held by the Deity. A rainmaker is symbolically buried at his initiation by other rainmakers, and later, at his actual death, he is buried silently at night in a manner opposite to that of ordinary people.

Prophets have appeared among the Lugbara on rare occasions, as emissaries of the Deity with a message to reform society in the face of disasters. The most famous was Rembe, a man of the neighboring Kakwa people. In the 1890s the Lugbara approached Rembe requesting that he give them a sacred water. This water was intended to remove the epidemics that were killing both humans and cattle, as well as the Arabs and Europeans who were entering the region at the same time. In 1916 Rembe entered Lugbaraland, called by elders for his help in removing further epidemics and Europeans. He established a cult known as Dede (grandmother, as it protected people) or Yakan (from the root ya, to make tremble). Adherents drank water from a sacred pool in which dwelt the power of the Deity; this would drive away the Europeans and bring back ancestors and dead cattle. Members of the cult attempted to establish a new egalitarian community and no longer recognized differences of descent, age, or sex. After the threat of revolt Rembe was deported by the British colonial authorities and hanged in the Sudan. Today he is still remembered and given mythopoeic attributes of sacredness and inversion, and it is said that he can never die and will one day return.


Middleton, John. Lugbara Religion: Religion and Authority among an East African People. New ed., Oxford, England, 1999.

John Middleton (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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