Emmy Corey on Lienhardt

By Emmy Corey


Godfrey Lienhardt’s Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka

There is a moment in Divinity and Experience where Lienhardt asks the Padiangbar clan (a Dinka subtribe) about how their clan-divinity emblem, the Giraffe, could help them if giraffes ceased to exist in their part of the country. The Padiangbar clan replied that it would not matter if giraffes no longer existed, Giraffe would still provide assistance. Careful to make sure his readers do not think that the Dinka worship actual giraffes, Lienhardt adds, “Dinka are able to make the distinction between the ‘spirit,’ or divinity, Giraffe and any particular giraffe or giraffes, though naturally they do not normally find it necessary to do so” (107). In many ways, this passage points to a central tension bubbling beneath the surface of Divinity and Experience. In an effort to render Dinka religious experience as understandable, even “rational,” Lienhardt embarks on a project of making separations—even when those distinctions might not be important for the Dinka themselves. Lienhardt’s separations often show a deep, thoughtful engagement with Dinka religious experience. However, those distinctions also tend to reduce Dinka religious experience to little more than a metaphor the Dinka use to exercise autonomy and agency over a chaotic world.
​Lienhardt’s project is divided into two parts. The first part “aims at describing the structure of Dinka religious experience,” while the second pays attention to the “symbolic action by which this [form of experience] is accomplished” (10, 170). Lienhardt uses myths, songs, accounts from other European anthropologists, first-hand accounts from the Dinka and occasional government documents to describe this structure of experience. There is a supreme Divinity, which is found above in the sky, and there are other forms of Divinity, translated as Powers (or jok) which are in the realm of everyday experience. Thus, Divinity is both singular and plural. Lienhardt’s work identifies clan-divinities and free-divinities, yet another distinction that the Dinka not necessarily make (30). The free-divinities and clan-divinities are Powers that connect the Dinka to Divinity. Free-divinities have specific names and are made manifest through the “effects they produce” such as sickness, possession, and dreams (57). Free-divinities are not limited to any one particular place, but clan-divinities often are. A person inherits his clan- divinity from his father’s side. This divinity is often an animal, which Lienhardt calls a “material emblem” (106-107). The emblem continues whether or not the particular species still exists or ever existed.
In the second part of his book, Lienhardt attempts to explain the symbolic action of Dinka experience. For example, the myths of spear-masters cohere with the Dinka political landscape. Invocation and prayer during oral rites are a way to offer a chance for the Dinka to articulate the world on their own terms (250). Spears, gourds, relics, and shrines are a way to territorially mark one’s genealogy, while also marking a closeness to sacrifice (262-265). Sacrifice of an animal is centrally important to these rites because it serves as a “means toward the greater vitality of the people” (265). The animal itself is a representative. He dies “while the patience still lives, and his life…remains life in relation to the death of the victim. A Dinka sacrifice is in part, a drama of human survival” (297). Sacrifice is taken to a more extreme understanding as Lienhardt describes live burial in Dinka religion. Often requested by a leader of a clan when he is old and close to death, live burial is depicted by Lienhardt as a way to actively face the inevitable and use it as a means to restore vitality to the Dinka people.
There are many moments in Divinity and Experience in which Lienhardt emphasizes the symbolic nature of a Dinka religious belief. For example, Lienhardt suggests that the Powers are images “evoked by certain configurations of experience contingent upon the Dinka’s reaction to their particular physical and social environment, of which a foreigner can also have direct knowledge” (147). In other words, as an image grounded in experience, Powers are the means through which the Dinka both explain their situation and exercise agency over it. As an image, Power also becomes available to outsiders to be examined and interrogated.
Indeed, Lienhardt emphasizes a need for a visible, orderly understanding of Dinka experience, while also realizing that not everything can be fully explained. For example, Lienhardt writes of Mathiang Gok, which he describes as a “fetish.” Mathiang Gok is incredibly problematic for Lienhardt because it is so counter to Western understanding of self-knowledge. Mathiang Gok usually appear as aa bundle of sticks and leaves, but it is “a presence acting upon the self from without, and employed by someone to do so” (150). Lienhardt suggests that a Mathiang Gok is perhaps analogous to something like a guilty conscience. The internal feelings one might have are actually transferred to the Mathiang Gok. The same could be said for animal sacrifices such as a cow or a bull. Lienhardt writes, “he seems to see in that which has affected him the self-determining subject of activity, and himself the object of it. People do not choose their divinities, they are chosen by them” (151). The problem for Lienhardt, then is that the Dinka don’t seem to make the proper distinctions between subject and object. Rather than a human exercising agency over an object, the object exercises agency over him. So, Lienhardt makes the interpretive move to suggest that Mathiang Gok or even animal sacrifices are symbols or perhaps even containers of Dinka experience. While it is clear that Lienhardt realizes how differently the Dinka comprehend the world, it is equally clear that he cannot leave their religious experience as anything more than metaphor. Human subjects cannot be subject to an object. A distinction must be made to render Dinka religious experience as more rational.
There are two similarities with Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen that are worth noting. The first is that Lienhardt’s work would likely be dismissed if he did not make attempts to render Dinka religious experiences as “believable” to a European audience. Writing in the late 1950s and early 60s, Lienhardt is articulating the experiences of people in Sudan just before the end of British/Egyptian colonization of the country. Though his emphasis on the agency of the Dinka can at times seem like an interpretive leap, there are certainly socio-political factors that would support his claims. Also like Deren, Lienhardt has moments in which the Dinka religious practices seem to produce visible “proofs.” For example, he mentions a girl who is cured from sleeping sickness after a sacrifice was made to a ghost (72). He notes European government files with cases in which Dinka prayers bring rain to Sudan (209). He even has a moment where he forgets to give a gift to the guardian of a shrine and his car won’t start. After giving a gift, his car starts right away (264). Despite all his attempts to metaphorize and explain Dinka religion, inexplicable moments are still present in the text.
However, it seems as though Lienhardt’s interpretations of Dinka religious experience are a sort of par excellence for Clifford Geertz’ paradigm of religious interpretation. Though Geertz is clear that he has deep methodological issues with Lienhardt’s field of social anthropology, Lienhardt’s work still fits the Geertz’s paradigm for religious interpretation. His two-part book provides “an analysis of the system of meanings embodied in the symbols which make up the religion proper,” before “relating…these systems to social-structural and psychological processes” (125). Geertz even notes Lienhardt’s work in his chapter as an example of religious responses to evil and chaos. Both texts leave me with several questions that I hope we can address:

