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POPULATION: about 150,000
RELIGION: Animism; indigenous beliefs
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Dinka; Nuer; Sudanese


The Shilluk have long occupied a region along the White Nile in the modern Sudan. It is estimated that Prenilotes may have been present in the area from the 4th millennium bc. Arab travelers to the central Sudan in the 9th century ad recorded Prenilotic Barea and Kunama peoples in this area. During the Funj Sultanates from 1504 to 1821, it appears that slave raiders attacked Shilluk lands. Regional disturbances during the Funj Sultanates probably led to some southward migration of the Shilluk in the 16th century and to a more concentrated village pattern. Perhaps reflecting this time, the Shilluk mythology records that Nyakang (Nyikang) was the first reth or king to unify the Shilluk people in a proto-state formation.

The area was first reached by Europeans in the 18th century. The Ottoman slave raids of the early 19th century victimized the Shilluk. Ottoman administration reached them in 1867. Mahdist rule (1884–98) was generally resisted by the Shilluk as they were set upon by zealous and slave-raiding Arabs from the north. The Shilluk region was again inaccessible to Europeans at this time. It was not until the early 20th century that serious ethnographic and historical attention began to be paid to the Shilluk. Even then, the interest was focused on the concerns of the British colonial administration and missionaries who were in the Shilluk region. A new census is planned but not yet conducted.


The Shilluk are concentrated along the western banks and islands of the White Nile, especially between the Renk-Malakal reach, as well as being located on the lower section of the Sobat River. In other terms, they live between 9° and 14° degrees north latitude, about 640 km (400 mi) south of Khartoum, the modern national capital of the Sudan. Malakal, the present provincial capital, is in the southern portion of Shilluk land, but on the east bank of the Nile.

The precise ancestral homeland of the Prenilotic Shilluk is unknown but is likely to be in the present vicinity of Shilluk concentration. Perhaps it was they who replaced the aboriginal hunting and gathering population. The Shilluk and Nilotic people are remarkably tall (179 cm or 5 ft 10 in on average) and lean and may be distinguished from other neighboring Africans for this reason. Blood samples of the Shilluk and other Nilotics show Rh-allele frequencies which are notably different from all their neighbors. Even though malaria is now present in Shilluk lands, they also have a very low frequency of sickle cell alleles. These facts add up to a picture of long-term isolation.

The ecosystem is mainly grasslands, swampy river banks, and islands, but some trees appear in places. There are something like 150 compacted hamlets (myer) constituting the Shilluk domain. They are divided into the Ger (northern) and Luak (southern) royal districts. Each of these has its own supreme chief and royal settlement at Golbany and Kwom, just north and south of the central capital at Fashoda (also known as Kodok) on the western bank. The royal heads of Ger and Luak must concur about the appointment of a new reth.

At Fashoda the reth usually makes his royal residence with his royal children, courtiers, bodyguards, and retainers (bang reth), and his wives. It is here that he receives the council of lineage elders, while he sits on his royal stool-throne. Fashoda was also the site of an historic meeting in 1898 of the military forces of the French (under Major Marchand) and the English (under General Kitchener) in determining the European partition of the Sudan. The French withdrew; the Sudan became an Anglo-Egyptian colony.

Neighboring the Shilluk to the east are the related Anuak people; to the immediate south are the Nuer and the vast Sudd papyrus swamplands which blocked exploration for millennia. In the 19th century the region supported large elephant herds, which have since been decimated for their ivory. Further to the southwest are large populations of Dinka. West of the Shilluk are diverse sedentary peoples of the Nuba mountains. To the northwest the Shilluk meet various nomadic Arab peoples from whom they must sometimes defend themselves.


The Shilluk belong to the Eastern subfamily of the Sudanic linguistic stock. The Sudanic languages have only a few loan words from the Semitic languages to the north or Cushitic languages to the east. Within the Sudanic stock, the Shilluk are further identified with the Nilotic language speakers, which also include the Anuak and Meban peoples, who are collectively considered as Prenilotes. The Shilluk preceded, but are related to, other Nilotic groups, like the Nuer and Dinka, whose languages are understood by many Shilluk. The Shilluk are also self-known as the “Chollo.” Gender, number, and case can be noted in the Shilluk language.


