Divinity and Experience

Adam Peeler

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.

Divine Horsemen:

Précis of Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti

Aditya Chaturvedi

Maya Deren’s account of Haitian Voudoun tradition results from her own experience of the “reality which had forced” her “to recognize its integrity and to abandon” her “manipulations” (pg.6). In her preface, she admits her inability to comprehend this tradition purely as an artist and subtlety, to me, ascribes it to “the reality that mastered it”. The book, thus, is not a systematic/conventional anthropological or ethnographical study, but, a presentation by the Haitian Voudoun in its own terms. However, throughout the book, she actively responds to possible modern academic engagements with rituals and beliefs of Haitian Voudoun practitioners, and thus, addressing possible criticism that might arise from such engagements.

She begins the book with an introductory note discussing the demography of the practitioners and the general outlook towards these practices from different sections of the Haitian society, making it clear that while the upper and middle classes remain ignorant about them, it is very much a way of living for the peasants. She goes on to explain the fundamental terms and concepts of Voudoun including gross-bon-range, loa, houngan, espirit, and honour. Instead of alienating these concepts from their original context, she presents them before her readers as they are by her interactions with practitioners and her own experiences. Voudoun is based on the premise that the human material body is animated by non-material soul, psyche, or spirit. While the material body decays after the occurrence of death- live and death are just transformative moments to that which is immortal. This individual soul or grow-bon-range is after death, through rituals, raised at higher levels of being – making an ancestor archetype and sometimes a loa too. These loa mount human bodies and this phenomenon are called possession. Gods and humans have a symbiotic relationship in Haitian society- while the former is revered and honoured by the latter, he never forgets that “he was made god by humans” (pg.33). The constellations of loa are reflective of shared Christian and African heritage of Voudoun. Deren brings out complexities of metaphysical assimilation Christian divinity and saints in Voudoun and geographical origins of African loa lucidly.

Deren argues that while Voudoun might seem to be an animistic religion, on close analysis it quite doesn’t fit in the orthodox arrangements of animistic religions. She, then, engages with a category of ‘primitive culture’, loaded with some derogatory connotations, to re-interpret it and argue that what is often understood as ‘mystical’, or a result of unknown/mystical occurrence by Europeans is attributed loa by Haitians (pg. 88&297). It is important to note here that, rather than simply rejecting or presenting them in a ‘reasonable’ way, as might be expected of an academic, she takes indigenous categories and concepts very seriously. This engagement becomes clearer in her discussion of Haitian reliance on loa for healing and their reservations about modern medical facilities. She substantiates her arguments with vivid examples- of La Merci (pg.167) in this case, for instance. In her discussion on possession also, she provides possible ‘modern/logical’ views on it only to prove them unimportant to a Haitian. She writes: “List all those intellectual and moral qualities- vision, inspiration, imagination, – which most distinguish the poet, the philosopher, the scientist; catalogue them, name them, count and differentiate and ‘explain’ their origins their operation, mechanisms, and their motivations. The Haitian will not dispute you …..All that we call to have loa. ” She repeatedly compares religion with magic and argues while the former is for the community, the latter is personal; the rituals of the former are public, of the latter are kept secret and are mysterious; and in the former serviteur is changed while the world changes in Magic. This comparison reflects the assumptions she might have had about the readers who would simply term voudoun rituals ‘magical’, overlooking their deep meanings and effects.

Deren presents Haitian ritualistic dances as meditative practices done for the loa in contrast with secular forms which are more stylized and lay emphasis on acrobatics. The dance controlled by drum-beats in Voudoun rituals is considered is treated as a collective creative endeavour – a way of the negation of the individual self. However, it is not understood in complete denial of the individual genius, rather it is attributed to the collective act or the loa in control of it. She also discusses the presentation and reception of these dance forms out of their ritual context in an industrial culture.

Liminality- ‘in-betweens, neither this nor that, bridges’- seem to be of importance in Voudoun rituals and also emerges as a metaphor for the larger content of the book itself. Deren begins the book by calling myth the “twilight speech” (pg.21), then goes on to discuss elaborate Voudoun rituals involving symbolisms acting as bridges between the two worlds; houngans as the intermediaries between humans and the loa; and finally, before discussing possession properly, she places the readers at the ‘threshold to the unknown’ (pg.247). Some of these concepts are similar to Hindu notions of the potency of liminal spaces and times and their importance in the ritual. She emphasizes the negation of the individual self to possess the loa and impossibility of being the two i.e.the human and the God simultaneously. This is yet another notion found in some South Asian religious traditions including Hinduism. Deren’s book seems very bold and different to me when I compare it with dominant scholarship on India from her time as it would dismiss most of the indigenous categories as ‘irrational’. The last chapter of the book was most impactful to me as Deren almost recreates her experience of losing the ‘self’ to loa, as it were and being transformed, through a very poetic language.

Maya Deren poses a problematic in her introduction when she asks if the scientific or scholarly detachment – which is based on manifold dualities- be even valid as a means to truth in examining the Oriental and African cultures which are” predicated on the notion that the truth can be apprehended only when every cell of  brain and body- the totality of human being- is engaged in the pursuit? (pg.9 ) In the book by recognising the limitations of modern western analytic categories, she challenges their supposed universality across time and space as valid epistemic apparatuses.