1) Lienhardt ultimately interprets Dinka religious experience as metaphor. But it seems that he does this to “protect” Dinka religion from ethnocentric readers. While I believe that Lienhardt could write this text differently today, I am not convinced that he still would not need some apologetic element in his writing. Is this simply unavoidable when translating the religious experience of another? What might a project like Lienhardt’s look like without apology? At the risk of harping on the Mathiang Gok, what if it weren’t a symbol? After all, it arguably isn’t one for the Dinka themselves and it messes with all my Western senses of subject/object.
2) Lienhardt writes on the heels of European colonization. How does this impact his own writing and interpretation? How does it impact his observations and his sources (i.e. Government accounts and live burials that are prevented by the government)?
3) What do we make of Geertz’s definition of religion?
a. How about his emphasis on religion as something that gives moral meaning to suffering? What happens when religion doesn’t do this?
4) Agency seems to be a thread in both readings for this week. Can an emphasis on agency cloud our ethnographic lens? I’m actually really into Lienhardt’s emphasis on agency, but that may be because I love a good underdog story.

6 thoughts on “Emmy Corey on Lienhardt

  1. Lienhardt’s need to interpret or find symbolic meaning for Dinka ritual and culture also stood out to me. He often begins explaining a concept by what the Dinka think of a topic and then go on to explain ‘how it really is’. For example, Lienhardt affirms that Dinka see Divinity as one and that all powers are divinity, but he categorizes these powers differently as free-divinities and clan-divinities, all the while noting that the Dinka would probably not make this distinction (56). In his chapter on divinity and experience, Lienhardt goes on to describe powers as representations or images, even though he acknowledges that the Dinka would not describe them in this way. For the Dinka, powers are actual ultra-human beings (147). In my reading of this book, I found myself simultaneously grateful for Lienhardt’s attempt at explaining these events in rational ways and questioning his need to interpret the experiences of a people group who have a totally different worldview.