As with most animist or polytheist religious systems, the sacred and secular worlds of the Shilluk are linked. Spiritual forces abound in animals, elements, and places, and the folklore of the Shilluk serves to integrate the people with this worldview through storytelling, origin myths, sacrifices, and invocations. For example, the great creator, Jo-uk, is tied through four supernatural generations to Nyakang, the founder of the Shilluk rethship.

The father of Nyakang, U-kwa, has many folkloric expressions. He lived along the Nile, where he was attracted to women with half-crocodile bodies who lived in the water. Tempted by these women, U-kwa captured two of them (Nik-ki-yah and Ung-wahd). Their cries quickly drew their father (U-dil-jil), whose presence had been unknown. The father's left side was human, while his right side was a green crocodile. After some debate and negotiation, U-kwa married the women and from his wife Nik-ki-yah he had his son Nik-kang (likewise half-man and half-crocodile). From a third wife, U-kwa had three more sons, one of whom was Du-wad, who became Nyakang's rival as reth. The conflict escalated and was only resolved when Nyakang and his brothers, Omoi and Jew, created a new kingdom at the mouth of the Sobat River. There, Nyakang created men and women from hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and wild animals to populate his kingdom. The animal ancestors died and the Shilluk people were thereby born.

Nevertheless, Nik-ki-yah lives forever, usually as a crocodile, and she is sometimes offered a goat as a sacrifice. Occasionally, in trials-by-ordeal, suspected people are forced into the river to be judged by Nik-ki-yah. Fear of crocodiles quickly has them confessing.


The complex animist religious beliefs of the Shilluk are held most devoutly. The most important spiritual force is that of Nyakang. Special annual sacrifices are made to Nyakang at the start of the rainy season. In addition to this ancestral spirit of all Shilluk, there is also the universal Shilluk creator god, Jouk, with whom deceased persons will reside eternally, if they are well-behaved during their lifetime. According to Shilluk origin myths, it was from the Nile that Jo-uk created D'ung Adduk (White Cow). In turn, D'ung Adduk gave birth to a son, Kola, whom she nursed. Kola had a son named U-mahra, whose son was Wad-maul, whose son was U-kwa, who was the father of Nyakang, ancestor of all reths. A few Shilluk have turned to Islam and Christianity, but traditional beliefs are still strongly held. As more Shilluk are educated more are turning toward Christian faiths.


The Western concept of “holiday” is not really inherent to Shilluk life, but some note may be given to Sudanese national holidays such as Independence Day on 1 January. Those who are Muslim or Christian might follow those religious celebrations. For the Shilluk, the chief “holidays” would be the installation of a new reth, a marriage festivity, collective fishing and harvesting, and especially the celebration of Nyakang at the start of the rainy season, which involves the slaughtering of animals, dancing, and drinking fermented sorghum (merisa). Most villages have a shrine to Nyakang where amulets and charms may be placed to invoke ancestral spirits, often by a tree.

The election of a reth is considered the most significant event in Shilluk life. This integrates the society with its traditions, provides for political leadership and continuity, and presents the greatest opportunity for public oratory and group confirmation. A notable amount of the literature on the Shilluk is focused on the transfer of rethships.

The first stage in the appointment of a reth begins with a mock battle without real spears. This “battle” between the northern and southern Shilluk groups is mediated by a messenger who carries scornful retorts between the two “competing” groups. An effigy of the reth is symbolically paraded with an ostrich-feather fan shade which is placed on the royal stool. When the effigy is restored to its shrine, the new reth will be infused with the spirit of Nyakang, and he can then assume the official responsibilities by sitting on the royal stool.

The bipartite or moiety structure of the Shilluk is based on a model of segmentary opposition, similar to a modern monarchy with a bicameral parliament. The chiefs of each component settlement group (podh) of the Ger and Luak districts are consulted at a lower level. Typically a reth's son does not inherit from his father, although the work of Evans-Pritchard presents the opposing view that he usually does. In any case, a new reth is found from a prince (nyireth) or close relative, or from a different natal village, often during an interregnum struggle. The ritual conflict preceding the appointment and purification of the reth is a central feature of Shilluk society.

