Precis of Lienhardt & Geertz
September 19, 2018
Godfrey Lienhardt’s book, Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka, sets out to explore the cosmological and ritual practices of the Western Dinka tribes of Sudan. Lienhardt gives particular focus to the relationship between Divinities, Clan-Divinities, and the Dinka. The majority of the work attempts to unravel the complex relationships between these Divinities and the different Dinka tribes. Through exploring these relationships Lienhardt shows the interconnectedness in the daily life of the Dinka, the naming of children, origin stories for the world, and the influence of the Divine. Throughout the work, the author examines how the reality of the divine has influenced every aspect of Dinka culture. This is done through the telling of numerous stories and firsthand accounts of Dinka life.
The work is divided into three sections. The first is a brief introduction in which Lienhardt outlines who he is studying and the conditions in which they live. He states, “This study is orientated towards the Western Dinka of the Bahr-al-Ghazal Province of Sudan, and particularly the Rek tribal group, with whom I first learnt the Dinka language” (Lienhardt p. 1). He briefly describes the poverty of this region of the Sudan which lacks stone and iron. The tribes of the Dinka are organized into herding-groups which in their smallest form consists of a man, his children, and their cattle. Several of these groups form a subtribe, and several subtribes form a tribe. He states that tribes range from 1,000 to 25,000 in number (Lienhardt p. 7). The second half of this section gives an overview of cattle in the Dinka experience. He notes that the sacrifice of cattle is the central religious practice of the tribes. Cattle are given prefixes and suffixes to describe them, these additions are primarily based on gender and variations of color (Lienhardt pp. 10-11). Cattle are sacrificed or placed on display to a pantheon of different divinities based on their colorations and children are typically named, or nicknamed, in relation to particular cattle. The author mentions that when boys are deemed men by the tribe they pick a cattle name to define who they are (Lienhardt p. 13).
It seems that part one of the text is Lienhardt’s main focus. In this part, he details the Dinka distinctions between different Divinities, both Free-Divinities and Clan-Divinities, and how said Divinities are encountered in the daily lives of the Dinka. The first section gives an overview of the Divinities. He states, “Dinka religion, then, is a relationship between men and ultra-human Powers encountered by men, between the two parts of a radically divided world” (Lienhardt p. 32). It is within this section that the author gives an account of the creation narrative of the Dinka, while the account varies from region to region they share similarities. Earth and sky were once one, and because of humanity’s choice, the Divine separated from creation (Lienhardt p. 53).
The second section delves into the world of the Free-Divinities. Of the Free-Divinities Lienhardt marks Deng, Garang, Macardit, Abuk as the most important and active of this category (Lienhardt p. 56). He states that these Divinities make their presence known by possessing humans and announcing their presence and through causing illness. The third section explores the Clan-Divinities. These Divinities, as their name suggests, relate to specific tribes and serve as emblems and protectors of said clan. Each tribe has a story on how these Divinities came to be the Clan-Divinity, usually said Divinity assisted an ancestor of the tribe and offered its guidance and protection. While these Divinities serve as emblems, Lienhardt notes that they are more than that (Lienhardt p. 107). For the Dinka the Divinities are real, they interact with the people constantly, they are petitioned to better the lives of the people, to change their circumstances, to intervene when evil is done. This is seen in the fourth section in which Lienhardt states, “To the Dinka, the Powers are known by personal encounters, as living agents influencing their lives for good or evil (Lienhardt p. 147).
The second part of the text focuses on the origins of the Spear-Masters, invocations and prayer, symbolic actions, and a brief section on being buried alive. These sections are much briefer than those of the first section and gives the appearance of being less appealing to Lienhardt. In the second part, he relates the creation stories to the origin of the Spear-Masters (those of highest standing in the priestly system of the Dinka). He gives numerous examples of invocation to the Divinities for their intervention and the symbols of the various tribes. The final section seems mismatched with the rest of the text in which Lienhardt recounts how elderly Spear-Masters willingly choose to be buried alive.
Godfrey Lienhardt’s work sets out to detail the religious practices of the Western Dinka tribes. The work does what it set out to do, but it would seem that Lienhardt was more concerned with a deep understanding of the distinctions between Divinities than an in-depth exploration of how these interactions play out in the day to day life of the Dinka. While he does give numerous stories examining this it feels cursory in light of the work placed on defining the Divinities. In addition to this, the second part of the text seems pained in some sense compared to the first. While invocation and symbols are important one would have hoped for more depth in the examination of these practices.
Clifford Geertz’s work, “Religion as a Cultural Systems” seems to complement Lienhardt’s work. Geertz states that religion is,
A system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (Geertz p. 96).
Within Lienhardt’s work, it is seen that the relationship between Divinities and the Dinka have formed an order of existence. From sacrificing cattle to naming children after said cattle the reality of the Divinities can be seen in every interaction between the Dinka tribes. The symbols of the fishing spear and the cattle peg hold great power over the tribes. One is expected to respect and cherish one’s father and ancestors with disrespect being an offense that can lead to death. The Dinka fully believe that the Divinities can, and will, possess them. They believe that the Divinities can change one’s circumstances in one way or another if one only makes a sacrifice and ask. While Lienhardt’s work leaves one wanting more of the culture of the Dinka he does give the reader a firm grasp on the reality of the Divinities.