Ruminations: Cows, Dinka, and Experiencing Divinity [Rebekah H.]


In Godfrey Lienhardt’s incisive study of the African Dinka, Divinity and Experience, he defines Dinka religion not as a set of external beliefs and rituals but as “a relationship between men and ultra-human Powers encountered by men… It is rather phenomenological than theological, an interpretation of signs of ultrahuman activity rather than a doctrine of the intrinsic nature of the Powers behind those signs” (1961 32). The Dirka religion is essentially about interpreting and controlling various social and natural experiences. An example of this is the ritual of burying masters of the fishing spear alive, which allows the community to control the experience of their leader’s death. The ritual burial of the master of the fishing spear allows the community to control the experience and nature of their leader’s death. The ritual death of the master of the fishing spear embodies for the Dinka the ongoing survival of Dinka myths and life in a way that regular death could not (319). In what sorts of ways do we attempt to control and shape our own life-experiences? What rituals and practices have we developed in dealing with death?

Lienhardt deliberately tries to avoid equating Dirka religious concepts and terms with Western ones—for example, he uses “Divinity” [jok] rather than God—and this careful use of language highlights Lienhard’s intentionality in presenting the world of the Dinka as the Dinka understand it. [Lienhard’s predecessor, Edward Evans-Pritchard, was perhaps not so careful in describing neighboring African Nuer religion (1956)]. Yet, Lienhardt also distinguishes between how the Dinka understand their religious world and we might understand it. He suggests that the Dinka Powers might be understood as representations/images which correspond to various complex combinations of Dinka experiences that are rooted in their social and physical environment. Does this resonate with what Clifford Geertz defines as religion: i.e. a system of symbols which acts to establish moods and motivations in humans by framing a particular conception of existence (1973 90)? What would these symbols be? Cattle? The masters of the fishing spear?

To what extent is Lienhardt’s work influenced or informed by Durkheim?[1] (You’ll have to bear with me because I am not as familiar with Durkheim as I need to be). While Lienhardt seems to resist the idea that the Dinka have a systematic set of beliefs and practices, he does emphasize Durkheim’s other two key elements of religion: sacred objects and the existence of a moral community. Lienhardt seems to resonate with the idea that sacred objects are projections on some level of the forces of the Dinka social world (124). For example, the clan-divinities represent “ideal and permanent values of agnation” (135) and the sacrifice of the cattle reflects social differentiation of participating members (234). On the other hand, Lienhardt seems to reject Durkheim’s rigid demarcation of the sacred and the profane, arguing that the Dinka move fluidly from what we’d term as the supernatural from the natural (291).

At the same time, Lienhardt’s ethnographic approach does focus a great deal of attention on understanding, as Geertz puts it, “men’s notions…of the “really real” and how these notions influence them (124), which for Geertz should be the first focus of business in an anthropological study. What really struck me in reading Lienhardt, was the Dinka’s rather blasé attitude toward religious actions and efficacy. One the one hand, a clan might sacrifice to a Power to demand healing for someone, while also recognizing that the Powers are ultimately uncontrollable. Divinity can refuse (271). If the ill man dies, this doesn’t impact belief in the existence or power of the Powers. Nor is their perspective of the Divine impacted if this man goes to a doctor and recovers through human medical assistance rather than a miraculous recovery in his or her village. Likewise, rituals to induce rain are usually performed just before the Dinka think the rainy season will occur, as Lienhardt notes, “their human symbolic action moves with the rhythm of the natural world…” (280). How does this contrast/compare with Western ideas of the Divine and our interaction with it? Or even biblical supplication and their rationales for a lack of Divine assistance?

Some Additional Questions:

1).  Lienhardt highlights that although the Dinka have a simplistic way of life they have a complex social and linguistic relationship with cattle, which represent both the Dinka and their relationships (26-7). Are cattle then an ultimate symbol of Dinka culture… or of Dinka religion? Do we distinguish?

2). Lienhardt maintains a distance between himself and his subjects in a way that Maya Deren didn’t. What are the advantages and disadvantages? Does he always do this (264)?

3). Does prayer function differently for the Dinka (250-251)? Is it more or less ‘magical?’

4). What would the Dinka say about someone who takes  a hallucinogenic to have ‘supernatural’ experience?

5.) Does Lienhardt over-read meaning and significance into various Dinka rituals? After all, the impression he gives is quite the opposite of Deren: he is an outsider and largely an unwelcomed observer. He doesn’t seem to get into their headspace. Is his distinction between what the Dinka think and how we might understand how they think at all useful?



