Nuer and Dinka Religion

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NUER AND DINKA RELIGION . The Nuer and Dinka peoples belong to the Nilotic group of the Nilo-Saharan language family and inhabit the savanna and sudd region of the upper Nile in the southern part of the Republic of the Sudan. The Nuer number some 300,000 and the Dinka about 1 million; the figures are approxiamte, partly because some sections of each group have intermingled. It has been argued that they should be considered a single people, but cultural and political differences are marked enough to distinguish them, and each considers itself to be distinct from the other. Their religious systems should also be differentiated, although perhaps as variants of a common system.

Both Nuer and Dinka are cattle herders on the vast savannas of the region. The Nuer are fully transhumant; the Dinka less so as their environment is less harsh and better watered, consisting of orchard savanna rather than the treeless plains of Nuerland. Relations between local groups based on patrilineal clans and lineages take place largely through exchanges of cattle at marriages and, in times of hostility, through cattle raiding; cattle also have a central religious importance, with a strong sense of spiritual identification between humans and cattle. The Nuer lack any form of traditional political authority other than the rudimentary (and essentially religious) authority of Leopard-skin priests and prophetic leaders. The Dinka leaders, the Masters of the Fishing Spear, exercise more consistent authority over more clearly defined groupings. The traditional patterns changed considerably due to colonial rule and, later, to political independence. Both peoples are characterized by their fierce sense of independence, seeing themselves alone in a world that is hostile to them both environmentally and politically. Observers have all stressed the importance of religion to them in their everyday affairs.

Divinities and Spirits

In both religions the world is said to have been created by a high god. The Nuer refer to this God as Kwoth (a word that also means "spirit," or "breath"), or as Kwoth Nhial; among the Dinka the supreme being is known as Nhialic, which might be translated as "sky." Even though the two concepts may not be identical it is convenient to use the term Deity here for both. The source both of life and of its paradoxes, the Deity is omnipotent, ubiquitous, everlasting, and beyond the comprehension and the control of ordinary living people. Although now remote from human beings (in both religions there are myths of the separation of people from the sky), the Deity remains ultimately concerned with the world and liable to interfere in its everyday affairs at any time. Prayers and offerings are made continually and informally to the Deity, never far from the thoughts of the living.

In terms of everyday behavior the mystical or spiritual forces that are in most constant watch over people and in communication with them are the many kinds of spirits, or lesser deities, that are nearer to the mundane world. The natures, identities, and motives of these lesser deities are many. They represent, on a mystical plane, the countless and always changing aspects of the human experience of the world, of the acts of the Deity, and of themselves; any attempted classification of them except in general terms can only be uncertain and ever shifting. In both religions a somewhat similar pattern is discernible, but similarities should not be pushed too far.

The Nuer divide the lesser deities into spirits of the air (or of the above) and spirits of the below. The former are more powerful, more wide ranging, and more dangerous. Most are thought of as alien, originating from the Dinka. They are distinct from the Deity, even though both they and the Deity are known as kwoth. There is only one Deity, and it is original to the Nuer; the spirits of the above are many and may come from other peoples (although the colwic, spirits of people killed by lightning, appear to be older and not of alien origin). The Deity is seen as a benevolent father and friend, whereas the spirits are less benevolent and more immediately demanding. They possess people by sickness to signal that the latter have committed sins, and the relationship thus established between spirit and person may be inherited. Sacrifice is made to remove the sin from the possessed person, who is thereby cured, and the spirit is sent back to its proper place in the outside world. And it is the spirits of the above who possess certain people who thereby become prophets.

The spirits of the below are nearer to people. They include totemic spirits, attached to local groups; totemistic spirits, attached to individuals; and various nature and other spirits. They are all of less importance than the spirits of the above and not held in great esteem. But being more closely attached to individuals they may partake of ordinary human spite and hatred and so be demanding and unpleasant.

The Dinka distinguish what they call the sky divinities or free divinities, the more important, from the clan divinities that are attached to local groups, lesser divinities, and ancestors. The main distinction in everyday life is that a clan divinity, associated with an animal species or a class of objects, is the concern of all the members of a particular clan, whereas the sky divinities force themselves upon the living by possession and so create a permanent relationship with them individually and irrespective of clan affiliation. They are more difficult to understand and predict and thus more powerful and more dangerous. A divinity that possesses an individual is identified by divination so it can be separated from the possessed person by sacrifice. Sky divinities are regarded as external realities that represent inner psychological states and so are linked with situations of social and moral ambiguity, confusion, and sin.

