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.