Some early reports state that regicide was practiced by royal wives or close kinfolk when a reth was deemed to be too ill, old, or ineffective to continue in office. Evans-Pritchard (1962: 76, 82–83) considers that the reports of institutional regicide were a fiction but that violent ends for reths certainly did occur amidst the precarious balance in Shilluk political life. In any case, the persistent discussion of regicide, whether symbolic or real, is not only a warning to seated reths but is also a symbolic expression that the spirit of Nyakang is no longer at ease and needs transfer, since the spirit of Nyakang resides eternally with the reth, and the reth himself is mortal.

As the reth gains his position through the council of lineage elders (jal dwong pac), it seems evident that the council can also determine that a prince (nyireth) of the royal clan (kwareth) is justified in recognizing a failed rethship, and that regicide is appropriate so that intraethnic struggles can be avoided and the continuity of the Shilluk people thereby ensured. A certain measure of rotation between the royal lineages (kwareth) of the north and south also assists in reaching this political equilibrium.

Clearly the reth will be eternally nervous about his position and he will make public efforts to be responsive to the lineage elders. Alternatively he will make special provisions to be protected by armed attendants and to be aloof and reserved. The formal, mock battle between village groups symbolizes the actual power struggles for this prestigious appointment.

The Celebration of the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord is observed nationally.


Unlike many Sudanese Arabs, few Shilluk girls are subject to female circumcision as a rite of prepubesence. The practice of removing the lower incisor teeth is common for Shilluk youths, as well as ethnic scarification which consists of making a series of raised bumps across the forehead just above the eyebrows. Other decorative scars are also known. The umbilicus of baby boys is buried to the right of the front door while Shilluk girls have their umbilicus buried to the left. Other gender-differentiated customs are seen with Shilluk boys who have noted puberty rites of passage while Shilluk girls have few special rites and are rarely subject to female circumcision. Likewise dancing, clothing, decoration and child names are gender specific.

The death of commoners is followed by burial in the ground, unlike other Nilotes who may use water burial. Upon the death of the reth, the corpse is walled in his royal house, which thereby becomes his temporary tomb. Later his bones are collected for interment in the hamlet of his birth.

Male or female commoners are washed and shaved at death and wrapped in a shroud. The body is rested on its right side with the head facing easterly. Post-mortem memorial services take place first at graveside, a few months later, and for higher status person a commemoration can take place a year or more later.


The interpersonal relations of Shilluk people are guided by kinship, social hierarchy, and gender. They follow a form of matrilineal descent, unlike their Arab neighbors to the north. The Shilluk follow a descriptive type of cousin terminology which implies specific role relationships within the kinship network. Lineage membership is a critical feature of interpersonal relations. Within lineage groups, solidarity is maintained by age-grade cohorts, which are common in societies requiring military defense for the nation and the reth. The position of the reth is also distinguished by deferential behavior, sociolinguistic markers, a hippo-hide whip and staffs, use of royal antelope skins for dress, ritual stepping over color-selected bulls, and the exclusion of children from the royal compound. The well-being of the bang reth (the reth's retainers) rests upon their unquestioned loyalty, which is rewarded by the reth through provision of food and security.

Aside from the royal personnel (bang reth) surrounding the reth at Fashoda, the Shilluk have a second class of people who are high-ranking but without legitimate access to the rethship. An additional group of nobility are known, but these are the Shilluk who had access to authority in the past and are no longer associated with the reth. The largest group of Shilluk are commoners (colo) who belong to various lineages but are not high-ranking whatsoever and are expected to show deference to those who are. Last in the traditional hierarchy are slaves who have entered Shilluk society as war captives, for punishment, by purchase, or as refugees from famine and disorder.