Priests and Sacrifice

Each society has ritual experts who are thought to cope with the spiritual powers and to protect ordinary people from them. Among the Nuer they are the Leopard-skin priests, members of particular lineages who possess powers, the principal of which is to purify those who have been placed, through their own or others' deeds, in a state of pollution and spiritual danger. Among the Dinka they are known as Masters of the Fishing Spear, the heads of priestly lineages. They are said to be "the lamps of the Dinka" as they "carry life" and guide their people through the darkened ways of the everyday world. They have a life-giving power given to them by the divinity Ring ("flesh"). Oral traditions state that the first Master of the Fishing Spear was Aiwel Longar, whose prayers were powerful and truthful enough to maintain the fertility of people, livestock, and land. Longar's spears were accurate and deadly when used to kill sacrificial oxen, and so are those of the present-day masters; the spiritual power resides in the spears, used for sacrificial killing and thereby also to preserve life. The invocation and the immolation of the victim is a repetition of Longar's original ritual action. The sacrificial animal is symbolically identified with the person on whose behalf the rite is performed. Guilt and sickness are placed "on the back" of the sacrificial victim and carried away at its death: its death expels sin and sickness from the group and releases the individual concerned from them.

Masters of the Fishing Spear bring and retain the "life" of their people. They may not die a normal death and so are buried alive at their own request. Since the master's life is not lost (it remains among the living to strengthen them), the people do not mourn him and feel only joy.


The Nuer and Dinka have long had to face the radical (and seemingly both destructive and irrational) effects of outside interference and to make some satisfying response to them. Besides such natural disasters as famines and epidemics, the most serious cases in recent centuries have been Arab slavers, British colonial rule and "pacification," and then overrule under the Republic of the Sudan.

Little is known about their earliest responses, but during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries both the Nuer and Dinka produced religious movements led by prophets. Nuer prophets organized large groups of people to raid the Dinka, introduced new rites to stop new epidemics, and led the resistance against slavers. Toward the end of the last century there appeared a prophet called Ngundeng, a member of a Leopard-skin priest lineage and perhaps of foreign (Dinka) origin. He acquired a reputation for healing, announced that his powers came from a Dinka sky divinity called Deng and went into ritual seclusion and fasting, which marked his acquisition of a new and prophetic role. He had a wide following, and his supporters spent two years building a pyramid of earth and ashes, a "house of spirit" in honor of his sky divinity. After his death in 1906 his powers passed to his son Gwek. A deformed and ugly man known for his healing powers, Gwek appeared regularly at the top of the pyramid in a state of extreme possession, uttering prophecies. Like his father, he periodically fasted in solitude and wore long and unkempt hair, signs of being imbued with divine power. He headed the resistance to the British administration and was killed by government forces. Many other Nuer prophets have had generally similar attributes.

Dinka prophets were also important and numerous. The most famous was Arianhdit, who was at his height during World War I and lived until 1948. Dinka prophets were Masters of the Fishing Spear who, by acquiring additional powers directly from the Deity, also became Men of Divinity. They were thus more directly involved with traditional authority and social organization than were the Nuer prophets. They led many risings and movements of political significance in the early years of this century.

Christian missionaries have been active among both peoples. They have had little success among the Nuer and rather more among the Dinka, perhaps because the Dinka, as the largest group in the southern Sudan, give greater importance to Western forms of education and to their political ambitions in the modern world.


The principal sources for the religions of the Nuer and Dinka are E. E. Evans-Pritchard's Nuer Religion (Oxford, 1956) and Godfrey Lienhardt's Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (Oxford, 1961). Both are based on meticulous and rich ethnographic research and on intensive understanding of the theoretical and comparative problems in studies of alien religious beliefs and rites. Both are outstanding studies of highly complex matters. Evans-Pritchard also published scores of articles on various aspects of Nuer religion, which are listed in A Bibliography of the Writings of E. E. Evans-Pritchard, compiled by himself and edited by T. O. Beidelman (London, 1974). Other works include J. Pasquale Crazzolara's Zur Gesellschaft und Religion des Nueer (Mödling bei Wien, 1933), by a Catholic missionary with long experience of the Sudan, and F. M. Deng's The Dinka of the Sudan (New York, 1972), by a distinguished Dinka scholar.

John Middleton (1987)