E. Evans-Pritchard – The Animistic Religion and Culture of the Nuer

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E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) was one of England’s most successful social anthropologists reputed for his work on African cultures, witchcraft, and magic. He conducted fieldwork in South Sudan among the Zande and Nuer people, on whom he produced two books: Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande (1937) and The Nuer (1940). This entry will be looking at the Nuer people, with special interest in their animistic religious beliefs.

Who Are the Nuer?

The Nuer are a cattle-based culture and pastoral society whose members live a nomadic lifestyle in the semi-arid environment of South Sudan. Regarding the Nuer population and organizational structure at the time of writing, Evans-Pritchard and Fortes say that,

“Most tribes have a population of over 5,000 and the largest number between 30,000 and 45,000 souls. Each tribe is economically self-sufficient, having its own pastures, water-supplies, and fishing reservations, which its members alone have the right to exploit. It has a name which is the symbol of its distinction. The tribesmen have a sense of patriotism: they are proud to be members of their tribe and they consider it superior to other tribes. Each tribe has within it a dominant clan which furnishes a kinship framework on which the political aggregate is built up. Each also regulates independently its age-set organization… It is not possible to give more than a rough indication of the size of a village population, but it may be said to vary from 50 to several hundred souls….” (1)

The Nuer engage in agricultural practice, which means they raise livestock, hunt, and collect wild fruits and roots. Their land is, however, more suited for stock-breeding than for agriculture given its flat, dry, savannah like environment. The land experiences heavy rain fall from June to December which causes nearby rivers to overflow. From around December to June there is little rain and the rivers remain at a low level. During the rainy season, the Nuer live in villages located on knolls, ridges, or slightly elevated grounds that permit agriculture. The land between villages is more or less flooded for the full six months during which the Nuer engage in the cultivation of millet and maize, despite much of the land being unsuitable for habitation, agriculture, or grazing. Food is often limited but there is much sharing in the same village, especially among those in adjacent homesteads and hamlets where villagers eat in one another’s homes at feasts and at daily meals. Food is most abundant from the end of September to the middle of December and it is during this time most ceremonies and dances take place. It is also due to the lack of resources and food supply that members of villages are drawn close to each other. Often hunting, fishing, and agricultural tasks are activities that require cooperative effort.

God and Symbols of God

For the Nuer, God (or Spirit) is seen in the celestial phenomena of the sky and in the material representations of death and pestilence. God is not believed to actually be any one of these phenomena as they are merely signs or refractions of him. No-one, believe the Nuer, knows what God is like in himself although they find it appropriate to use adjectives to refer to his attributes (i.e. “great” or “good”) or metaphors taken from the world (likening God to the wind or air). This belief is based on a duality between kwoth, Spirit, which is immaterial (rather than supernatural), and cak, creation, the material world known to the senses. Rain, lightning, and pestilences belong to the created world and are seen as instruments of God (nyin kwoth). Evans-Pritchard explains that,

“[P]estilences, murrains, death, and indeed almost any natural phenomenon significant for men are commonly regarded by Nuer as manifestations from above, activities of divine being. Even the Earthly totems are conned of as a relationship deriving from some singular intervention of Spirit from above in human affairs. It is chiefly by these signs that Nuer have knowledge of God” (2).

Rain and pestilence are symbols for Spirit and in the Nuer context a religious symbol has an intimate association with what it represents. They are what one would “call a medium or manifestation or sign of the divine acuity in relation to men and of significance to them” (3). For example, a bird might be considered a symbol for Spirit but the physical bird itself is not Spirit. Instead, depending on the bird’s actions (perhaps by landing on the crown of a byre or on a hut) it may constitute a spiritual sign (of disaster, perhaps). In these phenomena, whether a bird or the rain, the Nuer believe Spirit to be in some way within, or behind, the object or occurrence.

Hierarchy of Spirits and Totem

The Nuer also believe in a hierarchy of spirits; as writes Evans-Pritchard,

“In other words, there are gradations of the conception of Spirit from pure unattached Spirit to Spirit associated with human, animal, and lifeless objects and more and more closely bound to what it is associated with the farther down the scale one goes” (4).

There are the “spirits of the below” called the biele (the nature spirits) and the kulangni (fetish spirits), both of whom are believed to have come from above down to Earth. They are also independent of any material forms. The biele is a visible spirit and is believed to be the will-o’-the-wisps, which are strange and mysterious lights that emerge in bushes and in swamps. The kulangni are fetish spirits that live in small bundles of wood. They are not visible like the will-o’-the-wisps but can be in different wood bundles at the same time.