The reth and the council of lineage elders are responsible for maintaining order in Shilluk society. If conflicts arise withinlineages, the elder or his council intervenes; if there are conflicts between lineages, such as raiding, adultery, or theft, the reth intervenes and, under his almost absolute authority, he can apply various punishments such as confiscation of property or enslavement with use of his royal bodyguard. Adultery with the daughter of a reth is punished by death. The reth also controls trade in ivory, giraffe tails, and slaves. Toniolo and Hill (1975: 251) estimate that in 1876, two-thirds of the slaves in the northern Sudanese town of Wad Medani were of Shilluk, Dinka, and “Fertit” origin.


The Shilluk live in hamlets of compact villages made of round houses (tukls) of wattle and daub construction and with conical thatched roofs. The house of the lineage-head, especially if he is the reth, might be placed on a higher elevation indicative of higher status. Electricity, piped water, and other conveniences were not present until modern times in the provincial capital. Many Shilluk have moved from rural areas to Malakal, the largest regional center.


Shilluk marriage is a primary institution which requires the use of a considerable quantity of livestock to collect the bride-wealth payments for completing the marriage contract. Unlike Arabs, Shilluk usually avoid marrying first cousins, and they practice lineage exogamy. However, like Arabs, the Shilluk do allow for polygyny, in particular a man marrying sets of sisters (sororal marriage). Postmarital life follows a pattern of matripatrilocal (sometimes avunculocal) residence in a compound of houses. If the household is polygynous, then additional houses are built to accommodate the other family members with their mothers.


Today most Shilluk men wear Western clothing or Arab jellabiyas, but traditional attire is still seen. For women, traditional clothing was either animal-hide wraps, skirts (rahat), or aprons. Women's hair was usually shaven. Males were traditionally naked, but a reth or his noblemen could wear a toga-like garment. For men and women, armlets, breastplates, bracelets, beads, bells, necklaces, and body-painting were common. For men, hair sculpture (especially in a popular flared helmet shape, protected at night by a headrest) and ostrich feathers in the hair were widespread. For those young men with military functions, their dress would not be complete without their narrow hide-shields, clubs, spears with broad leaf-shaped points, drums, and leopard skins.


The Shilluk are predominantly sedentary farmers of the fertile banks and islands in the White Nile. Their economy is based on the Sudanic food complex of millet (durra) or sorghum, but other foods such as corn, melons, okra, sesame, and beans are also known. The durra is fermented to make an alcoholic drink (merisa). As farmers they are endowed with livestock including sheep, goats, and especially cattle which play important roles in religion and kinship. However, cattle for the Shilluk are not nearly as significant as they are for the neighboring Nuer and Dinka. Shilluk men are in charge of milking the cows, and they do not use fresh cattle blood, unlike the Dinka and Nuer. Because the Shilluk are riverfolk, their foods are diversified by hunting and fishing. Antelope-hunting on royal island preserves is restricted.


Only under British colonialism and under post-independence Sudanese governments did the Shilluk receive a formal secular or missionary education. Traditional education was structured around acquiring the skills of an agricultural and military population. On the other hand, the transmission of oral history was very important, especially in maintaining the lineage system from which political leadership emerged for the council of elders and the reth.


The population of the Shilluk has not been properly counted for years, but early in the post-colonial period there were at least 110,000 Shilluk-speakers who shared a common cultural heritage. The Shilluk's unique office of the reth and the role of Nyakang bond them closely together in their villages and region. The Shilluk traditions of the royal throne, semi-divine kingship, dynastic rule, social hierarchies, sororal marriage, oppositional division of the kingdom, the use of a water purification ritual, and origin myths are noted to be held in common with ancient Egyptians. The degree to which this may be true, and the direction of cultural borrowing, is not determined with precision, but the hypothesis that these two ancient Nile valley populations are related remains an important subject for research.


For the traditional Shilluk, work is assigned by gender, age-grade, and lineage rank. The reth, ranking princes, and lineage elders do very little physical work, while females are heavily engaged in domestic tasks, food production, and child care. Young males have cultivating, fishing, herding, and hunting tasks. Dugout canoes (2.5–6m or 8–20 ft long) and small reed floats (ambatch) are made for fishing and local transport.