Divine Horsemen

Précis of Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
Lahronda Little

Divine Horsemen is an unintended ethnographic study of the religion of Voudoun and its practitioners in Haiti. Although Maya Deren’s original intention was to create a film on Haitian dance, the project evolved into a phenomenological study of Voudoun mythology as a communal experience that informs all aspects of life. As an artist, Deren’s approach to the culture did not include anthropological techniques or methodology, per se. But rather, without “professional or intellectual urgency,” Deren wanted to “permit the culture and the myth to emerge gradually in its own terms and its own form.” (Deren, 7) Moreover, Deren makes clear that the purpose of the book is to “delineate the metaphysical principles…in such a way that they may become, for the non-Haitian reader, as real and reasonable as they are to Haitian worshipper.” (Deren, 20) In this way, the personal narratives of the people who practice Voudoun and the collective experiences of the community were privileged as the main source of material for the book. Even in the detailed account of her own encounter with possession, Deren refrains from imposing value or deep interpretation. Instead she chooses to go inward to describe her initial feelings of vulnerability and embarrassment.

Interestingly, Deren does not spend a great deal of time on possession, which is described as “being mounted.” Yet, the esoteric language she employs in her opening chapter and in the last chapter causes one to question whether she was under the influence of a loa or exercising artistic license.

Voudoun, according to Deren is “structured for the controlled development of a man’s gros-bon-ange (soul) and the enforcement of a collective, morality in action.” (Deren, 27) Therefore, “religion” for the Haitian is more of a way of life and must make practical sense given Voudoun’s West African origins; the inclusion of some elements of Catholicism in order to assimilate; and the socio-economic-political constraints of the practitioner.(1) As such, Deren weaves throughout her project the significance of deep ancestral connections and reverence to the loa. It is necessary then to discuss the nature of Voudoun which understands man as a part of  nature; this is a universal concept with cosmological implications. The African ancestors of the Haitians distinguished between “the principle of the thing and the thing itself and remarked that the material objects or phenomena are transitory or destructible and singular, whereas the principles themselves are persistent and pervasive.” (Deren, 88) That is to say that the objects and symbols of Voudoun though essential are not ascribed divinity; it is the principle associated with the object that is the essence of the religion.

The system of Voudoun is carefully depicted to include the loa and their attributes, the geographical origins of loa, and the principles through which they operate. Voudoun practitioners, or serviteurs, understand the loa and other phenomena to be logical and intelligible. The interconnectedness of humanity, nature, and the cosmos demands order in religious practice and in the ways through which the community interacts with one another. Subsequently, Deren takes the time to name the distinctions between religion and magic. All participants of Voudoun act on behalf of the community, and there is an expectation that persons grow and mature in their engagement with the community and the rituals. Contrastly, “magic is an individual action, undertaken because the cosmos is not believed to be benevolent…” (Deren, 76) Those who perform magic do not see themselves as a part of a community. To emphasize her point about Voudoun as a communal experience among communal people, Deren describes her association with Coyote and La Merci who wanted to have a wedding ceremony but could not afford it. The couple refused Deren’s offer to fund their effort due to fear of the community’s perception of them as somehow becoming affluent. The expectation is that they would have the means to support others in the village.(2) Coyote and La Merci illustrate concern for self and others in a way that could easily be interpreted as foolish in other contexts. However, Deren’s association with the Haitian people as ‘learner’ leaves space to tease out the the root of their concerns and also provide help in alternative ways.

Distinctly featured in Voudoun culture is the way in which persons are given care and how Haitians perceive medical doctors. Illnesses are initially treated homeopathically with herbs and other natural substances, since most Haitians have knowledge of certain remedies for common conditions. The houngan (priest), because of his close proximity and intimate relation to the people of his community, provides particular care that intersects religion, health (physical and mental), and discipline. Psychosomatic symptoms are understood as a positive expression that allows the patient to participate in his or her own healing. The houngan engages the loa to determine if there is some breech in the patient’s relationship with the divine; prescribes a ritual to make amends; and makes recommendations that include a medical doctor (when warranted). The houngan, as mediator, takes seriously how the body functions, medical technology, and the loa, and is therefore, not interested in creating boundaries that may potentially be harmful to the individual or the community.

Drumming, dance, and possession by the loa are extraordinary expressions of Voudoun culture. Careful attention is given to depict the sacredness of drumming and the principles conveyed, rather than the person or even the drum itself, “…the sacred form is independent of subject matter, symbolic knowledge, and even degree of skill.” (Deren, p. 227) It is only after the drum is baptized that it is recognized as being sacred. Furthermore, drumming and dancing are acts that serve the loa, not the person through whom the actions are expressed.

Dance as a meditative practice is “principle in action” according to Deren. (p. 240) In her interpretation of dance, Deren posits that the purpose of the dance is to affect the dancer. Through the drums and movement, worship and prayer are expressed which “create a psychic state.” (Deren, p.241)

Deren’s willingness to suspend her initial plans to study Haitian dance lends to what I believe to be a comprehensive account of the people of Haiti who practice Voudoun. Deren’s own social location did not interfere with her ability to establish trust and friendship among the people. The personal nature of the stories she shared cause me to question if she received permission to share those narratives with the public. Also, how did the book and the documentary affect the community? Initially, I was surprised that Deren does not spend a lot of time on dance and possession given her primary interest in the arts. But her inclination to ask questions and lend herself to the experience of Voudoun provided for a much richer body of work that illumined Voudoun as a culture and community, rather than simply a religion.

(1) Deren sites on page 203 that in the initial salutation of two trinities are acknowledged, the Christian Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the Voudoun Mystéres, Morts, and Marassa.

(2) Coyote and La Merci’s story also includes an example of psychosomatic symptoms how they are diagnosed, p. 167.