Further, some of the Nuer believe in totemic spirits. A totem is either a natural object or an animal believed to have spiritual significance and is sometimes adopted as a tribe’s emblem. The Nuer have great respect for totems because they represent the spirits associated with them. They even sometimes act towards the totem as if a spirit actually lives within it: “Thus they give some meat of the sacrifice of lion-spirits to lions, and when they sacrifice to the durra-bird-spirit they also address the birds themselves and tell them that the victim is for them” (5). Evan-Pritchard refers to the lou serpent totem he says resembles the Loch Ness monster.

Twins are Special Creations

In Nuer culture, twins hold a sacred place as they are believed to be special creations: they are a person of the sky or of the above, a manifestation of Spirit, and a child of God. For the Nuer, the sky or air are where things that belong to God belong. Twins are believed to be one person and also birds,

“In addition to being men and women they are of a twin-birth, and a twin-birth is a special revelation of Spirit… twins and birds, though for different reasons, are both associated with Spirit and this makes twins, like birds, ‘people of the above’ and ‘children of God’, and hence a bird a suitable symbol in which to express the special relationship in which a twin stands to God” (6).

The Nuer do not believe that twins look like birds in the sense of having feathers, a beak, and wings; rather by saying twins are birds they are referring to the “anima of the twin,” namely of his or her personality and soul. Twins are not one individual but one personality. This reveals a triadic relationship between twins, birds, and God: “In respect to God twins and birds have a similar character” (7). Twins are often given the name of a bird such as Gwong (guineafowl) or Ngec (francolin), which further captures their significance as in Nuer culture it is shameful to kill and eat birds or their eggs. It is also shameful to break the eggs of crocodiles and turtles. When an infant twin dies he is said to have “flown away.” He is then covered in a winnowing-tray or a reed basket and placed in the fork of a tree because birds rest in trees. When adult twins die their souls go up into the sky. An adult twin’s body is buried in a grave so that hyenas do not eat it. Should the hyena devour the body and drink from a pool of water, they might contaminate it and cause the death of men.

A Complex Culture

One of the critiques modern scholars have of several formative theorists in the fields of anthropology, sociology, and religion studies is that these theorists presented cultures such as the Nuer as being “primitives” and “savages” but yet failed to take into account their complexity. These so-called primitive cultures were placed on a cultural hierarchy but always below the superior “civilized men” of the Europeans. For example, the British anthropologist E. B. Tylor claimed that animism was the religion of the “savages” that continued to evolve up until the age of “civilized men”, with civilized men being himself and his fellow countrymen who had appreciated the advancement of science and distanced themselves from savage superstitions. These primitive cultures were simply stuck at a lower rung of cultural evolution.

But Evans-Pritchard objects. He concedes that to a western mind “It seems odd, if not absurd, to a European when he is told that a twin is a bird as though it were an obvious fact” (8). Equally, to say that the will-o’-the-wisps are Spirit is strange as “For us the light is [merely] a gas arising from swamp vegetation…” and nothing more than that (9). However, Evans-Pritchard still claims to have uncovered a far greater level of intellectual and artistic elocution than theorists like Tylor and others allowed. Speaking of the Nuer, Evans-Pritchard says that this ability,

implies experience on an imaginative level of thought where the mind moves in figures, symbols, metaphors, analogies, and many an elaboration of poetic fancy and language… In all their poems and songs also they play on words and images to such an extent that no European can translate them without commentary from Neur… How Nuer delight in playing with words is also seen in the fun they have in making up tongue-twisters, sentences which are difficult to pronounce without a mistake, and slips of the tongue, usually slips in the presence of mothers-in-law, which turn quite ordinary remarks into obscenities… the imagination of this sensitive people finds its sole expression in ideas, images, and worlds” (10).

References

1. Fortes, Meyer., and Evans-Pritchard, Edward. 2015. “The Nuer of Southern Sudan.” In African Political Systems. Abingdon: Routledge.

2. Evans-Pritchard, Edward Evans. 1940. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 124.

3. Evans-Pritchard, Edward. 1940. Ibid. p. 126

4. Evans-Pritchard, Edward. 1940. Ibid. p. 139

5. Evans-Pritchard, Edward. 1940. Ibid. p. 133

6. Evans-Pritchard, Edward. 1940. Ibid. p. 131-132

7. Evans-Pritchard, Edward. 1940. Ibid. p. 132.

8. Evans-Pritchard, Edward. 1940. Ibid. p. 137.

9. Evans-Pritchard, Edward. 1940. Ibid. p. 137.

10. Evans-Pritchard, Edward. 1940. Ibid. p. 142-143

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