Some modern Shilluk play soccer.


Traditional recreation was usually aimed at improving military and hunting skills, such as at the mock battles that surrounded the election of a new reth. Songs, poetry, and call-and-response dancing are popular. Among the popular dances are a mock threat “war dance” with infantry spear charges; an amusing hyena dance-play in which hunters stalk and “kill” an enacted hyena threatening sleeping children; and a lion dance in which masked dancers appear with lion heads and are pursued by hunters until wounded and killed.


Like other Nilotes, the Shilluk entertain themselves with public and private discourse which can include folklore. Expressions of folk arts are in jewelry, clay sculpture, hairstyling, and hide-tanning.


The gravest structural challenge within traditional Shilluk society is the interregnum between reths. This potentially conflictful time can sometimes spill over into violence. Meanwhile, relations between Dinka and Nuer can involve mutual cattle-raiding which can evolve into wider conflicts. During the current war in the southern Sudan, these ethnic groups sometimes spend as much time quarreling among themselves as against their perceived common enemies in the Afro-Arab northern Sudan.

Among the greatest present social problems are regional development and security, as well as the prejudicial attitude of some northern Sudanese towards southerners. Many post-colonial governments in Khartoum have pursued military rather than political solutions for national integration, and the Shilluk have long occupied a main river route connecting these conflicting regions. The economic development of the Shilluk and their survival from famine, relocation, and military operations have been major concerns.


Traditionally Shilluk culture was markedly patriarchal and paternalistic as the ruling positions were dominated by men, although it is reputed that in the mid-17th century one reth, Abudok nya Bwoc, was a woman. Also, in such cases woman-to-woman marriage was rare but possible. However, at present after many years of regional civil war between Arab northerners and southern Nilotics there have were many instances of gender violence such as rape and assault. Generally the Shilluk managed to be somewhat less involved in the main battlefields and contests for power, with some important exceptions in contests for political and military leadership.

As a result of the historic Comprehensive Peace Accord of 2005, the southern Shilluk women were more empowered to address gender roles and improved the position of women in general and address some specific matters in education and in HIV/AIDS education. Thus traditional social values are intact, but are being negotiated more substantially than previously. The prominent Shilluk national leaders such as Pagan Amum Okech, Lam Akol Ajawin, and Peter Adwok Nyaba are also oriented to progressive and more secular models of cultural transformation that have helped to improve the position of Shilluk women.


Dugmore, A. Radclyffe. The Vast Sudan. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1924.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E., “The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk of the Nilotic Sudan” [based on his Frazer lecture in 1948]. In Essays in Social Anthropology, Glencoe, NY: Free Press, 1962.

Giffen, J. Kelly. The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. London: F. H. Revell, 1905.

Grotanelli, V. L. “Pre-Niloti.” In Annales Lateranensi, 12 (1948): 282–326.

Howell, P. P. “The Shilluk Settlement.” In Sudan Notes and Records, 24 (1941): 47–67.

Howell, P. P., and W. P. G. Th omson. “The Death of a Reth of the Shilluk and the Installation of His Successor.” In Sudan Notes and Records, (1946).

Murdock, George P. Africa, Its Peoples and Their Culture History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.

Pumphrey, M. E. C. “The Shilluk Tribe.” In Sudan Notes and Records, 24 (1941): 1–45.

Roberts, D. F., E. W. Ikin, and A. E. Mourant. “Blood Groups of the Northern Nilotes.” In Annnals of Human Genetics 20 (1955): 135–154.

Roberts, D. F., and D. R. Bainbridge. “Nilotic Physique. “In American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 21 (1963): 341–70.

Roberts, Edward, ed. The Shilluk. In Disappearing World videotape series. Granada, 1976.

Toniolo, Elias, and Richard Hill, ed. The Opening of the Nile Basin, 1842–1881. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975.

—by R. Lobban, Jr.