  2. Well, this was super interesting to have two précis on the same readings this week! Emmy, I really appreciated your articulation of the subject/object issue, and how this is an issue for Westerners with a particular view of what that relationship should be. It is interesting how so much of our conversation seems to focus on the issue of translation on multiple levels. Nick brought up the issue of how does one translate a religion when it does not have a holy text? Emmy brings up the issue of how does one translate a religious experience that is so foreign from one’s own culture? Perhaps this is overly simplistic, but it really seems to be bringing up the question of what is the worst/what is at stake in doing these kinds of studies at all? What is valuable about ethnography? And two whom is it valuable: is it only to those who are of the researcher’s own culture? Is there a different kind of ethnography that needs to be done that focuses more on the establishment of relationship between two cultures, or does that move too far away from the “pure scientific method”?

  3. Hey Emmy, thanks for an illuminating and clear response! I was thinking about some of the same things you raised. In particular, the theme of apology: what does it mean to write “on behalf of” people, whether consciously or not, and when and why does that become problematic? Interestingly, I actually read the Mathiang Gok episode as a kind of moment of apology, rather than somehow problematic for Lienhardt. As I understood it, he was trying to explain to his European readers that this group of people had a really different conception of subject/object/agency–and that was OK. But I do see this as a moment, like you said, of needing to reconcile, or at least translate, a Dinka formulation into the European sense of rationality. Maybe we’re saying the same thing in slightly different ways. In any case, it got me thinking about what we find so problematic about apology: is it the idea that people somehow can’t speak for themselves, and therefore need a (European) translator? Is it the underlying assumption that European norms are somehow the most ideal, and therefore everything else must be measured in relation to them? Or something else? Are there things we need to change in addition to the stance of apology (e.g. The prioritization of certain Western values) to really get out from under this problem?

    I’m also glad that you brought up the post-colonial context. I also had questions about how this related to how he was received in the Dinka communities he visited. He admits in several specific places that he wasn’t wanted, or wasn’t allowed to speak to someone (e.g. The powerful Cyer Dit declines to see him, p. 74). Is this just honesty (see below), and/or were people really resentful of him?

    Finally, I actually really appreciated that at several points in the book, Lienhardt outright admits not knowing things, for example that certain meanings of words aren’t known to Europeans. I get the sense that this kind of outright admitting that you didn’t find something out doesn’t happen too much anymore (your ethnography must not have been thorough enough! No tenure for you!) and I wonder what we lose in losing that.

    1. Just a clarification on my part, Cara: I think Lienhardt wants to be okay with the concept of Mathiang Gok. He gives an excellent explanation of why it might be problematic to European sensibilities. But ultimately, he capitulates to those sensibilities by concluding that Mathiang Gok is more of a symbol- a way of transferring or containing emotions (his analogy of Mathiang Gok to a guilty conscience is telling here).

  4. I too was struck by Lienhardt’s metaphoric religion and translation choices. I wondered if a fundamental assumption of ethnographic of work is that we can actually understand what something means to/for/in another community. My gut response to that is – how arrogant, but I also recognize that our curiosity, empathy, and mental abilities, allow us to at least attempt it. What is more is how does our understanding, which is its own translation, survive the additional translation of trying to explain that to others? These questions, for me, get at your observations around agency as well. Who has agency to translate in and out of a community and who determines how/when that is done well? Deren, for instance, is quick to say that the Voudoun practitioners affirmed her interpretations – but which practitioners? What was at stake for them in affirming her interpretations? In the same way, who approves of Lienhardt’s interpretations? Do they need to understand our context in order to approve them? How do the priorities of scholarship compete with the range of interpretations that may be possible in this work?

  5. Emmy, this is a great precis that raises some really important questions for our class. The portrayal of divinity as metaphor is central to the anthropology of religion and to many of the works we will read together. I expect to spend a good bit of time this semester talking about it. I also appreciated your attempt to situate this work in the context of its times. One thing I hope you will clarify is your question about agency, which I was not sure I fully understood. Excellent work.

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