1] Durkheim defines religion as a “…unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (Durkheim; 1995: 44)

4 thoughts on “Ruminations: Cows, Dinka, and Experiencing Divinity [Rebekah H.]

  1. Hi Rebekah,

    Thanks for the thoughtful precis! You really gave us a lot to chew on (sorry, couldn’t help but continue the pun…). In reading Lienhardt and your response, I keep coming back to parallels between his understanding of the Dinka religion and contemporary understandings of biomedicine. Firstly, I appreciate your focus on the question of control: The Dinka supposedly use religion to exercise agency over matters of both life and death—you point to the ritual burial of the master of the fishing spear. Do we think anything is illuminated by comparing it to the Death with Dignity movement? What about the ways in which we use biotechnology more generally to manipulate and control myriad details of our lives (and again death)? This might also be an interesting paradigm for thinking through what you refer to as the Dinka’s blasé attitude regarding ritual efficacy, e.g. in what ways do our appeals to modern medicine parallel Dinka appeals to Divinity (rituals, “sacrifices,” faith, control vs. lack thereof, mainstream vs. alternative treatments, etc.)?
    These questions seem to speak to your other point about Lienhardt’s approach to translation between spheres and cultures. It’s very interesting, as you point out, to think about what even can be translated. He avoids directly equating terms, but seeks to translate experiences/phenomena/concepts. I’d like to simply take things one step further and ask that we incorporate his discussion early on about how culture, language, and religion shape the way the Dinka even perceive the world around them (e.g. color and word associations/connotations). If our perceptual and conceptual capacities are determined/constrained by our culture, then what limits are imposed on the ability to translate between cultures? How much work can his appeal to common human nature actually do?
    [One last thought—the discussion of connotations and word associations on p.160 might prove useful, but also might further complicate things by bringing up the collapse of the fact/value distinction insofar as Lienhardt demonstrates how descriptive words are freighted with inextricable evaluative weight.]

  2. Hey Rebecca,

    Thanks for your thorough and interesting comments on the readings; I was intrigued by your question of how we attempt to control our own lives. I think the tendency when studying a “tribal” religion is to “other” it – that is, to convince ourselves that we are unlike in some fundamental way. I thought your focus on the issue of control was especially insightful, because to me that seems to be a rather universal human issue. I can’t quite remember if Lienhardt said that control was something that the Dinka talked about in relationship to the rituals, or was it something that Lienhardt saw, or was it something which you deduced on your own?

    I was also intrigued by your categorization of the attitude of the Dinka as blasé; I wonder if this is similar to how Maia Darren describe the experience of the Haitians as life as something that was holy beyond their control, and to a certain extent as Thomas Hobbes would say it, nasty, brutish, and short?

    My main issue with Lienhardt is that in all of his categorizations of how the Dinka understand cattle and their relationship to cattle, and especially the essential nature of their relationship to cattle, it was all done in terms of the men of the tribe. I was bothered by this fact, because it seems like he is made sweeping generalizations based on only half of the population’s understanding. Perhaps he interviewed the women also, and they said the same thing, but it left me wondering how do women see themselves in relation to their cattle?

  3. What changes if we have to conceive of religion and religious practice without written texts? How does the absence of religious texts fundamentally alter what we consider religious and how we interpret religious action? Lienhardt’s works really hard to craft an English written language system with which to understand the Dinka’s religious practice. This stood out to me because Lienhardt is such a good writer and really takes written language seriously. But it also seems to loose something in how it presents the Dinka. I am curious as to how the actual aural and sonic sphere inform their religious practice – these are people who craft songs and whose subtle vowel changes allow for drastically different meanings in words – these things are not readily captured in words on pages – and in some way, it feels like Lienhardt’s own work recognizes those subtle breath marks and tries to make note of them, but leaves them at the notion of metaphor. Even with Geertz, does his understanding of religion and what he sees as its primary concerns privilege religious systems that work in the world of texts or can be textualized and rendered logical with more ease?

  4. Rebecca,

    Thanks for the picture , it was a nice touch. I think you have asked some fine questions here. We haven’t read Durkheim together so am not sure we can dwell on it too much, but I think this is also a very good question. People do not usually identify Durkheim with Leinhardt or with phenomenological approaches but both do emphasize moral experience at the heart of religious life, so may be this is worth a rethink. Your questions about insider/outsider issues are also quite apt. Leinhardt is such a good writer, it seems to me, that it can hard to unpack the prose and find a simple statement of his argument. I look forward to having these conversations in class.

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