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The Shilluk are the most northern Nilotic-speaking people in modern Africa. Shilluk country covers approximately 320 kilometers on the west bank of the White Nile, from 10° to 12° N and from 30° to 33° E. Shilluk oral traditions, however, indicate that at some time in the past their country reached to the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, the site of the modern city of Khartoum. At the time of the last official census (1956), the Shilluk were estimated to number 120,000 individuals. Most of Shilluk country is open savanna and free from the annual floods of the White Nile. The Shilluk language is most closely related to Anuak. Together, the two languages comprise a subfamily of the larger classification of Nilotic, which is spoken by different cultural groups throughout eastern Africa.

History and Cultural Relations

Considerable controversy surrounds the topic of the history and origins of the Shilluk. Indeed, the "origin" and history of all of the Nilotic peoples of the southern Sudan remains an enigma in the field of African prehistory. According to Shilluk oral traditions, the early descendants of these people began to migrate into their present country some three to four hundred years before the present. The quasi-mythical or epic leader of the first settlement is known as Nyikang, an individual with both divine and secular powers. At one time, Nyikang and his brother Gilo had a disagreement, and, as a result, Gilo and his supporters separated to migrate south and east. Like Nyikang for the Shilluk, Gilo is now cited as the culture hero and founder of the Anuak. Anthropologists posit that, before they arrived in their present country, the Shilluk practiced a nomadic form of pastoralism. As they eventually spread out and settled in more permanent communities, a horticultural mode of livelihood eventually replaced their primary dependence on cattle.


The distribution of Shilluk communities has been likened to beads on a string, spread out on the banks of the White Nile, the one separated from the next by a distance of from 180 meters to 1.5 kilometers. Settlements range in size from hamlets made up of the mud and thatched-roof huts of a few families to villages of some one hundred families. At roughly the center of Shilluk country is the village of Pachoda, the residence of each succeeding Shilluk "king" (see "Sociopolitical Organization"). Population densities in Shilluk country exceed all others among the Nilotic-speaking peoples of the southern Sudan. Each hamlet is formed around a cluster of patrilineal kin who claim membership in a common clan. Individual clans are dispersed widely throughout Shilluk country. Postmarital residence is patrilocal, and each homestead within a hamlet consists of a hut for each adult man as well as a separate dwelling for each of his wives.


The Shilluk keep small herds of cattle, in addition to larger flocks of sheep and goats. Cattle are normally used for food only in the context of ritual and ceremonial occasions. In the evening, the cattle are tethered around dung fires in an effort to lessen the adverse effects of biting flies and insects. Shilluk aggressively and successfully exploit the rich resources of the White Nile and regularly catch many species of fish with fishing nets and spears. They also hunt hippopotamuses. Less frequently, small hunting parties are organized to pursue antelope, buffalo, and giraffes. Hamlets are surrounded by gardens of millet, maize, and sesame, as well as other species introduced during the twentieth century. The Shilluk also cultivate tobacco for personal use and for sale. Herding, hunting, and spearfishing are primarily male activities; women traditionally have manufactured cooking utensils, cultivated gardens, and prepared food.


The Shilluk are divided into some one hundred patrilineal and exogamous clans. Clans are not localized and have no specific territorial referents. Instead, clans are scattered widely through different hamlets. Conversely, the lineages that comprise clans are conceived of as localized groups. As Wall (1976, 155) notes, the family homesteads (gol) or those of individual lineage members are grouped together to form hamlets of agnatically related kin. A hamlet of this type may include as many as fifty homesteads. Ultimately, these scattered hamlets may form a larger settlement with a clearly defined territory. In each hamlet there is an original or "owner" lineage, called a diel. The Shilluk, like the other Nilotic-speaking peoples of southern Sudan, have a system of relationship terminology that is commonly known as "descriptive." Legal marital unions are established by the exchange of bride-wealth cattle, which pass from the agnatic kin of the groom to the adult members of the bride's family. A man is commonly 25 years old before his first marriage, whereas it is customary for a young woman marry before she reaches the end of her teen years. A wedding feast in the bride's father's homestead follows the exchange of bride-wealth cattle. At the end of these festivities, the bride and groom return to establish their own homestead in the hamlet of the groom's father. It is reported that a mock battle is enacted between the groom's and the bride's kin, once the last of the promised bride-wealth cattle are given. The ideal number of bride-wealth cattle should amount to at least ten animals, including cows, oxen, and a bull. In addition, the bride's family expects to receive diek nom, a number of sheep, as well as jam nom, gifts of spears and other goods. The latter gifts belong to the parents of the bride, but the sheep are distributed among the bride's agnatic kin. When a wife is pregnant for the first time, it is customary for her to return to her natal village to give birth.

Sociopolitical Organization

At the hamlet level, the primary political figures of traditional life were settlement "chiefs," who, ideally, were nominated from the diel, or founding lineage. The position of village "chief is subject to the approval of the reth, or "king," of the Shilluk. All Shilluk settlements collectively comprise a dual division of Shillukland, between Luak in the south and Ger in the north. The reth of the Shilluk is a living symbol of the unity of Shilluk history, culture, and polity, and each succeeding reth is thought to be possessed by the spirit of Nyikang, the Shilluk culture hero and first king. Nyikang is intimately associated with the spirit the Shilluk call "Juok," and, in consequence, each reth is though to be an incarnation of the past within the world of the present. Because of this association between a spiritual power and a mortal human being, the Shilluk reth has sometimes been referred to as a "divine king." The selection and the installation of a new reth are woven in a complex web of ritual and symbolism. Modern anthropologists still do not agree on the process through which a reth was selected in precolonial days. It is certain that the final candidate to become a new reth had to be approved by both northern and southern Shilluk. Civil war would erupt unless unanimous agreement was achieved. Evans-Pritchard (1948) suggested that the reth of the Shilluk reigned but did not rule. What he meant was that the reth was the incarnation of a sacred order of an ideal Shilluk society. His "kingly" status derived from sacred authority rather than secular power. The present reth of the Shilluk is the thirty-first in succession since the origin of Shilluk polity. His status and authority have been transformed in the twentieth century, first by British colonial policy in Sudan and second by the strictures created by the independent government of Sudan.


Shilluk religious concepts are drawn into relief by an emphasis on the creator-god or divinity known as Juok (a common Nilotic term for a spiritual power), the veneration of Nyikang through the persons who become kings, and the recognition of the ways in which the spirits of the deceased can affect those who survive them. Juok is a ubiquitous spirit, a phenomenon manifest in all places and at all times. Juok can be addressed through sacrifice of cattle, goats, and sheep. Juok is also strongly associated in Shilluk thought with the river spirit that first gave birth to Nyikang. Most Western depictions of Shilluk religion have been colored by nineteenth-century visions of "primitive religion." The Shilluk figured prominently in evolutionary schemes put forward to depict the course of religious evolution. Ironically, although the Shilluk have become well known in the anthropological literature, no prolonged research has been carried out by a trained observer in their settlements. Thus, much of what has been written about the Shilluk relies upon data that were collected in an inconsistent manner in the early twentieth century.


Arens, W. (1979). "The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk: A Contemporary Reevaluation." Ethnos 44:167-181.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1948). The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lienhardt, R. G. (1954). "The Shilluk of the Upper Nile." In African Worlds, edited by D. Forde, 138-163. London: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, C. G., and B. Z. Seligman (1932). Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Wall, L. (1976). "Anuak Politics, Ecology, and the Origins of Shilluk Kingship." Ethnobgy 15:151-162.

Westerman, D. (1912). The Shilluk People. Philadelphia: United Presbyterian Church.


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Non-Muslim Sudanese people.

The Shilluk are a linguistic group belonging to the Western Nilotic subgroup of the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan family. They are concentrated along the west bank of the White Nile in southern Sudan. Because Shilluk political organization is centered around the king (reth), the Shilluk have experienced greater unity than other tribes in the region. Enjoying access to good agricultural land along the Nile, the Shilluk are more settled than other tribes and rely more on cultivation and fishing than on cattle raising. The Shilluk numbered about 150,000 persons according to the 1983 census.


Voll, John Obert. Historical Dictionary of the Sudan. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978.

david waldner